Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Thirteen

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There are so many things to unpack in this season finale.  Eden's death is still resonating throughout the Gilead. The task of gathering up her few belongings falls to June and Rita. Because of her so-called sins, Eden won't even be given a proper burial and will instead be hung on the wall and then fed to animals in order to reduce waste. Don't you just love Gilead's idea of environmentalism? Rita in particular is troubled by Eden's death, feeling guilt that she never had a kind word to say to the young woman. The truth is, in her position as a Martha, there's little Rita really could have done to make things better for Eden anyway. 

When going through her things, June finds Eden's bible filled with notes, hidden between some clothing.  June decides to share this with Serena who is quick to dismiss this discovery as truly unimportant, claiming that her daughter (read kidnapped child) will be raised to follow the rules of God. It's left for June to point out the obvious, if her daughter is not allowed to read, how will she know what the rule of God truly is? It's a salient point which hits the mark expertly. It's a reminder that Gilead isn't really about Christianity at all because if that were the case, the bible wouldn't be forbidden to women. June shouldn't have had to make this point to Serena.  It should have been obvious to a woman who is so intelligent that the trap she helped create has ensnared her and her descendants.

This season, the writers have worked hard to make Serena more dimensional by showing her frustration with the system she has found herself in, as well as the labour Serena does to maintain Gilead. This is why Serena was shown mobilizing the mothers of girls to petition the council in order that their daughters would grow up and read the word of God. It quickly became apparent from the dismissive attitude that Fred displayed that they were only interested in patronising the women.  Serena upped the ante when she actually read from Genesis to prove the goodness of the word of God, causing some of the women who came in support of her to leave.  Instead of reinforcing Serena's point, reading actually was deemed threatening to the all male council and so they responded by removing her pinkie finger.  Fred actually stood by and watched as his wife was taken off to be maimed by two Guardians. 

I know that Serena's awakening is meant to evince sympathy but there is more here than being careful what one wishes for. Serena worked hard to bring Gilead into being and she has supported the system every step of the way, including playing the dutiful wife on Fred's trip to Canada.  There's also the fact that she's been actively cruel to June, and even went as far as to hold June down so that Fred could rape her and hopefully induce labour.  On every level that you can think of, Serena is a horrible person and yet the writers seem convinced on suggesting that a woman in June's situation would have empathy for her oppressor.  It makes sense to me that June would attempt to push Serena to thwart the rules for Holly's sake but to attempt to comfort Serena when she gets what is coming to her is just a leap I am unwilling to make. There is no difference between Serena and Fred in terms of their culpability and I am unwilling to go along for the ride and believe that by virtue of her gender that Serena is even remotely a sympathetic figure.  

It seems that every step of the way that the writers are determined to give us scenes with a redemption arc for Serena.  Having Serena stop June when she is about to escape with Holly and simply say a teary goodbye to the child without raising the alarm because she has finally decided to act in the best interest of the baby, is meant to once again cast Serena as moral and good. I don't believe that Serena would have let that baby go without a fight having done so much to ensure her conception and with the sure knowledge that having a baby elevates her family in Gilead society.  

The narrative clearly has to move beyond the Atwood novel, not only because the writer are out of source material but one can only show maimed and brutalised women for so long before it becomes pointlessly gratuitous. This means some real change needs to happen in Gilead. We've watched as the writers teased us with June's escape attempt only to be brought back to the Waterford home. Then we had June giving birth to Holly, being sent back to the red center and of course, ending up in the Waterford home.  This time, June has a chance to escape when she is told by Rita that through the Martha network they can both June and the baby out. Nick even brandishes a gun at Fred when Fred figures out what is going on to stop Fred from raising the alarm.

I blame myself for believing that the writers would finally have the courage to pull the trigger and let June actually escape.  June allowed so many people to risk their lives to escape and what does she do? June actually handed the baby over to Emily (more on that later) after tucking a picture of Hannah into her blankets and instructing Emily to call Holly Nicole. What the ever loving hell is this shit? So not only is June not escaping, she is choosing to name her child Nicole - the same name that the abusive Serena chose. I tell you that I didn't throw something at my television in that moment was miraculous.  

Here's the thing, June already made her peace with leaving Hannah behind in her failed escape attempt on the plane.  What good could she possibly do for her child in Gilead? I don't care how bad ass it looked when Elisabeth Moss pulled up her hood like a superhero straight out of D.C. comics, it makes no sense for June to refuse to get into that van. Where exactly is she going to go in her handmaid's uniform? Anyone who helps June will be risking their life.  What happens to the Marthas that helped her get away from the Wateford house? Did June really think for one moment that Fred would simply let her go?  June may have been able to get away with slapping Fred but it's Fred who has the power of the state in Gilead. June's decision to stay has everything to do with the writers being afraid to tell their own story outside of Gilead.  From the first episode, The Handmaid's Tale came with an expiration date and so by having June stay in Gilead, the writers clearly hope to prolong this inevitable event; however, how long can they continue offering the viewers the broken bodies of women in lieu of actual narrative growth?  

In almost an apology for failing to get June out of Gilead, the writers decided to let Emily escape.  Emily presented herself for the ceremony, only to be quickly dismissed by Joseph.  When she is visited the next day by Aunt Lydia, Emily is still pretty much mute; however, Aunt Lydia never misses an opportunity to goad her handmaids and makes a snide comment about Emily acting like she cut out her tongue rather than her clitoris. This leads to Emily stabbing Aunt Lydia before pushing her down a flight of stairs and kicking Aunt Lydia repeatedly.  It was absolutely a cathartic moment but I feel that it was offered as an apology for the handling of Serena this season.  Aunt Lydia, for all of her evil is not worse than Serena because both women work to uphold the system and oppress women. Emily is quickly locked in her room by Joseph's Martha and for a moment she experiences elation before reality hits and Emily realises that this will probably mean her death. It's commander Jospeh who arranges for Emily to escape Gilead and be there for June to hand off her baby. He does so knowing that it will mean trouble for him but given that he is the creator of the colonies, any good that he does is clearly just an attempt to cleanse his filthy soul. I'm really nervous about Joseph being turned into a good man without any reflection on the evil he has done. 

And so there you have it, June refused to escape and walked off into the night and Emily made the smart decision and hopped into the back of the damn van.   At this point, I feel as though the writers have written themselves into a corner.  With Emily in Canada, hopefully we will see more of what is going on there because Samira Wiley was critically underused this season. For The Handmaid's Tale to continue to keep tension rising it has to move beyond just being June's story which it did try and do by spending some time on Serena's growth.  It has to show us the resistance and how the globe is reacting. It could even take a leap into the future because we know, The Handmaid's Tale is actually an audio recording which is being played an analysed in a class.  It would be interesting to see a world post Gilead and its thoughts on the fall of the U.S. and the rise of a theocracy.  The Handmaid's Tale can do many things, but what it cannot do is give us another season where June is suffering inside the Waterford household.