“Blessed Be The Fruit: A Look Back at Handmaid’s Tale’s First Season”

“Blessed Be The Fruit: A Look Back at Handmaid’s Tale’s First Season”

I tend to get sucked into heated arguments on Facebook, I don’t know why. But this was so oddly prescient. In the wake of Trump ending the Iran Deal, side-note: the Media swearing up and down the Iranian Government was just a bunch of shelter cats and dogs that needed a home, they don’t have weapons, they’re not interested in nuclear weaponry, and then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes out with an enormous report, and suddenly Iran is bombing Israel, and not two weeks before John Oliver was making the case for Iran. Weird. How this leads into The Handmaid’s Tale is that one of my Facebook friends, actually a very dear person, a real friend before Facebook, posts something about how abandoning the Iran Deal will result in World War III. I don’t know where he gets that idea, but so be it. One of his friends starts commenting that The Handmaid’s Tale will happen in this Country. There are people out there who don’t seem to understand that movies and television shows are fantasy; a form of illusion, fiction. There may be some themes, some political or social commentary, but for the most part, there are no 25-foot Great White sharks out there. The Death Star is not real. Stuff like that.

I took a step back and thought about it. How dangerous would it be for me to confront these people directly and tell them my belief that they are being manipulated by the Media and having their fears exploited by a television show? The reaction was exactly what I thought it would be, but let’s go back for a second. All media, whatever it is, is exploitative. All media is advertising. It’s meant to evoke a response, an emotional response, to provoke a discussion, and get you to buy products. Nobody wants to think they’re being manipulated, it shows weakness in the passive sense. Looking at it from the outside, though, it’s troubling. It’s a very dangerous paranoia, and it’s coming from a television series. A family is pursued by a group of armed men. The woman is caught, and separated from her young daughter and husband as shots are fired in the distance. She is now known as Offred, the Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford. While walking with another Handmaid, Ofglen, she and Ofglen pass by a wall on which men have been hanged for crimes such as being gay, working in an abortion clinic, or being a Catholic priest, or failing to rewind their tapes, or not lifting the lid, or wearing white after Labor Day…

I want to point out that the cast is overwhelmingly female; there are 18 female roles; principle characters compared to 5 male roles in the featured and supporting cast. 10 of the 16 episodes I’ve viewed were directed by females. It should go without saying when one portion of a group is an overwhelming majority, the material (especially such politically-charged material as this) becomes a form of propaganda. At the very least, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent employment program for women in the Industry. What, I think, is generally not understood, or misunderstood, is the nature of exploitation. You get together any group of people with different opinions, or contrarian opinions, give them content that will exploit their fears, they will rise up as one by the end of that presentation. The Handmaid’s Tale only works if you’ve shared those suspicions. This isn’t science fiction anymore – now everything is political or locked into identity or group-identity politics. If you, as a person or as a group, believe that you have been subjugated or oppressed, your belief is stronger than any reasonable set of statistics which would indicate otherwise.

