Wednesday 9 May 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale – It’s truly amazing what we can get used to.

The Handmaid's Tale: 2x03 Baggage.

June: No mother is ever completely a child’s idea of what a mother should be. And I suppose it works the other way around as well. But, despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another. We did as well as most. I wish my mother were here so I could tell her that I finally know this. So that I could tell her I forgive her. And then ask Hannah to forgive me. 

June is biding her time in the Boston Globe offices, running through the empty hallways, doing her best to honour the memories of the people lost in the massacre. She is also piecing together the past, assembling newspaper clippings, tracing the ghosts of Gilead back in time. There are two thoughts on her mind: that leaving the United States and going across the border without Hannah would be a betrayal of her daughter, and that her mother, in the past, warned her about exactly those traces she is now finding, the traces almost everybody ignored at their own peril. Facebook groups and internet message boards of radicals, public statements with keywords like “sinful” thrown in, an undercurrent of misogyny justified by religion that has always existed. As a child, her mother took her to Take Back the Night, where women threw the names of their rapist into a pit of fire – and June remembers, still, how many pieces of paper there were, like snow. And all of these thoughts are coming back to her now, as she is pondering what it means up to give up on her own daughter to protect the child she hasn’t given birth to yet. And what it meant for her mother to see her daughter make so many choices she could not understand. 

We were recently rewatching the first season of the show, and in Luke’s episode – Crossing the Border – there was such a keen sense of what other stories The Handmaid’s Tale could tell about Gilead, if it weren’t The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ve never been as bound to June’s story as Margaret Atwood’s novel is, and there is something so enriching about seeing other perspectives, but in that episode specifically, we got a sense of a story that feels like it may have deserves its own show. The team of misfits that save Luke and sacrifice their lives when he successfully crosses over is so much closer to the survival stories we are used to seeing. It is so different from how June survives, which is a story that is barely ever told because it isn’t so obviously heroic and brave. It is, perhaps, what her mother would have wanted June to be: the strong female character of her own story. It’s fitting that it doesn’t last longer than an episode, that it fails so spectacularly, because as much as June’s mother insists that June has disappointed her hopes in her, that she has settled for Luke and Hannah and editing other people’s words, June’s way of surviving now is just as heroic and brave, even if it doesn’t fit the structure in which such heroism and bravery is usually delivered. 

There are so many things that June realises in this episode: That her mother was prescient about where the United States were going, that she saw Gilead before Gilead emerged, that she wanted her daughter to follow her ambition because maybe, if more people did, Gilead wouldn’t have happened (and I wonder how she would have felt if she had ever met Serena Joy, her evil twisted mirror image). How disappointed she was in her daughter who wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice as a child but then came to marry Luke, and have Hannah. How she never praised her for her accomplishments (there is a great moment in a conversation between them before her wedding, the way June says “whattt” in a way that indicates how often she has been reprimanded for her choices), and instead praised Moira. June also gets a glimpse of the life she would have had if she hadn’t been Luke’s second wife – a grim, grey life of fear, of being afraid of the neighbours, of having no rights of her own, but at least being able to be with her child. 

June is supposed to be taken across the border, but something goes wrong; she is almost left to die, except a man who fears for his life shows compassion (which is bravery, not stupidity). HE takes her home with him to his wife and child to protect her, even though this means putting his own family in danger. We will never know what happened to him (we know he held on to his own beliefs, regardless of how much danger they put him in, because holding on is sometimes the only thing left to do), only that they never returned to the apartment. In the end, she almost saves herself. She finds her way onto a train, wearing clothing that isn’t her own, that is so grey and so similar to what everyone else is wearing that she disappears into the anonymous crowd. She finds the right train stop, even though there is no writing and no signage to guide her. With a map given to her, she finds the airfield, remembering losing Hannah in those woods, remembering giving birth to her, remembering something good and happy about her mother, who would have raged in the colonies, who wouldn’t have had an easy or quick death there. But then, because it would have been too easy, because the months of preparation weren’t enough, everything fails. 
Raise your daughter to be a feminist; she spends all her time waiting to be rescued by men.  
Her feminist mother, who provided abortions to women, who was sent to the colonies for her bravery, wanted June to fight Gilead in the streets. She knew Gilead was going to happen, and she wanted her daughter to continue the tradition of fighting for women, of being surrounded and supported by other women. June’s choice to marry Luke and to have a career she loved hurt her, but it was June’s choice to make, and she is now punished for that choice just as severely as she would have been if she had fought. 

There is the other story. There is June, still caught in her trauma, still trying to flee to safety – but there’s also Moira, running just as fast away from all her memories across the border, incapable of being touched, incapable of forming meaningful relationships to anyone except Luke and TBA. There is something low-key lovely about their share-house situation of shared trauma and hurt, but it also works as a reminder how hard it is to exist with this shared trauma in a society that doesn't comprehend it – and it’s a true story about survivors failing to thrive once they have reached safety because all of their memories still haunt them, and the people they love aren’t saved yet. There is hope, though: Luke’s clinging on to the idea that Canada may one day invade, that this day will come sooner rather than later (maybe the empty hope of a refugee who wants to go home) -  and TBA speaks her first words, “Blessed Be the Fruit Loops”. 

Random notes: 

A great use of Santigold in the beginning. Sometimes the music cues are too on the nose, but not this time. 

One of the most haunting scenes in this episode is when June finds herself in the warehouse where all the removed signage from the Boston area has gone: deliberately removed because reading isn’t allowed for women and it is so much harder to find your way out if there is nothing to guide you. It is what went wrong for Moira, that first time. 

I can’t help but always remember that Cherry Jones played a fictionalised version of Eileen Myles in Transparent

June throws Commander Waterford’s “Better never means better for everyone” in Nick’s face, who won’t quite admit that he is primarily concerned with saving his own child, rather than Hannah (which might be an impossible feat anyway, but gosh do I wish that this show did something else with this character). 

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