A Structural Breakdown of The Handmaid Tale's First Season

by ScreenCraft on June 30, 2017

By: Ray Uzwyshyn


The Handmaid’s Tale, produced by Hulu and based on the novel of the same name by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, presents a dystopian vision of America's future told from the perspective of a handmaid. In the aftermath of an epidemic, the fundamentalist government of Gilead rules the United States through a class system. Women’s rights have been taken away and because of widespread infertility, the few remaining fertile women have been conscripted as ‘handmaids’ for the ruling elite.

The series is told from the perspective of one handmaid in particular, Offred, assigned to  "commander" Fred Waterford, and his wife, Serena Joy. The story is told through alternating flashbacks between Offred’s previous life (married with a family) to her present day position in Gilead. Offred’s own voice-over provides a window into the handmaid’s inner life and frames each episode throughout the season.

Offred’s immediate external goal is basic survival while the conflict of the larger series follows Offred in her journey as a handmaid tasked with producing a child for the Waterfords. Her own internal goal is to regain her lost family and aide a revolutionary movement called ‘Mayday’. It's this internal goal that raises various contemporary questions and parallels between Gilead and our own world.

Screenplay Structural Overview

The series is carefully structured with incredible precision. The writing is elegant, sparse and carefully laid out. The season itself consists of ten focused, one hour episodic teleplays that come together to form a single, tightly-woven narrative arc.

This article will conduct a structural analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale's  entire first season. For each episode, the general five act structure will be used as a model. For those in need of a brush-up:

One Hour TV Drama Five-Act Structure

Teaser: Introduce themes. Suggest events to follow.
Act One: Introduce current story, set up goals, intention and obstacles. Introduce your characters and present the problem.
Act Two: Characters dealing with conflict in full swing, obstacle, possible false high, bad guys close in. Escalate the problem.
Act Three: Characters at their lowest points, bad guys winning, obstacle complications, dark night of the soul. All is lost. End hook so audiences have possibility of seeing how this turns out. Worst case scenario.
Act Four: Characters start to have hope of triumph, begin to prevail. Heroes take control, begin ticking clock.
Act Five: Resolution. Closure and cliffhangers/loose ends for next episode. Characters reach their moment of victory.

It's not always a perfect fit, as several episodes feature small derivations from this model. To generalize though, the higher, usually more upbeat moments of resolution in act four and act five are more subdued in The Handmaid’s Tale, replaced with smaller symbolic victories or - in some cases - descents into darkness.

Throughout this structural analysis, much can be learnt about the art of serialized screenwriting - particularly when it comes to crafting a dramatic narrative on a novelistic scale. After all, if the goal of serialized television is to blend literary ambitions with visual storytelling techniques, then The Handmaid's Tale represents the cutting edge.


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