The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x03 Late.
Her name is Emily.
Imagine what it would have been like for Emily and that unnamed Martha to fall in love under such circumstances. To allow love in a world that thrives on distrust, to take that plunge. To deny a regime that takes absolute control of bodies and minds that last inch of yourself, to allow love to build a space within yourself that is safe. As that first part of the quote from Alice in Luther goes – “Love is supposed to dignify us, exalt us”. What greater dignity and exaltation could there be than stealing this away, insisting that love is still possible, that it can still lift us up, in spite of everything else.
There are many moments of dignity in this episode (moments of grace, of courteous good will, of elegance of movement), and I deeply and profoundly need to believe that they win out in this episode. I’m not sure if they will – I’m not sure how the series will end anymore, what will lie at the end of all of this – but for the moment, in spite of all the unbelievable violence (it should be believable though, it is taken from things that have happened, still happen), decency prevails. Emily and the woman she loves hold hand in the car until the end, and the woman kisses her – there are no regrets here, whatever they were trying to accomplish in punishing both of them so severely was unsuccessful. And before this moment, in spite of being warned and compelled by Nick to say everything because everyone breaks, they have ways of making everyone break, June finds a voice of resistance that is glorious. She insists on Emily’s dignity (she doesn’t even know her real name, will never know her real name). She says she had a wife. She says she was gay, refusing to use the hateful language that degrades us, that allows for us to be treated as less than. She says she didn’t think to betray her, because they were friends. And nothing, not the frightening man in the suit who has come to interview her, who latches on to every hole in her story, not the Aunt with the cattle prod, all too willing to use it frequently, not the complete knowledge of what they are capable of, keeps her from saying that Ofglen was her friend.
June: Now I'm awake to the world. I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then, either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.
One of this non-attributable quotes about how things happen – gradually, then all at once. The political background of what happened in the past remains obscure, and we can piece it together from what our current political experience of the world is. Some terrorist attack. Some laws that justify fewer rights in exchange for more security. An armed paramilitary force, not quite the American military, but a different kind of military. Phrases like “Blessed be the Fruit” and “Under his Eye” sneaking into daily life, standing out starkly in the beginning, then just becoming background noise. A barista in a coffee shop, turning down your debit card, then calling you names, without anyone interfering. All of your money transferred to your closest male relative. Your job, lost because women shouldn’t work. It’s gradual, then sudden. It’s hard to pin down the precise moment when it downs on June that this isn’t temporary, that this isn’t an anomaly, that all of this is a pointed gradual descent to someone else’s perception of paradise, one that reconceptualise her as a womb on two legs. I think Moira realises before her – she is black and gay, she knows that they can do this. They have done this in the past, and this thin veneer of progress and civilisation, of laws and supreme court decisions that we hold on to with desperate hands, hoping that they signify that it can’t be turned around, that this past can never come back to haunt, is precarious at best, brittle, so very easy to demolish. I think of this a lot, in Australia, with regards to how marriage equality and safety for non-cis and queer kids in schools are debated. This argument that this is a debate that we should be having, or that we should be aiming for tolerance instead of acceptance, is so toxic – because at the core of it, there is the idea that somehow, we are less, we are different, we are not as human as others, and therefore deserve to have our rights debated. Look out for that shit, because this is where it leads.
Moira calls it out in Luke, because it would be so very comfortable to think that all of this, the violence, the gun shots ringing out, the embarrassment of being called a slut in a coffee shop by a barista who’s only just started working there, the economic precariousness of being without a bank account or a job, the impossibility of moving without the consent of a husband or father, can be blamed on the hatred and misguided ideology of a few for whom the idea of women being a man’s property, and being safe and sound in a world where they can do nothing out of their own volition, sounds like paradise. The thing is that those people will always exist, there will always be a group of people who are unchangeable in their racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia. I don’t believe in debating them, or in any possibility that they might change their minds about us if we just behave for long enough, or try to meet them in the middle. The troubles begin when a good guy like June’s husband Luke can joke about the whole situation and say, I will take care of you, and only half-joke. If someone like Luke can believe that his goodness alone, and the love that he has for his wife, can somehow temper the evilness of this regime that has just transferred his wife’s money to his bank account. That all it takes is waiting it out, because in the end, the world will come to its senses, because somehow, liberalism and progress are inherent and nothing that has to be fought for every single day, nothing that people have shed blood for for centuries. Moira calls him out, but it doesn’t really matter in the end.
Moira: She doesn’t belong to you. She isn’t your property. She doesn’t need you to take care of her. See that’s where all of this comes from. You wanna take care of us because we’re weak. Because we’re less than. I’ll take care of your money. I’ll take care of your body.
