In a world where fertility rates have collapsed as a result of sexually transmitted diseases and environmental pollution, the totalitarian, theonomic government of Gilead establishes rule in the former United States in the aftermath of a civil war. Society is organized by power-hungry leaders along with a new, militarized, hierarchical regime of fanaticism and newly-created social classes, in which women are brutally subjugated, and by law are forced to work in very limited roles – and not allowed to own property, handle money, or read.
Worldwide infertility has led to the enslavement of the few remaining fertile women in Gilead, citing an extremist interpretation of the Biblical account of Bilhah. These women, called Handmaids, are assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, where they must submit to ritualized rape by their male masters in order to become pregnant and bear children for those men and their wives. They assume a name created by the addition of the prefix Of- to the first name of the man who owns them. When they are transferred, their names are changed.
Along with the Handmaids, much of society is now grouped into classes that dictate their freedoms and duties. Women are divided into a small range of social categories, each one signified by a plain dress in a specific color: Handmaids wear long red dresses, heavy boots and white coifs, with a larger white coif to be worn outside, concealing them from public view and restricting their own vision. Marthas (who are housekeepers and cooks, named after the biblical figure) wear long, loose-fitting dull green garments and cover their hair with headwraps. Upperclass Wives (who are expected to run their households beautifully) wear elegant, tailored dresses in blue and turquoise, cut in styles evoking the 1950s. They wear high heels, their hair is carefully coiffed, and they wear gloves and hats when out of doors.
Econowives, the lower-class women who still have minimal agency, are a sort of mixture of all these categories, and they wear shades of gray (a departure from the book in which Econowives wear clothing striped with the aforementioned colors). Female prisoners are called Unwomen and, wearing rags, are worked to death clearing toxic waste in the Colonies.
Another class of women, Aunts (who train, oversee and discipline the Handmaids), wear brown. Jezebels are forced into prostitution in secret brothels catering to the elite ruling class. They wear otherwise-forbidden evening clothes, costumes, and lingerie from “before”.
Among the men of Gilead, the Eyes are secret police watching over the general populace for signs of rebellion, Hunters track down people attempting to flee the country.
June Osborne, renamed Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is the Handmaid assigned to the home of the Gileadan Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). The Waterfords, key players in the rise of Gilead, struggle with the realities of the society they helped create.
During “the time before”, June was married and had a daughter. At the beginning of the story, while attempting to flee Gilead with her husband and daughter, June was captured and forced to become a Handmaid because of the adultery she and her husband committed. Her daughter was taken and given to an upper-class family to raise, and her husband escaped into Canada. Much of the plot revolves around June’s desire to be reunited with her husband and daughter.
Cast and characters
Main article: List of The Handmaid’s Tale characters
Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne / Offred / Ofjoseph, a woman who was captured while attempting to escape to Canada with her husband, Luke, and daughter, Hannah. Due to her fertility, she is made a Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy as “Offred”. Now she is with Commander Joseph Lawrence as “Ofjoseph”.
Joseph Fiennes as Commander Frederick “Fred” Waterford, a high-ranking government official and June’s master. Both he and his wife were instrumental in Gilead’s founding. He wishes to have more contact with June outside of what is lawful between a Handmaid and her master, and starts inviting her to play nightly games of Scrabble.
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford, Fred’s wife and a former conservative cultural activist. She appears to have accepted her new role in a society that she helped create. She is poised and deeply religious, but capable of great cruelty and is often callous to June. She is desperate to become a mother.
