This is based on a 1980s novel by Margaret Attwood . Despite the dystopian setting, Attwood is infamous for denigrating the Science Fiction genre and deliberately distancing herself from it. It seems she is one of those people who does not believe in soft sciences like sociology.
The nearest comparison for this is the classic dystopian SciFi story 1984 . They are both narrated by the protagonist, in this case a handmaiden named Offred. Both are set in an allegorical world that is a worst-case scenario for the time in which it was written. Orwell's book depicted England under the heel of a Stalinist regime, while this tale is about America under a Religious Right that rose out of the Reagan era.
Fascists resist change for the better, and instead want to turn back time to a mythical Golden Age that never actually existed. In Britain this is the Victorian Age, when Industry was all-powerful and employment was high. However, in America the equivalent seems to be the age of the Puritans. The Crucible used the 1690s Salem witch-trials as an allegory for the 1950s McCarthyite witch-hunts, but this book takes the metaphor and makes it literal. The McCarthyite extremists have literally turned America into a 1600s-style Puritan village. However, if you mess up they will do a lot worse than just make you wear The Scarlet Letter.
One of the handmaidens is about to give birth. This brings the Matriarchy's structure more into focus. The wives, such as Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ), have all the power. The handmaidens, a sub-class of fertile female, are basically slaves. This is very reminiscent of a Hugo-nominated novella about a feminist amazon society that had celibate women and lesbians in all positions of authority, and relegated traditional roles like child-bearing to an underclass. In fact, that is not entirely different from contemporary western society where middle-class females have careers and cats instead of families, and motherhood is relegated to working-class women who have no such pretensions.
The master of the house, Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ), wants to have a secret meeting with Offred. What does he really want?
This starts off with a flashback to the coup. Offred and her sister-in-law went jogging together, listening to that anthem of female empowerment Fuck The Pain Away by Peaches. Of course, the potentially offensive lyrics are not used.
The girl in the coffee shop has been replaced with a mouthy male. Rather than be a good little servant he objects to the unruly female customers. It turns out that all women have been fired from their jobs. Worse than that, they have been legally denied the right to own property. This means they have to get their bank accounts transferred into their husband's name. Evidently the new Government is against women working in offices, but it is perfectly happy to have them doing domestic servitude. To make coffee in a cafe is liberating, but to do it at home is slavery.
The sister-in-law complains about being disempowered, and delivers a passionate monologue about individualism that Thatcher or Ayn Rand would be proud of. However, despite disrespecting her brother when he promises to pull his weight in his marriage, she accepts his offer of protection when she needs to get to the station.
Ofglen ( Alexis Bledel ) has been arrested. It turns out her crime is gender-treason, which in her case is lesbianism. The trial is based on Biblical law, like something written by Ian Paisley's DUP. There is no defence lawyer, and the suspect is gagged and unable to face her accuser. Ironically this is similar to laws that Feminists have promoted towards suspected rapists. Now they see the bad side of such laws, when it is applied to one of their own.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is really nice to Offred because the handmaid's period is late. Everyone hopes for the best, but nobody ever thinks the worst. And Serena Joy has a nasty temper when she is in a bad mood. She may be a bible-bashing housewife now, but she still has the athletic body and skills she had as a secret agent in Chuck. Yes, she can drag another woman while running up stairs ... in high heels!
Offred has been punished by being sent to her room, as if she were a naughty teenage girl. She discovers a secret message her predecessor left - Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.
In the flashbacks, the trainee handmaidens hang out in a ladies' toilet. Apparently putting graffeti on a stall wall and using a glory hole is the height of rebellious behaviour. They do not like their new school, even though the matriarchy promises them that they will not be judged on their looks or clothes. Yes, feminism has triumphed over the male gaze. However, this is not good enough for them. The girls decide to take things a step further and stage a breakout. On the outside, the militiamen with rifles are everywhere. It turns out the city is a warzone. Young fertile women are valuable so they get enslaved as handmaidens, while everyone else is being exterminated. It is not technically genocide, because the villains are not targeting a specific race. Instead it is merely mass murder, because they are equal opportunities killers.
