The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x08 Jezebels.
I wish it showed me in a different light.
At the end of Margaret Atwood’s novel on which this show is based, we realise that everything we have heard is part of an archaeological find of sorts, that every word that the unnamed Handmaid has left is an artefact of a civilisation long past, one that now only exists as the interesting topic of a scientists’ convention, where new findings are debated, theories are presented, and the realities of the past have become blurry and uncertain. It’s an odd way to let go of that story – because the book itself doesn’t end on any kind of certainty for the woman that the television show, or readers upon thinking about the possibilities of the story, have named June. There is an inescapable openness, an uncertainty about her fate.
The novel suggests that the writings we are presented with were the report of the Handmaid after she fled, written in retrospect and successfully hidden before or after she made her way out of Gilead, if she did at all. A television show, by definition, cannot take that stance – or at least has chosen not to – and none of what we see is someone’s recollection of events except for the painful flashbacks, the bits and pieces that we see of characters before Gilead. The now – the painful, lonely, desperate now – is as immediate as it possibly can be, and utterly inescapable. In a way, this is another way in which The Handmaid’s Tale both goes beyond and exceeds the material it is based on – it has become obvious that the story will have to continue beyond the point of where Margaret Atwood stops, because we have already almost reached that point in the television show, and there will be another season – but there is also the indisputable fact that we are living the present along with June, as she is living it, with no respite of a safer future where all of this is merely the painful recollection of trauma already lived and survived.
The June in the show, Elisabeth Moss’ June, hasn’t survived this yet. She is desperately struggling to do so, because as much as she is aware of the sole way out, of the way out that her predecessor took, she isn’t seriously considering suicide. She is staying alive for her daughter, and furiously, determinedly staying alive because she promised herself to do so. This means – that she knows now that Luke is, impossibly, unimaginably – alive, and yet she still goes back to Nick. It means that the act that she may have been able to interpret as rebellion against the patriarchy, as a small way to carve out her own space against the Commander and his Gilead, has now become nothing more than an act of unfaithfulness against a husband that she thought dead for so long. And yet, she cannot stop. She cannot change this story, or make herself appear in a better light, because she needs someone else in this, the same way that she realised, suddenly, that she needed Ofglen when that window opened. It seems impossible to survive Gilead with an intact mind without those stolen intimacies, without knowing that other people are in on how ridiculous and violent all of it is, how beyond anything that we may now consider possible, or real.
It’s an intersection – June’s need for intimacy, for companionship, for desire and lust and relief, and Nick’s inaction, the way he fell into all of this more out of accident than anything else. We learn his backstory – a young man with a troubled, struggling family, incapable of caring for the ones he loves while still holding down a job, snatched up by a true believer and eventual architect of Gilead. It’s an insight into how Gilead could come into existence, a world of economic desperation (that old gem – the economy, and how a lack of jobs justifies so many transgressions), in which idealistic old men snatched up hopeless young men by promising them a kind of dignity. “It’s hard making it in a society that only cares about profit and pleasure” is a sales pitch to someone who doesn’t have a place yet, and it works because Nick is out of other options, so he stumbles into what turns out to be the very creation of Gilead. While he drives his car quietly, he overhears the creation of the very tenants that are now enslaving June. The way they came up with it – a suggestion that the only way out was enslaving every fertile woman, a way of justifying it, with religion, because there is precedent, a way of selling it to the masses by rebranding it as a ceremony, so that it looks less like the rape that it is. Everyone plays his part in it, and Nick overhears, and should see all of it – the previous Handmaid, who made her own escape, the desperation of June when she doesn’t know what’s coming when the Commander takes her out – coming.
The show makes a very deliberate choice here, in showing the machinations of politics, of reshaping policies so that they become palatable to the masses, the deliberate utilisation of scripture not out of a genuine belief but out of pragmatism, because it is vague enough that they will suit whatever purpose it is put to. This entire episode is a revelation in turns of how a society that presents itself as deeply ideologically pure, as radically religious, can twist and turn the basis of its religion to suit any purpose. They even found a way to incorporate prostitution, both as a pressure relieve for the rich and as an attraction for visiting diplomats. This is where the Commander takes June, another transgression. Gilead has rebranded prostitutes as Jezebels – a mix of infertile and rebellious women, many of them former lawyers, doctors, scientists, now there to entertain the higher ups of the regime with their minds and their bodies. It is deliberate, something that the regime probably doesn’t just turn an eye from, but actively supports, both to allow the higher ups to let off steam and to make them vulnerable to blackmail. This world, which pretends to be feverishly religious, which has created an entire ridiculous ritual to justify rape, has found a way to institutionalise prostitution in an unprecedented way.
June: I love you. Okay?
Moira: Me too. So fucking much.
It’s maybe the best moment in this entire show so far, which has been about June’s loneliness, her attempts to salvage the spirit to stay alive for her daughter. She finds her best friend again. She sees Moira, working there, and she gets to speak to her, and find out her story (which is grim, and hopeless). It’s horrifying, because Moira has given up on the idea of escaping, has accepted that the only way out is the same way the Handmaid exited the Waterford household, that the sole thing remaining to her is drinking and taking drugs into oblivion. June promises she will find a way out for her, but the logistics of that seem too impossible to even fathom. But for a short second there, June is endlessly, completely happy. She cries for how happy she is that Moira is alive, that her best friend has made it, that Janine lied to her.
Why is it, that Nick rejects her, in the end, after she is forced to finally sleep with the Commander? Why is it that he tells her that they must stop – because he is an Eye, and he knows what happens to those who transgress? Because he finds himself too involved, and he voices his opinion that the best way to go forward is for nobody to be involved, for nobody to be attached, to remain as untouched by the horror and the violence as possible? June is appalled that he could settle for this quiet, inconsequential life, while she is raging for her own, while she knows that at the very least, if she does end up on the wall, people will grieve her and miss her. This is the thing though. Mrs Waterford, absent and therefore enabling most of what happens in this episode, gives her a box – a girl in a box, dancing forever to someone else’s tune, with no control or means of escape. This is Nick, a man who said yes, who keeps saying yes, in spite of everything that he sees. He is trapped in a box of his own making.
June: If this is a story I’m telling I must be telling it to someone. There’s always someone, even when there is no one. I will not be that girl in the box.
One of the best subtle things in this episode – the Commander looms threatingly with his thin, tall frame, his dark beard, while Nick mostly skulks, around corners, in the background, quietly. I suppose we shall find out if the Commander’s high position or Nick’s existence as an Eye win out in the end, although the scene there in the end hints that Nick can make or break any of the higher order.
We get a glimpse of how the Black Market works and where everyone is getting their booze from. Also, the cook in the kitchen there is a James Beard Award winner.
These men have all the power in the world, and they have created a place where they rule supreme, and yet their tastes are as vulgar and infantile as they possibly could be. That is also a statement that The Handmaid’s Tale chose to make, in 2017.
No moment quite as creepy as when the Commander looks upon the world he created and declares that this is “quite a collection” of women. This is what they do – they commodify and objectify, exactly the same way that Mrs Waterford does. Imagine being a sociologist and now living THIS life, and being so aware of the exact nature of your circumstances.