I got into a heated discussion with somebody who believed “history was repeating itself.” I asked her, in the most delicate way, what part of our shared history had occurred before that is now being repeated. I also asked how long after Trump was elected that she was forced out of her job and chained to her bed to be raped repeatedly to make babies for the State. Of course, she didn’t have an answer. She just kept saying, “history is repeating itself, history is repeating itself.” I engaged her in the conversation because she was one of the rare few who didn’t resort to calling me names, or trying to shame me on some level. It’s the worst form of exploitation because it’s never permitted to be constructive. It’s always meant to be horrifying. It’s a form of pornography. The story is not a typical cross-section of politics; it has very little to do with politics and more to do with a person’s, specifically a woman’s, right to love who she wants to love, even in the midst of a plague situation that is causing the extermination of the human race. It becomes a dangerous equivocation of rape, forced impregnation, sex, and love. In the course of these first ten episodes, June is abducted, forced to become a handmaid (because of her fertility), repeatedly raped, discovers Luke is still alive, and eventually becomes pregnant. That’s it. That’s ten episodes. Oh, there are some flashbacks and character development, but that’s it. That is the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is beautifully shot. In fact, Gilead doesn’t look particularly dystopic except for the hanging dead bodies. Again, this is a bit much. Is this Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of the birth control movement, which started in the late ’60s? If it is (and if it is still possible to give birth to children), then she would be aware that people continued to have children long after the invention of birth control. You are so lucky! So privileged! Blessed are the meek. On to the Gilead Question. Does Gilead sink it’s teeth slowly into the neck of America? Was it gradual change? The way the show presents it, incidents occurred over the previous three years (less than a full term for a President). We know that based on the events of “The Other Side,” this complete take-over took three years. Maybe they just got lucky? I think it’s safe to speculate on the origins of the quick and easy power-grab of Gilead over the United States. After the murders of the President, members of Congress and Judicial entities, ranking members of the Gilead militia were given access to the nuclear silos and launched warheads in key areas, the sites of major Military bases and surrounding areas. This shut down the Nation, thus the “irradiated” soil of the Colonies was the result of Gilead’s attacks on American soil. Atwood’s supposition is that all men needed was one gentle push in the direction of misogyny. As if we all had the word, “slut,” forming on our lips at all times. Does Atwood hate men or women? Or both?

The men are not written to be men. They’re written to be monsters. The Commander demands a game of Scrabble from Offred, which is peculiar, but it’s obvious he’s an incredibly lonely man. In Atwood’s philosophy, the women are frail, gullible, and easily-led in order to be programmed or conditioned to believe a government’s lies. She doesn’t seem to be aware that there are female police officers, armed forces members, federal agents, lumberjacks, and other women in “manly” occupations. Gilead invades the United States, “suspends” the Constitution, murders Congress, and suddenly nobody can leave. Why? What is Gilead to care so much about malcontent or discontent citizens? It looks like they have plenty of voluntary participants in their crazy scheme. Citizens who want to leave should be allowed to leave. Otherwise, you’re going to deal with a lot of kicking and screaming, and then you have to be cruel to keep the population in line. In order to effectively pacify and control a population, you should be prepared to fulfill that population’s needs, so that there would never be want. That practice would stimulate population and then over-population. Ruling by collective misery doesn’t make a population feel particularly sexy or even express a normal biological need to procreate. Does the story proceed from the assumption that women do not want to have children, and are therefore forced to breed by the demands of “rapists” consumed in the toxic masculinity?

The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season won eight Primetime Emmy Awards from thirteen nominations. Awards were given for Best Drama Series, production, cinematography, direction, writing, and Moss, Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia), and Alexis Bledel for their performances. The episodes, “Offred” and “Night” (the first and last episodes of the season) were singled out specifically for excellence. For me, the quality of the show dropped off shortly after the third episode, “Late,” when the narrative structure began to resemble Lost more and more; the dependence on flashbacks, visual catharsis, and “ironic” music cues began to wear heavily on the storytelling. Looking back at the first season, it occurs to me the writers and producers wanted to leave any questions of world-building by the way-side, and instead concentrated on the internal struggle of Gilead after the fall in keeping with Atwood’s book. They revised their plans to include the backstory and characterization when, I assume, they recognized that Atwood’s book was too thin upon which to base a television series. Indeed, Atwood’s book (for the series) is merely a very rough first draft, an outline. Written like prose with an unreliable narrator in Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale is a false memoir that owes more to analogy than science fiction, but in 1985, when the book was published, it was taken as science fiction. When Donald Trump was elected President, Atwood came out of the woodwork to tell us the book (and resulting television series) was now science eventuality.

