World building is an essential element to any pilot. Some shows require more than others (e.g., shows with deeper mythologies like The X-Files or Fringe demand more groundwork in the pilot than a typical sitcom would), but at minimum, the audience needs to have some sense of the show’s setting before they can truly connect to the pilot’s story and agree to spend twenty or more hours with the series.
“Offred,” the pilot episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (written by Bruce Miller and Ilene Chaiken and based on Margaret Atwood’s novel), eschews many of the finer details of how this dystopian, authoritarian state of Gilead, a near-future version of New England, came about. We do get some hints—there was an infertility epidemic and many characters speak of the radiated outlands—but instead of overwhelming us with specifics, the pilot opts to paint a compelling picture of life inside this world, particularly from the perspective of the women. In short, most women have little freedom. Unless your husband is among the elites, you are expected to perform a specific function in life. The Marthas are the housekeepers, the aunts are older women in charge of the handmaids and are tasked with reeducating them, and the handmaids themselves are concubines for the elite men whose wives are infertile. Each woman’s role is highlighted by her attire: Marthas wear light blue, aunts wear tan, and handmaids wear red.
The show is seen through the eyes of Offred (Elizabeth Moss), a handmaid. We are introduced to her as she, her husband, and their daughter attempt to flee from the nascent Gilead to Canada, but in the process, her husband is shot and she is captured. Years later, she serves as a handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford, and her new name Offred cements her role in society—she is no longer an individual, just “of Fred,” one of his belongings. Offred has been separated from her daughter, and she believes that her husband is dead.
Much of the episode plays almost like a horror movie, with religious fundamentalism run amok. Much of Gilead’s practices are grounded in warped interpretations of Bible verses, and dissenters such as Catholic priests, doctors, and homosexuals are hung, their bodies placed on display in public. The handmaids are forced to chide a rape survivor with chants that it was “her fault” and that God let it happen to “teach her a lesson.” In another scene, the handmaids are forced to beat a criminal to death. However, these scenes aren’t haunting or terrifying because of their content. Instead, the pilot achieves that through the characters’ reactions, or rather lack or reactions. They’re forced to go through these scenes almost matter-of-factly. This is life now.
By the end of the episode, we see a framework form for the show moving forward. Offred allies with a fellow handmaid (Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen), and we learn her real name: June. But plot aside, the real draws for the show are the acting (which is universally excellent) and the themes at the heart of the story: identity, feminism, misogyny, authoritarianism, fascism, fundamentalism, to name a few. Needless to say, there’s much to unpack within the series. The show itself (as well as the book it’s based on) is well-crafted and, at times, disturbing. To put it simply, this is prestige television worth watching.