Monday, 16 September 2019

“Here am I. Send me!”


Unbelievable begins with an hour-long episode that may count among the darkest and most hopeless hours of television that I have watched this year. This includes Chernobyl, which is like Unbelievable in that it tracks a catastrophe from the horrible effects on its victims to the trial meant to reveal who is responsible, to explain what happened and reach a meagre catharsis. The first episode follows Marie (Kaitlyn Dever, destined for greatness ever since her break-out run as Loretta McCready on Justified eight years ago) through the first moment after a rape. The first police officer arrives to take her statement, and she relives what happened – the details of a sexual assault, the impressions of a violation, and her attempt to tell a story about them as clearly as possible, while having to go through the memories of something so horrible. And then, other cops show up, and make her re-tell it again. And again. And then they take her to a medical examination without much explanation or preparation, and she must tell her story again. And again, at the police station. And again, a few days later, after her most recent foster mother has decided to approach the police and to insinuate that Marie’s story must be untrue, because she has reacted differently than expected to the rape (this is a moment in the story that I find utterly unforgivable, the character of Judith, who hides behind wanting the best for Marie, and yet doing the worst). It is then, at least, that we, the viewer, realise that the purpose of this exercise is not to find as much information about the perpetrator as possible to apprehend and stop him from raping more women. It is to discredit Marie, to write her experience and her trauma off as lies. Inevitably, this is what happens – and Marie, under severe pressure, wanting the torture that a psychologist will later call a second assault to end, recants her statement, says she has lied. We know she didn’t, that from the little backstory that we have of Marie’s life, this is just another person who should take responsibility for her well-being, and for the community, failing utterly in their duties. 

This is maybe a good time to point out that all of this is based on a true story, that much of Unbelievable follows the reporting in ProPublica’s An Unbelievable Story of Rape, step by step, from incompetency to betrayal. All these things happened to Marie. All these things happen, day after day, to other women who report on being raped, and aren’t believed or taken seriously. 

And then we begin the second episode of Unbelievable, which mirrors the first in that it tracks the first moment of an investigation into a rape. But this time, everything is different. This time, the detective that we follow is Karen Duvall, played by Merritt Wever (who, impossibly, follows up Zoe Barkow from Nurse Jackie, and Mary Agnes from Godless, with another performance that takes her to completely different places – and I think this is the right moment to say that Wever is one of the most interesting and talented actresses currently working). This time, the first moments of Amber’s (Danielle Macdonald) interaction with the police investigating her rape aren’t traumatising, but gentle, empathetic, suited to the occasion. Where Detective Parker approached Marie like a perpetrator, like someone who had to prove that the crime had happened, Karen never doubts what happened to Amber. She is here to collect evidence, to catch who did this, and she respects Amber enough to explain the process to her, to not have her be overwhelmed by what will be asked of her. The interview that follows, the statement that Karen obtains, is the opposite of Parker’s. She knows what she is after, and she finds Amber brave and brilliant, capable of revisiting the moment of her worst trauma in great detail, providing information about the perpetrator because in this moment of her worst nightmares, she was present enough to keep him talking, to learn as much about him as she could. 

It’s impossible to describe how different this interaction is from what is done to Marie – I think it should be widely studied, not just by law enforcement but by any institution that interacts with traumatised people. I think the conclusion here that women should be the ones first to interview rape victims to prevent what happened to Marie is incorrect: anyone who is incapable of doing what Karen accomplishes here should be disqualified from police work, regardless of gender. There is nothing inherently feminine about Karen’s approach to Amber’s questioning, it’s just that she sees her as a person, takes her seriously as a human being who has just gone through a horrible experience. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be a detective. 

