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TV Review: The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1, Episode 3)

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The Handmaid's Tale is a series that is crafted specifically to appal and provoke with its shocking vision of America.

However, even as we reach the third episode of the series, it becomes clear that Bruce Miller's adaptation - which has already seen scenes of ritualised rape, enslavement, murder, torture and brutal prejudice - still has the potential to deeply disturb. 

The abhorrent development of this dystopia is echoed in the episode's opening - in a startling scene, we see the former Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) bound by a harsh, brown gag as she is lead through the sterile white walls of a mysterious (and ominious) facility. The performance that Alexis Bledel gives with her eyes alone in this scene (and throughout the episode) is deeply affecting; expressing fear as well as quiet defiance. 

However, the focus of this episode is split between Ofglen's dire situation and the continuing plight of our main protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who once again shares memories of a time before Gilead. While it is insightful to see more of the context behind Gilead's terrible rise to power and the inherent parallel between this dystopia and a society we recognise, one can't help but feel a little exasperated by how these interspersed flashbacks slow down the more immediate dramas. 

Although the flashbacks provide us with some welcome comic relief from Samira Wiley's defiant character, Moira (who in the last episode was missing and presumed dead), the way they intercut with other scenes is frustrating. The flashbacks, which at this point feel like an obligatory element in each chapter, do provide some interesting asides however, with this episode revealing how society came to revile women and strip them of their jobs, money and property.

Comments from a douchebag male café-worker, as well as the sudden "laying off" of the women in Offred (then June)'s former workplace naturally induce a lot of ire, while a quiet moment between Moira, June and Luke provokes thought as well as a rare dash of humour. Upon learning that his wife's assets have been taken, Luke's words of assurance ("I'll take care of you") strike a chord with Moira, who goes on a short, but poignant rant about how possessive, patronising language and behaviour towards women leads to discrimination. 

But of course, this is all in the past and even in this review, it distracts from the other plot threads within this episode - which is a shame, given how intriguing they are within themselves. In the present, Offred is late and as such, women who have previously treated her with disdain - such as Martha and Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovsky) - take a startlingly different approach as they anticipate a pregnancy. Even in this compassionless, morally corrupt dystopia, it is children who bring out the best in people, and after seeing how frosty the women of Gilead can be, it is interesting to see a different dynamic - particularly between Offred and Serena.

With the possibility that Offred could be pregnant, Serena seems to soften towards her in the same way that we saw her last week with her fellow wives - who in a discussion about Ofwarren maintain resentful disdain against handmaids. Serena is kinder and more lenient with Offred when she is under the impression that a baby could be on the way. She even rushes to protect Offred when an interrogation from the state and Aunt Lydia gets violent.

But of course, as any wise viewer could expect, Offred reveals she is not pregnant and it is then that Serena's true nature comes out, as she monstrously drags Offred back to her room, vengefully promising that things can get "a lot worse" for her. The dynamic between Strahovsky and Moss is genuinely very investing - with Moss evoking a quiet sense of skepticism that we can't help but share as we meet Serena's 'nice' side. 

Again, this review must divert back to the plight of Ofglen, in a knee-jerk transition reminiscent of the episode itself. Charged with being a "gender traitor" (a heinous term created to describe homosexuals), Ofglen is sentenced to "redemption." At first, this sentence - though ominous - seems lenient, especially considering that a Martha who is charged at the same time as Ofglen is sentenced to death by hanging. But of course, in a series that looks to provoke and subvert expectations, we discover that Ofglen's "redemption" is even crueler. In a haunting scene, Ofglen wakes up to find that she has been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation. Aunt Lydia coldly explains: "You can still have children of course, but things will be so much easier for you now. You can't want what you cannot have."

More than ever, this episode shows how appalling a society without compassion can be. Certainly, there are brief moments in which we can empathise - such as the poignant moment when the newly sentenced Ofglen and Martha tearfully comfort each other in the back of a van; the scene in which Offred goes to comfort the increasingly distressed Ofwarren; or the sequence in which June and Moira recoil together from a protest gone wrong. But the moral injustice of this society is ever present and at this point, resistance is made to seem futile. Despite the atrocities that we bare witness to, there seems to be no hope and as such, the dystopia feels more real than ever.

An aggravating, but captivating watch, The Handmaid's Tale continues to tell an interesting story - but suffers slightly from the way in which it pulls the plot threads together. Connected, but never quite cohesive, this episode proves to be quite dense in its content, but with strong performances from the female leads and some inventive stylistic choices (particularly with the use of music), it still proves to be worth the watch. 

The Handmaid's Tale airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4. 

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