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 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: “Jezebels”

“Jezebels”

So Nick, right? We’re on to Nick in our origin story round-up. In the before-time, in the long-long ago, Nick was an unemployed loser just lookin’ for a job, Son. He gets into a tangle at the local employment agency, Worthy Path Career Counseling (creepy name with religious connotations). He basically gets “witnessed” to by a Son of Jacob, who gives him a few pointers on discipline and responsibility. Where are we? Five years ago? Ten? This is when I began to suspect that Gilead was a Socialist construct. The man he talks to speaks about Capitalism with disdain. He speaks of a plan to set the Country right and clean up the mess. He tells Nick he’s not alone, and I wonder why Nick has to be a bad apple so that the Sons of Jacob could clean him up and set him on the “right path.” June finds Fred waiting for her in her bedroom. He tells her he’s going to take her out for a night on the town. He even shaves her legs. The leg-shaving scene is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in any television show or movie, or anything. He asks her if she remembers how to put on makeup. It’s been three fucking years. He wraps her up in a slinky dress. Elisabeth Moss is a handsome woman, but she’s hardly glamorous. I wouldn’t even call her sexy, but it takes all kinds to make a world, I guess, and I still don’t understand Fred’s attraction to her, or Nick’s. Maybe I’m just being cruel, but if you’re gonna put her kisser up on my big-screen TV, I’m gonna judge her looks. Sorry.

This scene is in every John Hughes movie.

Commander Fred is a man made of desires and tastes. It isn’t enough that he has a devoted, beautiful wife in Serena, no. Her devotion is mandated by the State. She knows her place (she wrote a book about her place), even if it requires her silence, her masquerade of illiteracy, and her reptilian gaze. What Fred needs is a throbbing erection and a throbbing orifice in which to place that erection, and his needs are all that matter. He’s even willing to break the law to get what he wants, just as they all do. This is why we have Jezebels, a brothel at the edge of town, where all manner of depraved acts can be committed under a magic cloak of silence. First rule of Jezebels is you don’t talk about Jezebels – that sort of thing. In a flashback, Nick is a driver for the Elite of Gilead. He overhears talk of rounding up the fertile women to be impregnated. There is some argument about this, but as long as there is “scriptural precedent,” nobody has a problem with it. They also talk about making the wives part of the Ceremony (just as I thought, it’s all made up on the spot) so that they’ll shut up. “White Rabbit” plays rather inappropriately as June tours Jezebels in a strange Eyes Wide Shut-like tableau. “Somebody to Love” would’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think the producers listen to much Jefferson Airplane*. This is where the educated (or infertile yet attractive) women, the doctors, the lawyers, go when they aren’t shunted off to the dreaded Colonies. Isn’t this a nice place?

Jezebels! A fun, kinky place!

Jezebels is an enormous mistake for Atwood and the television series, because it puts all of Gilead’s cards on the table. This isn’t just keeping the women in their place. It is a sociopathic fear/lust of women. In a way, Gilead gives or acknowledges in women a supernatural power that must be vanquished or suppressed. Yet, in all this madness, June finds Moira, who did not escape. She’s now a whore named Ruby. What is this obsession with changing people’s names? It’s a little too intellectual a premise to rob someone of their identity. Nick uses his Eye credential to get information from a Martha working at Jezebels about a Commander who has bent the rules. It’s interesting he doesn’t use his knowledge of Fred to bring him down (unless he worries about hurting June in the process). Nick remembers the discovery of the previous Offred hanging from the ceiling in her bedroom. At Jezebels (which, I don’t know, it’s kind of a cute name, it sounds like a chain of restaurants or night clubs), Fred wants to have sex with June, like for real, not this ridiculous Ceremony. June slips out to find Moira. She hears sounds, sees images of violent and depraved sexuality. The women are brutalized, of course – what else is new? Do we expect any less of this show? Moira tells June she was rescued by Quakers (I don’t understand – do they have “Quaker” I.D. cards or something) but they were killed for harboring her. Moira was captured, given a choice: the Colonies or Jezebels. Wait a minute. They gave her a choice? Her spirit has been broken. She lives in fear now.

Max Minghella has but one expression, and you’re lookin’ at it.

We do learn a little more about the Eyes of Gilead. They’re a little less than snoops, and more like tattle-tales, put in place by the top brass to ensure loyalty from their Commanders. My guess is after ratting out so many high-ranking officials within Gilead, Nick was entrusted with the duties of an Eye. The photography of the show is stunning but the Kubrickian symmetry of the compositions is undermined by excessive use of tight depth-of-field shots in order to evoke an almost Pavlovian emotional response to the visual. As such, and because this practice is repeatedly used, there is no evolution in the cinematography. Same with the wardrobe (which I’ve heard dubbed, “Hyatt Regency” – all drab and lifeless, but for the bright, blood red of the handmaid cloak. The show is way too polished for the effect it is trying to achieve. June yells at Nick, because of her anger over the atrocity and hypocrisy of such a place as Jezebels, about how such a fiery and fierce lesbian as Moira can die on the inside because all she had in her heart was anger, and that really is all she had. I don’t know why Nick has to hear this. It’s not his fault, right? Or is it the fault of all men? Serena returns from wherever the hell she was and presents June with a gift: a music box with a dancing ballerina. We get more aggravating purple prose from June as she etches words into a wall. “You are not alone.” Cute.

* What happened to Jefferson Airplane? Is Gilead paying royalties to Jefferson Airplane for use of the song, or are royalties not considered part of the framework because it isn’t in the Bible? What happened to Grace Slick? At the age of 79, would she be considered a Martha? Or did she, you know, blow a pilot to get her safely away from Gilead when she saw the trouble coming down?

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.