Unbelievable walks a fine line here between being concerned about the statistics of crime (the most discrepancies between rapes and reported rapes, the fact that so few perpetrators are ever convicted, the correlation between domestic violence and rapes) and showing the people who are affected by it. The show makes a point about the former by portraying the latter – removing the veil of the anonymous victim, showing in detail how gruelling the process is, how by default the retelling of the story reinforces the trauma. It also gives ample space to each of the women who share their stories with Karen – and later, to Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), once Karen has realised that the perpetrator is a serial rapist who knows that police departments in different counties do not speak to each other about the details of the crimes they are investigating – it is impossible not to see them whole beyond this one experience. Amber, Evelyn (Traisa Gary), Daisy (Hendrix Yanzey) and Doris (Jayne Taini). Each of them has things to contribute to the investigation that end up being essential, and each of them has their life made smaller and more terrifying because of the man who has committed the crime. In the end, after all it done, the most galling thing, the most unforgivable thing, is the fact that the first time Christopher McCarthy (Blake Ellis) did this, he was sloppy enough to leave enough evidence for the police to find him. In the end, the most unbelievable thing is that if Detective Parker had believed that Marie was the victim of a crime, he may have captured McCarthy before Amber, Evelyn, Daisy and Doris ever had to suffer. 

The quote “Here I am. Send me” is a bible quote that Karen Duvall, as well as the detective she is loosely based on, have affixed to their dashboard. It is a reminder that they have chosen to do this job that needs to be done by someone. It is also a reminder of how seriously Duvall takes the job, so much so that she stays behind if the job isn’t finished, that she foregoes nights with her family when she knows that the perpetrator is still out there. Grace Rasmussen isn’t any less dedicated, but more experienced than Duvall, and some of the best and most memorable moments in the show come from them talking about the job, about the responsibility and the toll that it takes to do this day after day. The almost are the worst part of this. During the investigation, Marie’s case is almost connected, until Parker says he’s dismissed her, he’s reclassified her statement as false. As much as this is a series that follows the meticulous investigation that eventually leads to the arrest of the perpetrator, it is also a harrowing portray of how Marie is let down again and again. 

It’s a narrative choice following the original reporting of the case to track the progress of Duvall and Rasmussen along with the fall-out that Marie faces from her attempt to report her rape. After recanting her statement, she loses her friends who blame her for falsely reporting a rape. Then she loses her job, one of the few things tethering her to a pathway out of the foster system she has grown up in. Then she loses her housing, in a final straw. A series of events, all caused by Parker’s decision to not believe her, a pathway which has only one slim bit of light: a court-appointed psychologist (Brooke Smith, memorable in a small role) who realises half an hour into their appointment that Marie was raped – and does so, astoundingly, after asking her for her interpretation of Zombieland. Marie correctly states that the monsters to look out for in zombie narratives are always the humans, because the zombies can’t help their violence - whereas the humans opportunistically choose to do damage. A series of events that ends only when Duvall and Rasmussen are successful and apprehend the rapist. 

They find photos of Marie in the rapist’s stash, and in a phone call to Parker, reveal her story to have been true all along. Parker is shamed for his incompetence, and he is not forgiven for it, not by Rasmussen or Marie, even though he approaches both of them to find some kind of absolution (in a moment of self-awareness, he says he always knew about bad cop but he never thought that this would apply for him -and that maybe, the force would be better off with him gone). The payout from the city once Marie sues it is enough to begin a new, freer life somewhere else, and in the closest this show comes to actual catharsis (because somehow, the consecutive life sentences for the rapist could never be enough to make up for the suffering) is a phone call between Duvall and Marie, in which Marie thanks both her and Rasmussen for finding justice. It’s one of the most moving moments in the story, because it opens a whole parallel universe in which Marie’s suffering would have been reduced if only the first person at the scene had been either of these women. 