The idea that all of these new laws are shaped to support is that women exist to give birth to children. We’ve seen how this idea could spread so wildly, the empty maternity ward, the palpable fear that June felt when she found out that she was pregnant. Children are rare in this world, therefore an ideology that doesn’t hesitate to commodify women and only see them through the lens of childbirth can thrive. As a Handmaid, June’s sole value derives from her ability to give birth to healthy children. The slightly terrifying moment of the last episode, when Rita was significantly more human and warm to her because she was excited about Janine giving birth, escalates in this episode, when the household begins to think that June herself is pregnant, because her period is late. Suddenly, all those people who have treated her with coldness, standoffish at best and brutal at worst, are warm to her. She is served good food. The Commander’s wife becomes open and vulnerable, and shares her most intimate wishes and hopes with her, which is perhaps the main reason of why this episode ends the way she does – when June turns out to not be pregnant, she regrets opening herself up in that way, becoming vulnerable to a woman she deeply detests.
This episode belongs to Emily – it belongs to Alexis Bledel, being robbed of her voice, for the majority of her episode, of about half her face to express Emily’s emotions – but there is something else in here that will stick with me for a long time.
Serena Joy has offered June the possibility to visit Angela, the baby that was born. She takes her with her, and it becomes brutal when she is made to hold the baby, that reminds her of Hannah (and still she can’t help but smile, because she loves “fat babies” – who doesn’t love babies, this entire society thrives on that first maternal instinct). She talks to Janine, who has illusions about her Commander loving her, who has named the child her own name, and believes she is absolutely free now that she has proven to be able to birth healthy children. She dreams about running away, and roves crazily, and June struggles to find a balance between feeling for her, resenting her, and warning her of the inevitable consequences of an imagined freedom that does not exist.
The interesting thing is that both Janine and June, at least for the moment, operate in a space of relative freedom. Janine’s family needs her because she is still feeding the infant (but the Wife is eager to get rid of her), and June is being toted on because she is thought to be pregnant. Later this episode, her presumed pregnancy saves her life, or at least protects her from further serious injury, when Serena intervenes in the interrogation to protect her imaginary future child. But that freedom is only temporary and precarious, on both their parts, but June is much more aware of it.
Serena Joy: You know what you do and what we do together is so terrible. It’s terribly hard and we must remain strong. Which is why I feel so blessed to have you.
Serena drops her face in front of June, which is why she will end the episode with so much hate. She reveals her own shame in having to live this way, in being complicit in this. Regardless of where that shame comes from – and old conception of marriage as being exclusive, having to watch her husband whom she cannot divorce fuck another woman, or a deeper felt knowledge that the same regime that took everything, including her own child, away from June has turned her into the limited spectre that haunts her own house – it’s there, and she expresses it more honestly to June than she has in any other previous interaction. The moment connects really well with the previous one between Ofglen and June, when they both realised they were talking to another human – what if the wife has to recognise June’s humanity – or just as difficult, what if June has to see a human person in the woman who much more immediately oppresses her, but in fact is as trapped and limited in her possibilities as she is?
Back in the past, when she was June, the person on her side through all of this was Moira. Luke was at the edges, but Moira was the one taking her to the protest, she held Moira’s hand when they ran from the bullets and found refuge, when the unbelievable happened. This is why she says, we were friends. This is why she does not deny Ofglen, even when faced with the possibility of death, even after being warned and compelled by Nick. What would it say about her, if she denied that friendship, if she didn’t insist that there was a dignity in saving things and holding them sacred? More than that – she finally throws it back in the Aunts face. There is a moment in the Red Centre when she doesn’t complete the quote about the Meek, the absurd fact that one of their favourite go-to-quotes about what the women should be like, in its original form, when it hasn’t been reinterpreted through omission, is actually a message about hope and resistance. They will inherit the Earth. She told Ofglen that her father had a parish. She watched the old church being torn down where Hannah was baptised. More than that friendship, in that interaction she also reclaims faith back – she questions the authenticity of this weaponised, fake faith, that cherry picks whatever is required to bolster up the misogynist patriarchy.
Nick told her that there was no point in trying to be tough or brave, but she is both. What saves her is the fact that she is presumed pregnant, when she turns out she isn’t, when the Commander’s wife realises how much she has revealed of herself, what she is met with is pure rage. The façade finally drops, and there is nothing but violence and threats behind it.
We haven’t even seen it yet, the carving that her predecessor left her. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. The last we see of Emily, she howls in rage. In the end, that’s the dignity left to her. She doesn’t resign, in spite of everything being taken from her.
Ofglen warned her about Nick but he reveals himself to know a whole lot too much about everything, and they almost kiss (there are many moments in the beginning of the book as well where June considers having sex with Nick, to feel touched again but also to claim that bit of power back, and it’s an exit strategy that Emily tries, but fails with, right before the trial).
Hands in this episode - the Martha kissing Emily's, June holding Moira's, Serena Joy kissing June's. So many different meanings.
Same with the title "Late" - which literally refers to June being late with her period, but also titles an episode that is about the gradual descent into this state, and not quite being able to decide when it was too late to change course (for June, it's the gunshots at the rally, but we know it happened so much earlier than that)
June says she will do what they ask, she will resign her body freely, but then, when asked these specific questions (they aren’t asking about Ofglen’s network, about the resistance, they are asking about HER, about being gay, about her as her friend), she changes her mind.
Of course this regime would utilise genital mutilation – the fact that women experience lust and pleasure would be in direct conflict with everything they believe in.
Alexis Bledel in this episode is…