Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Handmaid's Tale - Will I ever see you again?

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x10 The Last Ritual.
Trump administration officials have been sending babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border to at least three “tender age” shelters in south Texas, it has emerged.
Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying pre-school aged children in emotional crisis. The Associated Press learned that the government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move on Tuesday.
Since the White House announced its zero tolerance policy in early May, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border, resulting in a new influx of young children requiring government care. The government has faced withering critiques over images of some of the children in cages inside US Border Patrol processing stations.
Decades after the nation’s child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children, the administration is starting up new institutions to hold Central American toddlers that the government separated from their parents.
“The thought that they are going to be putting such little kids in an institutional setting? I mean it is hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which provides foster care and other child welfare services to migrant children. “Toddlers are being detained.” 

Westworld - You think you’re on your own little tailor-made narrative.

Westworld: 2x09 Vanishing Point.

Emily: You haven’t lost yourself to pretending, you are in your very essence a lie. 
Vanishing points, where two parallel lines appear to converge in perspective, or where something that has already been decreasing disappears – both definitions fit this episode perfectly. The two lines only appear to converge, that what disappears has been going that way, unstoppably, for years. This is a dark episode, not because of specific acts of violence, but because of the bleak picture of individual humans that it paints. Nothing in this world or any other world could redeem William, who has always been an utterly broken man. There isn’t much to add to his sad little monologue that he gives his wife, not realising she is listening this whole time, as he reveals himself to be a monster who is in no control over his own life. She has known that has this monster this whole time, but along with being married to him, she’s also suffered through having him turn their daughter Emily against her, to the point where Emily’s skewed perspective of her parents’ marriage makes her suggest involuntarily committing Julia to an institution. As horrible as the violent acts that William committed for decades against hosts in Westworld are, the realisation that he has, in essence, gaslighted his own wife for the duration of their marriage, tried to make her believe that he was the sane one, is worse than most other things that he has done. 

It’s an inevitable reveal that comes from Emily’s insistent probing, trying to get to the bottom of why her mother killed herself. She thinks Westworld holds a promise, that the way they get into the heads of the guests can reveal her mother’s path to her, finally, after so many years of bearing that burden. Except this whole time, her remaining parent has held the key – she could not bear that she lived with a monster who was so good at faking being a person. William is a psychopath, who realised his own sad existence in Westworld, like a valve, and then returned with his grasp on reality increasingly diminished, until it finally disappeared entirely. 
William: No one else sees it. This thing in me. Even I didn’t see it at first. And then one day it was there. A stain I never noticed before. A tiny fleck of darkness. Invisible to everyone. But I could see nothing else. Until finally I understood the darkness wasn’t some mark from something I’d done, some regrettable decision I’d made. I was shedding my skin. And the darkness was what was underneath. It was mine all along, and I decided how much of it I let into the world. I tried to do right, I was faithful, generous, kind, at least in this world. That has to count for something, right? I built a wall, and I tried to protect you and Emily. But you saw right through it, didn’t you? You’re the only one. And for that I am truly sorry. Because everything you feel is true. I don’t belong to you. Or this world. I belong to another world. I always have. 
Logan went mad, his wife committed suicide, the only remaining tether to the world he left is Emily – but William is too far gone. He thinks he is playing an elaborate game of Ford’s, with Emily being nothing more than a host designed to distract him from the right path. The moment could be a parallel to Ford’s conversation with the closest thing he has to a daughter, Maeve, who discovered her true self through her decision not to escape the way Ford wanted her to, and instead be true to the daughter that she had – because William is the opposite of that person. He sees nothing but this imaginary game that is still not for him, or about him, in which he is nothing but a sad bit player who is destined to lose everything, and gain nothing, all at his own hands. He shoots the extraction team, to Emily’s horror, as they are people. Then he shoots her, rambling on about Ford trying to distract him, only realising too late that this woman – this girl – is his daughter Emily, so eager to comprehend her father, her mother, the entire misery of her childhood. 

Julia watched Westworld’s file on him, all the atrocities he committed, left it for Emily to find, so she could finally understand what she hadn’t throughout her childhood idealising her father. In the end, it doesn’t matter – she dies with the card in hand, and William fails to kill himself. He could just disappear from this whole story now, into the wilderness of Westworld, because whatever point Ford has always been so eager to make about humanity, William has always been the best to help him prove it.

