Saturday 22 June 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale - This is all for her.

The Handmaid’s Tale: 3x05 Unknown Caller. 
June: I had to build a life here, of a sort. And you should too, you deserve a life. A full life. You deserve love. And you’ll always have mine, but I understand if you maybe need more than that. But you should know that Nichole, she was born out of love. Her real name’s Holly. And her father is a driver named Nick, you met him. He helped me. To survive. I need to believe that you can forgive me. I’m not the woman you remember. She’s part of me. And I’m doing what I need to to survive. And you should too. No, you have to. You have to for Hannah. This is all for her. This is all for her. I promise you, I am trying to get to her. I promise. I love you. 
In all these years abroad, and all the horrible moments that we have seen, June hasn’t vocalised her feelings about Luke a whole lot. It’s clear that thinking about him hurts her, but now that she has watched the video of him caring for Nichole, she’s thinking about him. It happens in the context of all these other investigations of marriages – the Lawrences, the Waterfords. This is more interesting because the Lawrences and the Waterfords are in the same country, they share the same houses, and yet appear miles apart from each other – much more so than June and Luke, who are separated so finally. June has been influencing these other marriages because she is trying to gain some measure of control over her situation. She has also been accused of being transactional, as if being opportunistic in Gilead was in any way a moral failing for someone robbed of any freedom and self-determination. 
In getting involved with Serena and Fred’s marriage, she’s managed to get Serena back into the room, she’s managed to get her a seat at the table, except she never would have expected that the first time she gets to feel this new power is when Gilead is planning the return of Nichole. It seems that this has turned into a public relations disaster, losing one of their precious children to the country that Gilead is at war with, and so the Commanders consider their options. June, naturally, is realising that this means that neither Luke nor Nichole are particularly safe across that border she has risked everything for, especially when the Commanders start speaking about extradition treaties. It’s a scary prospect, one that ties in neatly with the revelation earlier when June realises that the Handmaids are Gilead’s potentially must valuable export good, if only Mexico and Canada overcame their moral reservations about human slavery (and how thin such reservations can be has been made clear many times over). There is really only hope for as long the country across the border is safe – the journey itself is so dangerous that the prospect of there being no safety even after surviving it would kill all hope. 
And hope is the only thing the Handmaids have. This episode is also about the meaning of having a story to make sense of oneself, and the story the Handmaids have is that the children that are stolen from them may one day have a better future, a free future, across the border, because that’s what Nichole has. Instead of envying what June has managed to achieve for her daughter, they see it as a symbol of what could be possible in the future. “A victory for one is a victory for all” – and it is because it is something that June achieved by herself, it wasn’t a miracle. 
Then there is the story of Nichole herself, and everyone who believes to have a claim to that story. To Gilead, it is essentially part of itself and its own right to existence. The way Gilead self-justifies its cruelty and torture of women is that this is the only way to repopulate the world. But as a symbol of that, Nichole means failure for Gilead. To June, it means getting Nichole’s story to Luke – which she eventually does, by recording over one of Joseph Lawrence’s mixtapes that he made for his wife, and smuggling it over the border with Serena Waterford, who has made a deal to meet Luke at Toronto Airport so that she can say goodbye to Nichole. 

To Serena, it means somehow managing to create a situation in which she is still part of the life of this child. It’s an idea she clings to with all her might, and more so now that she has seen the video footage of her and Luke. She knows from what she has seen in Gilead that it doesn’t take long before the stolen children can no longer cling to the memories of their lost mothers, because they too need to find a way to survive, and sometimes the only way is to forget. She knows that across the border, nobody will tell Nichole stories about Serena as her mother, because nobody would think of her as any kind of mother to Nichole. It’s a hard balance here to comprehend Serena’s thinking, to maybe even have empathy with how that loss feels to her, and still also consider that the base of her argument remains that stealing children from their mothers can ever lead to a moral claim to meaningful motherhood. It’s a claim that only has validity within Gilead, and crumples across the border, and in front of Luke Bankole. 
This is as vulnerable as we have ever seen Serena Waterford. Reunited with the agent who tried to get her to change her allegiance months ago, she is stripped of her uniform and put into clothes that read as normal, and she sees Nichole again in a public space, with only a few minutes to try and convince Luke that she has a claim to Nichole’s story, that Nichole should be told the complete story and then make up her mind herself. It’s pointless, and Serena soon realises that, because her power ends at the border, and what she says must sound insane to Luke, who considers her a perpetrator. In the end, the only thing that remains for her to do is to subtly threaten June’s safety, and when she walks away, any claim that June had over her for manoeuvring her into a new position of power has crumbled, because even with a seat at the table, Serena Waterford will never get what she needs. Her love for Nichole is genuine, and a strong motivator for her, one that goes beyond any care for the fate of the women of Gilead. 
There is a scene earlier in the episode in which Serena, with her new seat at the table, looks at the medical file that the Gileadean secret police has managed to procure – the tiniest footprints, news of a tooth. It’s as close as she will ever be to Nichole again, if things stay the way they are. It would have never been enough, just as the slivers that June has been given of Hannah would never suffice. 
June: Maybe there is just a little bit of him left. He helped me. He helped Emily.
I think it’s okay to take a sliver of someone, and hold on to that. Especially if it’s all you have.
June gives this advice to Mrs Lawrence, who is trying to explain what it is like to fall in love with one person – someone who put all their energy into curating mixtapes, the care and love of a geek, of someone dedicated to love – and then to find that this person has unrecognisable changed, is now responsible for the evil in the world. There is no wall between a public and a private self, and it is impossible to separate the man who made those mixtapes that June listens to, and eventually uses for her own purpose, from the man who created the colonies to extract even the last bit of work from the tortured female body, the same man who explained to June that the only reason why he tolerates Mayday operating from his basement is because a little bit of repressive tolerance has never hurt a totalitarian regime. 
June’s tape, her speech to Luke, her attempt to explain how Nichole came into being, that she wasn’t the result of a rape, but of a decision that June made – it’s in a way a letting go, an attempt to free Luke from his responsibility for her, to make it possible for him to lead a full life even if June can never cross the border herself. It’s the bravest thing that June has ever done.  

But, like every other victory, this one is soon crushed. Returned from Gilead, and in spite of a secret phone that Mark Tuello has slipped into her purse, Fred convinces Serena that they can still do something to return Nichole to their household. They film a plea – a tableau that looks weird, in a fake living room, with both of them on a couch and June, in a new red robe, haunting the background, hands in fists but unable to act. It’s a plea that is televised to the United States – a plea to have their stolen daughter returned to them. And surely, someone will respond. 

Random notes: 

Ofmatthews says a few more inexcusable things in this episode but late into it, June realises that this is the only way she can survive having lost three children and now being pregnant with the fourth child she will lose. There is no other way for her to remain sane except to tell herself that it all means something. 

The acting in this episode is once again a marvel, between June’s attempts to keep it together for the phone call with Luke, to Serena’s endless vulnerability in the face of having to do the impossible, crossing the border and then going back without who she considers her daughter. 

No comments: