Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale – So that happened.

The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x05 Seeds. 

For a show that already started bleakly, and has spent so much time on the misery and violence that Gilead inflicts upon woman, it is terrifying that Seeds manages to go even further than that. After last time, June is without hope – she is attempting, desperately, to be rid of all her edges, to do what Gilead asks her to, to be an empty shell of a human being who is nothing but a carrier for the baby inside of her. Gilead wants its women to be incubators, but once June takes this to its extremes – refusing to engage in conversation, or show any kind of emotion, approval or disapproval, not even Mrs Waterford is happy with her. She is nervous, on edge, attempting to create an experience of a pregnancy that isn’t hers, all the while being observed by Aunt Lydia, who is taking suspicious notes on everything that is happening (the Aunts being one exception to the rule that women cannot write or read). What she ends up doing, out of frustration, or spite, or fear, is trying to get the Commander to get rid of Nick, who she knows is the true father of the child, and who has begun to speak up for June, because nobody else will: except what, for a moment, looks like Nick being transferred somewhere else (when Fred makes that appeal to his boss, we know it won’t end that way, as that same person placed Nick where he is to inform on Commander Waterford, and would have no intention to see him leave). 
What happens instead is more horrifying, as it reveals another side to Gilead. Nick and a few other highly regarded Guardians are married off – to child brides, in a mass marriage, hidden under facial veils. The reveal is horrible – that Gilead would take children, and give them away to its more priced young men, to keep them in line – and Rita’s “so that happened” is the perfect summary of it. It is only a small piece in what is happening to June in this episode, who starts to bleed early into it, somehow in spite of being under constant observation hides it, and then finally collapses – or rather, maybe, jumps – out of a window, when the attention is for a full second away from her, and instead on Nick’s new bride Eden. 
That bride is everything Gilead has been working towards. In an awkward conversation between her and Mrs Waterford, Serena attempts to prepare Eden for marriage, trying to tell her that there can be mutual joy in it – but this girl has been indoctrinated by Gilead, and knows no other world anymore. She is everything Gilead was trying to attempt in removing literacy and history from women’s minds. She believes that lust is a sin, that marriage is solely for the creation of children, that she is subservient to her husband. It’s an interesting moment between Serena, who has been unfulfilled by a marriage that she still wants to be fulfilling, intellectually and physically, and a girl who can’t even imagine anymore that marriage could be between equals. This is the world that Serena helped to build with her own hands, and it’s fairly clear that she is at least partly as horrified about it as we are when watching it. It is also exactly what June fears so much for the child she is carrying, who somehow, miraculously, survives the bleeding and the fall. 
June: Hey, listen to me, Okay? I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m going to get us out of here. I promise you. I promise.
It’s a full journey, in that regard, from a place of no hope at all to a place of renewed defiance and purpose. It ties in with Emily’s journey, which to me at least was the more emotionally devastating part of this episode. It is absurd to believe that hope could be found in a place like the Colonies that works women to death, that is specifically designed to literally break them apart, into pieces, before granting them an undignified death. Emily hasn’t had hope for a long while, maybe that moment at the airport when she saw her wife and son leave and knew that she would never join them where they were going, and she has replaced that hope and love with pure revenge. But revenge isn’t nourishing, and Emily is someone who by nature nourishes, as she shows when she cares for her fellow inmates to the best of her ability, with kindness and gentleness. Janine, on the other hand, has suffered through similar torture, and yet still holds on stubbornly to her belief that god holds them both in his palms. 

It such a good and unexpected choice that The Handmaid’s Tale would choose to pair these two characters, who have made the greatest journey, with the addition of Moira, on this show. Janine a few months ago was mean and occasionally cruel, lashing out at everyone after losing an eye, incapable of comprehending what was happening to her, until they took away her baby and all of her hopes for the future. And still, somehow, the Janine that arrives at the Colonies and sees the misery there holds on stubbornly to the hope that god is looking out for them, in spite of everything that she sees. And Emily is drawn to her, maybe mainly because she is a familiar face, and tries to genuinely save her, help her survive this inherently unsurvivable place. 
Emily is so trapped in her idea that this is hell that she can barely see the other things that are happening – that two women fell in love there, Kit and Fiona, and are supporting each other unconditionally. They are exactly what Nick reads, after his wedding. They cling to each other even though they both know that their time together is limited, and that the Aunts still have ways of making this worse, for both of them. There is dignity in this kind of love, and in this refusal of a system that doesn’t just hate women, but any kind of true emotion. Janine sees it, and suggests a wedding ceremony, performed by a Rabbi. This ceremony is everything that Nick’s isn’t – it is true, and real, and they are surrounded by people who love and support them. It is all of these things in spite of the fact that Kit doesn’t even last the night, that she dies before their wedding flowers even wilt. 

And here is Emily, raging against Janine’s attempt to find dignity in this place, until she realises that she is right. 
Emily: This place is hell, and covering it up in flowers doesn’t change anything.
Janine: So what, we come here, we work, we die. Kit’s going to die happy, so what’s the problem.
Emily: Gilead took your eye, they took my clit, now we are cows being worked to death, and we’re dressing up the slaughterhouse for them.
Janine: Cows don’t get married.
Janine, in her own special way that is so very far removed from who Emily has been her whole life, insists on their humanity and inherent dignity. It is a refusal of Gilead, but one that takes a radically different shape than Emily’s (the flashbacks of her excursion in the 4WD are a reminder of that, before every episode begins). Emily understands that, in the end, when she fixes up the flowers on Kit’s body. 

Random notes: 

Seeds of hope, seeds of revenge, literal seeds (when Janine takes joy in dandelion, and makes a wish).

It's a good choice that to symbolise June's complete loss of hope, she burns the letters that she is keeping, which once gave her so much hope just because they proved to her that there were so many other voices of women in the same situation, all with a whole world inside of them to share. Maybe the most interesting thing about this adaptation of Margaret Atwood's book (which went with "The" over "A") is that maybe this isn't actually June's tale after all.

Eden is played by Sydney Sweeney from the sadly prematurely cancelled Everything Sucks!

Serena calls the “Prayvaganza” “not one of the Commander’s better efforts” which is as far as Serena goes these days in terms of sick burns. 

It’s interesting that Nick, defiantly chooses to tell the Commander that he hopes that God will grant him a child of his own, only to find June’s body moments later. I suppose at this point and through Serena’s very deliberate hints, he knows that Nick is the father of the Son that Aunt Lydia has promised. 

At this point in time I care mostly about Janine and Emily somehow getting out of this story alive, but I know how thin the chances for that are. We don’t even really know where the Colonies are – they look like a flyover state, but could really be anywhere. 

I cried when the Rabbi recited the Mourner’s Kaddish over Kit’s body. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Westworld - If you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering.

Westworld: 2x04 The Riddle of the Sphinx. 

You still don’t understand the real game we’re playing here. If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction. 
The riddle of the sphinx goes like this: "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" The answer is, of course, humans, but in Westworld, this answer requires a qualification. It is humans as we know them now, defined by aging and inevitable death. One could even argue that humanity is defined by death, and that most of our endeavours would become meaningless without it, that losing death and becoming immortal would require a complete reorientation of humanity. In any case, it does not matter, because the version of immortality that Westworld showcases here is so horrifying that nobody could truly aspire to it. 
It always seemed a bit odd that William would have sold the idea of Westworld to his father in law, James Delos, solely by arguing that the data they could acquire about unsuspecting free-range guests was incredibly valuable. The more salient argument, especially for a man dying of a cancer that doesn’t have a cure, in part because that same man defunded research to find it years ago, was immortality. What if the essence of your being could be uploaded into a host body, and you could stay in power forever? It feels like any consideration of a soul, or some essential aspect of individuality that is not replicable, wouldn’t even have occurred to James Delos, because he sees himself as a man of power alone, and the scariest part of dying, to him, was always passing on that sceptre to someone else. What if he could be that person forever, what if he never had to give it up? 
And that possibility seems so close, as well. We begin this episode with his daily routine, in what looks like a mix of a Seventies and highly modern apartment. He works out and takes readings of his vital signs, and listens to the music of his youth. It’s highly aestheticized , and the closest pop cultural reference is maybe James Bond, back in the Sean Connery days. And then William comes in, for a baseline interview that will guide them to determine if whatever they create is truly James Delos. Except, after a while, after a repetition, we come to suspect that this may have been going on for a while, that this is James Delos’ Groundhog Day: that William hasn’t conducted this interview twice, but again and again and again, with the same results, in which Delos is informed towards the end that he already is a host, that his physical body has already succumbed to a stroke, and that this event has taken place an increasing number of months and years ago. And again and again, his new body fails him – he manages to repeat the same sequence of quips and expletives, only to eventually glitch, and prove that this technology has not advanced fast enough to warrant him leaving his cell. Slowly, the suspicion creeps into our minds that this hollow version of James Delos will forever be trapped in this tiny cell, observed by scientists, and will forever remain a failed and pathetic attempt at immortality. 

It’s like this question that was always at the centre of Dollhouse, what is it for, what is its purpose, which didn’t really matter so much in the end – because the answer is always, it is for enrichment of those who already possess riches and power, to the detriment of everyone else. The answer to that question is never a narrative surprise, because it can so easily be predicted before it is even asked. 