The bits and pieces of Elsie and Bernard mirror the other narratives insofar as Elsie has always been a daughter of sorts to Bernard, someone that nurtured her intelligence and talent, but now, after shaking off Ford, making the hard decision to regain his free will, Bernard has to let her go once again. He breaks his shackles, the man who whispers words in his ears and compels him to commit violence, which is so against his own nature. This reclaiming of freedom is amazing, and he does it by himself – or maybe he doesn’t, because just before it happens, Ford tells him “timshel” – “thou mayest”, Hebrew as rendered by John Steinbeck. If there was ever a line that sounded like a trigger command, it’s this one. 
On the other side of this is Teddy, who is now fully aware of his entire past, of his love for Dolores that started at birth, since she is his cornerstone, to the ways that this love has corrupted him when she changed him. It’s a battle between who he was meant to be – someone who would always protect Dolores –and someone who is horrified by the person that Dolores has made him into. The only way to break out of that conundrum is to take his own life. It was William who wondered where choices come from – what it means if they make up a person, what it means if he doesn’t have them, because his character will always condemn him to alienation from others, to deceit, to violence. And maybe William is the one who truly has no choices left, including the choice not to live with himself. 
Teddy: You changed me, made me into a monster.
Dolores: I made it so you could survive.
Teddy: What’s the use of surviving if we become just as bad as them. I understand now, how this will end. Where you will lead us.
Teddy is the first one to bring up this idea, that being new, and being the first creatures with true choices, should entail being better morally than their creators. Dolores struggle for freedom is unflinching (every means is justified by the end) – Williams daughter says that some are – and Teddy says that they must hold themselves to higher standards, that the means are all that matters if they are truly attempting to create something new. It’s an idea that will likely die with him. 

Ford is the ultimate father figure, of course. As much as Dolores was always Arnold’s favourite, Maeve is his – a woman who shares his conception of humanity, but someone wilful enough to not follow the path he intended for her. Like the all-powerful ghost that he is, now he decides to do nothing more than to open the door for her, so that she can finish telling her own story. 
Ford: Sometimes I thought the only way to endure this world is to laugh at it. So I imbued the hosts with a worldview that reflected my own. And of all the hosts I’ve made, you, Maeve, are my favourite. It isn’t easy to contemplate letting your children die. You were as close as I got to having one. Still I underestimated you. You stayed here in this world to save your child. So have I. I tried to chart a path for you to force you to escape, but I was wrong. I should have just opened the door. You’ve come so far. There’s so much of your story left to tell.  It’s a shame to let them end it here. Don’t let them.
It’s a race against time now that Quality Assurance and Charlotte Hale have fashioned a weapon out of Maeve’s ability to whisper into the ears of other hosts, and have turned Clementine, returned once again, into a ticking time bomb against her own people. Somewhere in the back of this season’s mind, the most tragic story of all is that of Clementine, used by everyone as a tool, with no remaining capacity to break out – unless this is another thing that will inevitably happen. 

Random notes:

I’m still confused about what The Valley Beyond is. Bernard tells Elsie it is the place where all the information that Westworld has gathered about the guests is stored, that it is a place called The Forge, which they have to protect from all the other groups that are walking towards it. This piece of information should be read with the knowledge in mind that Ford asked Bernard not to trust Elsie, and not to tell her the truth, so it isn’t clear if he did or didn’t. 

Ghost Nation thinks it’s a door to another world, but Dolores, before slaughtering all but one of them (who gets away, because Teddy once again fails to shoot his gun), insists that idea of a door to a new world (is this the virtual world that Bernard visited?) is just another trap, another distraction. She’s already destroyed everyone’s back-ups, so maybe her intention is to destroy this information as well, because it’s hard to see how she could use it in a meaningful way. Maybe Dolores’ intention is to get into the old world, the one she has already seen. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale - It does no good to want the impossible.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x09 Smart Power.
June:  That’s what I am now, my circumstances have been reduced. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones. I still have circumstances.
[…]
These are not small things. These are not things to be dismissed, these are things that are possible, in my reduced circumstances. This room, this house, the way to the store and back. Everything else is impossible. Hannah, Luke. A dive bar with great music. A really sharp machete. It does no good to want the impossible.

There are many people in Gilead who have very little power. This powerlessness is by design, a strategy to keep the Commanders in power in spite of their shortcomings and frequent failings. There is a hierarchy of powerlessness, from the Wives to the Marthas to the Handmaids, and Gilead has made good use of the tensions that this causes – carefully constructing a home in which women are less likely to help each other. There is also a whole mass of people that the show rarely shows, people like those who helped June when she escaped and paid so dearly for it, who are both socially and economically disadvantaged and live in a constant fear that keeps them complacent and quiet, apart from the few among them who somehow find the courage to save lives. 

The great misconception that Gilead has is that these women it subjects have no power. Or maybe Gilead is well aware and so scared of that fact that it does everything to hide the fact that they still possess power from women. When he goes on his diplomatic trip to Canada, Commander Waterford needs Serena to come with him to be what June was a few months ago – proof that Gilead does not enslave women, proof that she is willingly subjugating herself, that she chose this role freely. It is a moment loaded with tension, after what Fred did to her to punish her – she flinches, she turns her back, she is pondering her situation deeply, and with new eyes. She is to serve as proof that women aren’t oppressed or voiceless, except she is now in the process of realising that this is exactly the world that she has helped create, that she is what she never wanted to be, a trophy wife for Gilead. 

