The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x01 June.
This immediate thing, about this show: how close this horror feels. A constant tension, a constant feeling of dread, a perpetual sense that the worst is just about to happen, and how it isn’t, or at least, shouldn’t, be a relief that it happens to someone else. To be a woman in Gilead is to endure, to suffer, to wait – but also, to see others suffer, and maybe be grateful that this suffering isn’t ours. This is June, eating from a bowl of soup while other Ofglen’s hand is burned on an oven – but at least it isn’t her hand. But it could be hers. And these two feelings are everything.
But there are other things to feel here. There is someone else’s hand, grasping yours while you make your way to the scaffold, not knowing what will await you there (when the lever falls, you should be dead, but you’re not, because this is a lesson to be learned: someone else is holding your life in their hands but has decided to spare you, and this is their power and you have nothing to yourself to respond to that). She thinks she will die, but then she doesn’t. The lever falls, but nothing happens, because this is a lesson taught by Aunt Lydia about faith and humility, and these people – all of them, collectively – can’t even conceive that you could no longer be receptive to any of that bullshit. There are two currents here – that the new generation will not remember what life used to be like, and therefore forget what you take for granted, but also that you have been so abused, so disillusioned, so far removed from any sense of normalcy, that all of this talk of god’s grace is entirely meaningless now.
June eats her soup, because it means surviving. It is frustrating that her reason for survival is being pregnant, that the only way to have her own life respected in Gilead is being pregnant with a different life. But this is the world, and it’s been the world way before Gilead even came into existence. This is what this episode says. Days before the world fell, before a crazed gunmen gunned down Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill, before a bomb exploded in the White House, someone in Hannah’s school refused to call June by her real name, and days before the world fell, the nurse in the hospital called her by her husband’s name, repeatedly, even after being corrected, and then blamed her for not staying home with her child, for refusing to give up her career, for being one of those women who will give her child Tylenol and send her to school, even where the life of a child is sacred. In this new world, the life of a child counts for everything, and the life of the mother, once she has given birth, is measured by how many more children she will bear, not by her ambitions and dreams.
Back in the day, before everything happened, after tying her daughter Hannah’s shoes and sending her off to school, June thought that she may want to have another child. In spite of the fact that she already needed her husband’s signature to fill her birth control medication. In spite of the fact that the world is already considering her less, incapable of making decisions about her own body, justifying taking possession of her body for the good of society.
And now she is bearing a child, and it is giving her privilege, but it is also a burden on her shoulder, because as Aunt Lydia shows her: if she refuses to comply, Gilead has ways of truly making her nothing but a vessel for the new citizens, who will have no memory of before. This place only values the life of the mother in as much as they are carriers of new life, but not as people, not as individuals, not as persons with dreams and ambitions of their own. This is the thing, about The Handmaid’s Tale: that it is utterly rooted in the now, that it paints a picture of what would happen if all those people who think a woman is nothing more than her reproductive system, which does not belong to her, were utterly in power, with no checks and balances.
And still, before she walks up the gallows, someone takes June’s hand.
When Aunt Lydia says, Let This Be A Lesson To You, she doesn’t even realise that the only lesson to draw here is that the only way out is the rage and anger of all these women, caged together, made to walk together to their death, made to take part in each other’s pain and misery.
June wanted a second child, but then Hannah got sick, and the school called her, blaming her for sending off her child sick, and the school called an ambulance, and the nurse sees fit to give her a lecture about how the fact that she refuses to give up her job endangers her child. While calling her by a name that isn’t hers, that she did not choose. And all of this is before the revolution, before Gilead happens. When the news roll in, June has to choose, literally, between comforting her sick child and following the news that will impact her life – and she chooses Hannah, because Luke won’t. Because Luke will stay in front of the TV, engrossed, with the luxury of having no care in the world, of not having been called by the school, of not having been referred to by the wrong name and lectured by a nurse. This is not a dystopian view of motherhood – it’s something that is happening, every single day, everywhere.
Mrs Waterford and Mr Waterford inspect their new child, but then, June finds a key in her boots, and follows the rabbit hole down to a meat truck, which takes her away far enough, which saves her – a kind man says, someone will come for you, go in grace, and she hugs him.
Nick says, take off your clothes, and cut your hair, and June cuts the tag from her ear, and bleeds profusely, because the price of freedom is blood and suffering.
Not enough has been, or ever will be written, about how utterly this show depends on Elisabeth Moss’ ability to say everything without ever raising her voice.
I distinctly remember a twitter thread recently about how women are always the first to be called by their schools, even when the fathers of their children are listed as the first emergency contacts. This dystopia is very much rooted in reality – what happens when women are told that their bodies aren’t truly theirs, but belong to society? How far does it go?