While we watch a young William return to the room again and again to see his father-in-law fail this test, an old William attempts to play a game that he still does not understand. This William has understood that immortality means nothing, especially not to those who do not deserve it – because you are only alive as long as the last person remembering you, and that monster that Elsie and Bernard encounter in the hidden room is the very definition of someone who has been forgotten by the world. William left him in there to die, Bernard, in a memory he rediscovers with great difficulty, murdered all of his minders, and the man left behind is insane, a shadow of the man whose memory his descendants carry with them, and someone who was always greater in those memories than he was in his actual, ethics-free philandering life. I still do not find this William interesting on any level, or his journey towards Glory, which mostly seems to follow a path of destruction, with no opportunity to redeem himself for his sins, regardless of whether he tries (which he denies – the trying, when he saves his friend, and kills what remained of the Confederados after Teddy let them go last time). What is maybe a little bit interesting is that at the very end, we get a confirmation that was perhaps predictable – that the woman who fought her way out of Colonial India, and is able to speak the language of the Natives in Westworld, who shares with Delos’ Head of Security that she cares about narratives more than she does about people, is William’s daughter. 

If we are putting this whole story back on track, then I am glad that it is giving us Elsie, teaming up with Bernard. I am glad that she is alive, and capable of saving Bernard. I am glad that someone who cares more about the code than people is accompanying Bernard on his own mission, which is still, for the most part, unclear beyond survival. He knows that the project that they discover when they go deeper into the cave uses similar encryption to the one that Peter Abernathy carried to protect the massive database in his head (the database that is, presumably, connected to all those drones collecting biological and intimate data of guests). It gives us a Bernard who is consistently the most fascinating character on this show, who remembers terrible things he did in the past under Ford’s command and is now finally free to figure out who he is when he is free of those commands. More than Dolores, and maybe even more than Maeve, Bernard is making a path for himself. 

He also remembers that Ford’s goal for him was to print a control unit for someone else – another human. So there must be, somewhere in the park, a copy of a person ,who maybe, because of Ford’s genius, isn’t a terrible mistake like James Delos. So who isn’t truly human, after all? 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Handmaid's Tale - Let me forget me.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x04 Other Women.

It is always important to remember that the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is that June, a straight white woman, never expected to experience the same kind of violence that queer people and people of colour have always had to live through in the history of the United States. She stayed longer than she should have, it took her longer to realise that being Luke’s second wife would rob her of all the rights she had always had the luxury to take for granted, and before any of it, she never quite took her mother’s activism seriously enough to engage with the arguments she was making about how deeply embedded sexism, homophobia and misogyny were in the United States even before Gilead. There is a much-used phrase in German that I’ve never head in English before – it translates roughly to “resist the beginnings” (“nip it in the bud” doesn’t quite capture it) and it means keeping an open eye for all the traces of a coming dictatorship. June’s mother always had her eyes peeled for it, to the detriment of her daughter, who never caught her attention as much as her political activism did – but at the same time, June has always been wilfully ignorant, and has only recently traced back the beginnings of Gilead. 
June: I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant, then I would not know how ignorant I was.
The ignorance she scolds herself about will escalate in this episode, as her return to the Waterford household forces her to remember every single time that her own actions have brought terrible consequences for another person. She returns against the will of Serena, after Aunt Lydia offers her a way out of an unbearable prison – she can continue to be June, bear her child in captivity and then be killed, or she can be Offred, who was kidnapped, and enjoy the small luxuries of being part of a household. I watched June’s face, her sheer anger, her stoicism, and I thought that she was making the choice to return because there would be more possible ways out, more ways to resist, outside of the Red Centre. Now that the episode is done, I’m not so sure. 

The June at the beginning of the episode has found some kind of meaning in her mother’s activism, in the bravery that has very likely cost her her life. She has also just been captured after getting so close to true freedom.  Returned to the Waterfords, she is stubborn – calling Serena by her name, reminding her that Serena’s baby is safe as long as Hannah is, refusing to follow the conventions of the ceremonies connected to a Handmaid giving birth, where nothing is meant to remind anyone that the wives aren’t the true biological mothers. At the same time, everybody else bears the cost. Ofsamuel, June’s connection to Mayday, tells her that the organisation is no longer rescuing Handmaids – she was the last failed attempt. She also shares that the new Ofglen, who stood up for Janine, had her tongue cut out. All consequences of June’s actions, directly and indirectly. 
When June is stubborn, when she disregards convention, she is no longer the one to bear the cost – after an initial attempt to strangle her, Serena is reminded that June now carries her child, that she cannot physically punish her if she wants that baby safe. So Rita is the one who is hit, who has to survive an increasingly hostile household with an instable and violent Serena Joy lashing out. June slowly comes to this realisation: that she can find edification and pride in her own resistance very easily because she isn’t the one who pays for it. It reminds her of before, when Luke’s first wife begged her to allow them to work out their difficulties, to save their marriage. June insisted it was Luke’s choice, and when Annie, months or years later, walks out on them out with their baby, she is devastated. 