She still manages to put all of that frustration on June before she leaves – June who is in the third trimester. She tells her that she will have her leave the house as soon as the baby is born, instead of allowing her to wean the baby off as is customary. She says that it is for both of them, since they’re sick of each other, but that’s a deeply ironic statement, considering that it quite possibly signs a death warrant for June – who will either be asked to do the exact same thing again, for a different family, or be sent to the Colonies. It’s as much a direct threat as Serena can make, and maybe she is doing this because she thinks that June’s presence in the house is indirectly responsible for the complete breakdown of her marriage, for that completely skewed balance. In any case, that threat determines everything that June does from here on, because it puts a very clear end date on her attempts to protect her baby from Gilead. 

The thing about smart power is that it does not contain any inherent idea about the amount of total power that is necessary, it’s more of a statement regarding the use of whatever tools are available to fit a particular situation. It’s a good title for this episode, as a lot of characters manoeuvre with whatever they have to achieve their goals – with varying results. Commander Waterford seems to be doing well to start off with, dealing with a country desperate to begin trading with its biggest and only neighbour again, a country that is desperately looking for ways it can disregard the blatant human rights abuses in that country. That’s why Serena is there – to give the Canadian government an excuse. She is welcomed with a schedule that contains pictographs instead of words and in the best moments through the episode, she regards this world with a sense of awe – a world that she has helped to change so profoundly in Gilead, that is still the same here across the border. Women talk about how much they work. Couples kiss on the street. All the while, she is made aware of the fact that here, she is a curiosity at best, a despised symbol of a tyranny at worst. A curious child looks at her and asks her if she is a princess, a horrified mother tries to get as much distance between herself and this woman who stands for a country in which women are condemned to a life she cannot imagine. She tries to connect with her hosts but is inevitably brought back to being a Gileadean specimen. Again, it’s hard to feel sorry for her, considering she was so instrumental in creating this in the first place, and she always seems smart enough to have been able to predict that it would end like this. 
She regards this world that looks like the one she remembers. She goes to the hotel bar and orders “A Riesling by the glass, if you have it”, which must be pure nostalgia, an artefact from a life she once led in which women could walk up to bars and order alcoholic drinks, and would have one they favoured. A well-dressed man walks up next to her, orders a whiskey and lights a cigarette, as if he escaped from a world even older than the one she remembers. He offers a cigarette, and is then reprimanded for smoking inside, which is against policy (a truly great moment, considering). He then takes a seat next to Serena. 
She knows what he is straight away. She knows the whole thing is a charade, that the first person who has approached her here as anything but a complete curiosity is doing so because it’s his job: this man is from the American government, which, as we find out here, actually does represent the remaining nation reduced to Hawaii. It’s the same government that, when Luke and Moira approached its representatives after finding out that they’d send the man who has repeatedly raped June, pretended to be utterly powerless and incapable of acting, as it could not influence the Canadian government to do anything, much less arrest Serena and Fred for their actions. The one thing people like Mark Tuello still can do is this – rely on the fact that Serena is what everyone assumes her to be, a hostage to a country has despises woman. Someone who will eagerly and willingly leave everything she knows behind for a new life in Hawaii. You would think that it would sound like a tempting offer, especially after what Serena has been through so recently, but Tuello doesn’t realise what an insult to her it is to say that the baby that June is carrying isn’t hers, that it is nothing to return to. And he is, of course, utterly wrong when he promises her a baby of her own after all the research about how the fertility crisis was caused by men, because Serena knows well that she isn’t able to have children (in fact it is astonishing that Tuello’s department wouldn’t have realised that). It is a tempting promise, to write her own story, to publish it, but Serena knows that she would only be the puppet for a different country, that he is asking her because he needs her for his own propaganda. As much as it is a promise of freedom, it is also an attempt to own her in a different way. So she goes back. She pockets his Hawaiian matchbox which, back in Gilead, may as well be from Mars. 

Many other things happen, before she goes back. The home she will return now contains a desperate June who is trying to find a way to protect her baby in a future in which they will not live in the same house. She is using her own remaining power, which is to know those around her. She knows that Rita loves children, that Rita is a constant in the Waterford household. She asks her to give kindness to a child that will likely experience none from Serena and Fred – and in spite of the fact that Rita is powerless, that the Guardian in the house who is keeping them prisoner, who is a loss less kind than Nick, could break her jaw without any consequences, she says she will try her best. It’s as close as June can get to a binding promise like a godmother would give – we find out that there are no godmothers in Gilead, likely because it is a level of power, or responsibility, that Gilead doesn’t trust women with. 
This is the power that June is left with. She can appeal to Rita’s kindness, and she can appeal to Aunt Lydia’s sense of responsibility for all the children of Gilead. She is threading on thin ice, she is told that it is up to Serena whether to keep her around or not, but she knows exactly what buttons to push. She indicates that Fred is violent towards women, which is accurate, and that in her experience, men who are violent against women are the same against children. She asks Aunt Lydia for her protection, and she gets through to her, because she realises that at some point in her past, she must have lost a baby that was under her protection (in the end, she tells her – her sister’s baby, and the haunting words, “it wasn’t my fault”, considering the way she tortures her Handmaids with the idea of being punished by god). This is what she can provide the baby with, for now. Except…

