Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale – Are you happy?

The Handmaid's Tale: 1x06 A Woman's Place.

Please, do something. 

The Handmaid’s Tale has spent a lot of time on investigating how Gilead came into being, how an apathetic public and a combination of economic and social factors contributed to a world where the complete subjugation of women became possible – but not until this episode has the show attempted to place Gilead in a greater context, that of world politics. How can a nation that was formerly the United States exist, politically and economically, on the world stage? How does diplomacy work, when the female diplomat visiting from Mexico finds herself confronted with the Handmaids and the quiet wives, struggling to comprehend their lives? Up to a point, that’s what the episode investigates. 

Fresh off her new found partial freedom, that of being with Nick, and finding small moments in-between where she can be undermining, where she shares transgressions with Rita, where she can be insolent, June is told that the Commander has organised a trade delegation to visit from Mexico. The implication is that in spite of its advances in cutting down carbon emissions and finding a solution to the fertility problem, Gilead is struggling with being isolated on the international stage – but it’s wealth in agriculture could provide it with the possibility of stabilising its currency through trade. 

The premise leads us back to the beginnings of Gilead, which come with the very surprising revelation that the true architect of Gilead in the Waterford family was Serena Joy, not Fred. Fred was the career bureaucrat, someone high up in the organisation that eventually became the force that toppled the US government and founded Gilead, but Serena Joy was the intellectual backbone of the entire ideology, writing books about a feminist domesticity and about creating an entire state culture based on fertility, having children. We see that the entire dynamic of their marriage was centred around Fred’s respect for Serena’s intellect, his admiration for her ferocity in following her ideals and her passions – so what then happens is both ironic and inevitable. Serena Joy turns out to be the architect of her own cage, because the second her ideas became reality, she was shut out of having any kind of power. Doors literally closed in front of her, and speeches, written and expected with shaking hands, became impossible. The Gilead that Serena Joy envisioned, one of a domestic partnership towards a single goal, turned into the Gilead that exists now, where women who dare to read have their fingers, and then hands cut off. She used to be a writer, but now women aren’t even allowed to read her books. 

In fact, the Gilead that she helped to create has made such a sham of everything that she used to hold dear that it has become impossible for men to face women with any kind of directness or honesty. The Commander and his wife expect June to put up a charade for the visiting ambassador, and she does so, out of fear, when she is questioned about her existence as a handmaid (did you choose this? Are you happy?) – but it’s that same expectation of women and men not meeting honestly, and only existing in a tightly woven web of rituals and conventions, that makes it impossible for the Commander to tell when June is toying with him. It’s an inbuilt weakness, because there is no trust, and no obligation to be truthful in any interaction. June is asked to lie for the sake of Gilead, but in fact, it’s just for the sake of her own survival – but the other side of the coin is that June can freely  manipulate the Commander when she sees an opening, because in the end, he turns out to be a quivering pathetic man who wants nothing more than a kiss that feels like it is wanted and desired. 

Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.

The traditional values upon which Serena Joy wanted to create a society have turned into a charade, one that has twisted everything into a toxic mess. There is much commotion about the Mexican delegation visiting, and the Handmaids are invited to a dinner ceremony to honour their sacrifice, but it is only then that June realises how naïve she was when she assumed that all of this was about oranges. It takes another Handmaid to point out to her why they are at the centre of attention, why that question about choice and happiness was even asked. The true feat that Serena Joy has, perhaps unintentionally, accomplished, wasn’t creating a society that focuses on fertility as a sole raison d'être, it was creating an entire regime that allows women to be turned into a commodity that can be traded. Mexico isn’t after Florida’s oranges, it is after a solution for its own fertility problem, and without the moral burden of lack of choice, or unhappiness, perhaps it even looks less like slavery and institutionalised rape than history would dictate. June thought she had missed her chance to send out an international plea for help, assuming wrongly that the absurdity of her situation, the wrongness of a country such as Gilead existing in this world, would be sufficient to garner some kind of international help that would come and save her – but she has terribly miscalculated the fact that all the Mexican ambassador is there for is to provide a moral blank cheque. Serena Joy is brilliant enough at what she does that she knows how children trump everything, and that moment of triumph that was denied to her in the past when Gilead came into existence first comes to fruition here, when she brings in the children. In the end, when June gathers her thoughts and finds the courage to speak, none of it matters. The violence, the rape, the mutilations, the lack of choice and happiness, do not matter, because Gilead has demonstrated that there is a way to take agency away from women that leads to children, and this entire world values nothing more than that, with no regard to the question of whether a society that would be willing to make that trade-off has any right to even exist. “My country is dying” says the Mexican ambassador, “My country is already dead”, responds June. 

Random notes: 

There was a lot to unpack in this episode, but the moment between Serena and the Aunt has to stand out. Serena asks for the “damaged” Handmaids to be removed (very fitting, after the episode opened on the Handmaids washing the blood off the wall, it’s all about appearances), and the Aunt pleads for their right to be recognised, as they have paid their dues – but in the end, Mrs Waterford trumps the Aunt. She thinks it’s morally wrong, she promises Janine a plate of desserts, kissing her missing eye – but the reality is that Serena Joy has pragmatically altered her ideology to suit whatever is good for Gilead, whereas the Aunt believes in absolutes. 

Serena Joy’s marriage is a sad spiral of sorts, from the giddy intimacy of wanting to conceive, in the old world, to the sudden loss of respect when she was denied to speak (the Commander argued for her, but then, once she was actually limited to the home, and to making a home, he lost any kind of desire and respect for her), and the revival of it, at least in part, when she manages the coup with the children. 

How odd that Serena Joy of all people would be listening to Nina Simone. 

It is hard to put my thoughts about Nick and June into words – he is a necessity for June, something that gives her life because it is something that she has carved out for herself, it’s something she is taking for herself, but there is also the fact that he stands idly by while she gets raped every month, that he exists comfortably and without fear while she fears every second of her life. 

There are some significant plays here around the idea of real names - June uses Janine's to try and calm her, and eventually the Aunt relents and uses it as well, knowing it's the kind thing to do, and after not telling the delegation her true name, June does tell Nick, out of anger more than anything, and because she doesn't want her lover to use the name that was given to her by Gilead. 

The show is transgressing from the books and attempting some greater world building here, and I think it’s going to interesting places (there is also the fact that the show was just renewed for a second season, and presumably has to eventually go beyond the book). 

June finds out from the attaché of the ambassador that Luke is alive, and he promises to deliver a message. Might still be a trap though. 

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