Friday 12 May 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale – What did you do to her?

The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x05 Faithful. 

I was thinking maybe we could try another way”

In many ways, Faithful is about faithlessness, about betrayal. It very elegantly introduces three different seductions, three different versions of falling in love – one which is genuine, one which is necessary for survival, and one which is still unclear, still yet to be judged. June is in the centre of all of them, but they also circle around the conversation that she has with Serena Joy, while they do gardening, or more specifically, cut off dead flowers in a flourishing garden while debating how to get June pregnant, and whether it’s the Commander who is sterile. 
In short, this conversation is a betrayal in and of itself, as it happens in a society that doesn’t even allow the idea of sterile men (a society in which the superiority of men over women is justified by their supposed virility). It’s a betrayal because for once, Serena Joy reveals that reaching her goal of motherhood is superior to her loyalty to her husband. Suddenly, there is an odd, disjointed “we” which includes her and June, a “we” of co-conspirators. Serena gets her baby, even if it’s biologically June’s and Nick’s (genetics don’t seem to matter at all in this society that has so absolutely and efficiently moved from science to religion). It’s a “we” that is another opening for June to gain some power back, even though Serena Joy tries her best to open up as little space as she possibly can (she leads June up to Nick, she stares at them while they have sex to make sure that it isn’t enjoyable for either of them, that it is an act purely dedicated to conceiving). 

Faithful. In the beginning of the episode, June is finishing another game of Scrabble against the Commander, and is given a present in return – an old beauty magazine, the kind she would have considered utterly superficial in her old life, but that has now become an odd kind of artefact of everything that was lost. There’s an article in it about ten signs that he loves you – and that article suddenly applies backwards in time, to Luke falling in love with her while he was still married, and to the now, where the Commander brings her small presents because he cannot perform his role if he believes her to be suffering from the regime that he has built, and to Nick, who makes silly excuses to be in the same room as her and transgresses so many times in words that Serena Joy’s suggestion that the two of them have the child with each other can only lead one way in any case. After the forced act, June says it’s the first time that she’s felt like she was cheating on her husband in all of this, because there is an amount of consent, or perhaps even of wanting (she has plotted, she has observed, she has played with this, because it was one way of gaining more power, of feeling more human).  It’s like she has contemplated this, so when it is offered to her by Serena, and she has to take the offer, it means admitting to wanting someone else who isn’t Luke, her husband. 

In that way, this is one of the most complex episodes, because all of those connections play out across timelines. Luke cheated on his wife with June and left her because he was in love with her. The current regime punishes women in second marriages, and married to men who have been married before, so that decision years ago has doomed her to the life she has now. Luke has doomed her, his unfaithfulness has, but back in the day, the decision to end an unhappy marriage, to seek happiness, would have been regarded as progress. It’s a stark contrast to the constant burden of unhappiness that the Commander and Serena Joy have condemned themselves to, unable to form any kind of meaningful connection and yet trapped in a charade that forces them to constantly hurt each other. And June is the interloper in that marriage too, by transgressing what her role as a Handmaid was meant to be, but at the same time she makes a decision when she says yes to Nick, first when he is proposed to her by Serena and then when she takes every risk in the world to go back to him for lust and passion, to prove that her body is more than a walking womb. 

