Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Two: Unwomen

It's certain now, whenever Emily appears in The Handmaid's Tale, the episode is going to be gut wrenching. From the moment I saw her blue eyes, I tried to prepare myself but how could anyone prepare themselves for this?

Let's begin with June, who while always important, was overshadowed this episode by Emily, the bringer of doom. This time June is dropped off at the former Boston Globe building.  It makes sense that an authoritarian government would shut down the free press because an informed public would be counter to their overall goals but that doesn't mean that it was any less shocking. June walks through the building noticing remnants of a former life: mugs, a single woman's high heel shoe, art work done by children.  The headline of what I assume to be the last printed paper reads “The Aftermath … America’s Bloodiest Day”. It is, I assume, the only printed record of the coup which resulted from seizing the capitol and the white house. 

What makes June truly lose it is not the remnants but evidence of a clear massacre in the Boston Globe building. June finds a wall littered with bullet holes and covered in blood.  Suddenly, it all becomes too much and for the first time since the rise of the Gilead, June breaks down completely; it's the break that we all knew was coming.  June can barely process what has happened to herself, let alone others.   

In flashbacks we see June ask her husband to sign a form so that she can get birth control.  It's familiar because it's not that long ago, that a husband's permission was required for women to take control, or listen to sexist lectures from Doctors before being given a diaphragm.  Even though this is clearly a violation of June's rights, its become the new normal and June is quick to move on. The light begins to dawn for June when she is informed that Hannah was taken to the hospital because of a fever.  June is questioned about Hannah's fever, called by her husbands name, despite correcting the social worker twice and basically shamed for daring to work and be a mother at the same time. The social worker even threatens to take Hannah away.  Now the rules aren't just an inconvenience to her life, they are threatening her life. 

In the present, when Nick finally arrives, June is not impressed to learn that they aren't going to get Hannnah and flee to Canada.  Junes demands the keys and gets in Nick's truck but when she turns the engine over, she realises the futility of simply attempting to drive away.  June and Nick engage in a marathon sex session and when Nick begs relief claiming exhaustion, June simply responds, "try".  At this point, the sex isn't about mutual pleasure and is about June taking control over her body and fighting back against Gilead. Sex provides the relief that June needs and when we see her next, she is creating an altar to those who were slaughtered at the Globe, even saying a prayer of her design, thereby reclaiming even God from those who have oppressed her.

Juxtaposed to June's story is that of Emily.  When we last saw Emily she was running people over with a stolen car after having had her clitoris removed against her will and watching as her lover was murdered.  Emily has been declared an 'unwoman' and has been sentenced to life in the colonies. It's a grueling existence that is only ended by death. Everything about the lives of the women sentenced there is contaminated - even the water they are given to wash with is filled with E Coli.  June does her best to minister to her fellow 'unwomen', trading supplies for bandages, and Tylenol. It's a desolate existence because these former handmaidens are just 'unwomen', they're clearly no longer deemed human. 

In a previous life, Emily taught biology at a university.  Gilead first becomes personal for Emily when she is informed that she won't be teaching next semester because of concerns after a student saw a picture of her family on her phone. Dan, the Dean, tries to assure Emily that they are just being cautious because of their new reality but Emily is determined not to be driven into the closet. Dan points out that he took all of the pictures of his husband out of his office, resulting in being labelled a collaborator by his partner. Dan explains that he thought that he was part of the last generation to have this kind of struggle and had always viewed LGBTQ people of Emily's generation as having an easy life.  Sadly, Dan welcomes Emily to the struggle. Emily and Dan commiserate over not knowing whether they should fight or flee.  Emily learns that she should flee when Dan is discovered strung up outside the university building with the word "f@ggot" spray painted on the ground at his feet.

