Under the Eye: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

“Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

The writers of the show continue to remind us there was a different world before the takeover and, consequently, we’re fed unreliable narration from June that signals to us Gilead has been around either for five years or forever. June, Luke, and Hannah visit a carnival and “Daydream Believer” plays in an unsettling echo. June is being punished for not being pregnant. Perhaps Serena believes June has the awesome, unimaginable power of shutting off any potential pregnancy at the snap of a finger. Given what we eventually learn about Serena, I don’t think that’s the case. The crime, in my view, was of getting her hopes up and delivering nothing. It’s a lot like the narrative structure of The Handmaid’s Tale: weeks of promises and no pay-off. Last week’s “Late” was a better episode than it ever deserved to be, and that’s because there were some delicious morsels of back-story, even though much of it made no sense. We got our dessert first, but now with “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” we have to eat our undercooked brussels sprouts and lima beans, and damn but this is undercooked! June finds some writing on the wall inside the closet: the title of the episode. Latin. A dead language perfect for a dying culture. Another flashback takes us back to the handmaid orientation facility with Moira etching graffiti into a bathroom wall – her idea of resistance. This is another one of those annoying Lost-style flashbacks.

“Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.”

Rita freaks out when she sees June passed out on the floor, and Serena arranges for a visit to the hospital. June remembers being taught the Ceremony. There is an inconsistency with Janine’s character here. She is already the flighty weirdo she would eventually become after being broken, but a couple of episodes later after giving birth, she is her old self: defiant and saucy. June waits in the hospital. I feel bad for these Guardians who wanted to crush skulls but find the only job they can get is receptionist. Something extraordinary happens. Her doctor gives her a check-up, tells her she’s perfectly healthy, but then lets slip that the men are sterile, and she’ll probably never have a child by Fred. The doctor then offers his services, if you know what I mean. She politely turns him down. Back to the carnival and fun times! Again, why aren’t we packing up the car and getting the fuck out of Dodge? “Are you dying,” Serena asks, unconcerned and only worried June’s condition will delay this night’s Ceremony. Offred begs to be let out of her room. Serena ain’t having it. In a flashback, Moira and June attack one of their Aunts (unfortunately not Lydia), steal her clothes and make for the trains. It’s interesting to me how frightened this particular Aunt is, knowing the weight and gravitas these creatures carry within them. Before the Ceremony, Fred offers Offred a Scrabble re-match. During the Ceremony, Fred can’t seem to achieve an erection. He tries to jerk off and then he just walks away. Serena offers to help, but it ain’t happening.

Cue “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye.

In flashback, Moira and June make it to the train station, but are then separated and it appears Moira successfully escapes, whereas June is caught and punished. Do you think the Sons of Jacob sit around and come up with ways to torture women? It seems more thought is put into brutalizing women and burning away the last vestiges of the past than infrastructure and resources. I don’t see how everybody can laud June for being such a “strong female character.” She’s not strong. She’s vulnerable, needy. She’s not particularly bright. She has no sense of smell for the incredible opportunities that are practically handed to her. Maybe that’s my frustration right there: in those strange, sunken spring-green eyes that scream, “help me,” but then sink into the shadows because she can’t find her inner-hero. Five years of Gilead is five years too long. During the Scrabble game, June wonders about the previous handmaid while flashing back to her punishment. Aunt Lydia seems to know of June’s past. June is an adulterer. Her feet are whipped. In the present, she asks Fred about the meaning of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” He tells her it’s a joke. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” She asks Fred what happened to the previous Offred. Fred tells her she killed herself, hung herself from the ceiling of her room. Oddly, she found her life unbearable. Imagine that! For some reason, this empowers June. She uses this new information to manipulate Fred into letting her out of her room. The episode ends on a sick joke of June strutting with confidence along with other handmaids and proclaiming in voice-over, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, Bitches.” This episode made me sick to my stomach.

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Under the Eye: “Late”

“Late”

We exist in a world where men with machine guns stand on every street corner and watch you. Where women are bound and gagged so they cannot move or speak. June tells us she was asleep when there were “temporary” inconveniences. When the Constitution was “suspended.” When women en masse were denied their jobs and their pay. In a flashback, June and Moira are jogging and getting ugly stares from passersby. Do two women jogging together deserve the incredulous stink-eye? They stop for coffee. June discovers she has no money in her bank account. The barista tells her to come back when she has money. He says, “Fucking sluts, get the fuck out of here,” which is on its face ridiculous and over-the-top in attempting to establish hatred for women. Moira and June? These women do not look like “fucking sluts,” and even if they did, I’m pretty sure the customer service handbook would make a point to advise their employees not to engage people in this manner. The scene is so laughably excessive it doesn’t belong in this show, but if it were true-to-life, someone (let’s say Moira) would be recording this conversation for later posting on Twitter and YouTube. Later, June and her female co-workers are being told they are to be “let go” (a polite word for fired) and to get out. If any of this were recorded and uploaded, I’m sure it would have an effect on the body politic. Creepy Guardians are kind enough to hold doors open for the women and their personal belongings and say, “Under his eye,” as calmly as saying, “Have a nice day.”

