Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for the Hulu show, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“I had another name, but it’s forbidden now.”
So begins the eerie trailer for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an upcoming 10-episode series based on the 1985 book of the same name from author Margaret Atwood.
If you’ve never read the book, the trailer may have left you confused. Women in red capes and white bonnets walk in rows, Elisabeth Moss runs away from shadowy figures in the woods, and the women are told they will “serve the leaders and their barren wives.” What on earth is this series about, anyway?
Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming show before it airs on April 26.
The dystopian setting
The show takes place in the fictional Republic of Gilead, which was formerly the United States of America. It’s set in the not-so-distant future where sterility and sexually transmitted diseases have been on the rise, the former due to a high level of pollution.
A group of right-wing religious fanatics, calling themselves the Sons of Jacob, assassinate the President and all of Congress, and begin to systematically disenfranchise the women by taking away their money, property, and rights, such as education.
A new theocracy is established (one that leans heavily on the Old Testament), the constitution is suspended, abortion is made illegal, and new laws are passed. Divorce is no longer allowed and all marriages that occurred after a divorce are dissolved and the women are deemed adulterers. Children from these now illegal unions are declared illegitimate and are taken away by the government to be adopted by believers of the cause.
In the book, black people (known as the “Sons of Ham”) are “resettled” in the Midwest while Jewish people (also called the “Sons of Jacob”) are told they can stay and convert or go back to Israel.
Punishments for not following the new laws include being sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste or being put to death.
How the new society is structured
Everyone in this new society is given a job and the women and men are subdivided into a new class system.
Women are either Wives, Daughters, Marthas (maids and workers), Aunts (who train and monitor the Handmaids), Econowives (women who marry low-ranking men), or Handmaids (concubines selected for their fertility). There are also Unwomen — who are either sterile, unmarried, widows, feminists, lesbian, nuns, or any woman who questions the establishment — and Jezebels, who are prostitutes or entertainment for the men.
Meanwhile, the men are divided into categories as well: Commanders of the Faithful (government officials), Angels (soldiers fighting in wars), the Eyes of God (a secret police force, known freakily as “The Eyes”), and Guardians of the Faith (soldiers or security officers). The men can also still have normal jobs, such as doctors or chauffeurs.
In a perverse take on the bible, Handmaids perform a “Ceremony” with the Commander where they have sex while the Wife is present. The Handmaid’s sole purpose is to become pregnant, and if she doesn’t, it’s her own fault and she’ll be punished by being sent to the Colonies. While men may be biologically sterile in Gilead, it’s the women who shoulder the blame.
Possessing a Handmaid is also a symbol of status for a Commander and his Wife. These Handmaids are vessels for new life — or “two-legged wombs,” as the narrator puts it — and are forced to wear long red dresses and bonnets to keep themselves from being seen and sexualized.
The main character: Offred
The plot revolves around “Offred” — called that because she literally belongs to a man named Fred, or is “Of Fred” — and her relationship with the other Handmaids, her Commander, and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy.
Offred is also haunted by the loss of her husband, Luke, after their marriage was dissolved since he had been married before. She longs to find her daughter, Hannah, who was taken away by the Sons of Jacob for being illigitimate.
Through Offred, we see life in the Republic of Gilead and slowly learn that beneath the veneer of this morality-driven patriarchal society lurks a dirty underbelly where people still give into old world sins.
And though the Handmaids appear to be powerless, there is a resistance afoot.
Season one is packed with star power
The main character, Offred, will be played by “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss. Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love,” “American Horror Story”) plays her Commander while Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski (“Dexter,” “Chuck”) will be his Wife, Serena Joy.
Alexis Beldel (“Gilmore Girls”) will play another Handmaid named Ofglen and Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”) is cast as Offred’s friend from before the Republic of Gilead, Moira.
Interestingly, the show decided to move away from the white supremacy angle of the original book by casting Wiley as well as actor O.T. Fagbenie as Offred’s husband, Luke. Executive producer Bruce Miller told TVLine
it was a big discussion with Atwood — who is credited as a consulting producer and writer on the series — and ultimately came down to a few factors, including making the plot work for a TV audience, the argument that the evangelical movement has become more integrated, and fertility becoming of utmost importance in Gilead above race.
In the same interview, Miller also said they made Serena Joy younger than her book character to put her in “direct competition” with Offred.
The book’s controversial ending
It will be interesting to see how the series ends since the book closes with a drastic leap forward in time.
While some readers admired Atwood’s decision to zoom away from the current society in the Republic of Gilead, it has left others confused about what exactly happened to the heroine, Offred. Alternatively, some people disliked the ending because they thought it gave too much away about what happened.
For her part, Atwood has called her ending “optimistic,” but said the book still haunts her.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” will stream on Hulu starting on April 26. You can watch the trailer below.
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