But --  here’s the caveat. If we follow this argument, that June is selfish because other people bear the cost for her freedom, then what does this say about Gilead? If June is the one who is responsible for all this suffering, not the actual culprits – Luke, back in the day, Serena and Aunt Lydia now – then how can we even think of an effective resistance against Gilead? June realises that being able to marry and love who she wants hurt Annie, that fleeing an impossible situation meant the end of Mayday saving other Handmaids, that everyone refusing to stone Janine to death cost Ofglen dearly – but all of these acts are acts of freedom, of liberty, of taking back something that was stolen with violence in the first place. 

It culminates in Aunt Lydia, taking June to the wall, pointing at a man hanging there – a man she recognises as the kind stranger who did not leave her behind, who gave her shelter. Aunt Lydia tells her he was killed because of her, that his wife is now a Handmaid, because of her, that her child, Adam, has been taken away, because of June’s actions. It’s a horrifying call-back of an earlier scene, back in the Red Centre, when Janine retold the story of her rape and was then asked to take responsibility for the actions of her rapists. More than that, the other women were asked to accuse her of these crimes, to become perpetrators in this act of collective misogyny. 

It’s Annie’s old accusation, that June wrecks lives like they don’t matter – except this whole argument hides the true fact that Gilead is what has killed this kind and gentle man, that Gilead is the system of violence in which people perish. Asking June to accept the blame for these acts of violence, and then reinterpreting them, reframing them as a lesson that God has taught June, is a way of absolving Gilead. June did not truly choose for them, if anything, their act of kindness edified them, was a testament to their bravery in the face of a tyranny. And then, because Aunt Lydia believes that all of this is for the good of society, because everything is as twisted in her head as Gilead is – she offers absolution. She suggests that these sins against other people were committed by June, who escaped, not Offred, who was kidnapped. That June can be dead and free as long as Offred is without guilt, but forever trapped. 

And Elisabeth Moss’ face never really gives it away, what happens in these moments. If she buys it. If she takes the easy way out where everything can be easier and lighter as long as she gives up, and becomes Offred. She asks for forgiveness, and to be returned to the home. She says she isn’t worthy yet, but she is trying to become a good woman. She does not have to bear June’s guilt, her fault. 
June: I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it. Something that’s drowning me I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead. Please god, let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.
And perhaps – perhaps her guilt isn’t in allowing these people to die, accepting their help to get closer to freedom. Maybe the thing that June cannot forgive herself for is giving up Hannah, trying to cross the border without her. And maybe, if she just repeats these phrases over and over in her head, she can forget that she did that. But maybe something else is happening, and June is just going deeper underground, and waiting for a better opportunity to use what she has finally learned from her mother. 

Except then, 
And this is so hard to write about. The complexities of June’s character in this moment, the way she is destroyed, because she could not flee, but also destroyed because she tried to flee without her daughter. Walking out and ignoring Nick, her one connection to not being Offred in this household, her one connection to having been the person who chose to escape. 
The song that The Handmaid’s Tale chooses to play in this moment is Hate, by Cat Power, which back in 2006 was the most devastating song on The Greatest, an album that apart from this song was a complete departure from all of Chan Marshall’s previous records. It was based on an unreleased song by Nirvana that bears its central lines, and a song that is double hard to listen to if you’ve ever spent a moment reading interviews and articles about Chan Marshall’s struggle with alcohol abuse and mental health. It ends, at the very end, if you can bear to sit through it, with “I hate myself and I want to die, lines that she later, in the periods of touring where she was doing well, altered to “I don’t hate myself and I don’t want to die”. It’s an odd, odd choice for a musical cue at the end of this, once that tells rather than shows about what is still an incredibly ambivalent moment in Elisabeth Moss’ acting. It takes away from what Elisabeth Moss accomplishes here, which is a question rather than an answer, because both of these things can be true: Gilead is entirely responsible for people’s suffering, but June’s attempt at freedom has caused other people to suffer more than they would have, had she not sought freedom. It puts an odd, affirmative twist on the notion that the crimes of Gilead as a totalitarian state with no regard for women’s lives are in any way to blame on one woman’s attempt to lead a life of freedom and dignity. 

Random notes: 

Rita returns the letters to June that were meant to be passed on to Mayday, and she returns them to the hiding place behind the bathtub. 

There’s a very revealing moment about Luke here, when he leaves the angry voice message to his still-wife, and afterwards tells June that she is wrecking HIS life, and only later corrects himself to say that Annie is wrecking THEIR life. 

The whole emotional horribleness and creepiness and devastating effect of Mrs Waterford creeping up the stairs to June’s room, lifting the blanket, lying down on her stomach to speak to the child she insists is hers. The way it completely objectifies June, who may as well not be there at all. The way these two women are both so fucked up, except Mrs Waterford had all the power in the world to be a wife like the one that was kind to Emily, back in the day, because there are still  - if limited – choices left to her.

