Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale - How can you do this?

The Handmaid's Tale: 1x10 Night.

It’s their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.
I’ve thought a lot about what meaningful resistance means in the context of Gilead, of the severe restrictions and violent consequences of any kind of dissent against the governing regime. Is it enough to merely preserve some dignity, to make small adjustments, to resist in tiny ways – or does that specific kind of resistance not help prop up the very regime that is opposes, by providing a pressure valve that directs any kind of opposing thoughts into an acceptable and harmless expression. This is what Jezebels is – an institution that, on the surface, is in opposition to all the ideology that Gilead relies on, but that, when looked at closer, does as much to support the foundations of the regime as other more obvious institutions do. It is easy to tell that this is what it is, because very much like liberal comedy in times of regressive regimes, it never truly endangers anyone or anything, and those who profit from the entertainment it provides are always already part of a privileged minority. 
To Moira, and to June, Jezebel’s is nothing more than another thing that works to repress, to limit choice, to suck lifeblood out of women. And this is what every single Gilead institution has been designed to do: to limit the choices that women can make, to shape them into small, tiny things, to put them beneath men with no legal way of expressing their individuality, their personhood. Serena Joy has helped to build this regime, she has written the laws, and she has built her own cage that is now threatening to close in. Faced with her husband’s transgressions and infidelity, all she can do is be violent against June, when she knows exactly who is responsible. And then she doesn’t even have that freedom anymore, when June turns out to be pregnant. It’s an extremely informative moment to see what Serena chooses to do when she runs against the walls of her Gilead. She undermines the authority of her husband, an authority that is inherently built on the unthinkability of his sterility. In a country that doesn’t even allow the thought of men being sterile, a regime that is propped up by the idea of some inherent superiority, she turns the religion that he and his fellow men have used to get themselves into this position of power (the same religion that has, over centuries, served that exact same purpose for men). She knows that there is nothing else in her arsenal that she can use against him except threaten his conception of himself, except reveal that there is a great chance that June’s child isn’t his. That God would know his heart, and never reward him with a child, because he is not worthy of it. 

Unbeknownst to her, the same thing happens on the grander scale, and it looks like the religious walls are closing in on Commander Waterford. He is privy to the trial of one of his own, Janine’s Commander, who testifies to his transgressions. Fred argues that they should move on, as he has accepted his wrongdoings, and each of them has many things on their plate, but the true believer – that we met when we found out about Nick’s backstory – says that this would mean undermining the foundations of Gilead. To many of them, the religion is mere pragmatism, a means to an end, an ideology that conveniently supports their superiority and allows them to do as they like. But to a true believer, that same religion, when taken seriously, means that Commander Putnam needs to be punished severely for his transgressions against a series of rituals that were devised specifically to keep up the pretence. And more than that, and more relevant to Waterford’s own life, it turns out that Putnam’s wife asked for him to be punished severely, as she was fearing for his mortal soul. 

Which is, maybe, the theme of this final episode of the season. The small way in which each marginalised and terrorised group carves out power, or finds the one thing that will allow them a margin of control over their own lives. Putnam’s wife realises that she has no direct power over her husband to direct his actions, to prevent him from abusing Janine, or taking his liberties, but she can use the supposed religious extremism of Gilead, the very thing that gives him power, against him. She can be the good wife that fears for his soul, and ask for punishment, which he receives here, in great and horrifying surgical detail. He loses an arm, and it serves as a reminder to Fred that Serena, especially after he thought to remind her that she doesn’t, has power here in Gilead, and that he has to mind his steps very carefully. In many ways, this whole episode contrasts the Handmaids finding a way to demonstrate their power with the way that Serena does – which is always directed in two directions, upwards against her husband and the regime that has cut her out, and downwards, against June who is so much easier to blame for everything that is happening to her. Upwards, it is the implicit threat that she holds the same power that Putnam’s wife does – the power that comes with being thought of inherently pure, of holding some kind of moral religious advantage, and being able to pass judgement. It’s a historic power which women have discovered over the ages and in times when they lacked any kind of power, that of appearing more morally and religiously sound than men. It’s that power that somehow led to prohibition, and to socially acceptable conservative women’s movements while radical feminists were battling in ways that were not conceived as not sufficiently feminine. Downwards, it is much more terrifying – because, faced with the knowledge that there is a chance that Nick and June could make a family of their own, could take this blessed child that she already considers hers but that she knows isn’t truly hers and will never be, she knows she has to protect herself and this imaginary family. She does so in the most brutal way possible, by forcing June to look out of a locked car as she meets with her daughter, by not allowing her to speak to Hannah, and then driving off, making the explicit threat that if anything happens to this baby that she considers hers, she will take an eye for an eye. 

This – the “how can you do this” – has been at the centre of this entire season. How has Gilead fashioned such an exquisite weapon out of privileged, upper class women, a weapon that proves so effective against other women, and so willing to help in their subjugation. How can these women be content in their domestic cages, in their terrifyingly un-intimate marriages, and still direct all their anger and frustration at their Handmaids instead of the husbands and Commanders that are writing the laws that are keeping them down? How can they make all these choices that ultimately hurt them as much as they hurt the Marthas and the Handmaids? It’s a question we have to ask ourselves, in 2017, and I think The Handmaid’s Tale knows this, even if it was written months before a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. This complicity in a regime of violence against women, that doles out a few privileges to some women to help destroy the rest is one of the least palatable thing about this show, and yet the most real one. 