As incomparable and without peers this show is, I was reminded of Mindhunter’s second season, which has a similar focus on what happens if the criminal justice system does not take the concerns and the sufferings of one marginalised group seriously. The great grief of Unbelievable is the fact that maybe, had Parker done his job, some of the suffering could have been prevented. The perpetrator himself claims that he could have been stopped earlier, when his methods were less involved. Similarly, in Mindhunter’s second season, Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford stumbles into a non-existent investigation into the Atlanta child murders, realising that the unwillingness to take young, black victims seriously or to award them the same kind of importance that they would a white child has made Atlanta police blind to the presence of a serial killer. 

Television shows and movies about police procedure have been overwhelmingly over-represented for decades now – I think the question here is, what should we expected from them? Especially where one the least comprehensible characters in Unbelievable, Marie’s foster mother, used her knowledge of one such popular crime show as an excuse to justify why she thought Marie’s experience of rape had never happened. And what is the moment of justice in Unbelievable? Is it the conviction of the rapist who pleads guilty at the trial? Is it the $150,000 of compensation that Marie is awarded in a settlement with the city? Is it when Parker finally apologises to her, and she asks of him to do better next time? It’s the same, in Mindhunter. The apprehension of the serial killer paints over the systemic issue that the crimes against black children were not investigated for so long. Marie’s moment of personal justice is when she finally free – at the beach, where she drove in her own car, finally free of the institutions that have determined her whole life, thanking Karen for her efforts. More widely, there will never be a satisfying answer to this question of justice for as long as the statistics looks the way they do. 

Unbelievable (2019) created by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever. 

Mindhunter (2017-), created by Joe Penhall, starring Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Jonathan Groff.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Dublin Murder Squad

First trailer is out, looks like for now we're getting Into the Woods and The Likeness, but I'm very curious how they'd approach doing Broken Harbour.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Reading List: August.

Non-Fiction: 

Jia Tolentino: Trick Mirror. Reflections on Self-delusion.

Fiction: 

Samantha Shannon: The Priory of the Orange Tree.
Riley Redgate: The Final Draft.
Gillian Flynn: The Grownup.
Laura McHugh: The Wolf Wants In.
Laura Lippman: Lady in the Lake.
Laura Lippman: What the Dead Know. 
Laura Lippman: And When She Was Good.
Laura Lippman: After I'm Gone.
Laura Lippman: To the Power of Three. 
Laura Lippman: Sunburn. 
Laura Lippman: The Most Dangerous Thing.
Laura Lippman: I'd Know You Anywhere.
Claire LeGrand: Sawkill Girls.

Films: 

What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Deep Space Nine (2018, Ira Steven Behr, David Zappone).
Ponyo (2008, Hayao Miyazaki).
The Australian Dream (2019, Daniel Gordon).

Shows: 

Jane the Virgin, Season 5.
Mindhunter, Season 2.
Killjoys, Season 1.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

The Handmaid's Tale - Table of Contents

Season One: 

Offred
Birth Day
Late
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
Faithful
A Woman's Place
The Other Side
Jezebels
The Bridge
Night

Season Two: 

June
Unwomen
Baggage
Other Women
Seeds
First Blood
After
Women's Work
Smart Power
The Last Ritual
Holly
Postpartum
The Word

Season Three: 

Night
Mary and Martha
Useful
Bless the Child
Unknown Caller
Household
Under His Eye
Unfit
Heroic
Liars
Sacrifice
Mayday



The Handmaid’s Tale – This can’t have been for nothing.

 The Handmaid's Tale: 3x13 Mayday.


And the Lord said, 'I have seen my people in bondage, and I have heard their cry. I know their sorrows and I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place to a land flowing with milk and honey.’
A flashback to the beginnings of Gilead. Women, herded like cattle, divided by worthiness, those deemed unworthy taken away – we can guess their fate, because there are no people with disability left in Gilead. June, still a woman with no concept of how far this place will go, pleads with a guard, tells him that her child has been taken away from her. Under normal circumstances, this would be the breaker. Nothing is taken more seriously than lost and stolen children. Except, always, throughout history, a relative statement – the children of white, American mothers. And now, in Gilead, no longer the children born out of wedlock, or second marriages.