Shortly after the television series premiered, Atwood announced that a sequel was in the works, thus turning her “important” work into a vulgar money-grab. It goes back to my main point. All media is exploitation. All media is advertising. I believe that when Atwood wrote her book, she was postulating the “what if” scenario; a tome of speculation. What if, in our Modern Age, this age of “reason,” men seized power and forced women to have children? How would they go about doing this? It would require a literalist interpretation of religion. It would require hypocrisy, of course, as well as government yielding to such a religion; discarding science, discarding civics, discarding ethics. Gilead has no government, at least as far as I can see. It looks more like the Pentagon was moved into a man-cave, with a bunch of bearded Free Mason dorks. No one, in our modern age (2017-2019), before the rise of the Sons of Jacob, behaves as though there is a crisis, as though there is an existential threat wiping out our species. Instead we jog while people give us dirty looks. We watch Friends on DVD, drink our over-priced soy lattes, and listen to Annie Lennox. This may be the one stroke of genius the writers and producers of this show have bestowed upon Atwood’s legacy. They’ve convinced us we were too stupid and lazy to have seen the oncoming storm.

D.L.

7/3-5, 2019

Under the Eye: “Night”

“Night”

After the “before-time,” after the long-long-ago, June and her class of handmaids-in-training are being led to orientation as Aunt Lydia calls them, a “a parade of sluts.” Really? She wants the handmaids to “humble themselves” in the eyes of the Lord, which requires lowering their heads in front of Aunt Lydia, which would suggest Lydia is “the Lord.” Is that the inference here? Later, June is put in a dark room where she is given an identification tag punctured into her ear; a very painful process, Lydia promises her. In the present, June returns from shopping with the package the butcher gave her. She secrets the package under her bathtub. She exits her room and is immediately struck by Serena. The hit is so hard she slams into the doorway and falls down. This is Serena. This is what she is. When you have no compunction or hesitation with regard to striking a fellow human because of your personal anger, you become a threat to everyone around you, especially the children you so desperately want to have. In my estimation, this woman should never know a moment’s happiness in her life. Love and joy should become silent, staring strangers. Serena is livid over the discovery that Fred took June to Jezebels. Rather than take it out on Fred, she beats a woman half her size. Serena makes June take a pregnancy test. It is positive. Maybe Serena won’t strike her so hard the next time. Serena and Fred argue in his office. Fred tries to assert his “God-given” dominion over Serena. Serena tells him June is pregnant, and that the child is not his. Why should we care? Why does the writer want us to care about their petty squabbles? Monsters being monstrous to each other elicits no sympathy from me.

The TSA has really gotten out of hand!

Rita is positively giddy over June’s pregnancy, serves her a breakfast of eggs and oatmeal. Serena tells Nick she’s pregnant. Nick wants to be all daddy-daddy with her, but she, wisely, think it’s inappropriate given the circumstances. Serena watches over them and fumes. This is her baby, damnit! Serena orders her to the car. Meanwhile, Moira, after having ditched the car from the previous episode, flees on foot, discovers she has made it to Ontario. What the … ? Well, that was easy! After a short drive, Serena and June arrive at what looks like a school. Serena exits, goes inside the building and brings out Hannah, June’s daughter. Serena does not permit a family reunion. She instead sits with Hannah on the steps and talks with her. June goes ape-shit inside the car. She can’t get out because the doors are locked. Hannah goes back inside. Serena gets into the car, in the front seat this time. Serena suggests that no harm will come to Hannah if no harm comes to the baby growing inside June, which causes her to unleash all manner of insult. This show is sick. Janine’s former Commander from the previous episode confesses to his sexual impropriety with his handmaid. Interesting that her words would be more powerful than his, him being a man and all. He could’ve called her a liar and been done with it. She’s just the dirty slut, one-eyed batshit crazy Janine. Why would anybody in this total nightmare world believe her? As punishment, his left arm is amputated, and we see the amputation in graphic detail, but at least he’s been anesthetized.

A farewell to arms.