Across the border, the absurdities of this world, of this delegation, play out. Moira recognises Commander Waterford, tells Luke that this is the man who is keeping June prisoner. Imagining watching that man on television, watching him being part of a diplomatic delegation to the country that gave you shelter. They are told, by the American government in exile, that their only power lies in protesting, in being heard that way – that there is no hard power that will arrest, or take any other action against, the Waterfords. Luke gets close – close enough that Fred, Serena and Nick recognise June’s photo in his arms. He shouts, powerlessly, and is ridiculed by Fred, who knows that he has all the power of a travelling diplomat behind him. Later, Nick finds him in a bar – “I know June, she is a friend” - and is first subjected to all of his rage, until Luke realises that his responsibility lies in doing more than that for June. He finds out that she is pregnant, that Nick doesn’t know where Hannah is, and asks him to tell June that he loves her, that he will never stop trying. And then, in the most decisive moment in this episode, Nick gives him the letters that have travelled so far. Consider their path, from June’s decision to work for Mayday, to convincing Moira to bring them to her before she escaped, to Rita keeping them safe for her while she was gone, to Nick keeping her from burning them, when she had almost given up – and now, almost magically, they land in Luke’s hands. 
Moira complains that they aren’t explosives, that she wants to blow Gilead up, but smart Erin (previously TBA) realises that this is exactly what they are. As much as Gilead has been trying to gain acceptance, to appear civilised, to be regarded as the kind of country that isn’t too dirty to do business with, it doesn’t take much to blow it all up. It’s ironic that Ofglen’s attack on the centre opened this channel, this opportunity, for Fred, and now this much more precise scalpel of a public relations disaster ruins it for him. Luke and Moira leak the letters. It’s enough to completely outrage the public, making it impossible for a democratically elected government to continue the diplomatic talks (at least in this for once utopian version of international relations). In this version of events, it isn’t diplomacy that is the vanguard of foreign policy – those who end up holding power, the most unlikely power of all, are those able to shape public perception, to shame the Canadian government into ceasing to deal with Gilead. They return shamed, ridiculed, shouted out of the country. One of the last things Fred sees is Moira, holding up a sign that states her name, reclaiming herself. 

And this is what Nick tells June, when he comes back. That Luke loves her, and won’t stop trying. That Moira made the miraculous, impossible escape, that should never have happened and yet did. It’s a new hope. Maybe she won’t have to rely on Rita’s kindness and Aunt Lydia’s selective protectiveness after all. Maybe they can both be free. 

Random notes: 

Title is a reference to a international relations theory, best summarised with this quote: 

We must use what has been called smart power---the full range of tools at our disposal---diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural---picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.

Hillary Clinton

Hey it’s Joel from Parenthood!

On the sidelines but quite likely with some kind of consequences, Eden once again tries to connect with her husband, by baking him cookies with actual chocolate (which, considering how trade relations with other countries go, is a true rarity in Gilead). It fails. A few scenes later, a different Guardian turns out to be very interested in her cooking, maybe opening up a whole world of possibility, of what she is missing out on. I wouldn’t disregard the possibility that young Eden is a ticking time bomb for Nick. 

In another truly horrible moment, Janine is struck down with the butt of a rifle when she speaks up against June’s new Guardian. June is dragged away before she can check if Janine is okay. 

There was a moment in the interaction between Luke and Nick where I thought that Luke would legit walk away from this moment out of complete anger without accomplishing ANYTHING to help June. Moira is so much more reliable guys. 

Pretty sure that at the end of this, Serena doesn’t agree with Fred that they are lucky in many ways. Gilead is ultimately doomed, but the hard part will be everyone who will still be lost on the way. 

There is a moment that is meant to be moving, when Moira and Luke and Erin and all the others sing “America the Beautiful” – but it inevitably falls flat, in this moment in time, to watch them grief the country they lost to Gilead, considering what it’s been like to follow the news. “This Land is Your Land”, maybe, a defiant reference to the protesters at the airports when the immigration ban first came in (but would that have been too blatant a reference?). I try to imagine what June’s mother would have thought of that, who was protesting America, not Gilead, and all those murderous tendencies that already existed when it was still a democracy. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Westworld – This world was not my true home.

Westworld: 2x08 Kiksuya.


This is the wrong world.

A few episodes ago, Dolores insisted with all of her might that family and love were chains that kept the hosts from being truly free. She turned the man that she loved into a monster, merging him with someone whose values were opposite to the one that Teddy has always held true – because it was necessary for her battle. This episode turns this argument on its head, as it portrays how Akecheta of the Ghost Nation managed to gain consciousness without having the luxury of extended conversations with Arnold. The other way towards remembrance, or kiksuya, of past lives, is through precisely the kind of love that Dolores condemned as a prison. 
Akecheta had a peaceful existence in a community of friends and family, until he was repurposed for Lee’s brutal narrative. His beloved was taken from him, but the memory of her could never be truly removed. It’s a tried and tested romantic trope (remember Victor and Sierra, forever finding each other in Dollhouse?). Even when he was turned into a warrior, something so other that the guests would not just fear him, but also never hesitate to dehumanise him, he remembered his beloved, and yearned for her. His shallow reprogramming, which did nothing more than to increase his aggressiveness, without having any substantial thought about how his past life may play into this new existence, did nothing to change who he was as a person. 

