The Handmaid’s Tale: 4x10 The Wilderness.
June: I want him to be afraid. Because I was afraid for so long.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what this season of The Handmaid’s Tale would have to do to bring things home, to prove that it is worth to continue another year, rather than to find an ending for June’s journey. In Margaret Atwood’s novel, the unnamed protagonist’s life beyond the story itself was a mystery, an unknown. She lived, and then she died, and anything that she didn’t write down remained unpreserved.
June, in the television show, has likely survived her by years, has travelled further than she ever did, and has left a mark beyond what the archaeologists in the novel discovered when they studied Gilead.
We left off with June finding out from Mark that the charges against Fred would be dropped, that he would be given immunity, for his cooperation. He would reveal the entire inner structure of Gilead in exchange for freedom, because even in Canada, even beyond the border of Gilead, a powerful white man who has committed war crimes can escape the grasp of the ICC if he sells his goods to the highest bidder. June realises that crossing the border, something that took her so many years, and so many sacrifices to achieve, has not bought her justice, and that she is unlikely to find anything like justice within a system that was designed by powerful men to protect other powerful men. The perversity of this system is revealed when Serena begins to make demands, begins to manage Fred’s affairs the way she used to, before they built Gilead together. She demands that he be addressed as Commander, while he reveals the crimes of others. She demands that there son be born in a mansion, handpicked by her, rather than a prison. Serena is so fucking sure that she is once again backing the right horse that Mark cannot get through to her when he questions her about her willingness to remain in a relationship with a man who cut off her finger, who raped another woman, who has repeatedly transgressed morality.
Throughout all of this, Moira is convinced that the path towards justice is through the same system that denies it. She is trying to organise funds so that June can testify in person, in Geneva, rather than allowing the justices the comfortable distance of a video camera. She thinks that what is lacking is a confrontation with a victim of Gilead to escape from the expedient path of pragmatism that has led the Canadian government and the remains of the American one in exile to see Fred as an asset rather than an irredeemable criminal. But June knows that this isn’t how it works.
It’s difficult to tell in this episode when exactly June figures out what to do. She tells Emily that she feels like a bad mother, because a good mother would be able to let go, and she can’t. She sees Fred in prison, and they drink to Offred, to her strength, in a scene that is reminiscent of earlier ones where June was so aware of the power she wielded over a man who is so desperate to believe he is loved, he is doing good. What she realises is that Fred has no awareness of his crimes, and no regret for what he did. What she realises is that this man cannot be set free, cannot be redeemed, because he has yet to have any insight into the catastrophes he has caused.
June’s greatest strength has always been her insight into what men need to feel like they are good men. She has faced monsters that way who didn’t know what they were. Somehow, she looks at Mark Tuello, the man who has traded justice for some insights into Gilead’s inner workings, something that would surely please his bosses and advance his careers, and sees a way out. She sees a way to advance his career more, to milk better headlines, and play into his idea that he is the hero of the story, a man who has always been disgusted by Fred. She finally proposes a deal that works for all sides, because she has spent every waking hour on understanding what her opponents want. It’s a deal that nobody can turn down – a deal with Commander Lawrence, who has in a way told her what he needs to be able to trade with her. A trade of lives – of Fred’s for 22 resistance fighters that Mark thought dead. 22 women, saved the way that June saved the children, a much better headline than setting free a serial rapist and architect of Gilead. June asks Mark to listen to her proposal, and he does, and somehow it is better than whatever publicity deals Serena Joy is discussing on her cell phone.
Instead, Commander Lawrence gets exactly what he needs: the man who is blabbing about Gilead’s crimes across the borders is sent back to the homeland he purported to love so much, until he changed his mind. His pathetic relationship with his pregnant wife is now no more than a mutually advantageous business arrangement, and so he doesn’t even get a genuine goodbye. Instead of Geneva, Mark takes him across the border – and he walks past the 22 resistance fighters whose lives are saved, the value of one cruel man expressed in the lives of 22 women. Across the border, he meets Commander Lawrence, and tells him proudly that he does not regret trading Gilead’s secrets for the safety of his family – but June said he wanted him afraid for his life, the way she existed for so many years, and he is. He knows that this is the end of the line, that the justice system he himself designed will find him lacking. And in the end, it’s not even the justice system he faces – instead Nick arrives, takes Fred off Lawrence’s hands, and takes him right into the no-man’s land where June first lost her daughter and her freedom. June descends upon him, offering a choice between a gun and a whistle, and he chooses the whistle, which brings down the mob of women who are thirsting for justice, denied, for the same revenge that Gilead refers to again and again in its rituals. He is torn to pieces by the women he wronged, and his wedding ring and finger are sent to Serena.
I think the episode should have ended there, instead of following June back out of the wilderness, into her daughter’s room, with a husband looking upon the blood now covering both his wife and her daughter, knowing she has become unreachable in her vengeance. I think it should have ended in the woods, where for a second, if you froze the frame, Emily looks like she is finally taking back something that she thought she could never reclaim. Where June finally takes a deep breath that is entirely her own.
The best episode of this show in a long time, but a particularly chilling moment was June visiting Fred in prison and touching all of his little privileges, the bible, the management books, the Cuban cigars, finally requesting a drink, as a reminder of how much he still has, even before his freedom has arrived. The whole episode is framed by her explanation of the flattery that is required to weigh him in a false sense of safety and superiority, and it is so successful that he doesn’t even see anything coming until Mark tells him he’s not going to Geneva.
A perfect symmetry there, between Fred claiming that as a man, he has rights, just before he is taken to the literal no-man’s land between Canada and Gilead to find out that his privilege does not hold in the wilderness.
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