The Handmaid's Tale: A Woman's Place

Guests are coming to Gilead. Time to take down the bodies and clean the blood off the Wall.

Did Ambassador Castillo honestly think that the Handmaids would tell her the truth about their existence in front of their enslavers? It was so obvious that the Wives were also lying to the Ambassador about how happy they were that Fred was displeased. And that bit where Serena Joy inspected the line-up of Handmaids and told Aunt Lydia to remove the "damaged ones" was so disturbing. She actually compared maimed Handmaids to a damaged commodity, bruised apples at the top of a crate. At least, by doing so, she demonstrated awareness that Gilead's treatment of Handmaids would be unacceptable to outsiders.

And talk about unacceptable. That scene at the reception where Serena Joy introduced the "children of Gilead," the children of their local Handmaids who stared at their own stolen children with pain in their eyes, was also disturbing. The final reveal that the "trade deal" they were planning consisted of the Handmaids themselves was the rotten cherry on the top of a poisonous sundae.


Elisabeth Moss is such an exceptional actress, and in this series, the camera is often centered on her face. There was a long moment in the middle of the episode when we watched every expression on her face when June was steeling herself to flirt with Fred Waterford to make him think she enjoyed his company. And then she had to voluntarily kiss him. And then she had to brush her teeth until she bled.

June has been showing signs that, like Emily before her, she is reaching her limit and is ready to do something... risky, foolish, brave, and/or possibly fatal. She was horribly upset that she lied to Ambassador Castillo when she said she was a happy volunteer, even under these life and death circumstances. It seemed to June like a betrayal not only of herself, but of all the Handmaids.

And that led to the remarkable scene at the end when the Ambassador gave her a gift of chocolate, and June told her the truth. Elisabeth Moss delivered that speech in such a soft, matter of fact tone of voice, with a half-smile on her lips, giving it much more of an impact than if she had been screaming, or sobbing.
"We're prisoners. If we run, they'll try to kill us, or worse. They beat us. They use cattle prods to try to get us to behave. If we're caught reading, they'll cut off a finger. Second offense, just the whole hand. They gouge out our eyes, they just maim us in worse ways than you can imagine. They rape me. Just every month, whenever I might be fertile."
Did the Ambassador know? Clearly, she did. Her assistant Mr. Flores surely did, too, which would be why he told June that her husband Luke was alive and he could get a message to him. Flores must be part of Mayday, there to recruit June, because of course, Commander Waterford is a very important man. Which would mean more danger for June.


It was obvious that most of this episode was intended to show us the foundation of the Waterfords' marriage, and it was worse than I could have imagined. Reciting scripture while having sex? That's nuts.

Okay, the more important thing was that Fred is one of the major architects of this brave new country called Gilead, but it was Serena Joy's ideas about "domestic feminism" expressed in her book, A Woman's Place, that formed the foundation of Gilead's treatment of women. In the process, she lost any power she might have had to implement her own ideas. Talk about hoist with her own petard. Talk about gender traitors! She's actually worse than Fred. Just like Fred did earlier with June, Serena Joy acknowledged that some people would suffer for their brave new world, but people were already suffering, so, oh, well.

I haven't been doing much ranting about how angry and upset it makes me to watch a series about women in slavery because it's pretty obvious. But you know, I understand that a society might have to change drastically in order to deal with climate change combined with a drastic drop in the birth rate. Marching backward in time never works, though. You cannot return to a "healthy and moral way of life" by taking away the rights of half the population. Wouldn't it make more sense to give fertile women anything and everything to reproduce? Bunches of bonus money and an elevated stature in society, perhaps?

And why would some women of Gilead be fertile while all the women in Mexico were not? That doesn't make a lot of sense. Unless it's related to the environment?

The Waterfords are complex, and their history is important to the series, but I found June's interaction with the Mexican delegation a lot more interesting. Not to mention her budding romantic relationship with Nick. Secret flirting, clandestine touching, so dangerous. Too dangerous. I liked that June told him her name, and Nick said the same thing that Emily did, "It's nice to meet you." It's hard to tell what Nick is thinking, but I so, so want him to be the person he appears to be when he's with June.

I want the Ambassador's assistant, Mr. Flores, to be on the level, too. I want men to be actively working to free women. We haven't seen a lot of that up until now.

Bits:

— Why was it the Handmaids who had to clean the blood off the Wall? Because the bloodstains won't show on their habits?

— Janine was terribly upset that she couldn't go to the party like the other Handmaids, and Aunt Lydia promised her lots of dessert and kissed the eye that she herself plucked out. Shudder.

— Serena Joy was wearing pink in the flashbacks, and then black. And then she put all of her non-green dresses in the trash. Near the end, Nick took a box of trash out to the curb; on the top was Serena Joy's book, along with Women Who Run Things and A Fleeting Affair. I hope that last one wasn't Nick/June foreshadowing.

— Deputy Ambassador Castillo wore pants. It looked odd in this world of color-coordinated women in dresses only.

Quotes:

Janine: (about the Wall) "It looks kinda weird without all the dead bodies, doesn't it?"

Rita: "As soon as you're dressed, Mrs. Waterford wants to see you. In her room."
June: "Awesome."
Rita couldn't help smiling, although she tried to hold it back. If Nick is the Eye, does that mean Rita is not?

June: "Red's my color."
Serena: "Well, that's lucky."

Ambassador Castillo: "Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this?"
Serena Joy: "A society that has reduced its carbon emissions by 78% in three years?"
Ambassador Castillo: "A society in which women can no longer read your book. Or anything else."

June: "What are you gonna trade us for? What? Fucking chocolate? We're human beings."

Ambassador Castillo: "My country is dying."
June: "My country is already dead."

Much of this episode was upsettingly excellent, but I was surprised by how uninterested I was in the Waterford flashbacks. Would that make it three out of four discarded books?

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

4 comments:

JRS said...

Well-written review, Billie. This episode was one of the most harrowing so far. From the Handmaids cleaning the red blood off the wall (but having no way to clean it off themselves or their dresses) to the final confrontation in the kitchen. Hard to watch.

magritte said...

Billie, with respect to whether it would make more sense to reward fertile women for reproducing, it would make more sense to most people. But I always felt that part of the point of the book was to point out that the powerful will always seek to control any valuable and scarce commodity. And while it's distasteful to view people as a commodity, they have been bought and sold for much of history. Do you really think men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein would let a little thing like women's civil rights stop them from having kids? Though the book also implies that this doesn't work in the long run, that Gilead ultimately fails, as the epilogue is clearly written from the perspective of a much happier time.

Billie Doux said...

magritte, of course you're right. It's about power.

JRS said...

In the book it was mentioned that in Communist Russia those who proved fertility got promotions and raises. No word on if women were included or maybe I need to reread but the Gilead approach wasn’t the only one.