Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Three: Late

The Handmaid's Tale is the dystopian story of what the right wing really wants for women.  Women's bodies aren't their own and their only purpose is to produce and or raise children. They are to be second to men in all things and be submissive in all matters.  If you happen to have the misfortune of being a Handmaiden, matters are that much worse. I've struggle to review these because after all, what can really be said about story which lays itself bare episode after episode, leaving no room to guess about the agenda or possible horror. There are no wink wink nudge nudge moments, only unrelenting darkness from which there is no escape. It's hard to watch in one sitting without stopping for a moment of respite and to be fair, that's exactly what the creators intend.

There have been some notable changes between Atwood's book and this television adaptation.  One of the most obvious ones is the ways in which the television series has included people of colour. In the book, Black people were seen as the children of Ham and sent off to live in the territories. Hannah, Offred's baby was a blonde child and far younger than the mix raced little girl that appears on the show.  Luke most certainly was not the man of colour that he is today and Nick was not a man of Asian descent. Even though the book was written in 1985, separating the races in this fashion feels far more realistic than the inclusion that's presented in the television program because I don't believe that a state like Gilead wouldn't also be incredibly racist to go along with the sexism and homophobia it seems to have in spades. It's not that I want a less racially inclusive show, it's that it just doesn't seem to make sense in this setting.

There were really two story lines going on in Late. One was what happened to Offglen, who we were told was taken in by the authorities and the other, the possibility of Offred's pregnancy and how this changes her interactions. When Offred and Offglen finally made a connection, one of the first things Offglen revealed is that she had a wife and a child.  As the trust grew, we learned that Offglen was also some part of a resistance force.  When Offglen is taken it's easy to assume that her crime was being part of the resistance. Offred realises that she doesn't even know Offglen's real name or have anything to hold onto. When someone it taken, they are truly gone and absolutely erased.

In her prison cell, even the name Offglen is removed from her and she is called Handmaiden 8967.  Offglen no longer belongs to someone and since she doesn't qualify as a person, she's simply a number, a non entity. In desperation, Offglen tries to stroke the genitals of the guard watching her and for her trouble she is thrown into a wall in disgust.  Offglen is taken into a room where her lover is already waiting. The prosecutor appears before the judge and charges Offglen and her lover with "gender treachery". Neither woman is given the opportunity to enter a plea, let alone defend themselves, before the judge issues a sentence of death for Offglen's lover and redemption for Offglen because "God has seen fit to make her fruitful". 

Straight from the mock trial, Offglen and her lover are placed in the same van. Because both women are gagged, all they can do is express their love and sorrow with their eyes. They reach out and hold hands and touch each others faces and hair. It's a moment of anguish which Alexis Bledel sells without a single word of dialogue.  When the van stops, the two women try desperately to hold onto each other but Offglen's lover is dragged away from her and hanged.  The scream that comes from Offglen, as she is driven away while her lovers dead body swings in the breeze is the most chilling thing I've seen on television. It's a moment not to be forgotten and a moment to be feared. This is what the religious fundamentalists mean when they scream, "kill the gays", and this is the pain they inflict.  The only measure of relief in watching this is the knowledge that this is a drama.

When Offglen awakes, she's in a hospital like setting and her genitals have been bandaged. Aunt Lydia enters and seems to take some perverse pleasure in telling Offglen that now she will no longer desire what she can no longer have and that the stitches will come out in a couple of days. Gilead is so awful that female circumcision is one of the weapons in their arsenal to punish and control women. It's so horrific that I don't even have the words for it.

Offwarren has been left with no idea of what happened to her friend but she must continue on with the daily rituals and hope to remain unnoticed and this means shopping with the new Offglen.  When Offred returns, Rita has a spread laid out for lunch is and is kind and accommodating. Rita even places a white rose on the table which Serena Joy apparently cut herself.  Given the cruelty of Gilead, this sudden bout of kindness is not something to celebrate or even accept, it's something to worry about.  It's Rita who explains that Offwarren hasn't asked for her monthly sanitary napkins yet and though she's only a few days late, everyone is hopeful that this means that she is pregnant.

Serena Joy's happiness at the possibility of Offred's pregnancy extends to inviting her to and visit with baby Angela.  Offred is forced to sit apart from the wives as they studiously ignore her and go on about how pretty the baby is. It's Serena who offers Offred the chance to hold the baby, assuring the other wives that since Offred has already had a child that she knows how to hold a baby.  Offred holds the baby for a NY minute before Angela is reclaimed by Mrs. Butler.  This is when the other wives notice that Mrs. Butler has been injured. It seems that Offwarren dared to bite Mrs. Butler when she attempted to take the baby away. Mrs. Butler cannot wait to get Offwarren out of her house and calls her an ungrateful girl.  Once again, the gap between wife and handmaiden has been made clear. What exactly has Mrs. Butler done for Offwarren but participate in her rape during the ceremony, perform a mock labour while Offwarren's body was wracked in pain giving birth and then steal Angela away from Offwarren, not even allowing Offwarren to hold her child for anything other than feeding. Why should Offwarren be thankful? Wives and Handmaiden's may both have to wear the yolk of patriarchy but Wives are extremely explicit and wield the only power they have to oppress Handmaidens.