Alexis Bledel as Dr. Emily Malek Ph.D. / Ofglen / Ofsteven / Ofroy / Ofjoseph, June’s shopping partner. Although June is initially wary of her, it is revealed she is not as pious as she seems, and the two become friends. Emily has a wife and son living in Canada and was a university lecturer in cellular biology. Being homosexual is punishable by death in Gilead, and while most intellectuals are worked to their deaths in the Colonies or executed, Emily, as “Ofglen”, was spared and later converted into a Handmaid, due to her having “two viable ovaries”. She was later captured and cruelly punished as a “gender traitor” for her lesbian relationship with a Martha, and is sent to another household where she becomes “Ofsteven”. She is involved with a resistance movement called “Mayday”. She was in the process of being worked to death in the toxic fields of the Colonies until the attack on the Red Center had her, Janine, and several others returned to Gilead to resume service as handmaids. After attacking Aunt Lydia at the Lawrence household, she as “Ofjoseph” fears execution, until Commander Lawrence sends her away in a truck with the baby Nichole, whom June hands to her before ditching them to free her other daughter Hannah. Both Emily and Nichole manage to flee to Canada, where she is soon reunited with her wife and son.
Madeline Brewer as Janine Lindo / Ofwarren / Ofdaniel / Ofhoward, a Handmaid who entered the Red Center for training at the same time as June, and considers June a friend due to her kind treatment. Initially non-compliant, Janine has her right eye removed as a punishment. She becomes mentally unstable due to her treatment and often behaves in temperamental or childlike ways. She gives birth to a child for Warren and Naomi Putnam, whom they name “Angela”, but Janine insists the baby’s name is “Charlotte”. Janine is later reassigned and becomes “Ofdaniel”. She was temporarily assigned to the Colonies until a bombing leveled the new Rachel and Leah Center on the day of its christening.
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia / Miss Clements, a woman in charge of overseeing the Handmaids in their sexual reeducation and duties. She is brutal and subjects insubordinate Handmaids to harsh physical punishment, but she also cares for her charges and believes deeply in the Gileadean mission and doctrine. She appears to have a soft spot for Janine and even goes so far as to address her by her given name on occasion. Before Gilead, she was a religious elementary school teacher named Miss Clements.
O. T. Fagbenle as Luke Bankole, June’s husband from before Gilead. Because he is divorced (he and June began their relationship before his divorce from his first wife), their union is nullified in this new society. June is considered an adulteress and their daughter, Hannah, is deemed illegitimate. Initially, June believes he was killed, but it is later revealed Luke managed to escape to Canada.
Max Minghella as Commander Nick Blaine, Commander Waterford’s driver and a former drifter from Michigan who has feelings for June. June and Nick develop an intimate relationship and she eventually discovers that he is an Eye, a spy for Gilead. In season 3, he is promoted to Commander.
Samira Wiley as Moira Strand, June’s best friend since college. She is already at the Red Center when June enters Handmaid training but escapes before being assigned to a home. She is recaptured and becomes “Ruby”, a Jezebel. She seems to have given up hope of ever being free, but on meeting June again regains the conviction to escape. She is now living her life in Canada as a refugee.
Amanda Brugel as Rita (main season 2–present, recurring season 1), a Martha at the Waterford house. She had a son named Matthew, who died fighting in the civil war when he was 19 years old.
Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence (main season 3, recurring season 2), the founder of the Colonies and architect behind Gilead’s economy. He is on and off with Mayday.
Stephen Kunken as Commander Warren Putnam. He’s the first known Commander of Janine. He had his left hand amputated by the Council after being found guilty of adultery.
Ever Carradine as Naomi Putnam, Commander Warren Putnam’s wife.
Tattiawna Jones as Lillie Fuller / Ofglen (season 1–2), who replaces Emily in the position after Emily is captured by the Eyes. She initially follows the rules and does not wish to upset the status quo, but this is because she believes her life as a Handmaid is better than the difficult, impoverished life she led prior to Gilead, rather than out of religious piety. After refusing to stone Janine, she was clubbed with a rifle by a Guardian, and her tongue (according to Alma) was cut out. After that, she sacrifices herself to bomb a new Red Center on the day of its christening. 26 Commanders and 31 Handmaids were killed as a result.
Nina Kiri as Alma / Ofrobert, another Handmaid who trained at the Red Center with June, Moira, and Janine. She is frank and chatty, and often trades gossip and news with June. She is also involved with Mayday and becomes June’s first contact with the resistance group.
Jenessa Grant as Dolores / Ofsamuel, a local Handmaid with a friendly and talkative nature.
