Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Six: First Blood

Like many, I binge watch a lot of the shows I choose to follow, even waiting sometimes for the end of a season before watching it.  The Handmaid's Tale has always been the exception to this rule, and not just because I recap it each week for this blog. The Handmaid's Tale is unrelentingly dark and so painful to watch, I doubt I could watch two episodes back to back, let alone an entire season.  This time however, the ending of First Blood had me screaming at the television, instantly wanting more and cursing because I couldn't just move onto the next episode. Yes, I know I started at the end but not to worry, we will start at the beginning and work our way towards the awesome ending of First Blood. 

This episode largely focuses on Serena Joy and her relationship with June.  It begins right where we left off with Serena racing to get the doctor to report that June has finally awoken.  The first olive branch Serena Joy offers is to open the barrier which blocks June from seeing the ultrasound.  This is June's first glance at her baby and a rare moment of kindness from Serena Joy.  When they arrive home, Serena even takes June's jacket and hangs it up. June notices the kindness and the change but she is clearly and rightfully suspicious.  With June back home, Serena is anxious for her to eat a healthy meal and offers a shake which June quickly rejects, claiming that it upsets her stomach and Serena compromises and offers soup instead.  June not only gets an alternative meal, she gets to have it in the comfort and beauty of Serena's office.  It's a huge contrast to the dingy room which June has been occupying for months. 

Serena isn't the only one who is happy that June is back at the Waterfords. Nick takes the first opportunity he gets to talk to June, explaining that he thinks about her all of the time and he dreams about a life for the three of them. June admits that she thinks about it as well but reminds Nick that he is married now. When Rita walks in to deliver the soup, she catches them holding hands and tells June into enjoy her privileges for as long as she can. 

That night, June is firmly ensconced in the study because Serena Joy doesn't think she can handle the stairs and the two women share a moment.  Serena is desperate to know what pregnancy feels like and June obliges of her own free will and places Serena's hand on her stomach. The two women marvel at the mystery and beauty that is life.  It's the closest they've ever been, yet an ocean of difference lies between them. 

In a flashback, we watch a nervous Serena Joy getting ready to speak at a college campus. This is a very different Serena because she is passionate, and in control in a way that she no longer is.   Fred is right by her side, egging her on, sensing that it's important the world hear a woman advocate the elimination of women's rights and the curtailment of civil freedom.  Serena makes her way out on stage and it's clear that though a crowd has gathered, they are there to shut her down.  People in the crowd scream that Serena isn't welcome and she is called a Nazi.  It's only when the students start to throwing things that security rushes in and takes Serena from the stage.  Fred is appalled and starts going on about this is America, and they have a right to be heard. I suppose the irony escapes him.  

Serena gathers her courage as she is rushed through the crowd and with Fred's encouragement, she stops and demands to be heard.  Serena yells that the birthrate is down over 60% and that this is everyone's problem.  Serena tells the gathering that they are selfish, spoiled and entitled.  It's a moment of triumph for Serena as she heads outside saying that she wants to add more stops to her tour.  Moments later, a shot rings out and Serena lies wounded on the ground, next to her now dead secretary.  When Sererna awakes, she is in hospital with a much chastened Fred. Seeing Serena in pain attempting to be strong has worried him and so he suggests that she take a step back. Serena however demands that Fred "be a man" because there's too much work to be done.  Fred immediately sets to work taking Serena's statement and she shares her worries that they won't get justice because she doesn't trust the cops. 

June is making up her bed when she is joined by Eden. It seems that her marriage is yet to be consummated though she has done what a wife is supposed to do: cooking and cleaning for Nick. Eden worries that she is ugly and that this is why Nick doesn't want to have sex with her.  It puts June into an odd situation because now she has to comfort the child bride of the man she loves. June does her best assure Eden that she isn't ugly and that these things take time in marriage, promising that Nick will be a wonderful father to her children. Eden however still isn't comforted and begins to wonder if the reason Nick hasn't had sex with her is because he's a gender traitor (Gilead's term for gay) and June assures her this is not the case. By not consummating his marriage, Nick has actually placed himself in a dangerous situation.

Serena has another big surprise for June, it seems that she has invited some other handmaidens to come by for lunch.The handmaidens are quiet and clearly fearful, as Serena Joys serves each one a huge piece of quiche and encourages the women to chat the way they do on their walks together. June senses Serena's desperation and brings up a little cafe she used to attend and this breaks the ice.  It's only when Serena mentions that she often frequented that cafe and it's possible that unbeknownst to them, they all could have been in the cafe at the same time and in that  the difference between Serena and the handmaidens is made explicit.. Serena retreats and head back to her greenhouse, clearly lonelier than ever. It really is a case of be careful what you wish for. With Serena out of the room, the handmaidens gather around June and begin to talk and gossip.

In another flashback, the Gilead has risen to power and this time, Fred stand in front of a kneeling man and woman. It seems that the man fired the shot which made Serena infertile. Fred talks about his helplessness having to watch the woman he loved experience pain and try to hide it. Fred decides to kill the man's female partner rather than kill the man himself, so that he will know first hand what Fred suffered. Fred may not be in love with Serena now, but there was clearly a time when she meant everything to him.