When next we see Emily, she is at the airport with her wife and child trying desperately to move to Canada. Armed with their passports and marriage licence, Emily and Sylvia hope to be among the few women who will escape the Gilead.  Because Sylvia is Canadian, she is given permission but Emily is only given provisional approval and must meet with a member of immigration first. Upon second examination, Emily is denied approval to leave and questioned about whether or not she is the biological mother of the child she shares with her wife.  At this point, Emily is done being compliant and demands to speak to a lawyer and a supervisor but it quickly becomes that clear nothing that citizens could depend on in the past to secure their human rights is relevant any longer.  Emily is told that her marriage is against the law and is no longer valid and that she will not be allowed to leave with her wife and child. We watch as Emily kisses Sylvia and her son goodbye. It is a moment of such unbelievable sorrow as Emily and Sylvia part for what is perhaps the last time. 

In the present, a wife has arrived at the 'unwoman' camp and is of course not welcomed warmly by the former handmaids.  Despite being discarded as an 'umwoman', the wife is still faithful, certain that God will deliver her from the horror she is currently in. No one really has any time for the wife but Emily makes a point of giving her some alcohol to clean her hands with to slow down the possibility of infection, warning the wife to wrap up her hands because of the open blisters.  The two women share a moment when Emily offers some expired penicillian, instructing the wife to take one pill every four hours. This is enough to establish camaraderie and the wife reveals that she was sentenced to the colonies for having an affair which her husband didn't even notice because he was so involved with the handmaid. The wife snarks that her infidelity probably earned her husband  a promotion and wonders if she will be spared from hell because she loved the man she slept with. Emily explains her generosity by saying that her mistress used to be kind to her and that she is returning the favour.

It's only later that the wife discovers that the pills which Emily gave her were poisonous and not in fact penicillin. Emily explains that the wife held women down and watched as they were raped by her husband. To Emily, the wife represents the Gilead and all of the suffering she has gone through. Emily, is not yet defeated and she tells the wife that she should be dead in four hours.

Later, we see that the wife has been hung up on a makeshift crucifix as a display to all of the other disgraced Handmaids. It's clear that this gives the former handmaidens some hope and some happiness in the dismal state of their daily lives. A bus pulls up offloading yet more unwomen for the labour camp and Janine runs into Emily's arms before being ushered away.  Janine may have avoided being stoned but the life before her is so difficult, she may yet wish she had not avoided this fate.

Season two has moved beyond the books.  Now we know that the colonies are in fact real and not just a tool to keep the citizens in control in the Gilead. It has echoes of a concentration camp where people live days or perhaps hours.  The women dig up the soil and place it in bags.  It makes me wonder if the Gilead believes that just moving the soil will make that area habitable again?  Clearly the colonies were created in the war over who would ultimately control the U.S.

Showing Emily and Sylvia's story calls to mind what so many refugees have had to consider.  When does a tipping point occur and the new normal become untenable? It's not easy to flee with only a few possessions, leaving behind everything and everyone you know.  Though this the story of a dystopian world, it has its roots in reality, as everyday people in areas of conflict make this choice in the hope of finding someplace where they can build a life and live in peace. It's interesting to me that the Gilead does not respect individual law but for now seems to be respecting international law.

It's hardly a surprise that a theocracy would be a dangerous place to be LGBT. The conversation between Emily and Dan is a stark reminder that marginalised people cannot afford to be comfortable and relax with their rights given under the law because with a stroke of the pen they can be invalidated, as we saw with Emily and Sylvia's marriage.  Each encroachment of human rights must be pushed back against because the more they (read: the oppressor) takes the easier it is to make excuses and accept the status quo.

I have to circle back to what happened at the newspaper. As we know at present the news media is under attack in the U.S. I believe the slaughter portrayed at the Boston Globe is a stark warning to us all of what happens in an authoritarian government to the press. It's easy to take the news media for granted when so many networks have 24 hour updates and information is readily available on the internet. It is a sign of freedom that a population can be informed accurately about what is going on. Sure we have seen the literal breaking of bodies in the Gilead but this is the first time we've seen how broken the institutions upon which we depend for a free and open democracy so decimated and it should not be something we simply regard as entertainment.  When our institutions are gone, can we still say the government serves the individual?