“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: “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.