June seeks solace with Nick in his upstairs Fonzie-style garage apartment, but he isn’t there, so she goes to visit Fred. She needs his help. She needs him to protect her daughter from Serena. Fred finds this dubious, but June tells him he doesn’t know his wife. Fred asks if the baby is his. June lies, and I do think Fred sees through the lie. Later that night, June finds the package and opens it. It could be anything. It could be bullets. It could be a bomb. It could be chemicals for a bomb. It isn’t. It’s the most stupid device this series has yet unraveled. Letters. Fucking letters! This is what was so important? These are confessional letters about what the handmaids are going through. People were already starting to get stories of the handmaids back in “The Other Side” and that was three years before! This is what Mayday is fighting for? June stays up the whole night reading the letters. Why?! In Canada, Moira is put through the refugee system. She’s given money, a phone, and an I.D. card. Samira Wiley (Moira) does a very good job here of trying to remember what it was like to be free before all of this began. She’s equal parts shell-shocked and confused. This is where the show succeeds. Fred and Serena argue some more, and they seem to reconcile, but again, I don’t care. Monsters being nice to each other elicits no sympathy from me. Early morning vespers and roll-call in the park. The handmaids are given rocks and told to stone Janine to death for her transgression of stealing her baby and jumping off the bridge. Janine, being her sweet, broken self, asks the handmaids to not hit her “too hard, okay?”

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Ofglen protests. She doesn’t want to kill Janine. A Guardian strikes her and she falls to the ground, the gun trained on her. They drag her away. You have an assemblage of handmaids with rocks in their hands, and Guardians with machine guns pointing those guns at them. Aunt Lydia tries to control the situation. It’s amazing it hasn’t escalated completely out of control with Guardians mowing down these handmaids, as they are worth less than nothing. June drops her rock and smart-assedly apologizes. It becomes a Spartacus moment for the group and everybody drops their rocks and apologizes to Aunt Lydia. She sends everybody home and tells them to think about what they’ve done. Uh, mercy? Compassion? These are simple human concepts. Oh, but Lydia warns, “There will be consequences.” Such is the control Gilead has over the handmaids that they are free to walk home without supervision, without a Guardian presence. None of this makes any sense. Either that, or Gilead chooses which rules it wants to follow. As June walks home, we’re treated to a reunion between Moira and Luke. Moira is still traumatized. Now this is good acting, and it really brings home the tragedy of human atrocity and violence. June considers herself in “disgrace” because of her action, but she isn’t the center of the rebellion. The center was Ofglen and her refusal to cast that stone. She was the one brave soul. June is a pretender. Everything she does is in service of her own survival. Guardians come to take her away. She tells Rita where to find the package full of letters. Nick tells her to go along with them, and this is how the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale ends.

* I’ll be back next week with a wrap-up of the first season.

Under the Eye: “The Bridge”

“The Bridge”

It’s nice that we have these little rituals, isn’t it? All the handmaids gather outside another palatial, stolen home. We have a prisoner–sorry–baby exchange between Janine (“Ofwarren”) for our little role-play, and the thieves of her baby, a Commander and his wife (not worthy of names in my book) and it becomes apparent the handmaids are to be regarded as nothing more than objects, to be dispensed with when their jobs are finished. Ofwarren, now Ofdaniel, is on her merry way to a new home … to be raped. As they depart, June tells her traveling companion she wants to help with Mayday activities. Janine meets her new masters. You would think what with her lack of an eye, she’d be sent to Commanders on the low end of the pecking order, but the Sons of Jacob are willing to look past that for the sake of her fertility. On their way to Loaves & Fishes, another handmaid takes June aside and tells she has to ger ass back to Jezebels to grab a package. I guess if June wants to be in the Resistance, she’ll have to do some grunt work for the cause. She tells Fred she wants to go back to Jezebels. It’s amazing that he buys this. I thought Fred was one of Gilead’s chief architects. Either that, or it is the show’s central conceit that all of the men represented, regardless of their experience and education, are absolute, drooling morons. Perhaps the women of this world do have special, supernatural powers over men.

“Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town.”