Bahia Watson as Brianna / Oferic, another local Handmaid who is friends with June.
Jordana Blake as Hannah Bankole / Agnes MacKenzie, June and Luke’s daughter. She is later renamed Agnes.
Edie Inksetter as Aunt Elizabeth, a fellow Aunt who works closely with Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.
Kristen Gutoskie as Beth (season 1, 3), formerly a Martha at Jezebel’s. She had an arrangement with Nick whereby she traded illegal alcohol and other contraband for drugs, which the Jezebels use. She has a casual sexual relationship with him and is aware that he is an Eye. She later becomes a Martha in Joseph Lawrence’s household.
Erin Way as Erin, a young, apparently mute, woman who was being trained to become a Handmaid but managed to escape to Canada.
Clea DuVall as Sylvia (season 2–present), Emily’s wife.
Cherry Jones as Holly Maddox (season 2–present), June’s mother, an outspoken feminist.
Sydney Sweeney as Eden Spencer (season 2), a pious and obedient girl who was married off to Nick during a ceremony in episode 5 of season 2. She and Guardian Isaac were executed for “infidelity” by being drowned in a swimming pool.
Sam Jaeger as Mark Tuello (season 2–present), an operative of the United States of America’s government in exile whom Serena encounters in Canada.
Greg Bryk as Commander Ray Cushing (season 2)
Rohan Mead as Isaac (season 2), a Guardian who was assigned to the Waterford home. He was executed alongside Eden in a swimming pool.
Julie Dretzin as Eleanor Lawrence (season 2–3), the mentally unstable wife of Commander Lawrence.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Frances (season 2–3), the Martha who was assigned to the MacKenzie household. She, along with a few others, was executed for “endangering a sacred child”.
Ashleigh LaThrop as Natalie / Ofmatthew (season 3), a devoted Handmaid whose loyalty to Gilead causes divisive tensions amongst her peers.
Sugenja Sri as Sienna (season 3), a new Martha in the Lawrence household.
Jonathan Watton as Commander Matthew Calhoun (season 3), the assigned Commander of Natalie/Ofmatthew.
Christopher Meloni as High Commander George Winslow (season 3), a High Commander stationed in Washington, D.C. He was killed in self-defense by June Osborne at Jezebels and his body was cremated by Marthas there.
Elizabeth Reaser as Olivia Winslow (season 3), the wife of High Commander Winslow.
Sarah McVie as Lena (season 3), a Swiss diplomat negotiating the hostile conflict between Gilead and Canada over Nichole.
Zabryna Guevara as Mrs. Castillo (season 1), an ambassador from Mexico who visits Gilead to see the effectiveness of the regime.
Christian Barillas as Mr. Flores (season 1), Mrs. Castillo’s assistant.
Rosa Gilmore as Zoe (season 1), the daughter of a US army soldier and the leader of the group of survivors whom Luke encounters after being separated from June and Hannah.
Tim Ransom as Mr. Whitford (season 1), a friend of June’s mother who helps June, Luke, and Hannah attempt to cross the border.
Marisa Tomei as Mrs. O’Conner (season 2), a Commander’s wife who is exiled to the Colonies as punishment for committing a sin to the flesh.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Omar (season 2), a man who helps June attempt to escape.
John Carroll Lynch as Dan (season 2), Emily’s boss at the university where she worked.
Kelly Jenrette as Annie (season 2), Luke’s ex-wife who was after June for cutting her out of her marriage to Luke prior to Gilead’s rise.
Rebecca Rittenhouse as Odette (season 2), a doctor and Moira’s deceased fiancée.
Oprah Winfrey (uncredited) as Newsreader (season 2) on a car radio.
Amy Landecker as Mrs. MacKenzie (season 3), Hannah’s placement mother in Gilead.
Laila Robins as Pamela Joy (season 3), Serena Joy’s mother.
Emily Althaus as Noelle (season 3), a young single mother whose son Aunt Lydia taught before the rise of Gilead.
Handmaids Tale TV Series Plot