June began to comprehend the ruthlessness of these men, and the fact that it brought them to top, as they would not have won without it. This is why it is so ridiculous, and ahistorical, to demand that a resistance to fascism be peaceful and non-violent, why the equation of anti-fascist and fascist violence is wrong. Gilead does not consider women fully women, and considers them unworthy beyond their ability to give birth. A regime which categorises humans into worthy and unworthy will never hesitate to create a system of violence and murder to achieve its goals. June thinks back to that lesson now, readjusting what she believes are effective measures to destroy Gilead, realising that the only way to beat the ruthless is to become ruthless herself.
June: Where does it come from, this talent for ruthlessness? It seems so easy for them, for men like these. That’s how they won, I suppose.
It isn’t about being right, about having the people or god on your side. It isn’t anything that grandiose. In the end, victory goes to the hardest heart. To the ruthless go the spoils.
Along with this lesson about ruthlessness, in the days and hours before the impossible rescue, June also receives some words of wisdom from Aunt Lydia, which were meant differently than June interprets them. Lydia tells her that the other Handmaids look up to her, and therefore, she must lead by example, understanding that popularity means responsibility. It’s interesting that Aunt Lydia still, after everything that has happened, believes that the responsibility of popularity could ever lead back to a more powerful Gilead, and not a uniformed group of women finally understanding that there is power in togetherness and unity. In the end, the fallacy of Gilead’s regime of men is the arrogance of power – in not recognising women as fully human, Gilead underestimates the will of the women it subjugates to fight for freedom. It’s the same kind of arrogance, except on a much grander scale, that had Fred believe that Serena would support him regardless of how much he took away from her and denied her.

It helps that the men we have been shown to lead Gilead have been so uniformly weak, even when they appeared physically strong. They are plagued by personal weaknesses and shortcomings; they are propped up by an ideology that paints them as infallible while they do nothing but stumble and stutter. You’d believe that part of Commander Lawrence’s disgust with the world he has created just stems from how utterly idiotic the men are that he is surrounded with, that he suffers mostly from the irony of having built a cage not just for all the women of Gilead, but also for himself, with the inability to ever escape these pathetic men. A world that rewards ruthlessness and heartlessness over other features – such as the bravery we will see in this episode, the empathy, the bond between the women fighting Gilead – is doomed to failure.

Much of Mayday is a waiting game. To prepare for the day, the Marthas pool their resources, calculate how many provisions it will take to feed 52 children, grease the gates at the Lawrences so that the arrival of the children can be kept a secret. The children arrive – by foot, from miles and miles away, brought by brave Marthas willing to risk everything to allow these children a better life. June cares for the first early arrival, a ten-year-old called Kiki – bright, but with barely any memory of a world before Gilead, and therefore a reference point for what the world outside of Gilead looks like. June is gentle with her, even though everything she does must remind her of her lost daughter.
One of the questions here is the realness of Mayday. Will there be a plane? And who is Mayday, if it doesn’t have a central organisation, if the closest that it come to leadership is a group of Marthas, who claim to decide priorities? The answer is that Mayday is anyone – it’s most of all, the Lawrences’ younger Martha, who wants to be part of this, who is sick of being left out. Mayday is the antidote to what we were shown in the first scene, women being herded into trucks.
(but there is also a conflict between the individual goodness, the empathy, and the requirements of the greater task at hand – when Kiki’s Martha changes her mind and tries to take the girl back, June points a gun at her, as she is putting the whole rescue operation in danger, and she eventually points it at Kiki, in a moment of panic).

