Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Eight: Jezebels

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The title of this episode is extremely apt because this time, we are shown a darker side of the Gilead.  It's still a case where men don't take responsibility because the women are blamed for the sexual depravities of men and called Jezebels.  The biblical Jezebel was blamed for causing her husband to worship false idols because she continued to worship Baal. Before being murdered, hoping to seduce Jehu, Jezebel dressed in beautiful clothing and applied makeup to avoid death but she was tossed to the dogs. Jezebel is understood to be the corrupter of men and has been linked to licentious behaviour ever since.   Jezebel implies that men are not responsible for their choices and are only immoral because women can't or won't be chaste and tempt them into sin. It's easy to understand why this biblical story is particularly compelling to the men of the Gilead. 

Serena Joy is gone for the night to visit her mother and the commander decides to use the occasion to take June out for the night.  First, he shaves her legs and June surmises that based on the way he does this, that he has done this with someone else. It turns out that she's right on this score because this episode we learn that the Eye is aware that Waterford has been sleeping with handmaidens thanks to Nick, whose job it is to inform on the commander. June is then given the most garish makeup to put on, along with a dress and some high heel shoes. The commander is in control of every single aspect and even takes down June's hair when she chooses to wear it up.  June is then given one of Serena's blue robes to wear to hide her illicit outfit. 

As they drive, the commander is proud to point out the changes in the city. Everything is solar now and the Gilead tore down a poor area to put up a park. The commander is proud of how easily they can get through a checkpoint just based on his say so. At the second checkpoint however, June is forced to hide because women aren't allowed beyond this point and she's officially considered to be contraband. They make their way into a hotel through the back way and Nick stops before they get on the freight elevator.  It seems Nick's male privilege will only take him so far and besides, he needs to trade drugs for alcohol and other items. Nick however does turn down an offer for some pesto from a James Beard nominated chef and he turns down sex. Perhaps his relationship with June is getting to him.

The first time Nick and June had sex may have been at the urging of Serena Joy, but they they've moved far past that now. June and Nick now cuddle like an old married couple in the morning and she attempts to memorize his face, afraid that she'll forget it the way that she's beginning to forget Luke's face. June is very self aware when it comes down to this affair. She's not saying a big fuck you to the patriarchy, she's trying desperately to end her loneliness and in the cage that the Gilead has created for her, human touch feels good. Who wouldn't try to find a little bit of comfort in this horror?

June is absolutely shocked when she enters to see women sprawled all over commanders half dressed and for his part, Waterford seems to be pleased as punch to be able to shock her.  Yes, Fred's even more creepy than we all thought. Across the room, June spies a familiar face - it's Moira. Moira and June haven't seen each other since they became separated on the train platform three years ago. The commander tells June that there are several educated women here who are quite capable of intelligent conversation if one chooses to talk.  We all know that the men aren't there to debate the issues of the day. The men are there to sexually abuse and exploit these women. 

June and Moira manage to escape to the bathroom together and Moira finally has the chance to apologise for leaving June on the platform all of those years ago. The reunion is short lived because an Aunt is quick to inform Moira that she just had a bathroom break. Moira and June agree to meet later at the dorms.

When June leaves the bathroom, she's immediately propositioned by a man. He simply starts stroking June's arms. It's a sign that the women here aren't people but commodities for male pleasure. The man backs off when Waterford approaches and claims June. The man doesn't apologise to June for taking liberties with her person and instead apologises to Waterford. June is Waterford's property and in the Gilead, it's Waterford's rights of ownership that were trampled upon, not June. 

It's time to head to the room, and Nick spots Waterford escorting June. We are given a flashback to Rita finding the last Offred hanging from the ceiling light and screaming her head off. It's Nick who cuts her down but it's already to late because the last Offred is dead. Serena Joy and Waterford stand outside as the body is removed from the home and in any angry whisper, she asks, "what did you think would happen?" This heavily implies that Serena Joy is more than aware of what is going on in their home.  Perhaps this is why in her first meeting with June, Serena told her not to get any ideas. Serena knew then that the Commander would have his with June. 

Since arriving in the Waterford household, June has largely been the person that Fred has been confiding in, thus adding yet another burden to June's plate. This time he admits that there have been purges and he's become concerned that he might be next on the list. I'm sure in the moment, June was tempted to go on about just how hard the Commander has it but instead she puffs Fred up by telling him what a powerful man he is. The commander starts to undress June as tears roll down her face. He cannot see that she's crying because her back is to him. This is the connection he wanted when he asked June to play Scrabble with him. This is the connection he wanted when he complained about how antiseptic the ceremony is.  Fred doesn't have a problem with rape, he has a problem with only being able to rape June in a prescribed fashion and instead wants access to her entire body.  

