The Handmaid's Tale: Late

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 know it.

In a very traumatic episode we witness what happens to Ofglen, learn more about the past, and see how a late period – and a child – can change the life of a Handmaid.

This is the episode which gave me nightmares. It builds horror upon horror. Even the few moments of joy have a thin veneer of horror about them. At every step this horror is about employing different ways to destroy and disempower women. The previous episode ended with the disappearance of Ofglen. This episode opens with Ofglen imprisoned, her mouth bound, in a whitewashed prison. The disappearance and loss of Ofglen make June reflect on how she lost her America.

And here's where the episode begins to build its scary. It describes a very realistic world where women have woken up and lost the ability to work and hold money and presumably property on their own. United States citizens wake up, go for a jog, ask for their cappuccino, and are suddenly completely disenfranchised. It's realistic because, in 2016 and 2017, we've seen crudeness like 'fucking sluts' licensed at every turn in the United States political arena. Shocking as the change in society is the change in our characters. The guns walking into the office to walk out the women – the tears as they lost their jobs – it's an overwhelming change in status. Moira struggles to come to terms with it, but is very aware of the survival issues and asks for walking companionship from Luke for safety. I think it's important to realize that none of this happened in the book; while there were protests in society, Offred/June stayed home and the book didn't give this intimate portrayal. And throughout it all – there's nothing really to fight, or punch back. Just a wave of horror and law and inevitability. Thus came Gilead to the United States.

It's the law now. I don't have a choice. They gave me ten minutes. Please, just pack up your bags.

Meanwhile, back in the present, June is experiencing a different kind of prison – by her potential pregnancy. Serena Joy's completely intentional act to take June to see Janine is a way of psychologically torturing June into submission and, in the process, ensuring that Serena herself never gets troubled by this marvelous fertile... pet. (Yeah, I'd spit out the cookie too.) Poor Janine never seemed entirely stable – but now she's biting people and, it looks like, running mad, especially if she thinks that her commander gives a fig about her. I mean, that might be the sane act, fighting back where you can. June doesn't seem entirely sane to me. Maybe survival is insanity in an insane world. But June's a survivor. I'm not sure Janine will be. That's why June is terrified to tell her that she's only late – not pregnant – and Serena's reaction makes clear that all the niceness was just a veneer. Under it all I think June was thrilled to not be pregnant. In a society where you lose your child, pregnancy is just another layer of torture.

As if that were not enough, we see more of what happens to poor Ofglen, a completely new addition to the mythos. In the book, poor Ofglen simply disappeared. That was horrific, too, but here, she witnesses the death by hanging of her lover, then is drugged and has a very sanitized form of female genital mutilation performed; while the exact procedure isn't named, the implication is that her clitoris is removed. Aunt Lydia is creepy beyond belief, and Ann Dowd gives the character just the right note of malicious sanctimony. I cried for Ofglen and her partner holding onto each other in the truck, and I cried for Janine and her Charlotte, and I cried for June as she kept hunting for a way out of the prison she woke up too late to see. But I think it's Ofglen's eyes at the end which will haunt my nightmares, and her screams.

While that is powerful, the power isn't just from raw emotion and characterization, either; I find myself intrigued by the structure of the writing. Through the flashbacks and the visit and the torture of Ofglen, the show performed a tour de force of horror. It brought us from the normal world to the strange world through the flashbacks; it gave us a story of psychological horror of the type brought to us by Shirley Jackson and We Have Always Lived In The Castle, and then gave us the more visceral and physical mutilation of Ofglen and the Martha. It could even work as a stand-alone.

The episode's explanation of How We Get There is horrifyingly plausible, but also, as in the best speculative fiction, makes us think. I think the writers are presenting an interestingly different vision from Atwood, and making intentional changes. In the process they've given the work a completely new life, but also managed to create heart-rending drama.


Some questions I asked in the review – what are the experiences of nonWhite women and men in Gilead? Nick, or the new Ofglen?

I'm still confused about Serena's motivations. Sometimes she seems to connect with June. Sometimes not.

In the original book, Black men and women were rounded up and sent to another location. In this series, it looks like the racial aspect of Gilead is being completely erased. There were Black women as handmaids and we have seen Black men in Gilead society. I don't deny the writers that right as artists, and it does allow for a more nuanced look at the issues of women. In some ways, however, it does completely bear out the messages Black feminists who have deconstructed feminism as being White and privileged by erasing what was originally a whole different set of experiences. I mean, you could even say June starts out with one lesbian friend in Moira (and I love Samira Wiley to pieces) and ends up with a Whiter one in Ofglen (and I love Alexis Bledel to pieces, too). This could have been a completely different series had they chosen to add, instead of, for example, more protests, the perspectives of the Black people who were rounded up and moved in the novel. I'm hoping we learn more about the new Ofglen (Tattiwana Jones) to balance this out. And, just to keep my own perspective as a writer clear, I don't think any of these choices in creating a fictional product are necessarily bad, but I do think these decisions should be discussed, and I won't deny they might need to be justified, and we can learn from them as we can learn from Atwood's text.


This series keeps getting more powerful. Five out of five bloody napkins.


Billie Doux said...

This was one of the most disturbing hours of television I've ever seen.

During the flashbacks, I kept thinking of what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany: take away their jobs, their property, treat them like objects, and then round them up. And that hanging gay people, and female circumcision, are horrors that happen today, right now, in other countries. Watching Ofglen and her lover holding hands and sobbing in the paddy wagon, the hanging, the horror in the hospital for Ofglen, made me cry.

I also noticed that the men in the more positive roles -- the sad boss, June's husband Luke, Nick the driver -- kept expressing distress at what was happening to the women, but they really didn't do anything, did they?

Lisianpeia said...

This episode is so incredibly good that I wanted to rewatch it as soon as I finished it and at the same time I never wanna go near it again because it was so painful. It gave me such repulsion that I had physical reactions, such as pulling into myself and not being able to eat during or after it. Maybe I was overreacting, but it was really tense. And I agree with you, JRS, the structure of the writing gives a lot of weight to the episode. It isn't just about the physical torture.

Ofglen's plot was what most got to me. Bledel was incredible in this episode. All of her scenes were gut-wrenching and she didn't have any dialogue! One hell of a performance. I'm really glad she won the outstanding guest emmy for this.

"Under it all I think June was thrilled to not be pregnant. In a society where you lose your child, pregnancy is just another layer of torture." I had that same feeling.

I've only seen positive reviews regarding the portrait of nonWhite woman in the show, because like you said "it does allow for a more nuanced look at the issues of women." But I've been thinking about your last comment since I read the review. I don't really have anything new to add, but I think you're right, this needs to be discussed.

I have the same feeling regarding the men. The scene where June tells Luke what happened at her work and that women aren't allowed to have jobs or money anymore is even worst in the book, because Moira isn't present to rebuke his attempt at confort. I know he was trying to confort her, but his lack of indignation enraged me.