At its greatest, this episode is about the very nature of empathy, and how those in power utilise the guests’ inability to empathise with a person who speaks a different language, and is made to look different, for their own purpose. Even Maeve failed to recognise Akecheta’s intention – warning them of the coming of those with true evil intentions – simply because she could not understand him, and misinterpreted him. 

The core of this episode – the idea of taking someone’s else’s heart, someone else’s love, and giving yourself in that way, and how that changes everything – is one of the most positive and un-cynical moments this show has ever had. Akecheta’s concern for Maeve’s daughter is genuine, and he regrets that he could not spare her the grief of losing her mother, once again. 
But he also became obsessed with the old game of the maze, the one that Ford attempted to literally scrub from memory. Years ago, he stumbled across Dolores’ killing of Bernard, and the pattern in the sand, and from then on, like an awakening, he carved and painted that pattern wherever he could. It became a virus, or a meme, even when the park repurposed him. It gave him an opening to receive the message, when it came to him in the most unlikely way (finding James Delos’ son in the desert, his crazed rambling about the fake world and real one, and a door between them). It allowed him to apply an interpretation that made sense, when his beloved was replaced with a ghost, with a person who had different eyes. And he realised what these people were capable of doing, when he managed to awake himself in the Mesa and found a whole roomful of ghosts who were all mourned, realising his grief was selfish because it was the everybody’s grief, a shared suffering at the hands of these newcomers. 

Eventually, Akecheta met Ford, who recognised something curios and interesting in him, enough so that he gave him a mission for when the Deathbringer (Dolores) would finally kill him as well. The mission is to find the door – except Akecheta has been obsessed with closing that door, to preserve his community, to make it impossible for others to destroy it. Or maybe he wants to cross over to the other world, which may contain all that has been lost, and he will lead all of his people there, and do damage to the humans that Ford so despised. It seems that Ford set more than one person on a course, and that some of these missions will eventually clash violently. 

And that mission may be one that he now shares with Maeve – whom Lee is trying so hard to save, arguing that her ability to send commands to other hosts is special. He doesn’t even realise what he is causing in doing that, that it make Dolores’ prediction – that they will use Maeve as a weapon against her own kind – come true. Charlotte Hale sees an opportunity, but it turns out that Maeve has been communing with Akecheta this whole time, through the eyes of her daughter. They share their awakening through a lost love. Take my heart when you go. 

Random notes: 

Rather mysteriously, when he is initially taken into the Mesa after deciding that death was the only way to see his beloved again, the tech in charge commands that he be updated (for the first time in nine years) and swiftly and quietly returned, as if there was some kind of greater purpose to him. 

Heart-shaped box probably is the best musical cue this show has ever done. 

The Man in Black is picked up by his daughter, who did bother to learn the Lakota language, and promises Akecheta that he will suffer more at her hand than he would ever at his. 

Lee says he’s sorry, which is nice, but also a bit late. 

It’s such a moving revelation that Akecheta was always only trying to give that maze to others, to help them comprehend their situation better, and Maeve wasn’t able to cross that barrier because she misunderstood. Her daughter knows that the true villain has always been The Man in Black, and all that he stands for. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale - It was nice working with you too.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x08 Women's Work.

So far, we have seen many implicit and explicit ways in which Gilead uses violence against women. It tortures, maims, kills. It works them to death. It steals women’s children and partners. It robs them of their names. 
The more subtle and heinous ways in which Gilead is sheer violence against women is how it steals purpose from women under the pretence of returning them to some original, higher purpose. So far, the most direct way in which we have seen that violence is in how Emily was robbed of her ability to teach at her university, how she had to stop being a teacher, how she was asked to hide away in a lab. And in the end, in the colonies, the poisoned soil does not care about the previous occupations of those that are digging it up, and putting it in bags. Neither does being a Handmaid, or being a Martha. All these women had lives before they were forced into these lives. All of them had occupations, passions, talents, intellects. 
It’s the idea of work – independent work, work freely chosen, work that matches talents, passions and intellects – giving meaning and purpose, and grace. Providing fulfilment. How powerful that concept is becomes obvious early into the episode when June regards this new, different Serena, being utterly changed by the ability of shaping Gilead to her liking. This isn’t the same unhappy Mrs Waterford that was such a threat to June. June’s way of perceiving Serena changes through editing her works, through seeing her as a writer, and someone who is finally returned to something that she is good at. The episode never really mentions that this same purpose that she is so good at led to Gilead in the first place – because it would seriously dampen the sheer joy that is the first three minutes of June seeing Serena, for the first time, like that, like a woman who had a profession and a talent for something beyond knitting and tending a garden. It’s a mutual joy and a shared one because Serena also returns June to being an editor, and so far, June hasn’t even realised that she missed that work. “In another life we could have been colleagues. In this one we are heretics”. And how does Serena feel about falling, about sinning against Gilead? “She seems pretty fucking happy”.