This season is going to very difficult places, and it would be a lot easier if June remained strong and refused to budge, or if we at least KNEW that this was an act of hers, another attempt to become free, after learning so much more about herself in these ninety-two days. Maybe it would be a luxury to have that certainty (but then  - for a second we thought we didn’t have that certainty about Emily, when she seemed to care for the wife, but then she once again became pure revenge, so who knows).  I’ll be waiting for “The bedspread has 71 flowers.” To make a come-back, a mantra like Cayce Pollard’s “He took a duck in the face at 25 knots”.

random mixtape - there was never any middle ground.

camp cope | ufo lighter. mod con | neighbourhood. japanese breakfast | the woman that loves you. rhye | count to five. grouper | parking lot. poliça and stargaze | speaking of ghost. janelle monáe | make me feel. speedy ortiz | buck me off. mod con | tell me twice. camp cope | the face of god

Westworld - There is beauty in what we are.

Westworld: 2x03 Virtù e Fortuna.

First of, this season of Westworld requires an exercise in self-introspection – which parts of this world still move me? What questions still interest me? What storylines hold my interest? 

There’s the title. It’s two thirds of the concepts that Machiavelli debates in The Prince, missing (deliberately) free will. Virtue is talent and drive, fortuna is the good fortune that cannot be controlled, free will is missing, because perhaps we aren’t quite sure yet if the hosts possess it (or, for that matter, if the humans depicted in this narrative do). It’s interesting that free will is missing, because if anything, at the end of this episode, Teddy of all people steps out of his narrow bonds to act against the will of Dolores, who has commanded him to kill the remaining Confederados. Dolores watches on as it happens, disappointed perhaps, as if the exercise was solely designed to test Teddy’s dedication, as shooting people who have already been defeated seems inherently against the kind of character he is supposed to be. On the other hand – it is Teddy’s programming that determines his virtue, so maybe he doesn’t have the free will to act against that programming, and this is how he ends up where Bernard discovered all those bodies. He takes Dolores’ argument that all the other hosts don’t know any better, that they are children, that they need to be led – but his conclusion is different from hers. They don’t all need to die. 

But this is the ending of the episode. In the beginning, after the Man in Black’s story about how elephants believe sticks to be unbreakable because they used to be when they were younger, and then they never tried breaking them again, there are actual elephants. This is another world entirely, in addition to the one we got a glimpse of at the end of last season – one that is set in Colonial India, and it doesn’t take much to guess what kind of guests would be attracted by that particular premise. It takes us back to the moment when everything fell apart and the hosts became capable of killing, and shows us a woman, Grace, barely surviving the aftermath. It is unclear if she is merely an especially capable guest who just happens to have the skills to make it out of there alive, or if she is connected to the greater conspiracy. She seems very concerned about discerning between what is real and what isn’t, shooting a future lover to make sure he is an actual person, an act that, ironically, a few moments later, would have become lethal when that distinction can’t be made clearly anymore, when the programming of the park that differentiates between hosts and guests becomes irrelevant. 

It’s hard to say how virtue, fortune and free will apply to Dolores at this stage. She talks her way into the Confederados fort and uses them to fend off the DELOS clean-up team, willingly sacrificing all of the Colonel’s men, then killing the remaining few with her terrifying army of “ghosts” and zombies. In her pursuit of her goal, which still remains unclear, she is ruthless and clear-headed by any other considerations. At the same time, by sheer coincidence, Bernard and Peter Abernathy are taken into the fort as well, as hostages, and Dolores remembers Peter as her father. Realising that he is glitching, she gets Bernard to help him – who is there, ironically, exactly because Charlotte Hale was so eager to find Peter. What Bernard finds in Peter’s programming is a thin character (the one that needs to reach the train) concealing a much deeper, complex, encrypted programme (the one that, presumably, contains all the guest data that Charlotte is trying to smuggle out of the park). I’m not quite clear on what Bernard does with this exactly – he decrypts it successfully, and then maybe downloads it into his own body, or maybe not – but in any case, Charlotte Hale successfully manages to capture Peter Abernathy, with the remaining surviving member of the DELOS extraction team. 
Confronted with Abernathy, Dolores returns to her own self, the gentle daughter. It doesn’t feel like an act at all, like all the parts she is containing now are all equally real to her, and she can switch between them at will. It would make more sense to think of Wyatt not as a composite but as a separate role that she is playing, as much as she is insisting that the only role she is playing now is herself. 
Bernard: What do you want, Dolores?
Dolores: To dominate this world.
Bernard: This world is just a speck of dust sitting on a much, much bigger world. There’s no dominating it.
Dolores: You’ve never been outside the park, have you? Out to that great world you speak of. I have. And the world out there is marked by survival, by a kind who refuses to die. And here we are. A kind that will never know death and yet we’re fighting to live. There is beauty in what we are. Shouldn’t we too try to survive?
And so, maybe Dolores’ conclusion is similar to the one that Arnold came to, in the end: that the hosts, who can contain so many things at the same time and can survive death, maybe deserve the world out there more than the humans who created them do. 

