Warning: SPOILERS ahead for The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale started life as a dystopian novel from Margaret Atwood. One of the most successful novels of the 20th century, it has since been adapted for stage and screen, and now it makes its debut on Hulu in a brand new series.
The series is set in Gilead, a military dictatorship that exists somewhere within the former borders of America. A Christian fundamentalist movement kills the President and most of Congress, and then launches a revolution. They quickly take away women’s rights, creating a world in which all human rights are limited, and women are simply used for servitude.
Women are then kept in groups that all serve different purposes. Handmaids are kept solely for the purpose of reproduction, and they receive new names depending on which man they belong to. Wives are merely trophies and are forbidden from interacting with other men, Aunts are older women who oversee the training of the handmaids, and Martha’s are older women with domestic skills, who work as servants.
It’s a bleak existence for all but the most privileged, and The Handmaid’s Tale seems particularly poignant given the Global society in which we are now living. Below is a breakdown of the main characters in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the purpose they serve.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss)
Literally meaning ‘Of Fred,’ Offred is handmaid to the Commander, Fred, and the main protagonist of the series. Before the revolution, Offred had a husband and a small child. She was labelled a ‘wanton woman’ because her husband was divorced, and so her marriage was forcibly split up. Because she is fertile, she is important to the cause, and so she is placed in the home of the Commander and Serena Joy in order to bear a child for them.
As a handmaid, Offred must dress in red, and hide her face with the white ‘winged’ hats we see, in order that no men will find her attractive. She must participate in a monthly ritual, where the man effectively rapes his handmaid while his wife stands present. If a child is conceived, it is given to the husband and wife and the handmaid will be sent away.
Offreds remembers the pre-Gilead days, and flashbacks reveal the heartbreaking moment she was separated from her husband and daughter. In Hulu’s version, Offred’s real name is revealed as June, though it is never mentioned in the book.
The Commander - Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)
Fred Waterford is powerful within the world of Gilead, and a supporter of the cause. However, he also shows weakness when he indulges in intellectual activity with Offred, like letting her read in his study, and play games, all of which women are not allowed to do.
His character is purposefully ambiguous; he seems like he should be a decent, nice man, and yet he is participating in this regime and plays an active role in its enforcement. He believes that the regime can make things better, but, as he also tells Offred, “better never means better for everyone.”
Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski)
Serena Joy is the Commander’s wife, and believed to be barren. The reality is that it could just as easily be a problem with the Commander, but in Gilead any inability to conceive is blamed entirely upon the woman. In her former life, Serena Joy worked as a Gospel singer, and campaigned against the feminist movement.
Now at the top of the (limited) social ladder for females, Serena is desperately unhappy and lonely. She is cold and cruel to the handmaids in her care. Her unhappiness is proof that the regime cannot benefit women in any capacity; even those at the top.
Ofglen (Alexis Bledel)
Ofglen is Offred’s handmaid companion; she lives close by and the pair must go shopping and do other activities together, as handmaids are not allowed out in public unaccompanied. Ofglen is a secret member of the resistance; fighting back against Gilead’s oppressive regime. One day, when Offred arrives at the gate, she discovers that Ofglen has been replaced by another handmaid (now also called Ofglen).
The government have discovered that Ofglen is what is known as a "gender traitor" - a member of the LGBTQ community. She has been having an affair with a Martha (the name given to domestic servants), and has been caught. The "trial" her and the Martha have is nothing more than a ritual. Ofglen has no voice; literally represented by a mask across her face. While the Martha is executed, Ofglen is kept for her fertility. However, she is subjected to horrendous genital mutilation in order that she might “no longer want what she can’t have.”
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd)
Aunt Lydia works at the Red Center, and is known as the Guardian of the Handmaids. It is Aunt Lydia who teaches Offred the ways of being a handmaiden. Offred is terrified of her and her experiences at the Red Center stay with her; causing nightmares and distress long after she has left.
Aunt Lydia uses slogans and chants to drum Gilead’s ideology into the handmaid’s heads, until they pick up all of the new mantras and can recite them to her satisfaction. Eventually, her words come to brainwash a lot of those at the Red Center, so that when they go on to become fully fledged handmaids, they are subordinate and too worn down to question their role.
Moira (Samira Wiley)
This early on in the series, we don’t know if Moira’s story will follow that of the book. Moira is a college friend of Offred’s, and another handmaid, Janine, tells Offred that Moira tried to run away and as punishment, was sent to the colonies to clear up toxic waste, where she almost certainly will have died.
However, in the book, the same fate is resolved later on when it is revealed that Moira chose to become a Jezebel instead of going to the colonies. A Jezebel is essentially a prostitute; they are sterilized and forced to make themselves available to male visitors to the brothel. Also in the book, The Commander takes Offred to a brothel one night, where she sees Moira. Hopefully, with an actress of Wiley’s talent, this storyline will be replicated on screen.
Nick (Max Minghella)
Nick is the Commander’s driver, and Offred tries to flirt with him. However, he warns her not to. When Offred is interrogated by ‘The Eye,’ she refers to him by name; insinuating that she certainly cares about him on some level.
In a departure from the book, Offred and Nick do not have an affair, though he does seem to care for her in return. It is implied that he informs Serena Joy that Offred is interrogated. His role is not as important or in-depth as it is in the books.
Janine (Madeline Brewer)
Janine is a fellow handmaid in training with Offred at the Red Center. In the novel, she is a suck-up, and informs the Aunts on the behavior of her fellow handmaids. In the series, she is the exact opposite: she rebels against the regime, and against the strict rules and subjugation of women.
As punishment, and in keeping with the severe Biblical teachings the government chooses to follow, Janine has her right eye pulled out - echoing the biblical phrase “if your right eye causes you sin, pluck it out.”
The first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are now available for streaming on Hulu. New episodes arrive weekly on Wednesdays.