“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 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: “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.

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.