Offred manages to slip away to have a chat with Offwarren and in that moment they become June and Janine again.  June tries to warn Janine that she cannot simply bite Mrs. Butler, even as Janine explains her actions as a mother protecting her child. June does her best to try and get Janine to accept the reality of her situation but at this point, Janine is convinced that her commander is in love with her and that she, the commander, and the baby are all going to run away together. It's clear that Janine has taken leave of her senses due to the stress that she lives under. Janine however lets June know that once you get pregnant and have a healthy child the restrictions lift a bit and she can even have ice cream now.

With her visit over, Offred heads back in the car.  Offred is talkative and tries to engage with Nick, but for once he's quiet.  As they approach the house, Nick warns Offred that there's nothing he can do to change what's going to happen and that she shouldn't be brave because everyone breaks in the end.

Thanks to the fact that Offred was Offglen's partner, the authorities want to have a little chat with her.  It begins with Offred's internal monologue praying to avoid violence but with Aunt Lydia in the room, this is not a possibility. To establish herself as boss, before the questioning even starts in earnest, Lydia attacks Offred.  The questioning begins and they want to know what Offred and Offglen talked about, where they went and if Offglen ever attempted to touch Offred.  Offred does a string of denials claiming that their relationship was innocent and that they didn't do or say anything subversive. It quickly becomes clear that Offglen was not taken into custody because she's a member of the resistance but because of her sexuality.  When Offred slips up and admit she already knew this, it betrays her earlier lie that all she and Offglen talked about was the weather. It betrays that she has valued Offglen's friendship so much that she didn't inform Serena Joy that Offglen is a "gender traitor".  Even in this moment of absolute vulnerability, Offred manages to say a word for her friend when she utilizes use the bible to show Aunt Lydia her own hypocrisy.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

It's a bold move and Lydia recognises exactly what Offred is saying by quoting Matthew 5:10.  Lydia knocks Offred to the ground savagely and had it not been for Serena Joy rushing into the room to protect Offred, using her body as a shield and claiming that Offred is pregnant, things could have gotten so much worse.  

That night, Offred sits alone in her room and she is visited by Nick, who has brought ice for her injuries.  Nick says that he wishes that he hadn't brought her back and that they had left together.  It's a nice thought but something they both know to be impossible.  They lean into each other and almost kiss but Nick pulls away.  A  little later, Offred sits alone in her chair holding her bloody underwear. It seems that she's not pregnant after all. 

The next morning, Offred is brought to see the new nursery that Serena Joy has been decorating.  Serena talks about how difficult things have been and suggests that it will all be worth it, if a child is the end result. Serena even goes as far as to admit that she and the commander had tried for years for a baby but had had no luck. A smiling Offred looks up and admits that she isn't pregnant and Serena Joy changes from an accommodating and even warm person to ice cold in a flash. Serena drags Offred out of the nursery, across the house and then tosses her on the floor in an empty room. Offred is commanded to stay in that room and Serena warns that things can get a lot worse for her, something which we know is not an idle threat. 

This episode like previous episodes also takes the time to explain how the Gilead came into being.  It was a matter of inches and with each loss of freedom the people accepted it without question - even when they tossed aside the constitution and killed off elected members of government. From Offred's inner monologue we learn , “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” The people were making compromises because they were told they were combating terrorism and so each person questioned what was the point of being upset about one more compromise. It's the slippery slope taken to it's natural conclusion. 

The gender based suppression begins with men actively slut shaming Moira and June.  Next, women discover that their bank accounts are closed down and that all of the money they have has been transferred to either their husband or their closest male relative. When the women report to work, they are all fired because it's now against the law for women to work. In June's case, it's clear that her boss is upset by this; however, he repeatedly tells the women that he's powerless to stop it. 

At Luke and June's, Moira is ranting about the patriarchy and it comes with some good natured teasing of Luke. Luke promises to take care of June and Hannah and it's Moira who points out that June can take care of herself.  The next day, June and Moira head out to protest the restriction of their rights, still clearly so unaware of just how much their world has changed. It's worth nothing that in the books, Luke actively discouraged June from attending any protests and June agreed because she had a family to think of.  As the soldiers move forward, Moira begins to pull June back and it's a good thing because the soldiers began firing into the crowd, killing people as they rush for shelter.  Moira and June end up hiding in a restaurant as the soldiers advance and kill anyone in front of them. They even use mortars.  The world as these women knew it is now over and because the government closed off bank accounts, it's difficult to flee. 

The Handmaid's Tale at times feels extreme and to be fair, it's meant to.  Religious fundamentalist spew their hate into the world and this series gives them life. Kill the gays, women are whores who need to stay in the kitchen. Men are the natural rulers of everything and the only logical thinkers. The Handmaid's Tale is where all the hate filled rhetoric leads folks.  It's what happens when we decide to be tolerant of the intolerant. It's what happens when we don't question our government and explain away the loss of rights and freedoms because we have become anesthetized. The reason that The Handmaid's Tale feels so visceral is because it is the stuff of nightmares and because it's a nightmare which isn't out of the realm of possibility.