Thursday 27 June 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale – Please, talk to me.

The Handmaid's Tale: 3x06 Household.

Our contemporary, western understanding of a family is recent. Historically, there have always been ownership structures in place – between husband and wife, between husband and children. Understanding the members of a household as individuals with freedom and rights, rather than extensions of the husband, is the accomplishment of a long struggle. It is also, and not just in the world of Gilead, a precarious concept, as it takes privileges away from a group that is still very much capable of expressing frustration over this loss with violence. 
Gilead uses the pretence of religion to justify a broad, politicised form of violence to regain the lost privilege of owning women and children. That ownership is at the centre of its ideology. When Commander Waterford “borrows” June from Commander Lawrence so that the whole household can travel to Washington, D.C., where a “High Commander” (we’re learning more about the power structure of Gilead as we go) is going to petition Canada to repatriate Nichole, his understanding of household goes beyond Serena. The household isn’t just his wife, it’s also the Handmaid he used to own, and Rita, the staff that also counts among his belongings. 

There are several scenes in this episode that connect neatly to the tableau at the end of the last episode. The “household” is arranged, with the married couple at the centre, and the lesser members arranged around them. It is an absurd mirror-world version of Christmas photos, or family portraits. Maybe June, and Rita, are there to fill the empty space where children would have been (in a later scene, June regards the picture of High Commander Winslow’s family, which doesn’t include staff or Handmaid, it’s just him, his wife, and their six stolen children). The reason for those tableaux, and the grander thing that Waterford and Winslow are organising, is a public display of ideology to the outer world. They are building pictures of Gilead, for the world to see, and everything about it is carefully arranged, much like a national-socialist display of power would have been (and obviously that’s where all of this black and red imagery is from, how The Handmaid’s Tale creates this shudder of recognition and horror). 

The episode begins with June observing how the cause of her daughter Nichole is starting to be used as a rallying cry to unite Gilead, which may have been struggling with discontent, especially after what happened at the Rachel and Leah Centre recently. There are public displays of prayers for her daughter’s return. More interestingly, to Fred, more and more so, and perhaps because he never truly saw Nichole as his own daughter, all of this is just an opportunity to rise in the world. He will travel to Washington, D.C. to showcase his talent for public relations, to mine this event for all it can give to him. He is trying to make an impression on a man much more powerful than he is, as showcased by the many children how very publicly enliven the Winslow's household. Serena’s cause is personal – she explains to June that everything changed after seeing Nichole, that she cannot let her go, as much as June begs her to allow “their” daughter to have a better life across the border. Betting on Serena was always going to be a lost cause, but the way June learns here is cruel. 

Washington, D.C. itself tells a tale about Gilead that we haven’t previously heard. It is like Gilead in the extreme, a place at the centre of power and therefore least removed from its grasps. The obelisk of the Washington Monument has been turned into a cross, and when June first leaves the train, she is asked to wait in her “spot” – which literally turns out to be a red spot on the floor, upon which Handmaids kneel until they are picked up, under the eyes of an Aunt. As limited and horrible June’s life is in Boston, this is the escalation of Gilead’s ideology, the absolute architectural, physical and mental manifestation of its creed. Where the new Washington Monument is a clear and widely visible sign of this, the true horror lies hidden underneath another feature of the Handmaid’s uniforms – when June meets the Winslow’s Handmaid whom she will share a room with, she realises that her mouth underneath the cover has been sewn shut. 
So while Fred and Serena bathe in the happiness of the Winslow’s and their many children, June slowly realises what kind of place Nichole would be returning to, if Canada should give in to Gilead’s pleas. It’s not just the known world of Boston, of the Waterford’s mansion, it’s this Gilead on steroids to which Fred Waterford, ever the ambitious man, aspires. It’s a realisation that comes just before it is decided that a Swiss delegation will interview the “household” and then negotiate between Gilead and the Canadian government. This brings up memories of years ago, when June tried to tell her story to the Mexican delegation, believing firmly that the horrors of the reality of Gilead would lead to international outrage, and action, only to find that Gilead is capable of leveraging enough power to neutralise any outrage. 
It’s not any different now. As much as hope as the place across the border has given those who have risked everything to cross it, the political reality is that Gilead has a powerful military, and resources, and Canada is not eager to risk a military confrontation over the life of one child. June has learnt enough about the reality of her situation and the world to comprehend this, and she has grown enough (and acquired enough cynicism), to understand that however true and shocking her story is, she needs something more concrete to trade with. And so she offers up Nick, who is now a Commander, and all that he knows about Gilead, as Gilead has turned itself into a black box from which barely any information escapes to the outside world, at least about the inner structures of power. 

June is confident that she can deliver, that she can make Nick speak to them. She leverages everything that she has (Somehow, Commander Lawrence’s words have run over this season this whole time). She asks him to do this one thing for her, for their daughter, to be a father for once, considering he won’t have many other opportunities. Nick objects and says that politicians always have their own agenda and that dealing with governments is dangerous, but in the end, he goes. Except maybe June never knew him at all, because in all those times they were intimate, he never told her about who he was before he became the Waterford’s driver. It turns out, whatever he did do for Gilead – Serena calls him a soldier, someone who has brought about Gilead as much as she has, if not more – has made him into someone that the Swiss are reluctant to deal with. June loses her play, after once again betting on the wrong horse. 

June: This isn’t love. You can’t love. You don’t know how. Serena you built this whole world just so that you could have someone. But it didn’t work. You’re small. You’re cruel. And you’re empty. You will always be empty.
Is it possible to do both, to understand Serena’s grief and to despise her for not loving Nichole the right way – the way that would allow her to be free of Gilead? She is confirmed in her notion that Nichole could have a happy life here, absurdly in the same episode in which June learns what depravities lie ahead, because the Winslow’s children seem so happy, and so well taken care of. And in addition to that, it promises the safety of her marriage, because seeing Fred engaging with the children gives her hope for it (perhaps not realising he is doing this mostly for the benefit of impressing his new important friend, Commander Winslow, who is promising him such good things). More than that, Mrs Winslow tells her that – even if it is a bit taboo to even remark on the fact that women not only used to read, but even write books – her book saved her, because it made her reconsider her priorities, and she is much happier now after stealing six children than she was working in a law firm. 

Random notes: 

I was meaning to write this last week about Loaves and Fishes, but sometimes all of this fascist design overlaps weirdly with contemporary hipster minimalism. Somehow this coexists with the kitsch overload of its ceremonies. 

Fantastic casting here with Elisabeth Reaser and Christopher Meloni, both playing characters with every potential to be threatening, as much as Fred wants to be them. 

Small moments here indicating that maybe Aunt Lydia is someone June could use, after Aunt Lydia is just as horrified to find the Handmaid’s mouth sewn shut as June was. “Do you want us all to be silenced?” asks June, and Aunt Lydia says no. 

There is a lot of political imagery in this episode, especially the grand thing that Fred is working towards, but the most shocking moment in June taking a stroll and stumbling across the Lincoln Memorial, and finding that Gilead has bombed off Lincoln’s head. His lower body is still seated, but the top half is missing, with no attempt made to cover it up. Earlier, when the Swiss delegation asks to speak to June alone, Fred argues that “in their culture”, this would be inappropriate – and this is exactly what is happening here, Gilead trying to erase the very, very recent past, in an attempt to create a culture out of nothing, with no foundation except selective bits from religion where it is convenient for the patriarchy to do so. 

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