When the operation veers and there is danger of failure, Commander Lawrence threatens to call everything off, but of course the gun that June was given by him comes back into play. It will inevitably be fired – an educated man such as Joseph Lawrence must have been aware of that. He clings to the old ways, he believes himself to be in charge even as he is surrounded by all these women, risking their lives. June first pleads with him, telling him that the sacrifices can’t have been for nothing, and he responds, in typical cynical manner, that the universe doesn’t have a balance sheet – except if that were true, June would lose all hope. So she does what she was always meant to do, she takes the power away from him.
June: Men. Fucking pathological. You are not in charge. I am. You still think this is your house?
In the end, more than 52 children gather in the dark house. It’s a moment of grace but also one of sadness, considering how desperate Mrs Lawrence was for children, and how involved she became in the end in their rescue. Joseph reads to them – Treasure Island – and proves that this whole time, maybe what he meant to be was a storyteller. He will stay behind, because there is nothing to live for anymore either on this or the other side of the border.

And then, on foot they go, one by one, following the breadcrumbs into the woods. It’s an increasingly unlikely rescue, as the security forces are closing in. At the airfield, June realises that there is only one way out – the guard, positioned there, needs to be distracted so that the procession of children can board the plane. She must be ruthless, not in order to destroy, but in order to save. It’s like everything has been cumulating to this moment, June’s crises, the gun places in her hand, the fact that she can no longer see a way to save Hannah and has instead chosen to save everyone else’s children. She goes off by herself, ready to die, but then, because Aunt Lydia was right when she said that there was power in being looked up to, the other women follow her. The Marthas and fellow Handmaids throw stones at this random man, who has the whole power of Gilead vested in him. Many of them die. But then June runs – and saves everyone – and slays her second monster, with the gun that Joseph gave her.

The plane lands in the safety of Canada, welcomed by Moira, Emily and Luke, who still has hope that Hannah will be one of the saved children. Instead, Kiki is the miracle, the girl who was lost for five years, who has no memory of a world before Gilead, and still recognises her father straight away. And the best moment – maybe my favourite – is Rita arriving here, shell-shocked, in a strange land, but comforted by Emily, meeting Luke for the first time.
Rita: She did this. June. Your June. She did this.
And across the cruel border, June is carried home by a procession of Handmaids.


Random notes:

Across the border, Serena is teased with the prospect of freedom, given a hall pass by Mark, and the idea of looking around her new city. Except, expectedly, Commander Waterford sets her up out of spite, sharing with the ICC that his wife was instrumental in June’s rape by Nick, a trespass that negates the immunity granted to her, since it happened without any coercion by Gilead.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale – I’m proud of you.

The Handmaid’s Tale: 3x12 Sacrifice.



What happens to kind people in Gilead? How can anyone preserve a shred of human dignity in a regime that is built on denying the humanity of fifty percent of its population? 
June’s plan to rescue the children of Gilead is ambitious and grand, so far beyond anything anyone has expected that several people have told her she will die trying. But at every step on the way, her response has been a resounding yes. Baskets and baskets of muffins from the Marthas of the families that harbor stolen children, and another basket even from the cynical young man who bartends at Jezebels and is in contact with the smugglers who pilot the secret planes. Her plan is outrageous, but the amount of support she has for it is overwhelming, and more than any other struggling character on this show has ever received. 
We began this season with Commander Lawrence’s accusation that June is transactional. This was a statement made by a man living with great privilege, a man instrumental in the creation of a world in which it is essential for women to be transactional if they want to survive. We haven’t glanced across the border to see how Emily is coping in democratic Canada in a while, but her struggle to readjust to a normal life has made it clear how far removed from that Gilead is, and how much of a shock the adaptation to Gilead is. June is transactional because she has to be, there is no other way to survive in Gilead, and it is even more necessary when she is trying to accomplish something for the greater good. The thing to remember here is that June is beyond saving Hannah, as she doesn’t even know where her daughter is – the flight she has successfully organised will not include Hannah, nor any of the children beyond the reach of their Martha communication network. June is doing this for the other hurt mothers who have been robbed of their babies, and she is doing it to make Gilead and all the families who have been profiting from this system of institutional rape hurt. 
Also, for the first time in a long time, June got lucky. Commander Lawrence gave her a gun, expecting the forces to roll in at any moment after the death of Winslow, but instead, the ominous approaching of a van, followed by boots on the stairs, is only a group of panicked Commanders, trying to strategize with Joseph about what to do after the Waterfords’ arrest in Canada. Winslow, for now, is only missing, since the women who helped out June at Jezebels have done a good job at getting rid of his body. Voices are calling for war in retaliation for Fred’s arrest, and Lawrence, cautious what a closing of the borders would mean for the transport he has just successfully organised, attempts to cool the tempers. 