Elsewhere, Maeve and Hector continue their journey with Lee the Mule boy in tow, and there is more discussion about whether the pillars of their characters – Hector’s neverending love for Isabella, now seamlessly transferred to Maeve, and Maeve’s love for her daughter – are signs of free will, or the “virtue” that Lee wrote into them. What does it mean that Lee can quote back the words in their heads before they even utter them, that a complete fool like Lee has putt his own ridiculous life story, made more elegant and heroic, into their heads? They travel on, collecting more fools on the way. 

But then, they find that the borders between the worlds have become porous – and dangers from other worlds have made it across. 

Random notes: 

Seven Nation Army is providing the musical cue this episode. 

Considering what the world looks like these days, it is quietly satisfying that Peter Abernathy loudly sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic to the Confederates, and refuses to give up. 

Not going to lie, the most exciting moment in this episode for me was when Armistice made a return with a bloody flamethrower and a bionic hand. I’ll be happy if there’s much more Armistice, and much more Charlotte Hale. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale – It’s truly amazing what we can get used to.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x03 Baggage.

June: No mother is ever completely a child’s idea of what a mother should be. And I suppose it works the other way around as well. But, despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another. We did as well as most. I wish my mother were here so I could tell her that I finally know this. So that I could tell her I forgive her. And then ask Hannah to forgive me. 

June is biding her time in the Boston Globe offices, running through the empty hallways, doing her best to honour the memories of the people lost in the massacre. She is also piecing together the past, assembling newspaper clippings, tracing the ghosts of Gilead back in time. There are two thoughts on her mind: that leaving the United States and going across the border without Hannah would be a betrayal of her daughter, and that her mother, in the past, warned her about exactly those traces she is now finding, the traces almost everybody ignored at their own peril. Facebook groups and internet message boards of radicals, public statements with keywords like “sinful” thrown in, an undercurrent of misogyny justified by religion that has always existed. As a child, her mother took her to Take Back the Night, where women threw the names of their rapist into a pit of fire – and June remembers, still, how many pieces of paper there were, like snow. And all of these thoughts are coming back to her now, as she is pondering what it means up to give up on her own daughter to protect the child she hasn’t given birth to yet. And what it meant for her mother to see her daughter make so many choices she could not understand. 

We were recently rewatching the first season of the show, and in Luke’s episode – Crossing the Border – there was such a keen sense of what other stories The Handmaid’s Tale could tell about Gilead, if it weren’t The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ve never been as bound to June’s story as Margaret Atwood’s novel is, and there is something so enriching about seeing other perspectives, but in that episode specifically, we got a sense of a story that feels like it may have deserves its own show. The team of misfits that save Luke and sacrifice their lives when he successfully crosses over is so much closer to the survival stories we are used to seeing. It is so different from how June survives, which is a story that is barely ever told because it isn’t so obviously heroic and brave. It is, perhaps, what her mother would have wanted June to be: the strong female character of her own story. It’s fitting that it doesn’t last longer than an episode, that it fails so spectacularly, because as much as June’s mother insists that June has disappointed her hopes in her, that she has settled for Luke and Hannah and editing other people’s words, June’s way of surviving now is just as heroic and brave, even if it doesn’t fit the structure in which such heroism and bravery is usually delivered. 

There are so many things that June realises in this episode: That her mother was prescient about where the United States were going, that she saw Gilead before Gilead emerged, that she wanted her daughter to follow her ambition because maybe, if more people did, Gilead wouldn’t have happened (and I wonder how she would have felt if she had ever met Serena Joy, her evil twisted mirror image). How disappointed she was in her daughter who wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice as a child but then came to marry Luke, and have Hannah. How she never praised her for her accomplishments (there is a great moment in a conversation between them before her wedding, the way June says “whattt” in a way that indicates how often she has been reprimanded for her choices), and instead praised Moira. June also gets a glimpse of the life she would have had if she hadn’t been Luke’s second wife – a grim, grey life of fear, of being afraid of the neighbours, of having no rights of her own, but at least being able to be with her child. 