We go to Serena, quietly sewing by the fire. In the kitchen, she roots around for booze, I’m sure, but she covers when Rita enters. Serena was led to believe the Commander is in his office, but Rita lets slip that he left the house. Rita finds her the booze, but Serena doesn’t want to drink alone. So she caught up with her pal, Jack Daniels, and his partner, Jimmy Beam! Rita talks of her son who died during the war, but I’m not sure at this point what side he was on. Janine prepares for the Ceremony with her new masters. Janine is nervous, and I’m nervous for her. This scene plays more like rape than any of the other Ceremonies we’ve been treated to with Janine resisting and somehow convinced that her previous Commander will come for her. Fred makes it with June at Jezebels, all the while June has that package on her mind. Idiot Fred knows something’s up, so he arranges for an “encounter” with Moira/Ruby. His gay-dar is a little wonky so he leaves them alone to talk while he washes up. She argues with June about this cloak-and-dagger shit. Moira doesn’t want to do anything to endanger her life, seemingly unaware that her life is danger all the time in this place. June accuses her of already being dead, which she might as well be if she refuses to help. June is certainly learning how to manipulate people. When they arrive home, Fred gets caught by Serena, and by the look on her face, she knows damn well where he’s been.

“I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend.”

Early morning, amid flashes of happier times smoking cigarettes with Moira, at the beach with hubby and child, Serena wakes June up and takes her to the bridge of the title. Janine is holding the baby and threatening to jump into the water. How did she manage that? Guys with machine guns! Janine screams at her previous Commander about all the “freaky” sex stuff they did that his wife wouldn’t do. Out in the open air, this pretty much destroys the Commander’s reputation. June offers to talk her down off the ledge. She tells her, “Change is coming. There’s hope.” She tells her they’re gonna go out drinking one day. Janine asks if they can do karaoke. She gives the baby to June and then jumps off the bridge. She’s quickly fished out of the water, but I do wonder if she could survive the impact. Aunt Lydia keeps vigil by her bedside in the hospital and calls her a “stupid girl.” The Commander is brought up on charges because of Janine’s claims. Serena is humiliated when the Commander’s wife tells her everybody knows why the previous Offred killed herself. That’s all very well and good, but we don’t know why she killed herself. At least, we have our theories. At the supermarket, a butcher hands off the package to June, courtesy of Moira and her ridiculous note: “Praised be, bitch. Here’s your damn package.” At Jezebels, Moira/Ruby decides to grow a pair. She grabs a shiv she made out of plumbing parts, presumably kills her client, hops into a car and drives off. I seriously hope we never go back to Jezebels.

Under the Eye: “Jezebels”

“Jezebels”

So Nick, right? We’re on to Nick in our origin story round-up. In the before-time, in the long-long ago, Nick was an unemployed loser just lookin’ for a job, Son. He gets into a tangle at the local employment agency, Worthy Path Career Counseling (creepy name with religious connotations). He basically gets “witnessed” to by a Son of Jacob, who gives him a few pointers on discipline and responsibility. Where are we? Five years ago? Ten? This is when I began to suspect that Gilead was a Socialist construct. The man he talks to speaks about Capitalism with disdain. He speaks of a plan to set the Country right and clean up the mess. He tells Nick he’s not alone, and I wonder why Nick has to be a bad apple so that the Sons of Jacob could clean him up and set him on the “right path.” June finds Fred waiting for her in her bedroom. He tells her he’s going to take her out for a night on the town. He even shaves her legs. The leg-shaving scene is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in any television show or movie, or anything. He asks her if she remembers how to put on makeup. It’s been three fucking years. He wraps her up in a slinky dress. Elisabeth Moss is a handsome woman, but she’s hardly glamorous. I wouldn’t even call her sexy, but it takes all kinds to make a world, I guess, and I still don’t understand Fred’s attraction to her, or Nick’s. Maybe I’m just being cruel, but if you’re gonna put her kisser up on my big-screen TV, I’m gonna judge her looks. Sorry.

This scene is in every John Hughes movie.