I think that as hard to watch Emily’s episode of this show was – and this is still her episode, in many ways, because she comes back, and she gets her chance to truly rage, to break free for a second, to drive a car, and kill a guard, to get the ending that she probably envisioned for herself (because it isn’t quite, or demur, it’s a raging against the dying of the light, in the face of the unspeakable physical and emotional violence that has been perpetrated against her) – maybe this one is harder, in part because it doesn’t really allow as much clarity of horror, of sorts. There is always a level of this show that is all about how the truly horrible thing is how everyone becomes complicit, and how this entire regime is built on the idea of not just everyone worrying that they might be ratted out or killed at any moment, but also all somehow having been morally tainted in some way or another. But in this episode, the new Ofglen delivers the entire very uncomfortable argument that some people would be very willing to trade in their freedom for security, and the show doesn’t really trace that any further than into one conversation that serves to remind June to be more secretive about finding out more about the underground resistance Mayday (from the French “m’aidez”, help me). In all the flashbacks, June clearly lives a very comfortable life – a very middle-class life, full of all the middle-class trappings. To make her more relatable, and to make it clearer that this version of The Handmaid’s Tale is a departure of the 2017 now, not the 1985 now that Margaret Atwood described, June jogs with her friend Moira, goes to coffee shops and food trucks. I’ve mentioned this before, but the crux of the show is that all of this is happening to June, our middle-class, white, straight protagonist. When Ofglen tells her that her life now is considerably more comfortable than her life used to be when she was trading sex for painkillers and Happy Meals, and she doesn’t want June to fuck that up for her, it’s a reminder that June’s life in the past was extremely privileged, which is why the fall feels so much harder. It’s also a reminder that the particular kind of privilege that June enjoys means that the violence she is now subjected to is meant to feel so much harsher (because it’s a violence that is at this moment in time very much happening to other women). Ofglen calls her out for her privilege – Yoga classes, a self-declared feminist husband on his second marriage, she was more into Anthropologie than Nordstrom. 
The point being, the show (the book as well) sometimes glances very deliberately over the “How Did That Happen” – and I think this was one attempt to rectify that. There’s a reason why the first time that June realised something wrong, in the past, was when she tried to purchase something with her debit card. It’s a deliberate choice that it doesn’t happen when she follows the news, or when she has a conversation, or when she thinks about politics. The realisation comes to her as a consumer, who has now become incapable of making choices as a consumer without the consent of her husband. Sometimes the show tries to make a similar argument with the Marthas, who are inherently less privileged – maybe their life hasn’t changed that much, and maybe the core of it – serving other people who enjoy more privileges than them – has stayed exactly the same. 

And I so wish that there will be an attempt in the future to connect all of these things – the intersectionality, the thoughts about privilege – to the existence of the resistance. It would be so much harder to articulate the idea of an effective opposition in a society in which all of those old cleavages still very much exist, in which someone like Ofglen is still conscious of Offred’s privilege, or Rita still feels that way about June’s life. You would think that it would have been easy for Ofsteven – formerly Ofglen – to give in fully to the gentleness and kindness of her new family, to her Wife trying to shield her, to those tiny act of resistance. She throws the ball to the dog, and the ritual is delayed, month to month. An easy life, an impossible kindness, but it isn’t enough, precisely because Emily is a political being, and the way that her body was mutilated after being made into a vessel for the continuation of this regime is beyond any kind of kindness. She doesn’t give in. her final act of rebellion connects the political with the personal. It’s a triumph in both regards, because how easily is that car turned into a weapon by a generation of women who still remember how to drive, and how easy is it to run over the oppressor when her fertility protects her from being shot straight away. 

June’s rebellion at the end of this almost gets there. Claiming back desire and lust for herself is a rebellion as well, because it’s her own way of denying the ridiculousness of the ritual, of creating a fantasy to somehow make this child Serena’s child, the Commander’s child. She makes a decision after she realises that the Commander genuinely believes in Gilead – that better for some never means better for all, that there is always a price to pay for a utopia. June learns that the price to pay for Emily was her very ability to feel pleasure, so she decides to claim hers for herself. She doesn’t need a man to explain to her that respect and protection, or “fulfilling a biological destiny” somehow trump freedom and having a choice, because she knows that a world that has effectively abolished love means nothing. This world is run by cynics, and that is why it is ultimately doomed. 

Random notes: 

The poem that June quotes in the beginning of the episode when she recalls what she has learned from her games of Scrabble so far – 

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

Is by Margaret Atwood, and was published in her collection “Power Politics”.

That garden conversation between Serena Joy and June is quite possibly my favourite scene in the show so far – both of them are playing the other, Serena underestimating June, June contemplating murder, both of them recognising and hating the fact that the other has any amount of power over them, and yet becoming accomplices. 
(and the beauty of the barren wife cutting off dead flowers, in the garden)

June is furious at the Commander for touching her during the ritual. 

“It’s such a small problem, truth be told”. This is how he feels about women being capable of feeling pleasure. They never had the ability to make the world better for anyone, because they knew nothing. 

What a song to end this. 

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