But this episode isn’t really about Serena Joy, and her attempts to wrangle back power from a failed marriage and a political system that she helped to create, only to find herself trapped in it. It’s about the other women, the ones who had everything stolen from them. June starts this story in the Red Centre, with the way that they used to look at each other when they were taught about what was expected of them, and how much it deviated from how they conceptualise their selves and their lives. The “look of terror, utter and unutterable”, between a group of women that wasn’t just asked to forget everything it had ever learned about equality, but also fashioned into weapons against each other, to control each other, inform on each other, help in each other’s subjugation. But, as June says in the introduction, they also gave them a uniform. They also made that suffering communal. The other side of all those rituals, all those mass ceremonies that turn the Handmaids into a group, is that it breeds community, and a sense of self determined by belonging to that group. More than belonging, it breeds solidarity based on that shared suffering, based on the horrors endured. 

When June came home from the markets, she hid the package that Moira stole for her behind the bathtub. She was told it may be a weapon, fashioned to help in the destruction of the regime, and when she finally does decide to open it, it is exactly that. There is nothing that threatens Gilead more than each and every one of these women realising that they are not alone in their suffering, that other women have just as much inner life, and hopes and dreams, as they do. It validates their individual experiences, by proving to them that it is a communal suffering, one in which lies strength and possibility. June opens the package and finds testimonies, stories, of other Handmaids who have been robbed of their children, who have been raped, who still have a voice that they can use to communicate the wealth and horror of their experiences. It’s overwhelming, and joyous for June to find this. It’s like when Moira steps into that corridor to find Luke there, after her horrible journey towards freedom, when the true moment of achieving that freedom isn’t crossing the border, or getting that introductory speech about being a refugee in Canada, but finding someone who is family in this strange land. It’s community and the possibility of solidarity. 

It’s also the opposite of what all the Handmaids were taught at the Red Centre, this idea of being equidistant to the Handmaid closest to them, that moment where June was electrocuted and the others stepped back, in fear of contaminating themselves which whatever transgression prompted the punishment. It’s not just one thing that has led to this, and I want to believe that Emily, stealing the car, killing a guard, enjoying freedom for a few minutes after losing so much, has contributed immensely to what happens next. 
They are called to a public execution again, but this one is different. It’s a stoning, and the person who is to be punished is Janine, who has somehow survived all of what has happened to her. Aunt Lydia, who used every method of torture to instil absolute compliance, asks her Handmaids to stone Janine to death. And the most unlikely person, the new Ofglen, who has scolded June every time she has transgressed even a little bit, proves to be the first one to refuse this transgression. They will not raise a hand against one of their own, to punish her for something – wanting to raise her own child, loving her daughter, going insane over the brutality and the inhumane treatment she has suffered – that they have all endured, or will endure in the future. They refuse, and after Ofglen is dragged off by the guards, June steps forward to drop the stone in front of Aunt Lydia, knowing that there is a limit to the punishment she will suffer, now that she is pregnant, but also knowing that each of the women around her has a story of their own, a life of their own, a mind of their own. And then, slowly, each of them steps forward and refuses, claiming back their humanity. 

It’s beautiful, and a moment of grace that goes beyond anything that Margaret Atwood allowed to happen in the novel. It’s a moment of hope and grace, even though the regime will reinterpret it as the opposite, as a moment of disgrace. 
June: We said no. We refused to do our duty. To kill Janine. And for that sin we will be punished, I have no doubt. I am in disgrace, which is the opposite of grace. I am to be terrified, but I feel serene. And there is a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility. I tried to make things better for Hannah, change the world, even just a little bit.
So as Nina Simone sings about freedom, June slowly makes her way through an icy-bright winter morning, towards a car that will take her to salvation or to death.
June: Whether this is my end, or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over into the hands of strangers. I have no choice, it can’t be helped. And so I step up into the darkness within. Or else, the light.
Random notes: 

One of the best moments this episode is how Moira is completely and utterly overwhelmed when her case worker offers her choices about what to do now, because for at least five years, she has existed in a world that gave her no choice. She is paralysed by it, and incapable of responding. 

There is a lot of tenderness between Rita and June in this episode, and it goes beyond just the promise of a child – and June tells Rita where she hid the package, which will perhaps mean that the idea of these women telling their stories will spread like a wildfire.

I think when the Commander promises Serena that they will be a family after June has left, she already knows that it’s a lie. She is very conscious of all the ways in which she has been deceiving herself all this time. I wonder how these two will fit into the next season, if at all, but Yvonne Strahovsky has been outstanding in this role. 

They look at each other defiantly, courageously, finding companionship, and trusting. A severe contrast to how they used to look at each other in the Red Centre (there is a very deliberate contrast here between how Alma and June first met, and how they see each other the last time). 

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