With Fred finally asleep, June takes a chance and sneaks out of the room to finally meet up with Moira. As June walks down the hall, she sees random people fucking and even a group cheering as a man rapes a woman dressed as handmaid. When the elevator door opens, June sees a man licking the stump of a woman's amputated arm. When June finally gets to the dorms, Moira tells her about what happened since they separated. Moira almost escaped with the Underground Female Road but she was caught and given the option of either going to the Colonies or becoming a Jezebel. Moria says that it's not so bad because they get a warm place to sleep, clothing and a few years before their pussies wear out. Moira's situation may be different than June but she's clearly been broken by it. This becomes clear when Moira tells June to forget about escaping because no one gets out of the Gilead.  

June and Nick make eye contact when they are leaving which leads to a flashback of Commander Price telling Nick that his primary duty is to inform on Waterford.  After this escapade, Nick has some major dirt.  It's particularly ominous when Price tells Nick, "It's a shame what happened to your Handmaid.  I only hope Commander Waterford has better sense when the new one arrives." What will Nick do with the information that he has? 

The next day Serena returns and Fred tells her that he was lonely without her. I don't see how that is possible given that these two barely speak and live like strangers sharing a home but I suppose in the Gilead, everything is about performance. June is in the kitchen when Nick brings in Serena's bag and she smiles at him. Nick doesn't smile back and informs June that she could end up on the wall for what has happened. Living in a constant state of danger however, June responds that at least she would be remembered. Nick finally breaks a bit and tells June that his name is Nick Blaine and that he's from Michigan. Finally sick of his game game playing, June simply replies, "Well, under his eye Guardian Blaine".

June leaves the kitchen and runs into Serena Joy who has brought back a present for her. Serena Joy gives June a ballerina music box. It's the kind of thing that you would give a twelve year old girl.  Is this an attempt by Serena Joy to infantalize June, or is she giving her something that she can hide her secrets in? June goes to her room and carves the words, "you are not alone" on her closet wall.  Luke may be in Canada and Moira may have given up but June isn't done fighting yet. 

One of the things I liked about this episode was seeing a little bit of Nick's backstory.  Nick has been a mystery to us but in this episode we learn that Nick had fallen on hard times and has had difficulty holding down a job after the factory that he worked in closed. Nick is also tasked with looking after his alcoholic brother. He's the prototype for Trump's Make America Great Again campaign. It's why when Nick's employment counselor offers to buy him a drink so that they can discuss making things right and cleaning up the country that Nick is all ears. Nick is the perfect candidate for the Sons of Jacob. This by the way is where Make America Great Again leads to. Don't let the red hat fool you.

Nick's position as an undercover eye also allows him to hear things. He was there when the commanders were discussing the ceremony and what to call it. It's Fred who decided to call it the "ceremony" rather than the act for the sake of branding. The commanders knew that they needed to sell it to their wives as a necessary evil. Sure, the Gilead may on the surface be religious but the truth is, patriarchy is what is driving this society at least for now and Nick witnesses this first hand. 

Waterford doesn't necessarily believe in the society he has helped to build. It's clear that he likes the infrastructure changes and he loves the power that he's been granted but even his power has limits and he bristles against them.  Waterford wants to be worshiped like some kind of God - loved by the women that he abuses.  He clearly measures himself against the other men in his sphere and worries about being found wanting. 

It was wonderful to see Moira and June reunited again, only to be saddened by what has happened to Moira.  Moira has always been the feisty one, ready to fight for her rights if necessary. It's Moira who engineered the escape from the training center and Moira who wrote the first message on the wall to inspire other women.  That Moira is gone and she's been broken by everything she's seen and everything she's been forced to live through. Moira no longer has any hope of escaping and is basically just trying to survive at this point. 

Unfortunately, June's fortunes are tied to Waterford's. If Nick does his job and reports Fred for taking June to a brothel and raping her outside of the prescribed societal norms, June will indeed be blamed for his actions and she will end up on a wall.  Nick knows that all too well.  There's also the issue that he is sleeping with June which is clearly not allowed.  Things are extremely precarious for June right now and despite her fighting spirit, it's as Serena warned, things could always be worse.  What will Nick do with the information he has garnered? It's clear the leadership at the Eye already suspects Waterford. 

Despite its horrific treatment of women, the Gilead isn't really that different than any other society, in that the people at the top receive a whole host of benefits and flout the laws of the land. The powerful believe that they belong to a special class and are thereby entitled to special privileges. In the book, Atwood leaves it very up in the air as to what eventually happens to both June and the Waterfords, I wonder if the show will do the same in the end?