Friday 27 July 2018

The Handmaid's Tale - What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?

The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x12 Postpartum. 
The Handmaid’s Tale: 2x13 The Word. 

The centre of this entire season has been June’s pregnancy, and the impossible situation it has put her in. It was easy to have one single goal – saving and escaping with Hannah – last season, but now that her second daughter is born, June can’t find a way to ensure the safety of both of her children. In what was one of the hardest moments so far – in a show so filled with sheer violence and terror against women – she had to let Hannah go. She had to let her go, even though she finally shared a room with her, even though she was able to talk to her. After her breakdown, after almost escaping Gilead, after not being able to live with herself for giving Hannah up, it was the horrible bookend to that journey. 

Holly – promptly renamed Nichole by the Waterfords, who after attempting to keep June apart from her child have relented, and allowed June to stay in their household – means a whole new set of questions for June. She tried to ensure the safety of her child before she was born by collecting promises from people who were either highly untrustworthy – how bitter, to have to put her hope into Aunt Lydia – or ultimately powerless, like Rita. What June realises in this episode is that not even the Waterfords have the capacity to protect her child from what Gilead has turned into, that Fred Waterford is perhaps Nichole’s most dangerous enemy, because she wasn’t born a son. It’s a terrible lesson learned from Eden’s demise, who held her beliefs so preciously and yet, in a moment of defiance, tried to find true love, true affection, from someone who wasn’t her husband (and June spurred her on, part of that guilt she now carries with herself). In an unexpected act of bravery, she chose to die with her beloved rather than asking for forgiveness, reclaiming the very vows that Nick never truly meant when he spoke them. In a public execution in another repurposed venue, a public swimming pool, she drowned – leaving a horrified June behind, who finds an annotated bible in her possession. June realises that Eden, who has lived in Gilead since she was ten, who must have a vague memory of the world before, who was still able to read, and didn’t give it up just because it was forbidden, tried to make sense of this book for herself rather than following what Gilead was telling her. June realises that Eden was trying to find her own religion, to interpret the bible for herself, that even though she was only fifteen, she had the capacity to think freely, that she was a whole person. I think June spent a lot of time this season regarding Eden as less than a whole person, as did Nick, thinking that Gilead had stolen her spirit entirely, mistrusting her. And then June decides to bring that realisation to Mrs Waterford, remembering how they both felt when they wrote together, when June edited her words. She believes profoundly that Serena shares her belief in the power of words, and the necessity of being able to read them and write them. It’s incredible that June would trust Serena – who has committed such unspeakable sins against her – that June would see the other woman as a possible accomplice in her attempt to reclaim Eden’s humanity and intellect. 

Even more incredibly, Serena does exactly what June hopes she would. She realises what it means that someone like Eden would have such a deep-seated desire to read the bible – that it is a crime against women, even within the tight ideology of Gilead, to forbid them to read the bible, and to create a state in which reading becomes impossible to women. She brings this realisation to the elders of Gilead, and inevitably and brutally realises that the entire ideology of Gilead has nothing to do with religion, or belief, that it is all about one simple thing: to sustain male superiority at all cost. Serena has always been a true believer, and she has always believed that her own suffering and sacrifice has been for a state that mirrors her radical religious beliefs – it is only now, that she suffers the punishment for reading (for quoting the bible back at the very people who claim to defend it), that she realises that Gilead has nothing to do with her own religious beliefs, that it is a façade for that old beast misogyny. 

Serena is broken, too broken to stop what will happen at the end of this episode: everything falls into place, and Nick’s machinations to ensure the safety of his daughter fall into place. In the end, it is an underground railroad of Marthas, women like Rita, who create a situation in which Holly’s freedom becomes possible. She is handed from woman to woman, until finally, the weird ways of fate have her end up in exactly the same spot as Emily. 

Emily, who has suffered so much, who believes her child and her wife lost, who has been sent to die cruelly in the colonies, who has somehow made it out alive from exacting revenge on her torturers. She comes to a breaking point in this episode as well, after being placed with one of the architects of Gilead (played by Bradley Whitford). He is hard to read, once introduced, a man who lives in a house filled with pillaged and now certainly forbidden art, with a wife who has lost her mind over her husband’s crimes. This is the man who has come up with the idea of the colonies, but we the viewers cannot truly read whether he is a depraved, cruel man, or someone who eccentrically suffers the consequences of his own actions. He tries to get to the bottom of Emily, probing her, but Emily has no capacity to tell whether he is trying to catch her out, or truly trying to decide if she is a whole human being with wishes and hopes. There is no space in Gilead for trust, or belief, so she doesn’t, and instead, at her breaking point, stabs Aunt Lydia. It seems so likely that this is the final act of revenge she will be able to perpetrate – she has been nothing but a weapon of revenge since she was separated from her family, it’s like the light in her eyes has gone out, like nothing but violence makes her shine anymore. It is so unlikely that she will make it, once again, out alive. But somehow, she does – because Commander Lawrence turns out to be a man desperate to make up for his sins. Instead of allowing her to be executed, he takes her away, puts her in a car, plays her music, arranges for her safety. This is how she ends up where Holly is – in a truck bound for Canada. 

It’s like this moment that everyone has hoped for for such a long time – for June, to finally make it out of Gilead – except like with so many other stories, we know this one cannot contain June’s escape yet. It isn’t time yet for June to find freedom, and her decision makes sense, in a way. She makes sure that Holly is as safe as she possibly can be, in a Gilead that hates women as profoundly as it does – in Emily’s hands, bound for the border. And then she turns back because she cannot bear to allow her other daughter to be raised in this country. It’s more than that – the way she lifts her head, it is almost as if she now contains all the boundless rage that Emily held, before her unlikely escape. She is ready to burn this whole place down. 

Random notes: 

My favourite scene in the final episode is when June comes to understand that it was Eden's father who turned her in - that he did not hesitate, that his love for his daughter is twisted and false, that he would be ready to see her die just this place. It makes it clear to her that there is no way to protect Holly in Gilead - that in a way, all these women, including Mrs Waterford, are already just one step away from the Unwomen in the Colonies. Gilead does not consider them human, and in the mere five years, it has managed to sever the ties between parents and children.

The other central scene is June, pleading with Serena to let her go, to help her protect their daughter. She knows that Serena loves Holly in her own way, but she also knows that she has to get Serena to the same conclusion that she has come to - that there is no way to raise a girl in Gilead. 

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