Across the border, Fred and Serena are in a holding facility (a luxurious one, like a minimalist hotel with locked doors), Fred raging against what has happened, assuring Serena that Gilead will negotiate for their freedom – until Serena’s pleading with him makes him realise what has actually happened. It’s funny almost how long it takes him, as if he is somehow still underestimating his wife (who, as we’ve been told before, has always been able to out-think and out-write him, at least when she was still allowed to do the latter). Of course all of this is of Serena’s making, and at some point, unobserved, she placed a phone call on that ticking time bomb of a secret phone and traded Fred for Nichole. I wish we knew more about Mark, the man who saw that opportunity the first time he encountered Serena, who recognised her transactional nature and the fact that she wanted so much more out of the whole regime that she created with her thoughts. Fred is on his own now, and Serena gets to see Nichole (Moira and Luke hesitant, but presumably aware of how this solution is better than fearing for Nichole’s life in the negotiations that were happening between Canada and Gilead). I wonder where Serena will go from here – it’s hard to believe she will be satisfied with an occasional visit – and it appears that Mark knows about her potential, since he tries to engage her political mind, trying to gain her trust by showing how seriously he takes her intellect. 

To complete the triptych of women at the centre of Sacrifice, Eleanor Lawrence stands as the example of what Gilead does to women who are inherently incapable of being transactional. Faced with the prospect of children being rescued from a place she considers abhorrent; she can’t make the kind of calculations that June makes. She isn’t capable of being pragmatic about the lives of children, pragmatic the way that June was when she picked who got to live from the women in cages that Joseph showed her. If there is a way to save the children, then all the children must be saved from living in Gilead. Eleanor’s mind makes her believe that this is a common goal, which has a rationality to it – because any kind, rational person must truly recognise how horrible Gilead is, and how essential it is to protect children from living here. But of course Gilead has destroyed any such rationality, has created its own parallel universe of virtues, one that is impossible for Eleanor to navigate. 
She does not understand that there are people she needs to keep secrets from. She raved about saving the children, unaware that this is a secret plan, not one widely shared. And therefore, she becomes a terrible liability, one that is becoming more and more dangerous the closer the departure date is. June knows this, and very probably, Commander Lawrence knows this, but June is the one who walks up to Eleanor’s room and finds that she has taken an overdose of whatever pills she had left, and instead of saving her life, gently closes the door. It’s June’s calculation – the life of one kind woman against that of the 62 children she will fit on the plane – and Gilead is the reason why she has to trade one life for that of many, has to make such an impossible decision. Of all the burdens that June has had to bear, maybe this one will prove the hardest to shake, and one of the questions that arises from Joseph’s accusation is – who will June be, once she manages to leave Gilead behind? It’s Fred’s threat, across the border, when he tries to demonstrate his ridiculous, remaining power to Luke: telling him that the Gilead he helped create has turned June into someone he won’t even recognise once she returns to him. 

Random notes: 

Interested to see where the Waterford plot goes, and what Mark’s intentions are here – he knows exactly how to play this, feeding Fred’s ego by telling him he wants him to explain Gilead to the world (while the other truth is that if Fred goes to the Americans instead of The Hague, he will be executed).