“Wanna move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me, I swear sometimes that man is out to get me”

In the present, people (namely the Martha Rita, and Serena) are being nice to Offred, presumably because they think she might be pregnant. Serena even takes her to see the new baby. This is where I begin to suspect that people never truly change in this world. They can wear masks and pretend to be sheep, but being born a monster makes it difficult to hide that treacherous face. Serena is an object I would never consider for pity, although I do pity her and Commander Fred for their woeful ignorance and maladaption. I don’t pity Serena for her bursts of unwarranted anger and violence against either Offred or Rita. June visits Janine, who teeters on the brink of emotional collapse. She is possessive of her baby, and it is her baby, no matter what any of these ignorant women say. The “pretend” aspect of all of this frustrates me. In another life, Serena could’ve been June’s overbearing boss, and June could tell her to go fuck herself and walk away, but not in this world. This is a world where women are not permitted to read, and they are supposed to pretend that they are unable to read because they are women. June pumps Nick, the driver, for information about Ofglen. Nick is a slug, perhaps well-meaning and distracted, but a slug nonetheless. Another flashback reveals all the money has been moved into men’s accounts; husbands or next-of-kin. This is where we sense Moira’s hostility toward men. She blames Luke for the actions of the terrorists, and in fact, she denies that this is terrorism; that this is what all men want – to control women, to control their lives, and to control their money. As a man, I can tell you that’s bullshit.

“I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no,’ and I’m in a terrible fix!”

I’ve held back on discussing Aunt Lydia because I view her as nothing more than a lifeless vessel of torture. June is interrogated by an Official while she is poked with a cattle-prod by Lydia. They ask her about Ofglen. They ask if June finds her attractive. If Ofglen ever put the moves on her. If she knew Ofglen was a lesbian. Lydia, out of nothing more than anger, beats June after scripture is quoted back to her, and the only thing that stops the beating is Serena’s intervention, believing Offred to be pregnant. You can imagine the look on her face when she has her period. Now Emily (Ofglen) strikes me as a smart girl. She’s a college professor, for fuck’s sake! Why does she engage in a sexual relationship with a Martha in this climate? Is Emily turned on by housekeepers? Is it an act of defiance? Well, she just got her Martha-girlfriend killed for it, and they make her watch. It is a chilling scene that checks off two strong political talking-points: violence against women, and violence against homosexuals. Emily is then sexually mutilated for her transgression. There is another thoughtless flashback which shows demonstrators in a violent clash with Guardians inappropriately set to the strains of “Heart of Glass.” “Living in the Real World” would’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think the producers listen to much Blondie*. Did the demonstrators think they were making their case against men with machine guns? They are killing people on the streets, unprovoked. What were the protesters hoping to achieve? It’s at this point I start to ask, “Um, why haven’t we left yet? They’re taking our money and curtailing our rights. They opened fire on demonstrators. Is the car gassed up?”

Hang in there, Baby!

Serena arranges to put Offred in a nice bedroom, rather than stay in the “suicide-attic” in which the previous handmaid resided. Offred tells her she’s not pregnant; that she got her period. This infuriates Serena who drags her back to the suicide-attic and throws her on the floor. This is Serena. This is what she is and always will be. In another life, there would be compassion and understanding. Not here. This is a television series that would have to depend considerably upon the concept of “world-building.” That is establishing a world, like a game board, and then putting the players (or pieces) on that board with each new episode accumulating knowledge about that constructed world. The writers ignore the crucial world-building aspect and instead create the players before creating the world, and then expect the audience to play catch-up with their creation. “Late” is the main offender, because the writers believe they are being clever in only letting certain components of that world be revealed at the right time and place, like Lost with it’s frustrating flashback structure that served to mirror current events. We end with a severe close-up of Emily after she is told by Lydia that she won’t want what she cannot have – meaning orgasm from sexual stimulation. She goes from confusion to sadness to anger and finally screaming. Alexis Bledel is truly the unsung hero of this show. Gilmore Girls this is not.

* Where’s Debbie Harry in this world? Good-looking woman, great singer. Is she a Martha in this world? Did she fight the Sons of Jacob? Is she dead? Did she flee to Canada when she saw the troubles? Is she in the Colonies?

