The first season of The Handmaid's Tale was a harrowing journey that had a lot of ground to cover in just 10 episodes. In adapting Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name, Hulu had to honor a beloved book while expanding its world and widening its point of view for a series. It elaborated on the story in intriguing new ways, making a recap of The Handmaid's Tale Season 1 necessary so you're fully caught up when Season 2 premieres on April 25.
The protagonist of the series is a woman referred to as Offred, though her real name is June Osbourne. Her new title is due to her position as a handmaid in the house of Commander Fred Waterford; she is "of Fred" because the totalitarian regime she lives under has stripped all women of their rights and identities. In the Republic of Gilead, they can be wives, servants called Marthas, or handmaids. Handmaids exist to bear children for high-ranking citizens and they're reduced to little more than walking wombs. Those who don't behave are punished with mutilation, sexual slavery, or banishment to work camps known as the Colonies. The world is filtered through June's perspective, though the series departs occasionally to focus on other characters too.
In addition to all that world-building, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale had to go into the past to tell its characters' backstories so that their present circumstances would make sense. It was a complicated but compelling story, and here are all the details to keep in mind ahead of Season 2.
Before Everything Changed
Before being forced to become a handmaid, June worked in publishing and lived happily in Boston with her husband Luke and daughter Hannah. But their marriage was Luke's second and second marriages were no longer legally binding under Gileadan laws. The family tried to escape to Canada so they could stay together, but they were stopped at the border. June was taken into custody and given her new role; Hannah was given to another family. For most of Season 1, June had no idea if Luke was even alive.
Life As A Handmaid
The prospective handmaids were initially trained in a place called the Red Center before they were assigned to families. Each woman would spend a specific amount of time with a couple to try and conceive; if several assignments failed, the repercussions could be dire for a handmaid. While in a household, they had to endure something called the Ceremony, which was a ritualized rape by the home's Commander while his wife held the handmaid down. Every aspect of their lives was controlled and observed, from their daily walks to their conversations. Any move out of line could be fatal.
Rituals were a big part of Gilead. The women were only allowed to talk in scripted exchanges that paid homage to the regime, and their only emotional outlet was violent Scavengings in which they beat criminals to death with their bare hands. Even births were stylized, with wives going through the motions of labor while the handmaid did all the work, finally accepting the child at the end as though it was their own.
Little America, Ontario
Eventually, the show did reveal Luke's fate: though he was shot and seemingly arrested, he was able to get away when the vehicle he was in crashed. He met up with other refugees and made it out of Gilead, eventually settling in a neighborhood in Toronto called "Little America." He fought to get information about his wife and daughter, but it wasn't easy.
Moira was June's best friend before Gilead, and they remained close while in the Red Center. But Moira had no intention of going along with the horrors that awaited them. She and June planned to escape, but only Moira got away; even that was short-lived, as she was caught at the border just like June had been earlier. She was given two options: go to the toxic Colonies or become a sex worker in a brothel called Jezebels. She chose the latter, where she ran into June again years later. Though Moira had been emotionally broken down by her experiences, June inspired her to try once more to escape — and this time she was successful. She made it to Canada and reunited with Luke, finally safe.
A Woman's Place
June spent most of Season 1 in the home of Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy. Serena clearly struggled with the limitations of her position as a wife (and she mostly took those frustrations out on June) but it was a cage she had helped to build herself. Serena was a true believer, a vocal radical who wrote a book called A Woman's Place and helped her husband develop many of the rules that would later be implemented in Gilead. But despite how much effort she put into creating the new world, she was increasingly shut out because of her gender. Tough break, Serena. You played yourself!
June became close to a fellow handmaid she initially knew as Ofglen, but whose name was eventually revealed to be Emily. Before Gilead, she had been a college professor with a wife and a son, but they were Canadian citizens and thus able to leave the country. Emily was not so lucky. While a handmaid, she worked with the resistance and encouraged June to do the same, but the consequences for her rebellion were brutal. After being discovered having an affair with an unnamed Martha, the other woman was hung and Emily was subjected to genital mutilation. She returned as handmaid to another family, but tried to get away by stealing a car and killing a guard. She was then sent to the Colonies, where Season 2 will catch up with her.
Another handmaid whose story got particular focus in Season 1 was Ofwarren, whose real name was Janine. She was one of the few to deliver a healthy baby girl, which gave her a certain level of privilege among the other handmaids. But she also demonstrated how even a "success" in Gilead was incredibly traumatic for the women involved. She did not want to give up her child (and she obviously shouldn't have to) and her pre-existing mental health issues were only exacerbated by what she was forced to go through. She tried to kidnap her daughter but when that failed, attempted to take her life. She survived a plunge off a bridge, but has since been sent to the Colonies. It looks like Janine and Emily will be crossing paths in the new season.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
One saying oft-repeated in connection to The Handmaid's Tale is a Latin phrase June discovered carved in her closet by the previous Offred: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum." It meant "don't let the bastards grind you down" and often acted as a rallying statement that reminded June she was not alone in her predicament. It pushed her to take action with her own rebellious acts, including involvement with the resistance.
A connection to the prior Offred, who killed herself in the Waterfords' home, was also shared by the Commander, though in a very different way. It was implied that he had an inappropriate relationship with her just like the one he began with June. He seemed to view the handmaids almost as mistresses, ignoring their lack of consent in the matter. June tried to use Waterford for her own benefit on occasion (such as convincing him to take her to Jezebels to see Moira a second time), but the situation was a dangerous one.
Also dangerous was June's relationship with Nick, the Waterfords' chauffeur and a member of the secret police force called the Eyes. They first slept together at Serena Joy's urging so that June could get pregnant because the Commander was likely sterile. It evolved from there into a consensual affair, though it was one full of secrecy and lack of communication. They had genuine feelings for each other, but Nick was also very much complicit in the worst of Gilead. He and June gave each other comfort but things quickly became more complicated than that.
You Are Not Alone
The series emphasized the solidarity between the handmaids throughout its first season, and that culminated in their joint decision to stand up to their oppressors. After Janine's attempted kidnapping, the other handmaids were instructed to stone her to death in punishment. They refused (which meant they would receive punishments of their own) but it was a stunning moment in which they all stood together.
But the victory didn't last long; they rarely do in Gilead. June was taken from the Waterfords' and thrown into a black van, her fate uncertain. She was pregnant with Nick's child, which could have offered her some protection from harm, but first season ended without revealing her fate.
Season 2 of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale will strike new ground as it deviates from the novel more than ever before, continuing June's story and taking it to unexpected places.