Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Ten: Night

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In many ways this first season of The Handmaid's Tale has been unrelenting. Through flashbacks, we watched as the Gilead was formed and how by the time people realised that their rights were gone, in many cases, it was too late to flee. We watched as June became Offred and struggled to find a way to exist in this new reality.  Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum became the order of the day, as the handmaids attempted to find a form of resistance. 

The Handmaid's Tale has long been one of my favourite books even though Atwood left her readers dangling at the end.  Did Offred/June escape the Waterfords? The epilogue doesn't answer that and instead seeks to take a critical look at the Gilead from years in the future.  As much as the season finale left me wanting more, I am heartened by the fact that I will finally get to find out what happened to Offred/June. 

Night begins with Offred entering the Red Centre for the re-education (read: indoctrination) Aunt Lydia wastes not time in calling the women sluts and berating them on their dress and posture. The first thing that future handmaids are told is that their hands are to be clasped in front of them and that their eyes are to be downcast to show submission to God. June hasn't quite realised how her life has changed yet and she stares at a passing Handmaid, which causes Aunt Lydia to use the cattle prod on her.  Welcome to the world of the Gilead. June/Offred is made to apologise to Aunt Lydia.  This apology shows June's submission to the new world order but later, the same apology will be an act of rebellion. 

The Handmaids used to make eye contact and share a look of collective horror but those days are gone. As June walks back from the butcher with her illicit package, she likens them (read: handmaids) to a silent army. Since the beginning of the Gilead, the rulers have used violence and threats of violence to keep society in order but what happens when you are no longer afraid? What kind of freedom does the lack of fear bestow on a person? June rushes back to her room and quickly hides the package.

June was so fixated on doing a mission for Mayday that she forgot that the real danger lies a lot closer to home.  Serena Joy has learned of Offred/June and Fred's visits to the bawdy house and lashes out physically at June/Offred, in the process, slicing June's face open. At this point, Serena is so complicit that she doesn't recognise that June/Offred had no power to decide whether to stay or go and blames June/Offred for not saving anything for her. It's a return to the theme of women being complicit in their own oppression, a theme that will continually crop up this episode.  June/Offred is then forced to take a pregnancy test and much to her horror and Serena Joy's delight, the pregnancy test is positive.  June/Offred is absolutely incredulous when Serena Joy claims that their prayers have been answered. With her pregnancy, June/Offred has finally become what the Gilead wants her to be, a walking womb. June/Offred has fulfilled according to the Gilead, her biological destiny.

Serena then decides to press her advantage by confronting Fred next.  Serena waits in his office ready to play scrabble in the place of June/Offred.  Fred is quick to remind Serena Joy about the rules in order to avoid playing and Serena Joy is quick to remind him that she is the one who helped create them.  Yes, Serena Joy actually wrote the very laws that ended up restricting her life, how's that for being complicit. And now that the mask of civility is gone, the Waterfords confront Fred's raping of Offred/June outside of the ceremony.  Fred, like a typical man, blames Serena Joy and points out that it was she who brought temptation and lust back into their home. To assert his power, Fred actually attempts to send Serena Joy to her room.  This moment reveals just how little difference there is between Serena and Offred/June in Fred's mind.  Serena may be able to abuse June/Offred at will but at the end of the day, they are both always secondary to men. Serena Joy lays the ultimate trump card when she informs Fred that June/Offred is pregnant and that it isn't his because he wasn't man enough to make a baby.

When Offred/June tells Nick about her pregnancy, it's clear that she's still very unhappy about this turn of events. Nick crouches down, rubs Offred's stomach and tells her that it isn't a bad thing.  What neither of them realise at first is that Serena Joy is a witness to this ever so rare moment of tenderness. It's Nick who ends up making eye contact with Serena Joy before returning to a standing position. You'd think that the potential of having a long awaited baby in your home would make you happy but such is not the case for Serena Joy.  It seems that Serena Joy has planned a little trip to assert just how much power she has over Offred, as though smashing her face in the day before isn't enough.

When June/Offred and Serena Joy reach their destination, Offred/June is locked in the car as Serena approaches a house and has a chat with a little girl dressed in pink sitting outside.  That little girl is Hannah, June's daughter.  The moment June recognises Hannah, she starts banging on the windows screaming and pleading desperately to be let out but it's all to no avail.  Serena returns to the car but this time sits in the front seat, possibly aware of just how much evil she has just engaged in.  Serena Joy claims that Hannah is doing just fine and is well cared for.  Serena Joy tells June that as long as her baby is safe, Hannah will be so as well. This is too much for June/Offred to bare and she starts to call her everything but a child of God.  It's foul and filled with the rage that Serena Joy so richly deserves for dangling Hannah in front of June in this manner. It's also an indicator of just much freedom pregnancy gives June/Offred.  Serena Joy and the Gilead are desperate for babies and therefore wouldn't risk hurting June/Offred while she is carrying a child.  It may only be for nine months but for this brief time, June/Offred has a bit of respite to speak her truth. 