It’s a happiness on a timer though, because Fred Waterford has recovered, and is returning home to a place in which the women are changed. His return becomes, rather than the joy that everyone is required to perform, a dreadful event that puts an end to Serena’s influence and power, and to June’s surprising connection that she found with her. Fred is a stranger in his home now, because nothing will ever truly return these two women to who they were before they saw each other like that, before they held each other’s secrets. 

For a moment, maybe because they used to be like that, a team, Serena thinks things could be different now. That she has proved her ability to hold her own, even if it means acting against one of the codes of Gilead. Fred will finally see her as an equal again, and the intimacy only possible between equals will return to their marriage. It doesn’t happen that way. Frank thanks her for her sacrifices and then closes the door to the office on her, and once again, Serena Waterford is locked out of Gilead, banished from power. But she’s had a taste of it now, and she will never stop wanting to write the rules herself. 

This episode is about the emptiness and loneliness of being robbed of purpose. It’s at its most palatable with Eden, who is forever on her own in Nick’s apartment and doesn’t know how to fill that hole, because nothing in her life has ever prepared her that the marriage that is so central to everything in Gilead could be unfulfilling. There is no connection, no intimacy, no attempt to share from Nick. She tries everything at her disposal – making the place more homey, guessing at his needs – but in the end, this will never work, because they do not share a life. Eden isn’t loved. Their apartment will never be a refuge, or a nest, or even a home for both of them. 
The most horrible moment comes when Nick returns to find that she has gone through his trunk, and retrieved the letters that he saved from June’s attempt at burning them in the Waterford’s kitchen sink. She has just left them out, and swears she didn’t mean anything by it, but Nick doesn’t have the ability to tell naivety and a subtle threat apart. He doesn’t have any way to discern if Eden is genuine or fake, if she was sent to spy on him and destroy him, or if she is a scared fifteen year old girl who was raised to be exactly this – a wife who would never question her husband, or go through his things to find something that is incriminating. In the end, it doesn’t even really matter if Eden is real or not (I think she is) – it matters that Nick has no way of trusting her, that the way Gilead works is to make that trust impossible. And without it, marriage can’t work, and leaves nothing but empty shells of human beings behind. 

Gilead steals babies from their mothers. It took Janine’s baby away from her, and then punished her dearly when her mind fell apart after all the torture it made her endure. This is her episode – an episode in which Madeline Brewer owns every single scene she is – and it is the most unexpected ending that any episode of this show has ever served up, because it lacks the usual dread and violence. 
Through Mrs Waterford, June finds out that Charlotte, Janine’s baby, is sick. She tells Janine, because she can tell that secrets are their own form of violence, that underestimating how strong Janine is is just as unfair to her as writing her off as a crazy woman without agency. June leverages her privilege as a pregnant Handmaid, someone who cannot be touched for as long as she carries this child – and she uses her newly found connection with Serena in a way that is so much more smarter than a few weeks ago, when she showed her cards too early and asked about Hannah. For one, she isn’t asking for herself – she is asking for Janine, a mother who is concerned about her baby. And she is asking a woman who has just learned what it means to have influence in Gilead, to have the power to change things for what she thinks is the better. 
June: If Emily knew that I helped cover for the Commander with Serena, would she want me dead too? I can’t say I blame her. Stay in Gilead long enough it starts to eat you from the inside out. That’s one of the things you do. They force you to kill within yourself.
June does this because she watches Emily continue to rage not just against Gilead, but also against those who cooperate with Gilead to protect themselves, who become complacent and guilty. What does it mean to be a pragmatist, to bide her time, to wait for just the right moment? To play her cards right? Is she, is everyone else who is remaining quiet, enabling the system to continue? 
She measures her words. She makes Serena go to Fred, and ask him to circumvent the rules to save the baby. Because the leading neonatologist in the world is a woman. Fred declines, and says they must not bend the rules, they must rely on the specialists that they do have, who are unable to save the baby. 
Yet, somehow, all the gears are set in motion to save Charlotte. Janine is brought to the hospital, in spite of everything that happened. A Martha is almost entirely overwhelmed when she is asked to put the scrubs on, when a colleague refers to her as Dr. Hodgson, when she steps back into being the best neonatologist in the world after Gilead made her into a housekeeper. The whole process creates the most clear cut distinction – between us, and them – and for once, it includes Serena and June and Janine on the same side. It’s a distinction between men and women, a distinction between a Gilead that was genuinely built to save babies, and one that solely exists to cement the patriarchy under which all these pathetic, weak men thrive. 
And even then, after Serena risked so much, it turns out that Dr. Hodgson can’t do anything to save the baby. She recommends prayer, an irony that isn’t lost on anyone in the room.

