“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 singaled 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

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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: “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?

“Blade Runner, 1982”

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

Blade Runner, 1982 (Harrison Ford), The Ladd Company

I knew I had to end my Vintage Cable Box series with, what I regard to be, one of the greatest movies ever made. Nothing can prepare you for Blade Runner after a couple of years of the standard cable television fare. Occasionally, you had the big-budget spectacles, fine examples of genre film-making, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, but Blade Runner was unique. I only vaguely remembered trailers and teasers running on broadcast television. I never saw a preview at the movies, nor did I even see the movie in theaters. Ridley Scott had made a name for himself as a first-notch filmmaker with The Duellists and Alien after paying his dues in production design and advertising. The script and story treatments for Blade Runner floated around for a couple of years while Scott was preparing an adaptation of Dune. The Dune project fell through (and would eventually be helmed by David Lynch), and Scott was eager to start working on Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The year is 2019, and the place is Los Angeles. Our world in 2019 is a dystopian nightmare. Constant sheets of acid rain have destroyed the already-dilapidated metropolis and most humans have taken to life in “off-world colonies” (“The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity,” the advertisements proclaim). Replicants, initially considered a form of android but then ret-conned in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 as “manufactured humans” have become a dangerous liability when confronted with their slave status and the built-in obsolescence of a four year life span. In an effort to control these replicants, developer Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) implants memories in them, but this backfires when they inevitably crave life more than the humans who built them. Errant replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) leads a bunch of them to jump ship and return to Earth to meet their maker. Enter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a replicant killer more commonly known as a “Blade Runner.”

Deckard is tasked with interviewing a beautiful woman, Tyrell’s assistant, named Rachael (Sean Young) who may or may not be a replicant. It seems Tyrell’s task is to either deceive authorities as to the identity of his replicants, or perhaps make his replicants believe they are human. It takes a while for Deckard to come to the conclusion that Rachael doesn’t know she’s a replicant. She saves his life when another replicant, the sub-intelligent Leon (Brion James) tries to kill him. He takes her back to his apartment and promises to keep her secret. Tyrell tells him she has no shut-off date; that she is, in effect, unique. Deckard retires the remaining replicants, but Batty proves to be a challenge. He taunts Deckard and leads him on a merry chase through the Bradbury Building. While Deckard is intent on finishing the job, Batty is fighting for his life, even as he knows his time is limited. Batty is incensed that Deckard has mercilessly killed his friends, and he tortures him for it. Ultimately, he spares Deckard’s life and perhaps Deckard has re-discovered his humanity.

Blade Runner was unfairly maligned by critics upon release in 1982, but over the years, the movie has attained an enormous cult following, culminating in the release of Blade Runner 2049 last year. In 1992, a “director’s cut” was released which removed the original film’s narration (considered by Scott to be tedious) and introduced a scene where Deckard dreams of a unicorn, making the reveal at the end of the movie (Deckard discovers a small origami unicorn in his hallway) ambiguous about Deckard’s humanity. Personally, I do not believe Deckard to be a replicant because, for me, it would make the ending of the movie and Batty’s sacrifice less meaningful. I would rather Deckard learn the lesson of his humanity, rather than believe him to be an amnesiac android. Blade Runner 2049 continues along this line of reasoning; perhaps what we value as humans is our capacity for understanding the gift of memory, and when our memories are manufactured, we will retain less of that value. Everything about this movie is perfect.

That about wraps it up for Vintage Cable Box. Again, I want to thank my readers. It’s been so much fun going back and revisiting and re-living these movies and that crazy time period, that time-line of what I saw and experienced and how it shaped me. Blade Runner just might be the most influential movie of the last 40 years, and it played constantly on cable television back in those days. Blade Runner 2049 manages to successfully evoke all of the best qualities about the original movie (and even improve upon certain aspects), which surprises me. Before I sign off, I have to thank a few people. Mark Jeacoma hosted these articles on his VHS Rewind! page. Andrew La Ganke suggested some great movies and found me a couple of hard-to-find titles. Geno Cuddy suggested Metropolis and provided a copy of the movie for me. Tony Verruso from the Vintage HBO Guides on Facebook was a staunch ally in dark times. Thanks for reading.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.