Welcome to Gilead: Casting and Character Analysis for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
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As you may have heard, Hulu will soon be premiering its new series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s famous novel of the same name, on April 28. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future in which the United States (now called the Republic of Gilead) has been taken over by a conservative theocracy. Women have virtually no rights in this new society, and reproductively viable young women called “Handmaids” are forced to serve as surrogate wombs for the government elite, most of whom have been left sterile by disease and environmental pollution.
In eager anticipation of the show’s premiere, we thought we’d take a closer look at several major characters from the novel to see who is playing them and what we might expect to see from them over the course of the show.
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Played by: Elizabeth Moss
Though she is the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are ultimately told very little about Offred—even her real name remains a mystery. In the Republic of Gilead, Handmaids are only named in relation to their current master, so Offred’s name literally means that she is “of-Fred.” Offred’s life as a Handmaid is isolating and limited; she is not allowed to read, leave the house alone, or speak freely with others. Offred occasionally describes her life before the revolution when she had a job, a husband, and a young daughter, but she now finds these memories of freedom painful to dwell on. The daughter of a feminist activist, Offred bristles at the repression and exploitation she experiences under the new theocratic government; however, unlike Moira, Offred makes her main goal survival rather than resistance.
In the show, Offred will be played by Elizabeth Moss, who you may recognize as Peggy Olsen from Mad Men.
Played by: Samira Wiley
Moira is Offred’s best friend from college. Brazen, outspoken, and unapologetically feminist, Moira—unlike Offred—is not surprised by the drastic curtailing of women’s rights under the new regime. While she and Offred are going through Handmaid training at the same center, Moira makes a daring escape and does not return. Offred likes to think that Moira was able to escape Gilead and flee to Canada, but she later finds her working as a prostitute in a secret club for government officials. During this final meeting, Offred is disappointed to see that Moira’s defiant and rebellious spirit seems to have been extinguished; after having been recaptured and tortured by the government, Moira is now resigned to her unhappy existence.
Samira Wiley, known for her role as Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black, will play Moira on Hulu’s new show.
Played by: Alexis Bledel
Ofglen is a fellow Handmaid and Offred’s assigned walking companion. Handmaids are not allowed to walk outside the house alone and must be accompanied by a fellow Handmaid with the expectation that they will police each other’s behavior. Initially, Offred is unsure whether or not Ofglen is a “true believer,” and she doesn’t dare do or say anything improper. Eventually, Ofglen reveals that she is actually a member of a secret resistance group. As news in Gilead is closely controlled by the government, Ofglen’s connection to the resistance makes her a source of valuable information for Offred. When Ofglen finds out about Offred’s strange relationship with the Commander, she urges her to spy on him for the resistance.
In the show, Ofglen will be played by Alexis Bledel, who you may remember as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls.
Played by: Joseph Fiennes
An older, married man, the Commander is a high-level government official and the head of the house in which Offred works as a Handmaid. When the novel begins, Offred has only recently arrived at the Commander’s house and finds him to be a mysterious and intimidating figure. Although he is not supposed to have any contact with Offred outside of the reproductive Ceremony, the Commander begins to secretly invite Offred to his room in the evenings. During these forbidden meetings, he allows Offred to play Scrabble and read magazines, and on one occasion he takes her to an illicit club. As Offred gets to know him better, she realizes that the Commander’s life is empty and unfulfilled despite his considerable power within the regime. It is implied that the Commander is one of the architects of Gilead’s social structure, and though he frequently espouses conservative and sexist ideas, he seems to realize on some level that their experiment has failed.
In the show, the Commander will be played by Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love and American Horror Story. As Fiennes is significantly younger than the Commander is in the novel, it will be interesting to see how his age alters the odd, almost paternal relationship between the Commander and Offred in the book.
Played by: Yvonne Strahovski
Serena Joy is the elderly, infertile “Wife” of the commander. As a Wife, Serena enjoys the highest female rank in the household, but her sexual and reproductive role is purely symbolic. Offred recognizes Serena from her former career as a religious personality on television prior to the revolution. Before the Republic of Gilead was established, Serena Joy preached that women should stay at home and return to domestic, subservient roles (a lifestyle that she, as a working woman, did not actually practice). Barren, forbidden from working, and trapped in a loveless marriage, Serena Joy appears to be quite unhappy living the wholly domestic lifestyle she once promoted. Like other Wives, Serena views Handmaids as a necessary evil, and though she is not fond of Offred, she desperately desires a healthy baby. Concerned that the Commander may himself be infertile, Serena arranges for Offred to secretly have sex with Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur and gardener, in order to conceive.
Serena will be played by Yvonne Strahovski of Dexter and 24. Like Joseph Fiennes, Strahovski is much younger than her character in the book, and we are excited to see how Serena’s youth will impact her already tense and competitive relationship with Offred.
We can’t wait to find out how these characters will be interpreted in the show, and we’ll be watching closely to see how faithful the show’s creators remain to the source material. If you want to learn more about The Handmaid’s Tale, we’ve got you covered! Check out our eNotes study guide to find in-depth summaries, character analysis, themes, and more.