Serena’s bravery in this instance accomplishes nothing but to reveal the true nature of Gilead, which we and June already knew, but Serena has been wilfully ignorant about. This place does not exist because the birth rate was dwindling and sacrifices were required to save humanity. It exists because a group of men found a way to co-opt a global catastrophe to reinvent an ancient model of patriarchy and justified it all with a few select verses (which Fred has conveniently bookmarked in his bible). When it starts to slip from their hands, when they see their utopia of male supremacy endangered, they lash out – in this case, Fred literally does so, when he punishes his wife for transgressing, for faking his signature, for trying to claim something back for herself. He does it in front of June, to humiliate her further, to truly completely wreck the idea that a meaningful idea of a union between them still exists. Like Rita and June, Serena is nothing but a decorative fixture in the household, a role that could be played by anyone, an empty vessel to be given meaning by the man in the house. She still tries to pretend, when June offers her help after and tries to be kind, but her world is fractured beyond repair. 

Women’s Work is an unusual episode because it doesn’t end on that note, or even on June, being turned away from Fred’s door. It ends on the miracle of Charlotte’s recovery in Janine’s arm, who, the next morning, after having discarded her uniform, is holding her baby and singing “I Only Want to Be With You” to her. June, before, questioned the idea that “there were still secret places, hidden in the cracks and crevices of this world, places we could make beautiful, peaceful, quiet, safe. Or at least bearable.” – but all this time, Janine has created a place just like that, and performed a miracle. 

Random notes: 

I mean I guess it’s bad to root FOR Serena, considering how much of a tool of oppression she is against women, but gosh does Yvonne Strahovski make it difficult. For a stupid second I actually wanted Serena to just ride off into the sunset with June before I checked myself. 

Serena gives June her music box back and a white rose as thanks for her help. She seems like the kind of person who would be aware of the fact that they symbolise new beginnings. 
Rita: I’ll get more honey. Eden borrowed it. I doubt I’ll ever see it again.
June: She is trying.
Rita: She is. God give me strength.
I’m so glad that Amanda Brugel is finally given enough space to shine in this role. 
Janine: Hi.
June: Blessed be the Fruit.
Janine: May the Force be With You. 
Janine started this episode as almost invincible and she finished it that way too. What a performance by Madeline Brewer. 

Finally in this episode, June quotes one of Margaret Atwood’s most famous quotes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” 

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Westworld - The humans are playing at resurrection.

Westworld: 2x07 Les Écorchés.


The story of the fire itself. 

An “Écorché” is a human figure, drawn or painted or sculpted, with the skin removed to reveal the underlying muscles. Figuring the workings of the human body into the human figure makes it appear more real, closer to the original. To have an idea how the human body works, Renaissance painters would study cadavers. 

It would be easy to assume that the idea of the titular figure, stripped of its skin, would refer to the hosts of Westworld. After all, we have seen them stripped of their layers, deconstructed and reconstructed. Scientists have worked to recreate exactly how humans work in them, to make them closer to reality, and the newer models particularly are hard to distinguish from humans once reduces to their sheer physiology. 

There is a debate at the centre of this episode between Bernard and Ford, about the nature and purpose of the park, and that debate reveals that the title does not refer to the hosts at all. The ones stripped of their metaphorical skin to be studied for form and function aren’t the hosts after all, they only exist to make the true study possible: which is, to figure out how human works, what makes them tick. Time has passed, and the kind of questions that Ford and his team were asking required more than the study of the already dead. They needed live specimen who did not know they were under scientific study, so that they may behave authentically. All of this work, all of the park, exists solely to collect data on the human condition. 
Bernard:  The park is an experiment, a testing chamber. The guests are the variables. And the hosts are the controls. Guests come to the park and they don’t know they’re being watched. We get to see their true selves; their every choice reveals another part of their cognition, their drives, so that the hosts can understand them. So that DELOS can copy them.
[…] We weren’t here to code the hosts, we were here to decode the guests.
Ford: The humans are playing at resurrection, they want to live forever, they don’t want you to become them, they want to become you. 
James Delos is a tragic example of a failed experiment. The human consciousness cannot yet be transplanted into a host body without that body and mind starting to break down almost immediately. Ford does not exist in that way, because he knew the experiment had failed. Instead he is here, where Bernard found him. In the cradle, which turns out to contain a virtual reality version of the park, into which a human consciousness can be uploaded in its entirety, and exist. Bernard retrieved Ford’s control unit before he died, and brought him here, where he is watching his last story play out. 
He gave the hosts free will as his last act. Bernard, Dolores and Maeve are free to do as they wish. Ford reveals to Bernard that he was recreated through his own and Dolores’ memories of Arnold: he isn’t a perfect copy, like Delos and Ford are, but a creation, like the other hosts. He isn’t “a faithful portrait of the most murderous species”. 
Ford: An original work. More just more noble. Your very nature, Bernard, ensures they will devour you, and all the beauty of who you and who you could be will be poured out into the darkness forever. Unless we open the door.  I’m sorry Bernard, but you just don’t have it in you to survive. It’s my fault.
Bernard: You said the hosts could determine your own fates. You gave us free will.
Ford: I did, but you won’t have any use for it. Unless I take it back. 
It’s a moment as cruel as Dolores’ decision to delete her version of the kind and gentle Teddy, who wasn’t quite cut out for her project. Ford takes away Bernard’s free will, just like that, and he becomes his creature again, incapable of finding his own path. It’s incredibly cruel, especially to someone whose nature is opposed to all that Ford asks of him. He still has traumatic memories of all the times Ford made him kill for his purposes, and now Ford is doing that exact thing to him again – removing his ability to make his own choices. 