The next time Serena and June are together, Serena decides to show June the nursery, assuring her that she will be the best possible mother to the baby.  June is suitably impressed with the room and once again, the two women share a moment of bonding.  It all comes crashing down however when June asks to see her child for a moment.  Serena sees the request as a breaking of a trust and says no. When June starts to plead her case, a teary eyed Serena not only denies the request but demands that June return to her room. Later, Serena reports to the commander her belief that June is always scheming, as she relates what happened in the nursery.  The commander however sees it as a reasonable request and promises to handle it.

June finally has a chance to talk with Nick about the fact that he hasn't consummated his marriage. Nick is not the least bit interested in having sex with a teenage girl, clearly still rightfully viewing her as a child.  June points out what's at stake and asks Nick if he wants to end up on the wall, making it clear that Eden will report him as a gender traitor and furthermore; June doesn't want to hear any complaints about being forced to fuck someone.

Fred takes the opportunity to creep into June's room with a picture of Hannah.  June is overwhelmed to get to see her child and thanks the commander. Of course, everything comes with a cost and Fred starts to talk about how much he's missed June as his hands begin to roam across June's body. June of course knows that she cannot afford to displease Fred and lies and says that she has missed him as well. June however has no intention of sleeping with Fred again and so pleads that she believes it might not be safe for the baby for them to have sex. It's deft and hits the right note. A disappointed Fred slinks out of the room like the abusing snake that he is.

It seems that the investigation is still going on into Fred's activities because an angry Nick asks to be transferred when he speaks to Andrew Pryce. Nick even goes as far as to say that there's much he hasn't reported on when it comes to Fred.

That night, Nick decides that he has to do as expected and sleep with Eden. Eden lies in bed and gets under a sheet with a hole in it and spreads her legs. Good heavens, even within marriage the people of the Gilead are repressed. Nick penetrates Eden and moves without passion until climax, pausing long enough to ascertain that Eden is okay. Eden however can only wonder about whether or not their act will result in a pregnancy. It's a sad state of affairs for all concerned.

The next morning, Serena decides that it's time to go back to abusing June and to display her power. Serena drops one of her knitting needles on the ground and demands that June pick it up. June of course must comply and both women are well aware of the dynamic at play. Serena isn't done playing games and instructs Eden to drop the needle next, so that June will know her place in the household. Eden grasps the needle unsure of what to do, and so June again is kind to Eden and subtly nods her head to let Eden know that it's okay to comply. Eden drops the needle and once again June picks it up and hands it to a satisfied Serena.

The commander is giving a speech regarding the opening of a new indoctrination centre.  He's front and centre, relishing in his accomplishment when Ofglen enters the room.  Fred mistakenly believes Ofglen is confused at first and orders her to return to her place. Rather than listening, Ofglen continues to march forward steadily.  The handmaids standing outside seem to know what is going on because they run as far away from the building as possible, as Ofglen pulls out a hand grenade. When the grenade explodes, it blows out the windows in the building.

This explosion is unspinnable for the Gilead. They may have been able to claim that June was kidnapped but there's no way to explain away a handmaid purposefully walking into a room filled with Gilead elite and detonating a hand grenade. I think that the fall out for this is going to be epic and I cannot wait to see it.

The Handmaid's Tale has done a great job humanizing Serena Joy and this episode is an excellent example of this.  Serena Joy was happy to participate in her own oppression, as long as it gave her power and status and now that she has been reduced to her womb and lives in the society she advocated for, she is desperately lonely.  Serena has no allies and even her husband no longer desires her, or sees her as a partner.  The very traits which clearly excited Fred about Serena must necessarily be repressed in order for her to be a good wife. Not only is there an ocean between Serena and other women, there's an ocean between her and her husband. Serena reminds us that marginalised people often take part in their own oppression believing that they will be spared the oppression they are happy to inflict upon others.

What makes Serena scary and so very relevant is that fanatics like her always start with a grain of truth in their story. Serena wasn't wrong when she pointed out that a decline in birthrate was a crises that everyone needed to pay attention to, the problem is that her solution to the issue was repressive and horrible. It's always the solutions to the problem that fringe groups get wrong.  Furthermore, I agree with people refusing to allow Serena to speak in the school scene but by tossing out misogynist language as an argument, all they did was reaffirm her ideas. How we fight is as important as what we fight. Serena was advocating a misogynist solution to reproductive problems, so how does it make sense to use misogyny to argue for the opposite?

Beyond looking at Serena, First Blood also looked at the relationship between women. It's only Eden's age that makes her reluctant to act against June because she is temporarily unaware of the power she has over other women as a married woman.  This is how the Gilead fools people by allowing them to believe that soft power amounts to institutional power when in fact it most certainly does not. Eden is young and clearly didn't have a lot of experience in the world before the Gilead came to power and she represents the next generation of women who will live in the U.S., completely unaware of the freedom that they have lost thanks to the older generation of women like Serena Joy. 

Fred continues to be creepy as fuck.  Watching him slide into June's room with the photo and then request sex is an example of how Fred has come to count on his privilege to allow him to break the very same rules he has created and supported for others.  Fred is quite literally cisgender, straight, white, male privilege in action.  It's interesting to watch Nick and Fred in action. As a member of the Eye and someone who also has the same privileges, Nick has chosen to take a different tact. This however doesn't mean that self interest will stop him from doing something he finds personally repugnant. Nick may not be slipping into someone's room or using his power to effectively rape someone but he still had sex with Eden. Nick is no hero.