Under the Eye: “Birth Day”

“Birth Day”

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

June distracts herself during the Ceremony by naming off everything she knows about the color blue. We get into a ponderous tradition very quickly with the show about how swiftly the fascism can pierce us so often and with so much aplomb we scarcely realize we’ve been gushing blood until it’s too late. Offred and Ofglen trade stories about their jobs before the “reconstruction.” Offred was an editor, and Ofglen was a college professor. Offred wants to know why Ofglen knows an about an Eye in her house. During this exchange, and as a church is being bulldozed, they witness a minister being brutalized by two Guardians. I forgot to mention the Guardians. They’re the guys with machine guns whom everyone fears. I don’t understand the minister. Why is there a minister walking around like he owns the street? Why are we destroying churches when the property could be put to good use for something else rattling around in the brains of the Sons of Jacob? This is where the efficiency and economy of Gilead escapes me. Driver Nick reveals himself to be the Eye by stupidly telling her to not get too close to Ofglen. He also tells her the Commander wants to see her in his office later that night. The Birthmobile arrives to escort her to pregnant Ofwarren’s (“One-eyed batshit crazy Janine”) delivery.

“Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away …”

June reflects on her own delivery of her daughter, Hannah. It became such a momentous event that zealots would pray outside hospitals, and lunatics would try to steal babies. The handmaids tell Ofwarren to “breathe,” “hold,” and “exhale” in unison. Given the circumstances of how rare live and healthy birth must be to this world, research and science should have offered choices. They offer choices even now with no such problems existing. Incentives would be offered to those fertile couples to have children. Health insurance would become a device of the past. When no one was looking, a righteous religious fanaticism was building in the people. How this could easily translate into the humiliation, enslavement, and torture of women is anybody’s guess. When you get to talking about the concept of equality to different people, you’re going to get a handful of different philosophies. Some people confuse equality with superiority. Some people confuse equality with convenience and opportunity. Some people will argue that slavery is a state of mind; that if you believe you are enslaved, then you are enslaved. I feel that the people who write and produce the show don’t quite grasp the concepts of freedom, slavery, and equality; that they’re either parroting the current hot topics and trends or they (or some of their more zealous viewers) want to suffer vicariously with the characters they’ve created.

“But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby, oh I’m gonna keep my baby…”

This is a bizarre delivery with a Commander’s wife simulating labor pain as Ofwarren experiences it. The mixed message of rape and the joy of childbirth gives the show an uncomfortable distinction. Knowing what we know of the perceived inequality of women, the obvious social messaging at work in the narrative, and the politics at play, The Handmaid’s Tale treads a fine line between leftist and right-wing dogma. All I can imagine is that women have gone mad in a time where their bodies have betrayed them and refused the purchase of a child that would grow inside them. That’s the only explanation I can muster for their advocacy of Gilead. Did they ever intend to enslave themselves in the bargain? This is not the story of men oppressing and brutalizing women for their own sadistic pleasure. This is the story of women willfully and deliberately participating in their own annihilation. These women do not have agency. This second episode is padded to the breaking point before the viewer realizes there were only perhaps two bits and a flashback. June goes down to the Commander’s private office. I realize the show-runners get their jollies off not revealing anything because they want us, the viewers, to be June. I don’t find the Commander frightening or imposing in any way, and I have reason. He plays Scrabble with her and we have to watch the whole game. No wonder the human race is dying off. The next morning, June discovers Ofglen has been arrested as Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays. The Breakfast Club this is not.

Under the Eye: “Offred”

“Offred”

Let’s just speculate for a minute. This is our world. This is a world of the Boston Red Sox and Friends on DVD. This is the world of the free press, of Annie Lennox, of Bruce Springsteen, of debit cards, and over-priced soy lattes … but … Our world has gone topsy-turvy. Something has changed, as in all good science fiction. The birth rate has plummeted due to an unexplained crisis. Bible literalists make their move. Through an extraordinary and unrealistic set of circumstances, these people have captured The United States of America. A coordinated series of terrorist attacks has crippled our Lady Liberty and made her impotent. Whomever you are, remember your place in the world when your freedom was deleted. The set-up is astonishing. June (Elisabeth Moss), her baby Hannah, and her husband Luke are running from men with machine guns as they attempt to flee the continental United States. Luke is shot and June and Hannah are captured. Hannah is relocated to a privileged family. June is forced to become a handmaid, the brood mare for a prominent family led by the Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). She is given a name: Offred, meaning “of Fred.” The property of Fred.

Get used to shots like these.

