“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: “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.