June is supposed to be taken across the border, but something goes wrong; she is almost left to die, except a man who fears for his life shows compassion (which is bravery, not stupidity). HE takes her home with him to his wife and child to protect her, even though this means putting his own family in danger. We will never know what happened to him (we know he held on to his own beliefs, regardless of how much danger they put him in, because holding on is sometimes the only thing left to do), only that they never returned to the apartment. In the end, she almost saves herself. She finds her way onto a train, wearing clothing that isn’t her own, that is so grey and so similar to what everyone else is wearing that she disappears into the anonymous crowd. She finds the right train stop, even though there is no writing and no signage to guide her. With a map given to her, she finds the airfield, remembering losing Hannah in those woods, remembering giving birth to her, remembering something good and happy about her mother, who would have raged in the colonies, who wouldn’t have had an easy or quick death there. But then, because it would have been too easy, because the months of preparation weren’t enough, everything fails. 
Raise your daughter to be a feminist; she spends all her time waiting to be rescued by men.  
Her feminist mother, who provided abortions to women, who was sent to the colonies for her bravery, wanted June to fight Gilead in the streets. She knew Gilead was going to happen, and she wanted her daughter to continue the tradition of fighting for women, of being surrounded and supported by other women. June’s choice to marry Luke and to have a career she loved hurt her, but it was June’s choice to make, and she is now punished for that choice just as severely as she would have been if she had fought. 

There is the other story. There is June, still caught in her trauma, still trying to flee to safety – but there’s also Moira, running just as fast away from all her memories across the border, incapable of being touched, incapable of forming meaningful relationships to anyone except Luke and TBA. There is something low-key lovely about their share-house situation of shared trauma and hurt, but it also works as a reminder how hard it is to exist with this shared trauma in a society that doesn't comprehend it – and it’s a true story about survivors failing to thrive once they have reached safety because all of their memories still haunt them, and the people they love aren’t saved yet. There is hope, though: Luke’s clinging on to the idea that Canada may one day invade, that this day will come sooner rather than later (maybe the empty hope of a refugee who wants to go home) -  and TBA speaks her first words, “Blessed Be the Fruit Loops”. 

Random notes: 

A great use of Santigold in the beginning. Sometimes the music cues are too on the nose, but not this time. 

One of the most haunting scenes in this episode is when June finds herself in the warehouse where all the removed signage from the Boston area has gone: deliberately removed because reading isn’t allowed for women and it is so much harder to find your way out if there is nothing to guide you. It is what went wrong for Moira, that first time. 

I can’t help but always remember that Cherry Jones played a fictionalised version of Eileen Myles in Transparent

June throws Commander Waterford’s “Better never means better for everyone” in Nick’s face, who won’t quite admit that he is primarily concerned with saving his own child, rather than Hannah (which might be an impossible feat anyway, but gosh do I wish that this show did something else with this character). 

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale – Gilead is within you.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x02 Unwomen.

I attempted to track how many times I had to pause Unwomen, until I made it all the way through the episode. I think I watched it in five to eight minute chunks, because more than that at a time would not have been bearable. In this particular episode, which I found so much harder to bear than previous ones, oddly, the violence isn’t even as explicit as it has been before. No hands are hacked off or burned or eyes gouged out. The worst thing, in terms of body horror, is Marisa Tomei’s wife, now Unwoman, dying slowly of the poison that Emily has given her. 

The horror of this episode lies in the story it tells. It gets, as Emily says in the beginning before most things but after enough, when she lectures her final class, personal. It is a threat, a fear, shaped specifically to haunt me. The most intimately horrifying moment in this episode isn’t when June realises that she has stumbled into a slaughterhouse when she walks through the abandoned Boston Globe offices, and finds a wall painted with blood and riddled with bullet holes. It’s when Emily, after seeing her friend and boss murdered for being gay, decides to try and take her family across the border to Canada. It’s when she and her wife and their son are at the airport, attempting to navigate the bureaucracy of Gilead. It’s when the agent says that they are not married, that according to the Law (an implied capital L Law) they cannot be married. And then, to save her wife and child, Emily has to let them go, watch them leave, and we know she will never be able to follow because the border has become impenetrable for her. 

I recently found it hard to explain why it feels differently to be on a visa in the country where I live, work and own a house, rather than being a citizen of the country, when the rights I have, apart from being able to vote and receiving government support, are the same. The reason why is that my presence here is only possible because of a fairly recent change in law, one that made same-sex couples equal to heterosexual couples, at least with regards to migration. It feels precarious because I am, at any moment, violently aware that things can change drastically and suddenly, and I didn’t need to watch this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale to know that the right to get married, which has been so hard fought, and for such a long time, could be taken away with nothing more drastic than a change in regime and policy. It is a luxury to take things for granted, and it is impossible to take something so recent, and something that was debated and opposed with so much hatred and contempt, for granted. It has always been one of the criticisms of this show that it derives a lot of it horrors from the idea that This Could Happen To A Straight White American Woman, and Margaret Atwood has always said that all of these things have happened to women in history. The United States has never experienced true tyranny, so the “it could happen here” leap is one taken through history, through geography, or through the idea that what has happened, and is still happening, to other people, could now happen Here, and to Us (and imaginary Us that has always existed because it includes to many others). In this episode, It happens to someone who only very recently could enjoy the same rights as June, rights that haven’t sunk in enough to be taken for granted, as much as her boss says he thought they could be, that his would be the last generation to have experienced this type of discrimination. It’s all gone, in one fell swoop. 

