Sunday 18 August 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale – This can’t have been for nothing.

 The Handmaid's Tale: 3x13 Mayday.

And the Lord said, 'I have seen my people in bondage, and I have heard their cry. I know their sorrows and I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place to a land flowing with milk and honey.’
A flashback to the beginnings of Gilead. Women, herded like cattle, divided by worthiness, those deemed unworthy taken away – we can guess their fate, because there are no people with disability left in Gilead. June, still a woman with no concept of how far this place will go, pleads with a guard, tells him that her child has been taken away from her. Under normal circumstances, this would be the breaker. Nothing is taken more seriously than lost and stolen children. Except, always, throughout history, a relative statement – the children of white, American mothers. And now, in Gilead, no longer the children born out of wedlock, or second marriages.

June began to comprehend the ruthlessness of these men, and the fact that it brought them to top, as they would not have won without it. This is why it is so ridiculous, and ahistorical, to demand that a resistance to fascism be peaceful and non-violent, why the equation of anti-fascist and fascist violence is wrong. Gilead does not consider women fully women, and considers them unworthy beyond their ability to give birth. A regime which categorises humans into worthy and unworthy will never hesitate to create a system of violence and murder to achieve its goals. June thinks back to that lesson now, readjusting what she believes are effective measures to destroy Gilead, realising that the only way to beat the ruthless is to become ruthless herself.
June: Where does it come from, this talent for ruthlessness? It seems so easy for them, for men like these. That’s how they won, I suppose.
It isn’t about being right, about having the people or god on your side. It isn’t anything that grandiose. In the end, victory goes to the hardest heart. To the ruthless go the spoils.
Along with this lesson about ruthlessness, in the days and hours before the impossible rescue, June also receives some words of wisdom from Aunt Lydia, which were meant differently than June interprets them. Lydia tells her that the other Handmaids look up to her, and therefore, she must lead by example, understanding that popularity means responsibility. It’s interesting that Aunt Lydia still, after everything that has happened, believes that the responsibility of popularity could ever lead back to a more powerful Gilead, and not a uniformed group of women finally understanding that there is power in togetherness and unity. In the end, the fallacy of Gilead’s regime of men is the arrogance of power – in not recognising women as fully human, Gilead underestimates the will of the women it subjugates to fight for freedom. It’s the same kind of arrogance, except on a much grander scale, that had Fred believe that Serena would support him regardless of how much he took away from her and denied her.

It helps that the men we have been shown to lead Gilead have been so uniformly weak, even when they appeared physically strong. They are plagued by personal weaknesses and shortcomings; they are propped up by an ideology that paints them as infallible while they do nothing but stumble and stutter. You’d believe that part of Commander Lawrence’s disgust with the world he has created just stems from how utterly idiotic the men are that he is surrounded with, that he suffers mostly from the irony of having built a cage not just for all the women of Gilead, but also for himself, with the inability to ever escape these pathetic men. A world that rewards ruthlessness and heartlessness over other features – such as the bravery we will see in this episode, the empathy, the bond between the women fighting Gilead – is doomed to failure.

Much of Mayday is a waiting game. To prepare for the day, the Marthas pool their resources, calculate how many provisions it will take to feed 52 children, grease the gates at the Lawrences so that the arrival of the children can be kept a secret. The children arrive – by foot, from miles and miles away, brought by brave Marthas willing to risk everything to allow these children a better life. June cares for the first early arrival, a ten-year-old called Kiki – bright, but with barely any memory of a world before Gilead, and therefore a reference point for what the world outside of Gilead looks like. June is gentle with her, even though everything she does must remind her of her lost daughter.
One of the questions here is the realness of Mayday. Will there be a plane? And who is Mayday, if it doesn’t have a central organisation, if the closest that it come to leadership is a group of Marthas, who claim to decide priorities? The answer is that Mayday is anyone – it’s most of all, the Lawrences’ younger Martha, who wants to be part of this, who is sick of being left out. Mayday is the antidote to what we were shown in the first scene, women being herded into trucks.
(but there is also a conflict between the individual goodness, the empathy, and the requirements of the greater task at hand – when Kiki’s Martha changes her mind and tries to take the girl back, June points a gun at her, as she is putting the whole rescue operation in danger, and she eventually points it at Kiki, in a moment of panic).

When the operation veers and there is danger of failure, Commander Lawrence threatens to call everything off, but of course the gun that June was given by him comes back into play. It will inevitably be fired – an educated man such as Joseph Lawrence must have been aware of that. He clings to the old ways, he believes himself to be in charge even as he is surrounded by all these women, risking their lives. June first pleads with him, telling him that the sacrifices can’t have been for nothing, and he responds, in typical cynical manner, that the universe doesn’t have a balance sheet – except if that were true, June would lose all hope. So she does what she was always meant to do, she takes the power away from him.
June: Men. Fucking pathological. You are not in charge. I am. You still think this is your house?
In the end, more than 52 children gather in the dark house. It’s a moment of grace but also one of sadness, considering how desperate Mrs Lawrence was for children, and how involved she became in the end in their rescue. Joseph reads to them – Treasure Island – and proves that this whole time, maybe what he meant to be was a storyteller. He will stay behind, because there is nothing to live for anymore either on this or the other side of the border.

And then, on foot they go, one by one, following the breadcrumbs into the woods. It’s an increasingly unlikely rescue, as the security forces are closing in. At the airfield, June realises that there is only one way out – the guard, positioned there, needs to be distracted so that the procession of children can board the plane. She must be ruthless, not in order to destroy, but in order to save. It’s like everything has been cumulating to this moment, June’s crises, the gun places in her hand, the fact that she can no longer see a way to save Hannah and has instead chosen to save everyone else’s children. She goes off by herself, ready to die, but then, because Aunt Lydia was right when she said that there was power in being looked up to, the other women follow her. The Marthas and fellow Handmaids throw stones at this random man, who has the whole power of Gilead vested in him. Many of them die. But then June runs – and saves everyone – and slays her second monster, with the gun that Joseph gave her.

The plane lands in the safety of Canada, welcomed by Moira, Emily and Luke, who still has hope that Hannah will be one of the saved children. Instead, Kiki is the miracle, the girl who was lost for five years, who has no memory of a world before Gilead, and still recognises her father straight away. And the best moment – maybe my favourite – is Rita arriving here, shell-shocked, in a strange land, but comforted by Emily, meeting Luke for the first time.
Rita: She did this. June. Your June. She did this.
And across the cruel border, June is carried home by a procession of Handmaids.

Random notes:

Across the border, Serena is teased with the prospect of freedom, given a hall pass by Mark, and the idea of looking around her new city. Except, expectedly, Commander Waterford sets her up out of spite, sharing with the ICC that his wife was instrumental in June’s rape by Nick, a trespass that negates the immunity granted to her, since it happened without any coercion by Gilead.

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