Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Five: Faithful

For the past five episodes, as viewers we've watched as the Gilead attempted to ground women under their feet using any method at their disposal. Each handmaiden has a partner, whose job it is to spy on them.  Every aspect of their lives is under strict control.  If that were not enough, handmaidens are subjected to ritualistic rape in order to supposedly fulfill their biological destiny.  Women are meant to do nothing but birth babies. 

The directors and writers have weaved brilliantly between June/Offred's former life and her present to remind us of how much she's lost. We've watched as June lost access to the funds in her bank account and when she was informed that she's no longer allowed to hold down a job.  When June and Moira couldn't take it anymore and decided to protest, soldiers fired into the crowd.  We had moments of hope: when June and Moira were able to briefly escape the indoctrination center, only to be forced to witness in horror as June's feet were beaten for believing that she's entitled to be able to go or stay at her own choosing.  Nothing is out of the control of the Gilead and should a woman forget herself, the reminder are swift and harsh. For Ofglen the result is circumcision and for Janine, the loss of an eye.

The eyes are everywhere and the people not only know it, they fear it. Each small step away from the programmed existence is an act of rebellion.  Perhaps the most apt line of the night came from the commander himself when he explained that the Gilead is trying to make things better and that better for some, means worse for others.  There is no doubt that for June, Moira, Emily and even Janine, things are substantially worse. They've been forced to trade their independence and sense of self in order to obedient little baby making machines.  For the new Ofglen however, life has improved. She now lives with a family she believes cares about her and for the first time in a long time, she's off drugs, has food to eat and a clean place to sleep. For the new OfGlen, the restrictions of the Gilead are a small price to pay for the safety she now feels.  This comment doesn't serve as an exoneration of the Gilead, but it does serve as a proof that even in freedom, there are those because of how society was structured that fell through the cracks and remained there.  OfGlen isn't now free because she lives in a gender essentialist society but because she now inhabits a world in which capitol has no bearing on her material needs. 

Rebellion in the Gilead takes the form of things we consider to be everyday now. It's the commander handing Offred a women's magazine to read as a treat. It's her being able to see the world she lost and how different things are today. It was real, it wasn't a fantasy.  It's Serena Joy beginning to wonder if the Commander is infertile and arranging for Nick and Offred to have sex.  Serena Joy even uses the threat of the colonies to get Offred to agree.  What neither discuss however is that even though this is clearly against the rules, Offred cannot disagree. In the guise of saving Offred, Serena Joy is simply arranging for Offred to be raped by a different man.  Offred must take this risk because Serena Joy wants her to. It's the commander gazing at Offred with lust during the ritual and touching her legs in a sexual manner, wanting her to enjoy it as much as he does. It's even as simple as Janine sticking out her tongue, copying her young child. 

Very early on, June was identified as an adulterer. How could this be given that she was married and no evidence of infidelity existed? The answer is simple, Luke was married to someone else first. Not only was Luke married to another woman, they began an affair while she was still married.  They engaged in a pretense that this relationship was going nowhere, even as they were steadily falling in love. It's this pretense that frees June to tell Luke that she like to be on top. In that moment, June is a woman taking control and owning her sexuality; she's free. 

Offred makes her way with Serena Joy up to Nick's little cabin.  Even in this moment where they are being compelled, they don't have even the freedom of privacy.  Serena stands there as Nick and Offred copulate in a manner that actually simulates the ceremony.  Offred however does take the opportunity to look around and she takes note of Nick's gun.  Her moment of rebellion in this moment is to pinch Nick's arm.  In a world where women are not even allowed to make eye contact, pinching Nick is a rebellion within a rebellion - a way of stealing this awful moment away. 

Emily has returned and she is no longer OfGlen but OfSteven.  Offred attempt to make contact with her former friend only to learn that Emily is officially out of the resistance now that she been taken by the eye. Emily cannot tell Offred who the Eye in her home is.   Emily however encourages her to find Mayday and to participate. The problem is that Offred doesn't know where to begin.   

Resistance also looks like the wife in the new household where Emily has been assigned suggesting that perhaps she coming down with something in order to give Emily a respite from the ceremony.  Emily is all to aware that this pretense cannot happen every month.  Both women are trapped by their gender but for one moment in time, they collude with each other for the sake of personal dignity, thus giving Emily a chance to heal.

After a disturbing conversation with the Commander in which he drops the veneer of a lonely man just looking for company, Offred heads into the kitchen to be sick. It's there that she meets with Nick.  Nick apologises for his part in the ritualistic rape arranged by Serena Joy and explains that he couldn't say no. Nick then suggests that Offred needs to leave the kitchen because it's not safe. Offred in this moment is done being told what to do and repeats that when Nick gets insistent.  The identity of the Eye in her home has been bothering Offred since she was first informed and so Offred finally asks if he is the Eye. Nick hesitates and clearly does not want to answer but he finally admits that yes, it is indeed him. Nick tells Offred to return to her room before he reports her.  It's supposed to be light hearted but I hear the threat. He's already shown that he's not necessarily interested in acting in Offred's defense, even if he has in the past been willing to warn her of potential trouble.

In the market, Offred arranges for her partner to be distracted so that she can speak to Emily. They don't get to talk long but at least Offred learns Emily's name.  Emily then takes the chance of jumping into a car that was left running with the car keys in it. Offred and Emily make eye contact and Offred's facial expression is the same one she had when she silently encouraged Moira to flee. Emily takes control of the wheel and starts driving, much to the amazement of the watching handmaidens. It's clear that in this moment, she's grabbing freedom for all of them.  Emily manages to run over a soldier before she's finally forced to stop the car.  Soldiers drag Emily out of the car and place her in a waiting van. This may very well be the last we see of Emily but if so, she was fierce and went out on her own terms.

Taking a page from Emily's book, Offred goes to see Nick.  This time, it's Offred who strips Nick of his clothing before taking off her own.  This time, it's Offred who gets on top, taking her pleasure when and how she sees it.  Offred's climax isn't simply about sexual satisfaction.  It's about taking back something which has been stolen from her. It's not an accident that Offred takes this from Nick who as we have learned is an Eye. It's about owning her own body and sexuality. For this brief moment, Offred is free.