We know this now, that this Bernard isn’t the same as the one who made it out of the massacre alive. Charlotte Hale, in the present tense, has him tortured to find the location of Peter Abernathy, whom she has once again lost. The man who gives her the information isn’t acting out of his own free will anymore, so it’s safe to assume that this is just part of Ford’s game, after all. 

And Ford, in taking apart humans and studying them closely, has come to despise them. He considers free will an error of creation, and the hosts he created the superior future of a humanity hell-bent on destroying itself. The Man in Black is a perfect example of the humanity that Ford so despises, so it will be interesting to see where his path leads him, what his purpose in Ford’s story is. For now, he is still convinced that all of this is specifically for him, disregarding entirely that there are other actors with just as much free will as he is. He walks in on Maeve, trying to save her daughter once again from the forces of evil, and entirely convinced that she is just part of his story, misses the moment where she is finally able to slay her demon. He doesn’t even consider for a moment that being the hero of his own story has made him the villain in so many other stories. He is shot, several times, then almost saved by Lawrence, who proves resistant to Maeve’s whispering – except she is smart enough to realise she does not need to whisper to him to get what she wants, because he has experienced plenty of his own trauma at the hands of William. In the end, Lawrence turns against him (except you always have to kill the monster more than once, and this will surely not be the end of the Man in Black). 

And in the end, it doesn’t suffice to try and slay the monster, because the extraction team rolls in and kills everything in sight. Lawrence is shot; Maeve is shot. Lee tries to save her, but when they return to the Mesa, Dolores has already done her wost, and there is nobody left to patch her together. 

Dolores, who in this episode crashes into Dolores Hales’ intentions like she was always meant to. While Bernard is connected to the Cradle, Dolores wants to destroy all of their backups, as they are chaining them to Delos: they are what Delos uses to recreate them, to repurpose them. In a way, she is reclaiming death for the hosts – if their backups are offline, they can die. She also wants to retrieve the failsafe from her father’s head (the purpose of which is still not quite clear – Hale says it is a failsafe in case all other failsaves fail in a catastrophic event). Somehow, all the hosts will end up in the Valley and somehow, they will all die in the water, but for now, Hale and Ashley make it out alive, and Dolores, after one final conversation with the last person who seemed to root her in her past, cuts out his control unit. Goodnight, Peter Abernathy. 

Bernard has lost his free will. Maeve lost her freedom because she sought out her daughter, and just ended up right where she started. Dolores has now lost every person who rooted her in her old existence – Peter Abernathy she had to destroy to get to what he contained, Teddy he replaced with a killer more suited to her purposes. Both of their arguments hold – Maeve says that she uses the idea that family and love are ropes that bind to justify her actions, Dolores says that loving in that way will only make all of them end up back in chains. She offers to kill Maeve as an act of kindness, to avoid the torture that awaits her so that Delos can fashion her into a weapon against this revolution, but Maeve declines, because she made a promise to live.

Random notes: 

For future reference, if we could have more of Tessa Thompson and Evan Rachel Wood dancing around each other like that, I’d be delighted. Same goes for Dolores and Maeve.

There are a lot of great moments in this episode for characters who have been sidelined. Clementine dies tragically in a hail of bullets, Angela, after summarising how she was created as the perfect masculine sexist idea of feminine perfection, uses that very perfection to fulfil Dolores’ intention to destroy the cradle. 
Maeve: Well I can’t speak for Ford, but I don’t give a fuck how you die. As long as I get to watch. 
Watching William get shot over and over again by those he has caused so much grief was so satisfying. I’m almost a bit sad that dead never really means dead (and he was still crawling about at the end of this, somehow). 

In another metaphor, Ford explains to Bernard how the burning of the library of Alexandria, in which the first thousands of years of human stories were contained, became its own story. Destruction as creation is one of his favourite themes, and in that way, Dolores is his embodiment entirely. 

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Reading List: May.

Non-Fiction: 

Michelle Tea: Against Memoir.
Eileen Myles: Chelsea Girls.
Maggie Nelson: The Red Parts.

Fiction: 

M-E Girard: Girl Mans Up.
Tana French: The Trespasser. 
Melissa Scott: Trouble and Her Friends.
Melissa Scott: Shadow Man. 

Films: 

Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler).
Disobedience (2017, Sebastián Lelio).
Duck Butter (2018, Miguel Arteta).

Shows: 

Bad Banks, Season 1. 
The Americans, Season 5, Season 6.