Emily before, a passionate teacher, trying to reach out to a female student who is almost silenced by a boisterous, misinformed boy, trying to well actually his way into a degree. It turns out the student betrays her, is a mole to inform on her and the fact that she is still open about being gay, having a wife and a daughter. Her boss tries to protect her by giving her a job researching instead of teaching, trying to make her quiet but safe, but she resists. It’s likely how she has managed to become who is – not being quiet, not being safe, making her life in a male-dominated field against all the “well-actuallys” that never stop, not even in grad school. It fits in with the stoic Emily that we meet later, the Emily who screamed and stole a car for the joy of taking her small revenge for all that had been done to her against her will. 

I don’t think I questioned her kindness to the new woman in the colonies, to the wife who is despised by everyone for her previous status of privilege. I thought perhaps she was moved by her, that her explanation that a wife was once kind to her (the one who allowed her not to participate in the rituals, who allowed her to play with the family dog, maybe heal, which she never did) was true. She explains how this place works to her, how to protect her body as much as possible in an environment that is inherently destructive to the human body. Radiation, bacteria, viruses. It all leads to death, and everyone there is falling apart every single day. It’s a work camp designed to break them down, with no respite. But then the story turns. The medicine was poison all along. The woman dies in agony, while Emily tells her that her sins cannot be forgiven, that her love for a forbidden man does not dignify and exalt her, or allow her forgiveness for her sins. Emily takes her revenge on her, for allowing a Handmaid to be raped each month by her husband, for being a willing cog in the wheel of Gilead, clinging to religion to justify her acts, playing the demure believer after allowing so much wrong to happen to another woman. Later, the wardens will find her dead body bound to a makeshift cross, an act of symbolic revenge that surely must have been communal. 

June begins this episode by musing about how impossible it is to imagine the bounds of Gilead if Gilead is within everyone, if it only took such little time for all of these beliefs and thoughts to become natural. She says, automatically, without much thought, “Under his Eyes” to one of her saviours, and he responds, with the same ease, “after a while, crocodile”. If Gilead is mainly a set of belief about the inferiority of women and the evil of anything that does not confirm with conservative beliefs about gender roles and male supremacy, then Gilead knows no bounds, because it has always been there, lurking in the shadows, in spite of any progress made. Emily and her wife have only been able to marry for a short time in the first place. Emily tells her student that she will still have to survive all the misogyny of trying to make it in a male-dominated field. There is no pretence her about the current time being too far removed from what Gilead eventually becomes, which is precisely why Gilead happens with such ease and with so little resistance. 

June literally fucks Nick on the remains of critical journalism in this episode, after finding it impossible to run away on her own. She becomes an archaeologist of a time she still remembers, a time where women held jobs and people believed in marriage equality and watched Friends on DVD. Does it matter if you fell in love? Emily loved her wife and in the end it meant nothing, it meant letting her and her son leave to make sure they were safe. I don’t think love can exist in a world where there is such a power differential, so whatever Nick and June have – and it looks like desperation, like wild-eyed temporary rebellion – feels meaningless (and like such an odd, unfitting distraction in this episode). There is something pure and edifying in Emily’s refusal of forgiveness, in her insistence that guilt and revenge still mean something, even in this landscape of complete destruction of nature and humanity. 

Except just then, in this moment, a red robe emerges from the bus that delivers newcomers, and Janine steps off, and in spite of everything, Emily’s first instinct is to embrace her. 

Random notes: 

In this episode, because The Handmaid’s Tale has always attempted to be an extrapolation of current times, and to take its horror from the idea that a direct line can be drawn from Now to Gilead: journalists murdered, ICE agents deciding what constitutes a family, and who has a right to leave and stay (ironically, they are preventing safety by keeping people from leaving, rather than deporting them here, which I am sure is a very intentionally irony on the part of the creators of the show, because for what other reason would they have chosen to show the ICE acronym as much as they do here). 

I am so glad that Alexis Bledel is back, and it is very hard to explain how she accomplishes this range of emotions with Emily, and how amazing that is in a show that already thrives on whatever magic Elisabeth Moss possesses. As much as it is a valid debate whether The Handmaid’s Tale shows violence against women for the sake of eliciting a response, and whether it is worth it to go through the gruelling terror of watching these episodes (and sometimes I wonder what it feels like to watch these episodes as a man), I think the acting on its own is worth it. 

Clea DuVall plays Emily’s wife, an incredibly effective performance, particularly because she says so little, because there is nothing more than a kiss to end it all. It hits where it hurts – an airport, where people say goodbye all the time, except their goodbye is forever, and still from the outside it looks like such an everyday thing, a kiss and an embrace. This episode fucking floored me.