A very nice moment, and I guess maybe the last chance, of bonding between Rita and June over the news of the Waterfords’ arrest. I’ll miss Rita, should there be no place for her in June’s future. 
Moira: You are still the same woman that held down my friend so your husband could rape her. You know, he raped me too. At the whorehouse. Treated me like shit, like I was worthless. Look I am who I am and I have sinned plenty. But you, you are the gender traitor. 
Moira reminding everyone who may feel differently about Serena now what kind of woman she is, and what she has done.  

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale – We all could have done something.

The Handmaid's Tale: 3x11 Liars.


It’s been a very, very long three years, and there have been many moments throughout those three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale where I’ve felt that the show is deliberately trying to grind us, the viewers, down, to make a point about how grim Gilead is and by association, how awful it is that there are tendencies in the world that are attempting to achieve a real-world Gilead. Keeping all of that in mind, Liars is to an extent almost a wish-fulfilment episode, and more so than any other previous moment of triumph (because it was hard to see Emily’s attack and the explosion at the centre in that light, considering how much life was lost, and where it lead Emily after). 

Let’s follow Serena and Fred to start off with. After Serena’s suggestion that Fred is going nowhere with his attempts to leverage Nichole to achieve a treaty with Canada, she contacts her old friend, honeytrap Mark Tuello (who will always be Joel from Parenthood to me), and they make their way towards a secret meeting place at the border. Before that, Serena says goodbye to Rita – a more heartfelt goodbye than you might have expected, from the way that their relationship started – in which Rita asks Serena if she is certain that returning Nichole to Gilead is the best thing to do. Serena takes that question very seriously, as we will see soon. 
It’s an interesting road trip because it once again strips down the Waterfords to who they supposedly were before all of that. They constantly attempt to get back to that moment before, especially Serena, who once again evokes their simple apartment above the bakery. It’s almost a classical relationship moment – they are on a holiday, and they are falling into the holiday trap of believing that this version of them that is without responsibilities, without the day-to-day burdens of Gilead, is somehow more true or pure than who they are in Gilead, and have been this whole time. There is a lot of longing here for a different time that escalates when they reach a charming house in the woods in which a large family lives happily without the trappings of modern life and nothing but each other’s company. It is the kind of beautiful idyll that is rooted so deeply in the American imagination, and it is probably also one of the things that lives prominently in the Gileadan ideal of the good life – simple people, far removed from the corrupting influence of the city, stripped of the influences of progress, and therefore somehow more real than anyone else could ever hope to be. It’s the same kind of fake fantasy that makes people chase wilderness, only to perish in it – because it’s impossible to outrun identity. 
The only community here that matters is that of family, and there is no more outside world or outside influence to consider. Fred and Serena take off into the woods, debating if they could ever live such a life, and Fred insists that this life, with Nichole, is all he wants – that he can exist without the power and the influence. But – I don’t think that Serena buys this for a second. She buys the idea of it, the fantasy that the man she married all those years ago could be content with this simple life, but there is nothing that she can base this hope on. Remember that the first time we met him, he was so obsessed with showcasing his power to June, and how much freedom it bought him in a place like Gilead. He flaunted his power, and he has been following High Commander Winslow like a puppy hoping that it could buy him a place in an even higher position of power. He’s all but given up on Nichole, and sees her as a means to an end to achieve a more influential position in the Gileadan regime. And Serena knows all this, and she knows that he sold what is most important to her to create a world in which a man like him can be powerful (because remember how much more naturally gifted Serena is for all of this, and how much she loved writing before Gilead took that away from her). Fred is a selfish, power-hungry man, and worse than that, he’s not even very good at any of those things. To think that taking him away from the corrupting influence of power would achieve the nostalgic beauty of their first years of marriage is a mirage. Fred goes as far as to admit to Serena that he has always known that he is the reason why they couldn’t have children before Serena’s injury, that throughout all those years of going through the ceremony (remember how June’s predecessor killed herself because of what Fred did to her?) were for absolutely naught. 
I don’t think Serena believes that this man who she used to love is capable of putting this idea of a family before his ambitions. Which is why I think that what happens at the end of the episode isn’t a complete surprise to her. 
The whole scene plays out amazingly. They meet up with Agent Truello, who says he will take them to a secret meeting place. They drive and drive, further than what seems reasonable, through the beautiful landscape. And it befits Fred that he never truly questions it, that he mostly blames Mark for the inconvenience of it, or misstating it as a short trip. Of course, in Fred’s imagination, Gilead would stretch forever, because he hasn’t much concerned himself with the limits of Gilead. Except, as it turns out, they have quietly slipped across that bloody, bloody border, that has cost so many lives, into a legal space in which Fred is arrested as a war criminal. The thing about holidays is that you can never outrun your own bullshit for more than a few hours, it always catches up with you, and place doesn’t determine identity. It’s hard to read Serena’s face, but I think she knew that this would happen, and she lost all faith that she could be closer to Nichole by any other means. 

