The C. elegans embryo is a powerful model system for studying the mechanics of metazoan cell division. Its primary advantage is that the architecture of the syncytial gonad makes it possible to use RNAi to generate oocytes whose cytoplasm is reproducibly (typically >95%) depleted of targeted essential gene products via a process that does not depend exclusively on intrinsic protein turnover. The depleted oocytes can then be analyzed as they attempt their first mitotic division following fertilization. Here we outline the characteristics that contribute to the usefulness of the C. elegans embryo for cell division studies. We provide a timeline for the first embryonic mitosis and highlight some of its key features. We also summarize some of the recent discoveries made using this system, particularly in the areas of nuclear envelope assembly/dissassembly, centrosome dynamics, formation of the mitotic spindle, kinetochore assembly, chromosome segregation, and cytokinesis.