When they return, Offred/June rushes to Nick's, only to find the door locked. With few options left, Offred/June tries to play Fred against Serena. Offred/June asks Fred to protect her daughter because she's certain that Serena Joy means her harm, but Fred refuses to take her seriously. Fred is far more concerned with finding out whether or not the baby June/Offred is carrying is his or not.  When Offred/June says that the baby is Fred's, it's clear from the look on his face that he knows that she's lying. 

That night, possibly because she needs her sense of hope renewed, Offred/June decides to open the box and finds that it is filled with notes by other Handmaidens, stating their name and detailing the horrors that they've been subjected to. June/Offred reads their stories with tears rolling down her face. These notes serve as a reminder that she's not alone.

In The Bridge, Janine let everyone know exactly what Commander Putnam had done to her and what he had promised her. Though Warren Putnam denied the accusations, it was plain to everyone present that Janine was telling the truth. It's now time for Warren to face judgment for his actions. Warren makes a full confession before a board of fellow commanders and is then left to wait to learn his sentence.  Fred is extremely dismissive of the charges against Putnam, probably because it hits to close to him.  When Fred gets some push back about his minimization of Warren's actions, Fred tries to argue that Warren has a wife and a child. It is then that Fred is informed that Warren's wife visited the leader of the tribunal earlier in the day and requested the harshest punishment for her husband so that Warren could be redeemed in the eyes of God. Fred is clearly stunned by this. It turns out that Warren's punishment is to have his hand surgically amputated. 

"And if your right hand causes you to offend, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell".
Matthew 5:30

Warren may have been the one being punished but it sent a stark message to Fred, who goes home and apologises to Serena Joy. Fred now knows that his position and privilege won't protect him and that should the day come when he needs Serena Joy to advocate for him, he needs to engender feelings of tenderness again. Fred makes it clear that as soon as the baby is born, Offred will be out of their lives and they will be a family. For her part, Serena Joy isn't so quick to forgive.  

Offred awakes to the sound of bells indicating that someone is sentenced to death. Around her are all the notes from the Handmaidens.  Offred joins the other handmaidens at the park and this time, they are presented with stones. Aunt Lydia does her usual spiel, justifying the act of murder the Handmaidens are about to be party to. This time, the Handmaidens are told that they will be delivering justice to someone who endangered the life of a child.  In unison, the handmaiden remove their wings, and then in single file grab a rock and form a circle.  It is then that it's reveals that the person awaiting justice today is Janine, who asks them not to throw the rocks too hard as she gets down on her knees. 

The horror of the Bridge is not that Janine tried to commit suicide but that she survived. To find out that the Gilead wants to take her act of dissent and turn it into punishment, is almost too much to bear. The Handmaids know all too well exactly what kind of torture Janine has had to live through because each has a familiar story to tell.  To make matters worse, the situation is also complicated by the fact that Janine clearly is no longer neurologically typical. OfGlen is the first one to object and for her trouble, a guard bashes her in the face with butt of his gun, much to Aunt Lydia's surprise.  OfGlen is dragged away and Lydia tries to regain control by telling the women they have a job to do and blowing her whistle. It's clear after seeing what happened to OfGlen that it's expected that the women will have no further objection. Offred/June steps forward this time and Aunt Lydia rushes into the circle attempting to call off the men, explaining that the Handmaidens are her responsibility. Offred/June drops her stone on the ground, and looks Aunt Lydia in the eye and says, "I'm sorry Aunt Lydia". The other Handmaidens follow Offred's example.  Aunt Lydia tells everyone to return home but assures them all that there will be consequences to pay for their actions. 

Offred/June returns home, fully aware that while the Handmaidens had a victory today, that there will be a price. The writer's then begin to use the original text as Offred says that this might be the last time she has to wait.  “There’s a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility,” she says. Offred believes that through this small act of dissent that she was trying to make the world a better place for Hannah. It is then that the Eye van pulls into the driveway. Nick enters the room and whispers into Offred/June's ear. Nick is followed by two guards who escort Offred/June out of the house. Offred/June pauses long enough to whisper to Rita the location of the hidden package. An angry Serena Joy demands to know where Offred/June is being taken but the guards simply ignore her.  Serena Joy lashes out about all the things the Waterfords have done for Offred/June.  The commander tries to intervene, rambling on about needing a warrant but Fred is simply told that all the papers are in order.  June/Offred is led outside and she enters a van. Once again, the writers turn to the source material.  “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped,” she tells us. “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

Moira finds her own bit of success this episode.  It's a chance for the series to step outside the parameters of the book. When we last saw Moira, she was escaping from the Jezebels after killing a Commander and a driver.  When we reconnect with Moira, she's outside and the ground is covered in snow. Moira makes her way into a barn where she finds an old car with an Ontario license plate. Moira has made it, she's escaped the Gilead. 

