Monday 17 October 2022

The Handmaid’s Tale – I’ve never seen anyone in Gilead who’s pure like him.

The Handmaid’s Tale: 5x05 Fairytale. 

Luke and June’s determination to save Hannah is a race against time. They know she has been sent to a finishing school for wives, that soon she will be married off, regardless of the fact that she is only twelve. But beyond that reality, there is the fact that Hannah has now spent just as many years away from her parents as she has lived with them. She may be vividly alive in June’s memories and dreams, but it is likely that Hannah’s memories of her life before Gilead have vanished by now, that any recollection she has of her parents is vague and unclear. The power in this episode – one of the best in the season so far – lies in June and Luke realising just how powerful Gilead’s grasp on the self-conception and memory of its youngest citizens is. They cross the border into no-man’s-land to retrieve information about Hannah from a Guardian, and what they find is a young man, probably no older than eighteen, who is very much alive, who has built his own little reprieve from Gileadean control out in these empty lands, in an abandoned arcade where he bowls, listens to music and drinks beer. Jaden is so unlike anything that June would have expected to find on the other side of the border – he isn’t cynical like Nick was, he doesn’t spew ideology like other people in Gilead. He is simply a man who describes his memories from before as hazy, who can’t even conceptualise a reality outside of Gilead. He doesn’t smuggle information and backpacks filled with contraband across the border because of a deep political belief in the wrongness of Gilead, he just thinks that people, families, should be able to communicate, should be as free as he is in his little arcade. 

All of that creates a moment in which June and Luke, for the first time in forever, seem truly free and content – Luke especially, playing a love song and singing along, and dancing with his wife (June does seem a lot more reluctant to let her guard down). But they also realise, and maybe more drastically than ever before, what it means that Hannah has grown up in Gilead without them. 

The episode is powerful because the entire night that June and Luke spend there, we’re waiting for the mic drop, for the moment to turn into something ugly. We’re waiting for Jaden to betray them, to reveal some kind of ulterior motive, because nearly every character on this show is capable of such betrayal. Not Jaden though, and finally June says, entirely stunned, that she has never seen anyone as pure as him. Jaden isn’t purified through Gileadean ideology, he is pure because somehow, Gilead has completely erased his memory of a different world, and any deeper longing for a return to that world, and it hasn’t made him evil, but, if anything, disarmingly innocent. 

Of course, the beautiful moment they all share can’t last. They return, on what Jaden calls a shortcut, and he inevitably steps on a mine. His last, final instinct is to protect both of them, telling them to keep their distance, right before he blows up. And of course, that explosion then alerts Gilead to their presence, and Luke and June end up captured. Jaden might not by a cynic, but The Handmaid’s Tale continuously has been. 

Meanwhile, Serena begins to see how small this new cage she has found herself trapped in truly is. Mrs Wheeler, more devout than most Gileadean wives, reminds her that women should not care for business right before she takes a business call. She hopes to talk to Commander Lawrence alone, but of course Warren is right there, reigning her in even when she presents a genius idea: turning the reopening Visitor Centre into a Fertility Centre instead. Serena knows exactly where Gilead’s potency is, and that it won’t success in its international publicity tour unless it touts its most valuable resource. All of that, while she remembers the earlier days – when she and Fred were still trying for a child, when she toured a facility in which Gilead kept the stolen children, realising she would never adopt any of them because they still remembered what they lost. And then later, when she went through Aunt Lydia’s folder of women (quickly discarding one that Fred was interested in) to pick her Handmaid. Mrs Wheeler’s friends come visit to look at her like she’s a mixture of a party trick and their greatest wishes, personified: a woman pregnant with a son, a woman who maybe doesn’t deserve to have a child because she is transgressing the very values she instilled upon her country. These terrifying women are more devout, more zealous than women who actually live in Gilead, perhaps because they never have to reckon with the cost. Later, her bodyguard forbids her from communicating with a woman who has brought her flowers, under the pretence of safety, but really just to make it clear to her that she can’t even approach the gates that keep her from the outside world. And finally, she meets the elusive Mr Wheeler, and finds a man who must seem very familiar to her – he counters every attempt on her part to be more politically relevant with reminders that her sole purpose in life is now to birth a child (“Your baby’s needs come ahead of any plans or ambitions.”) She cannot have a phone, or have meetings. He makes her take a pregnancy vitamin in front of him, a scene that demonstrates her lack of agency and his power over her. It is the world she has made, creeping into Canada, except now there is no more remaining path to freedom. She’s played her cards all wrong. 

Random notes: 

Luke’s decision to risk his life in retrieving the information about Hannah is obviously directly connected to Serena’s taunts about him never having tried to save her before – and it’s almost as if there was a plan in place to then capitalise on any rash decision he would make. Gilead would be very eager to capture both him and June. 

Mrs Wheeler’s cycle of Gilead aficionados is TERRIFYING. What a choice for this show after five seasons to really show how dangerous privileged women can be. 

This is also the first time we see anti-refugee protesters, another sign that public opinion is turning, all things Gilead can profit from. 

Commander Lawrence has a plan called “New Bethlehem” that would allow “traitors” and people who have left Gilead to return, because he has done the calculations and knows the fate of a country that is losing more people than it can replace. Warren huffs at the plan as ridiculous – the true difference between pragmatism and idolatry. 

On a more positive note, Moira, talking wistfully about how devoted June and Luke are to each other, gets drunk with Lily (we don’t see anything more of their night together but we can take a good guess of what happened). Or maybe it’s not really positive considering that Moira’s attempts at relationships with people who haven’t suffered the trauma of Gilead have failed, that she can only connect to someone who is just as scarred as her. 

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