Commander Fred is a man made of desires and tastes. It isn’t enough that he has a devoted, beautiful wife in Serena, no. Her devotion is mandated by the State. She knows her place (she wrote a book about her place), even if it requires her silence, her masquerade of illiteracy, and her reptilian gaze. What Fred needs is a throbbing erection and a throbbing orifice in which to place that erection, and his needs are all that matter. He’s even willing to break the law to get what he wants, just as they all do. This is why we have Jezebels, a brothel at the edge of town, where all manner of depraved acts can be committed under a magic cloak of silence. First rule of Jezebels is you don’t talk about Jezebels – that sort of thing. In a flashback, Nick is a driver for the Elite of Gilead. He overhears talk of rounding up the fertile women to be impregnated. There is some argument about this, but as long as there is “scriptural precedent,” nobody has a problem with it. They also talk about making the wives part of the Ceremony (just as I thought, it’s all made up on the spot) so that they’ll shut up. “White Rabbit” plays rather inappropriately as June tours Jezebels in a strange Eyes Wide Shut-like tableau. “Somebody to Love” would’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think the producers listen to much Jefferson Airplane*. This is where the educated (or infertile yet attractive) women, the doctors, the lawyers, go when they aren’t shunted off to the dreaded Colonies. Isn’t this a nice place?

Jezebels! A fun, kinky place!

Jezebels is an enormous mistake for Atwood and the television series, because it puts all of Gilead’s cards on the table. This isn’t just keeping the women in their place. It is a sociopathic fear/lust of women. In a way, Gilead gives or acknowledges in women a supernatural power that must be vanquished or suppressed. Yet, in all this madness, June finds Moira, who did not escape. She’s now a whore named Ruby. What is this obsession with changing people’s names? It’s a little too intellectual a premise to rob someone of their identity. Nick uses his Eye credential to get information from a Martha working at Jezebels about a Commander who has bent the rules. It’s interesting he doesn’t use his knowledge of Fred to bring him down (unless he worries about hurting June in the process). Nick remembers the discovery of the previous Offred hanging from the ceiling in her bedroom. At Jezebels (which, I don’t know, it’s kind of a cute name, it sounds like a chain of restaurants or night clubs), Fred wants to have sex with June, like for real, not this ridiculous Ceremony. June slips out to find Moira. She hears sounds, sees images of violent and depraved sexuality. The women are brutalized, of course – what else is new? Do we expect any less of this show? Moira tells June she was rescued by Quakers (I don’t understand – do they have “Quaker” I.D. cards or something) but they were killed for harboring her. Moira was captured, given a choice: the Colonies or Jezebels. Wait a minute. They gave her a choice? Her spirit has been broken. She lives in fear now.

Max Minghella has but one expression, and you’re lookin’ at it.

We do learn a little more about the Eyes of Gilead. They’re a little less than snoops, and more like tattle-tales, put in place by the top brass to ensure loyalty from their Commanders. My guess is after ratting out so many high-ranking officials within Gilead, Nick was entrusted with the duties of an Eye. The photography of the show is stunning but the Kubrickian symmetry of the compositions is undermined by excessive use of tight depth-of-field shots in order to evoke an almost Pavlovian emotional response to the visual. As such, and because this practice is repeatedly used, there is no evolution in the cinematography. Same with the wardrobe (which I’ve heard dubbed, “Hyatt Regency” – all drab and lifeless, but for the bright, blood red of the handmaid cloak. The show is way too polished for the effect it is trying to achieve. June yells at Nick, because of her anger over the atrocity and hypocrisy of such a place as Jezebels, about how such a fiery and fierce lesbian as Moira can die on the inside because all she had in her heart was anger, and that really is all she had. I don’t know why Nick has to hear this. It’s not his fault, right? Or is it the fault of all men? Serena returns from wherever the hell she was and presents June with a gift: a music box with a dancing ballerina. We get more aggravating purple prose from June as she etches words into a wall. “You are not alone.” Cute.

* What happened to Jefferson Airplane? Is Gilead paying royalties to Jefferson Airplane for use of the song, or are royalties not considered part of the framework because it isn’t in the Bible? What happened to Grace Slick? At the age of 79, would she be considered a Martha? Or did she, you know, blow a pilot to get her safely away from Gilead when she saw the trouble coming down?

Under the Eye: “The Other Side”

“The Other Side”

So now that we know Luke is alive and well and living somewhere in Canada, the writers grab the ball and run with it. I hadn’t thought about the scene with June and the Mexican delegation until I saw the recap preceding the show. The Ambassador’s Assistant knows who June’s husband is, knows him by name. How? If he knew this, he had to know about these abductions and the forced impregnation. He had to know families were being separated. Why would you leave your husband to help Gilead in their cause? We go back to the first episode. June, Luke, and Hannah are on a mad dash to Canada. They get separated. Luke is shot. We know what happens to June and Hannah. This is Luke’s story. I haven’t had much reason to comment on O. T. Fagbenle’s performance because, up until now he’d been rather unremarkable. While swept away into interesting times, he still plays everything as either dull surprise or charmed bemusement, like those are the only tools in his bag, because he’s not written to be interesting. For some reason, Guardians are ferrying the wounded Luke back to Gilead. Why? Why not just shoot him in the back of the head like they do so many other people? Why would they nurse him back to health when he’s going to wind up on the wall anyway? This must be the most dangerous road in the world, home to two separate car accidents in less than ten minutes! The ambulance flips off of a bridge! The Guardian-paramedics appear to be dead. Luke escapes with medicine and a gun. He hikes back to his wrecked car, but can find no evidence of June or Hannah. Logically, he has to know his wife and daughter were not killed, but he nonetheless panics. He wanders into a ghost town that seemed to have been destroyed by the devout of Gilead, and this is where we get some idea of the apocalypse that followed the terrorist attacks.

“Can I borrow a cup of sugar?”

We flash back perhaps a few weeks to June and Luke with a sleeping Hannah in the back of the car making their escape. There is talk of Moira who had left prior to their departure and how they should have left with her. I would agree. They arrange for a “coyote” to facilitate getting them through check-points. Here we see that Luke is not fully aware of what has happened. The idiots even brought their cell phones with them. Luckily, the coyote (a friend of June’s radical mother, Holly) knows what to do. He smashes their cell phones and stows them in the back of his vehicle. Luke promises June everything will be all right. Luke? Don’t write checks your butt can’t cash. They hear a police siren. The vehicle stops. The trunk door opens. A man dressed like a Guardian does a perfunctory search, pretends he sees nothing. Excellent! The show is much stronger when it gives us this information rather than the constant torture and rape of present-day scenes. Our friendly coyote provides them with a nice cabin in the woods where they will lay low until they can figure out how to get across the border. The coyote doesn’t buy that Luke knows anything about guns, so he gives him a quick tutorial on how to handle a handgun. It’s shocking to me how naive Luke is; that he cannot even show courage. In Luke’s present, he is beset by others who have escaped and when they assume he’s a Guardian (because he took one of their coats), they start beating him. Luke is not having a good day. After they figure out he’s not a baddie, they take him and tend to his injuries.

Hangin’ around.

The Scooby gang fills Luke in on Gilead’s plan to turn all the fertile women into handmaids. Back at the cabin, they decide to take off when a friendly enough neighbor (with a gun) and his dog stop by to say hi. The neighbor stops by again to tell them he knows who they are and that the Guardians are searching for them (for them specifically?). He tells them their coyote is dead, hanged from a lamp-post in town. Luke, idiotically, decides to leave the Scooby gang so he can go back and search for June and Hannah. One of them, a kind woman named Zoe, shows Luke a church where bodies are hanging from rafters. This is what happens when people fight back. She tells him if he goes back he will die. It’s like something out of a horror movie. I understand when something that could be considered Evil can be used in the service of the Good, but I can’t understand something so objectively evil as murdering people and then putting their bodies on display to frighten others. The Scooby gang tries to make its way to Canada by boat but are ambushed by Guardians. Zoe is killed. We jump forward to three years later (finally we have a basis for a time-line), and Luke is hanging out in Canada with one of his Scooby gang friends, a little woman who won’t talk, named Erin. He gets a call and appears at a government office where he receives the note June wrote for him in the previous episode. It reads, “I love you so much. Save Hannah.” This episode and “A Woman’s Place” are excellent book-ends for each other and proves the series can succeed on its own terms without having to rely on Margaret Atwood’s jigsaw puzzle, stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Under the Eye: “A Woman’s Place”