When we see Moira again, she's at a refugee center being questioned by an intake officer.  It's clear that Moira is absolutely overwhelmed with this experience. When he hands her a cell phone pre paid for 12 months, four hundred dollars, an OHIP card and a drug card, it's all too much to truly take in.  For the intake worker this is all part of everyday life but for Moira, it represents just how much her life has changed that these common items now seems strange and even luxurious. Moira is asked whether or not she has any family and she says no. Moira is clearly lost with the massive amount of information she has been given and recognising this, her worker gives her some time to sit with her thoughts. Moira starts heading for the exit and this is when Luke arrives. It seems that Luke put Moira on his list so that he would notified if she ever showed up at a refugee center. A tearful Moira asks if this makes her family and when Luke says yes, the two embrace and Moira finally breaks completely down. It's wonderful that Moira is finally free but watching them embrace is a reminder that June/Offred still isn't.

There have been few series that I have enjoyed as much as this first season of The Handmaiden's Tale. It absolutely had its problems, like its treatment of race for instance but in so many ways, even when it was heavy handed, The Handmaid's Tale hit its mark. This final episode did a great job of wrapping up the story line, as well as creating a suitable mystery to solve for the next season. Who doesn't want to know what is going to happen to Offred/June? At this point, I don't believe that it could possibly have had a better ending, particularly because we know that having been renewed, the audience isn't going to be left hanging.

One of the reoccuring themes this season is the the oppressed often collude with their oppressors.  We have Aunt Lydia, who despite feeling somewhat maternal regarding her handmaidens is quick to punish any perceived transgression. The wives all actively participate in the ritualized rape and in the case of Serena Joy, doles out physical abuse in frustration for the limitations of their own lives. Serena Joy's actions are predictably horrible because as we learn throughout season one, not only did she actively participate in the creation of the Gilead, she wrote the laws which now restrict her own behaviour and dress. The Martha's may be servants but Rita clearly believes in the state and supports what is done in the Waterford household. Then we have the Mexican Ambassador who expressed horror at the way women were treated in the Gilead but absolutely refused to do anything to help June when confronted.

The Handmaid's Tale speaks to us because elements of it already exist around the globe. There are women who are forced to cover themselves whenever they are in public.  Abortion is not legal across the globe and even in the places where it is legal, there are still people actively trying to push back the laws and create barriers to women having control of their bodies. Slut shaming is a daily event across the globe in order to shame women into submission and we exist in a global rape culture. Perhaps what's most stunning about The Handmaid's Tale is that over thirty years later, it's still so relevant because it reflects our more misogynistic impulses.

Clearly power, who has it and how it is wielded really came to the forefront this season. Without doubt, the Gilead is a patriarchy and men exist with hard power. Women like Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia have soft power because they can only abuse those lower on the social standing than them.  Serena Joy may have the ability to over rule Aunt Lydia but she must settle for trying to persuade Fred into thinking the way she does or voting the way she does because in a world of men, even if you uphold the misogynistic agenda being a woman can never translate to real power.  Then we have Fred, who as a commander is clearly the most powerful person in his household, but this season even Fred learned that there are limits to the power that he can wield. The Handmaid's Tale is always circling around who has power to act in a particular moment.  Even Janine realises that choosing to die isn't necessarily defeat.

I particularly loved the idea that rights have to be fought for.  At the very beginning people were more than happy to hand away their rights because they were told that it was for their own protection.  In cases of war, the government often attempts to introduce legislation or policies that are contrary to a free society (The Patriot Act) and people give in thinking that if they are guilty of anything that they have nothing to worry about. The problem is that hard fought for rights once lost, aren't easily regained, as June and Moira would discover when they finally took to the streets to protest.  The Handmaid's Tale reminds us that we must be ever vigilant and fight tyranny at every damn step.

I really don't know where the story is headed next because in this first season, the writers have exhausted the original source material. I hope that Margaret Atwood stays intimately involved in the show so that it will remain true to her original vision.  I hope that in order to continue the story that the writers don't forget the important themes this first season explored.  The Handmaid's Tale may not get everything right, and it may be grim and dark in many ways but it reflects a potential nightmare that we would all do well to avoid.