Ofglen ( Alexis Bledel ) is back. Well, she has a new owner so she is now called Ofsteven. However, she lost everything so she has nothing left to lose.
This week the flashbacks are for Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ). Before the fascist takeover, her husband Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) was a junior member of the conspiracy. He was involved in the plan to assassinate all three branches of the US Government. Of course, the conspiracy was incredibly sexist and refused to allow her to participate directly because she was a woman. On the good side, this means that they protected her from stress and gave her plausible deniability in case it all went wrong.
Serena wrote a best-selling book entitled A Woman's Place, which is ironic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite being a far-right extremist who believes in freedom and small government she also promotes nationalisation (i.e. government control) of fertile uteruses. Secondly, despite being written about womens issues for a female readership it basically espouses that women should be denied the right to read.
All this comes to light when Gilead is visited by a Mexican trade delegation. Serena is clearly the brains of the operation, although as a woman she is denied any authority. The Mexican ambassador is a woman, but nothing is really made of this.
Mexico is willing to trade with the Gilead fanatics. However, the really disturbing thing is the reason WHY. Thanks to the Children Of Men virus, the Mexican birth rate is practically zero. However, the Gilead system that Serena created actually WORKS! By nationalising the fertile women, training them as handmaidens and protecting them as a natural resource, they have actually succeeded in preserving the human species. So ironically, Serena and Fred turn out to be the good guys!
This week the flashbacks are for Offred's husband. We get to see the events before and after their failed escape attempt.
Before the escape they paid an old straight white man to help them. He claims to be an experienced people-smuggler, but he is a beardy old redneck so they cannot really trust him.
After the escape, the husband gets patched up by the Gilead Guards. They are meant to be a fascist police force, but they took the suspect alive rather than just execute him on the spot. They waste valuable time and resources by putting him in an ambulance and driving him at high speed towards the nearest hospital. However, the ambulance crashes and he escapes. Naturally he shows a lot less compassion for the paramedics than they did for him.
Finally the husband gets a lift with a bunch of other survivors. They are a mis-matched bunch, and the scenario is reminiscent of The Walking Dead . Unfortunately he tends to slow them down, and despite being gut-shot (like Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs) he wants to crawl back to Boston and do a one-man Rambo rescue of his wife and daughter.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is out of town visiting her mother. Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) gives Offred a special treat - a trip to Jezebels, the secret brothel for VIPs.
The flashbacks are Nick's. He was an average young man before the war, but he got a job thanks to a man he met who was in the Party. Soon he was a chauffeur for VIPs like Fred. Of course, he has a secret agenda of his own.
Offred's contact in the Resistance gives her a mission. She has to talk Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) into taking her back to Jezebels, so she can pick up a secret package. However, Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is back so it will not be easy for them to sneak out to the whore-house.
The one-eyed handmaid, the one who was mentally unbalanced even at the best of times, is seperated from her baby and sent off to serve a new commander. Offred warns the boss lady, but her concerns are ignored. It turns out that Gilead's high levels of security, with gun-toting psychos on every street, can be easily overcome by a one-eyed slave-girl with nothing better to do.
Speaking of slave girls, the men do everything they can to please their women. But for Offred and her friend, it will never be enough.
The plot-lines all come to a head. OfFred is finally pregnant, but this just makes Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) even more uncomfortable. After all, the previous OfFred killed herself. Since the events of the previous episode, everyone is on edge. As a result, Serena reminds OfFred that she has something to live for. Unfortunately OfFred takes it the wrong way.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is made aware of the vulnerability of his own position. He sits on a committee that debates the punishment of one of their own. It turns out that while the word of a slave-girl might count for nothing, the testimony of a Free Woman counts for everything.
OfFred has the secret package that the Resistance smuggled to her. In such circumstances, nobody in their right mind would draw unnecessary attention to themselves.