11 May 2017
My second viewing party of The Handmaid’s Tale was, if anything, more horrifying than the first. It was also, inexplicably, more hopeful.
This week, we’ll take ourselves episode by episode, so I can focus more on the individual episode’s brilliance and plot development than on the (still terrifying, still awful) political resonance.
But fine one more bit of political relevance, before I step into the episode. It was particularly heart-rending to watch the doctor scene in “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” after a day filled with news stories about womanhood now being a pre-existing condition.
But now, on to…
An episode in which Alexis Bledel completely obliterates my desire to call her character “Rory Gilmore in Dystopia”.
“Late” refers most obviously to June’s period, the absence of which upends the normal social order in Serena Joy’s household. In the first two episodes, Yvonne Strahovski has played her Serena Joy cards close to the chest – we can clearly see the way that society weighs on her decisions as much as it does June’s, and that her lack of self-determination manifests in the cruel way she handles her handmaid. But “Late” offers a glimpse of kindness- faced with the prospect that June may be carrying her child, Serena Joy is warm and manifestly human. She’s even a savior of sorts when the Eyes begin tormenting June.
Which makes her cruelty later in the episode that much more jarring and heartbreaking. Throughout the episode, Elisabeth Moss has done amazing work showing the warring impulses that go into June’s supposed pregnancy – the sense of safety that it brings to her, the absolute knowledge that giving birth would mean having another child ripped from her, how deeply she misses her own child – and when she tells Serena Joy that she’s not pregnant she does an amazing job of selling the heartbreak and the hope in that moment. Serena’s whirlwind of anger caps off a truly fantastic set of performances.
But it’s Alexis Bledel’s Emily (formerly Offglen) who sells this episode’s horror and tragedy. Bledel, in a mostly silent performance, tells us about a life time of pain and dehumanization – about being forced to procreate for someone else and the particular pain of that for a gay woman. Even without the flashbacks to “past” society, without the reminders that things weren’t always this way and didn’t have to be this way, Emily’s romance and subsequent punishment (not to mention her lover’s brutal murder) would be heartbreaking. Our knowledge that Emily was once a married college professor before this horror makes it tragic to the point of breaking.
I love the humanity in this storyline. The show sets us up with the red herring that Offglen’s disappearance, and June’s subsequent interrogation, are related to her political rebellion. And then it hits us with the punch that it’s something much more banal – and therefore much more REAL.
Enough can not be said about the protest scene in this episode. Moira and June are protesting the administration’s decision to declare all women’s property null and void when the swat-gear-clad officers slowly step out with their machines gun and proceed to casually and without malice mow down the protestors. It’s so CLOSE to our lives that when it descends into aerial bombings and destruction, it’s not just June’s world that is being destroyed – it’s ours.
The power of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV is how close it makes these stories – how deeply personal. It refuses to get caught up in the minutia of Gilead (the future country in which the stories take place). By starting and ending “Late” with the brutal pain of a woman being systematically undone, it makes it so much harder to check out.
“Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”
Which brings us to “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”. Despite how dark it starts out, with June locked in her room and desperately clinging to the light that comes through her blinds, this is a hopeful episode. So hopeful that it borders on an overly simplistic sense of “girl power,” but too smart to cross that line.
For this episode, we see the fall out on June from her lack-of-pregnancy last episode. Namely, Serena Joy keeps her locked up in her room, only to come out for the Ceremony and a disturbing doctor’s visit, and June is slowly unraveling. With nothing else to occupy her mind, she obsesses too much on the past.
A past that includes a foiled escape attempt. This is an intriguing glimpse at the presumed-dead Moira, where she leads June to try and escape their captors. These flashbacks also serve the purpose of showing how complete and total the takeover of religious extremists was in Gilead, and how shocking it was to the women whose lives it destroyed.
As Moira leads June to escape their captors, they truly believe that in “the city” (Boston) lies their salvation. Yet their arrival at the Arlington T platform confirms that the takeover of the United States is far more complete than their escape attempt could have handled. When Moira is forced to leave June behind, it’s the heartbreaking compromise of women stuck in a world that is post-solidarity.
It’s a pretty bleak moment, and the stark cut back to June’s present plight doesn’t lighten matters.
June’s temporary salvation comes from her Commander. In the world of Gillead, men are allowed a modicum of kindness in a way that our female characters are not. Because Commander Waterford can skate along the surface of the depravity of his society, he can be “kind” – he can invite June to scrabble games to try and make her life bearable. He can try to connect with her as a human being. He can be vulnerable. But as we saw in the previous episode with Janeane’s clearly false assertion that her commander loved her and was going to leave with her, the men in charge have no intention of actually helping the women in their care. Like the doctor who offers to have sex with June to help her place in the world, he may offer “help” but only in the guise of furthering the status quo.
It is, and has always been, up to June to rebel and to steal back some of the freedom that has been lost. The phrase to “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” may have started as a phrase that amused a pre-pubescent boy, but it morphs throughout the episode as the lifeline that allows June to re-capture her sanity. That she does it by connecting with the woman who came before her in her house, who’s death by suicide rocked the commander to his core, and that the episode ends with her rejoining the throngs of women being repressed by their society in an almost-too-on-the-nose victory trot out of their homes, is profound.
I don’t remember the book very well, but even without that insight, I don’t expect or want that the next episode of this series will see the Handmaids teaming up to tear down their houses in a bloodied frenzy. This show is smarter than short simplistic answers. But it’s a welcome break from the doom and gloom of Late and the other episodes of this series to border on a wish fulfillment revenge fantasy, if only for a moment.
It will be short lived. This is a show on which you can trust no one – in which the one good person June knows is snatched away in a heartbeat to be mutilated and tortured, and in which her mistress can go from being kind and loving to abusive and hate filled the very next moment. But I’ll grant it a brief moment of solidarity and jaunty walking.
A side-note on intersectional feminism in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale
I would never call myself an expert on feminism, let alone the beautiful work being done by intersectional feminist women of color. I point you here and here for more resources. Yet I find the work being done in terms of making the feminism of Margaret Atwood’s original book intersectional in the world of 2017 America astounding. In the book, when the terrorists came to power, they banned all but white people from their society. Creator Bruce Miller has imbued the show with multiple ethnicities, however, focusing on the idea that fertility trumps racism in this new world. It’s an interesting take, and does a lot to offset the argument that we can make explicitly white-centric shows as a critique of racism. As Miller himself said, “on TV, if all you see is an all-white world, what’s the difference between making a show about racists and make a racist show?”
I am, however, hoping the show goes deeper into the unique issues brought up by this in future. The particular pain of being gay and a woman in this world was so amazingly explored in “Late”, that I cant wait until we get more of Moira’s story and the horrors she is forced to endure. With all the issues around the Wives connecting with their babies – I was curious to see what that would mean when a baby comes out a different race than its mother. I want The Handmaid’s Tale to be bold and tackle these pieces too – and am looking forward to them doing so thoughtfully.
That is all.