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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.L.

7/3-5, 2019

Under the Eye: “Night”

“Night”

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

The TSA has really gotten out of hand!

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

A farewell to arms.

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

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

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

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

Under the Eye: “The Other Side”

“The Other Side”

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

“Can I borrow a cup of sugar?”

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

Hangin’ around.

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

Under the Eye: “A Woman’s Place”

“A Woman’s Place”

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

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

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

Unintended consequences…

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

Under the Eye: “Faithful”

“Faithful”

Don’t we know enough by now to know that the actions of our past have no bearing on what we truly are in the present? Regret is the kindest of emotions, and where regret cannot be cataloged or prioritized, reason fills that gap. Aristotle spoke of “reason.” That the concept of Reason is what makes man good. The group-think mob control philosophy of 2018 removes the concept of Reason from Man, therefore all men are unreasonable, therefore all men are “evil.” Of course, the concept of Reason still exists, we know this. Law is put into place to create guidelines for Reason. You remove the law, there is no reason. You search for short-cuts in the Law, you are bending Reason. What occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale is the absence of reason vis-à-vis rewriting the laws, and it proves (with logic) such a scenario could never exist in the United States nor the “Republic of Gilead.” After a particularly stimulating game of Scrabble, the Commander (obviously charmed by a flirtatious June) gives her a gift: an old fashion magazine. Is the Commander violating the decree of Gilead by acknowledging June’s ability to read? We flash back to the day June met Luke. It’s almost a meet-cute from a romantic comedy. It turns out Luke is married. This is where we get the “adulterer” moniker from Aunt Lydia. Gilead’s record-keepers must be former Scientologists! While June eats her breakfast cereal, Nick walks in and they make eyes.

“Hey, I just met you. And this is crazy. But here’s my number. So call me, maybe?”

Serena infers to June that if she won’t get pregnant soon, she’ll be sent off to the dreaded Colonies. Serena has an idea (straight out of the book) to put her together with a stud who will knock her up but good, while still going through the motions during the rape. She chooses Nick because we have to get these two together, right? So now we have a complete and total lie, with no element of this family (Fred and Serena) contributing in any way to the creation of a child. In the Loaves & Fishes supermarket scene, I begin to understand the purpose of the over-sized hoods the handmaids wear. They allow for no peripheral vision so that a handmaid must turn to face you in order to see you, like the blinders on horses. After having her clitoris removed, Emily is put back into the general population, given the new designation “Ofsteven.” She tells June of “Mayday,” perhaps a resistance group, which gets my blood a-pumpin’. June’s new traveling companion is a bitchy little thing who doesn’t want to get into trouble. Later, Serena plays Juliet’s Nurse to June and Nick, arranging for their quiet time in his Fonzie-style above-the-garage-apartment. June thinks about her courtship with Luke. Luke is light-skinned, bearded with glasses. He looks like a Liberal Arts professor. Moss appears much more genuine as a real person in these flashback scenes than she does as the withered wall-flower of a handmaid getting into Nick’s pants. Nick, the well-meaning slug, has no problem with the arrangement, nor should he.

“I am the drudge and toil in your delight, but you shall bear the burden soon at night.”

Frankly, I have no problem with June’s “scarlet letter” status, and as June sees no problem with it (even to the destruction of Luke’s marriage), why is her past used as ammunition by the elite of Gilead? In the present, Serena observes (or stands watch) as June and Nick make it. The interaction is mechanical, bereft of passion, and when it is over Serena asks her how she feels. June, in a rare outburst, says, “You don’t just feel pregnant thirty seconds after a man comes.” Serena tells her to lie down. We’re back to Reason, or the bending of reason in search of short-cuts. Serena really wants to have a baby, and she’s willing to bend the rules, even if it is not her baby. Somebody else bends the rules; the wife of Emily’s new Commander. She’s well aware of what Emily has gone through, and she postpones the Ceremony. Kindness is at such a premium on this show it shocks me when I see it. Since sex is strictly for procreation (and never to be enjoyed), Commander Fred commits a major boo-boo when he touches June’s thigh during the Ceremony. Oops! Later, she and Fred debate the finer points of choice and love. Fred doesn’t believe in love – he sees it as a mask for lust. Perhaps because he’s never truly known love. “I only wanted to make the world better,” he almost pleads to June. He’s a wicked little thing. “Better never means better for everyone.” June vomits after hearing this. Why is Gilead’s water pressure better than my old house upstate?

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

In a flashback, June tells Luke she wants him to leave his wife, to which Luke quickly agrees. I realize the responsibility of the infidelity rests firmly on the both of their shoulders, but married Luke stands to lose more in this coupling than single June. She might be the seductress, the succubus of this lust story, but it was Luke’s choice to remove his pants. When the Sons of Jacob seize the power, they become the father-image and treat the citizens like children, but making them responsible for their actions, and then controlling them through those actions. In town, Emily (Ofsteven) gets into a car and starts driving. You see, women aren’t allowed to drive cars. She runs over a Guardian, probably kills him right there, but the actress Bledel has a look of bewilderment on her face, as if she doesn’t know what she is doing, but as Aunt Lydia likes to say, “Actions have consequences.” I really don’t care about the soap opera aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. These characters haven’t been around long enough for me to care. When June later sees Nick in his Fonzie-style apartment and they make love like actual human beings, I really don’t care. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how people can be turned on enough in this grotesque imitation of life to have hot, sweaty passionate sex. Maybe it goes back to June’s status as an “adulterer.” If that’s the case, The Handmaid’s Tale is a prudish, judgmental piece of tripe.

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: “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?