“A Woman’s Place”

Oppressive snow falls gently upon majestic Gilead as handmaids are forced to wipe the blood off the walls and dispose of the hanging bodies before a trade delegation from Mexico arrives. Why are handmaids required to do this menial labor? They have plenty of strong arms and bodies, but the handmaids (chosen for their precious fertility) have to do this grunt work? I get tired of the endless praise heaped on the actors, particularly Moss and Strahovski. Either reviewers don’t know great performances, or they’re on the production’s payroll. Sometimes they do good work, but not all the time. As I’ve said before, Moss is best in scenes before the purge, but most of the time, she plays June like a frightened yellowtail in shark-infested waters. Strahovski plays Serena as though she knew June in high school and has hated her ever since. No, they’re not always good. In this episode, Strahovski gets her chance to shine. I suppose every character (even down to menial Rita) will get an episode eventually, but here we’re supposed to feel sorry for poor Serena and what she tried to do. She briefly flashes on a time when she and Fred made passionate love. Of course they have to quote Bible scripture to each other while they knock boots, but what are you gonna do?

“I made you, and I can break you just as easily!”

In the present, they bring June in to talk to the Mexican trade delegation. She lies to them she chose to become a handmaid. The delegation appears to view handmaids as we would view the Amish: how cute, how quaint! The leader of the delegation, a woman, asks June if she is happy. She stammers. One would only have to examine Fred’s determined gaze to know that she is not happy, but understanding body language seems to be at a premium as much as kindness. The leader of the delegation brings up Serena’s book, A Woman’s Place, a treatise of “domestic feminism,” as well as the fact that women are not allowed to read the book. Fred is furious this woman was invited to the dinner in the first place, what with her questions, and Serena, for the first and (by my count) only time, brings up the idea of “bad optics.” I wonder how many times the phrase, unintended consequences pops up in Serena’s lexicon? In happier times, Fred and Serena make for a cute couple. They go to the movies and plan the revolution. The attacks will start in three weeks and then glory to God, Gilead will become a reality! It is here we learn it was Serena’s idea to make fertility a national way of life, although her antiquated notions of womanhood prove unpopular with progressives. It seems like her ideas were more in keeping with increasing the population, and less about terrorism and destruction, but I don’t care. She’s still a willing part of this madness, and for that she must pay.

Unintended consequences…

The handmaids are to be paraded before the Mexican delegation like so many beauty pageant contestants, but Serena does not want the badly beaten and bruised handmaids up front with the rest of them. Bad optics, you see? One-eyed batshit crazy Janine protests until Lydia promises to give her a whole tray of desserts. I have to believe the delegation is not buying this pious attitude. The fear in their eyes and the violence in other eyes is enough proof for me, even if I wasn’t privy to the rumors. I suppose it’s sad for Serena that she was not permitted to aid in the creation of a government, but intellectuals don’t know any better, do they? I’ve said before this is the story of women willfully and deliberately participating in their own annihilation. June learns from her traveling companion that Mexico wants to trade with Gilead for handmaids because there must be some secret sauce that enables successful pregnancies. This is really strange. This is medieval bartering or some such nonsense. As Serena unpacks and moves into her beautiful new stolen home, she realizes she has nowhere else to go in her life because all of her responsibilities, goals, and dreams have been thrown into the trash along with her book. Before the Mexicans pack up and take off, June tells them the truth – that she was abducted, that she is raped, that she is abused. The delegation can do nothing for her, but I have to think this would hamper trade negotiations. Before they leave, one of them tells her Luke is still alive and that he will pass a note to him during study hall. This is a pretty good episode that nonetheless fails to evoke any pity in me for Serena.