Elsewhere, very firmly back in Gilead, there’s June, grappling with the revelation that there are so many Marthas happy to help. 52 children, and only the logistics of freeing them to figure out. It seems like an impossible feat to accomplish, especially with the crackdown, but Lawrence is no longer in a position to argue, especially after June convinces Eleanor to lay down a gun she aims at her husband for raping June. Lawrence knows that the clock is ticking, that this world he has created which has underestimated the importance of mental health and the maternal instinct is coming for him and his wife. 
He’s enough of a coward (of course he is) to try and run away, leaving June with figuring out how to still accomplish her plan (after she goes through the trouble of convincing a group of Marthas who must be higher up in Mayday that her plan isn’t going to interfere with one of their “shipments”). But he returns, telling her that he can no longer organise trucks because he no longer has the codes necessary to pass the checkpoints. Gilead has turned against him, and has finally turned into a cage even for the man who has so far eluded its influence. 
June realises the only way to do this is to use the Marthas’ transport plane, which is bringing some kind of delivery into Gilead (perhaps it’s explosives, seeing as June helped to smuggle that chemist out), as a vessel for the children on the return flight. She has Lawrence take her to Jezebels, so she can talk to the Marthas’ contact person there. Billy the bartender is hesitant to participate in the deal, even for all the art in the Lawrences basement (you’d imagine it would be hard to trade that art for anything these days), and just as June is about to leave, she runs into High Commander Winslow. 
Has there ever been a character who more perfectly impersonates the kind of toxic masculinity that Gilead empowers? Where Fred is thin and pallid, Winslow is hulking, a man aware of his physical power and how intimidating it is. Nobody would enjoy hurting June, who stands for what he despises, more. It’s a slow escalation, from where Winslow seems to be enjoying claiming something that he thinks is Fred’s, to June attempting to see this as just another time where she leaves her body to become an uninterested observer, to the moment when June snaps and can’t do this one more time. They struggle, and somehow, June gets the upper hand and overwhelms him. And then, when he tries to humanise himself in the wrongest way possible, reminding her that he stole all those children from other women, she finishes the job and kills him. 

It’s the closest that The Handmaid’s Tale has ever come to wish-fulfilment, and I’m pretty sure we’ll pay for it sooner rather than later. June slays a monster, and afterwards, falls into the competent hands of Marthas (one of which is from the cages that Lawrence made her choose from, someone whose life she saved by making a choice that sent others to the Colonies), who know all too well how to clean up messes. They steam the carpet, they remove bloodied sheets, they dispose of the body, like it’s the easiest thing of housekeeping. And somewhere in there, you get the sense that maybe the clock is ticking for Gilead. 

Random notes: 

Those driving scenes! Fred giving Serena the keys, as a taste of freedom, which really mostly serves as a reminder of how much Gilead has taken away from her! The spooky horror film music when Mark leads them across the border! 

Fucking Portishead!