All of this would work well if not for the persistent confessional-style voice-over of June. Her purple prose comes across like a 15-year-old’s self-mutilation journal. The handmaids are told by their devoted Aunt Lydia that the “plague” was God’s plan; a response to birth control and abortion, drugs and pre-marital fornication. When Janine mouths off, she gets a cattle-prod to the neck and loses an eye. The handmaids have been selected for their fertility. They are to be “adopted” by the families of the powerful and impregnated by their commanders. Handmaids walk together spouting bizarre platitudes as bodies hang high up from railings. These are the bodies of priests, Jews, and homosexuals. There are men with machine guns behind defensible piles of sandbags awaiting … what? Attack? Attack from handmaids? Attack from enemy forces? It’s hard to believe in this total nightmare dystopia anyone survived the ferocious assault of the Sons of Jacob. That’s what they call themselves. They call the land they have stolen Gilead. The Republic of Gilead. Even though this is not a republic. This is not America. This is occupied land. The people may look like Americans, act and speak like Americans, but they are the Programmed and they intend to program the handmaids. There are cult-like sessions where handmaids are shamed, judged, and punished by their fellow handmaids until they are broken and then re-built into baby-makers.

“Respect the cock and tame the cunt!”

The Ceremony is a stylized ritual of rape. Creepy organ music plays as Waterford reads a passage from the Bible justifying this action. In strict interpretation of the Bible, Jacob had two wives, Rachael and Leah. Jacob loved Rachael more than Leah, so God rewarded Leah by taking away Rachael’s fertility and giving it to Leah. These Sons of Jacob have re-written their Bible so that Rachael instead gives Leah to Jacob as a “handmaid” so she will bear Jacob’s children, hence the Bible Literalists are not so literal with these sticky digressions. As with every cult, they highlight the passages that advocate their beliefs and disregard others, namely the love, mercy, and compassion present in many passages. Unimaginable cruelty is the name of the game in Gilead’s Bible. I say this as a proud atheist: you cannot mock what you don’t understand. Margaret Atwood’s, and by extension, the writers and producers of the series view, of religion (Christianity, in particular) is sadly warped and misguided. I have no doubt there are practices and sub-practices of different denominations that embrace cruelty and violence. We hear of them on occasion, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. At some point in the story, June’s old friend and lesbian, Moira, escapes from the handmaid orientation facility, but we won’t see the circumstances of the escape in this episode. June believes her to be dead.

“Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

The handmaids are gathered in a central meeting place to kill a man accused of rape. They each take turns stomping on him and ripping him to pieces. Why would the handmaids be required to execute this man, if only to make them all complicit in a murder without due process? In a flashback, we see June and Moira in more normal times when June informs her she is pregnant. There is talk of the danger of having children in these times, but there is no talk of the coming onslaught, the dark cloud of Gilead, perhaps because no one could ever believe it would happen. Along the way, June gets little indications that not all the handmaids have been programmed (the “true believers”). Her assigned traveling companion Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) clues her in by revealing her favorite ice cream (salted caramel) is better than sex. It occurs to me the character moments hold together better than the world that is being built. Ofglen informs June there is an “Eye” in her house. An Eye is a spy, a secret agent working for the higher-ups who’s job it is to keep tabs on Commanders, Commander’s wives, and Marthas. Marthas are essentially “the help.” Infertile, older women who cook and clean the palatial homes the Commanders have stolen from their rightful owners. June learns in short order the Commander’s wife, Serena, hates her, presumably for her ability to have children and the jealousy of “sexual contact” with her husband. June tells us she intends to survive for her daughter.

SHIP TO SHIP: A Star Trek Podcast “Christmas Special”

HAPPY HOLIDAYS! David Anderson and David Lawler discuss the Star Trek franchise, the weary fandom, and the hate between groups. Star Trek: Discovery premiered September 24, 2017 to a polarized fan base. After the 2009 re-boot, fans are wondering if the “golden age” of Star Trek has ended.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 FULL REVIEW WITH SPOILERS!

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© Frequent Wire, David Lawler and David B. Anderson copyright 2018 for all original vocal and audio content featuring David Anderson, David Lawler and selected guests each episode. This podcast, “David & David & Gene & Roger: A Siskel & Ebert Podcast” is not affiliated with Tribune Entertainment, the PBS Television Network, the estates of Roger Ebert and/or Gene Siskel, Warner Bros., Tandem Productions, The Blade Runner Partnership, Alcon Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Bud Yorkin Productions, Sean Young, and Columbia Pictures. Any and all images, audio clips, and dialogue extracts are the property of their respective copyright owners. This blog and podcast was created for criticism, research, and is completely nonprofit, and should be considered Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. section 107. It is not an official product, and it should not be sold nor bought; this is intended for private use, and any public broadcast is not recommended. All television, film, and music clips appear under Fair Use as well.