The Handmaid's Tale: Unfit

"I've never seen anyone so devoted."

Like the Canadian story line, the flashbacks in this show are often a welcome relief from the horrors of present day Gilead. This time, not so much.

Let me start by saying that Ann Dowd is absolutely awesome as the fearsome Aunt Lydia, and a flashback to her past should have done more to explain her character. Instead, even in her past, Lydia was taking children from their mothers while pontificating about her good intentions. She is just as conflicted and confusing as she always was. Maybe there's just no explaining people like Lydia. Or anyone who fits in Gilead.

Lydia Clements was a fourth grade teacher who used to work in family law. She went from judging Noelle, a poor young mother with a bad job, to helping her financially and giving her emotional support (which was lovely), to initiating legal proceedings that successfully took Noelle's son Ryan away from her. A remarkably good thing followed by a remarkably bad thing, and note how Lydia's clothing and hair style changed from loose, comfortable and attractive to a Gilead-like shapeless outfit and restrained bun.

This was tied in to Lydia's possible new boyfriend, Principal Jim. Lydia and Jim seemed so well matched: both were single again with careers in education, and clearly religious since they both quoted the Bible in casual conversation. Jim even said grace in the karaoke bar before they ate. (Karaoke "Islands in the Stream." Too cute, and adorably out of character for Lydia.)

Why would their aborted lovemaking on the couch push Lydia over the edge into such overwhelming shame, into violently destroying her own image in a mirror? Was it because she finally allowed herself to acknowledge her own sexual needs, and being rejected was too heavy a blow? For that matter, why did Jim stop? His wife died three years ago. Was it really too soon for him, or did her aggressive move on the couch turn him off? And why did this incident make Lydia turn on Noelle? Because Noelle had encouraged her to date again, had given her makeup?

Tying this into our lead character, we've all been wondering how June is still alive considering how badly she's been acting. I think June is too angry right now to be frightened of what could happen to her. Maybe Aunt Lydia sees June the way she saw Noelle, as someone she would try over and over again to push in the right direction – until she didn't. This doesn't bode well for June.

I enjoyed the three gossipy aunts around a table matching Handmaids to Commanders more than the flashbacks. This was background that we needed. Aunt Lydia complained about June's misbehavior, but then she talked about June being misled. "We never had issues with Ofjoseph before the Waterfords. A problem household, to say the least. And she was there for all that business with Emily." Aunt Elizabeth added, "And Lillie." It's an explanation for why June is still alive and undamaged. Not a great one, but an explanation.

During the almost comical testifying scene in the gym, June did acknowledge that Frances' death was June's fault, and that Hannah would suffer for what June did. And then June took that opportunity to turn on Ofmatthew, saying truthfully that Ofmatthew didn't want her baby. We learned that Ofmatthew thought her baby was going to be a girl this time, and she didn't want to bring a daughter into Gilead. I so can't blame her.



During their shopping trip to Loaves and Fishes, June smiled as Ofmatthew snatched the guardian's gun and went on her desperation spree, and then she nodded when Ofmatthew was aiming the gun at her. I think June was ready to die. When Ofmatthew changed her target to Aunt Lydia, I was yelling, "Kill her!" Sadly, no. The death of Ofmatthew and her possibly female fetus, along with the death of Ofandy's baby girl, felt like a metaphor for the murderous sickness of Gilead's culture.

Racism in Gilead

This is the second episode in a row that featured the horrible death of a black woman. It's also the first time race was so much as mentioned. During that fascinating scene with the Aunts and the sherry and the files on the lazy susan, Aunt Lydia said that one of the Commanders didn't want a Handmaid of color. Racial prejudice exists in Gilead, but it is kept on the down low. Under the table, pun intended.

Critics of this show talk a lot about intersectionality, how jarring it is that Gilead is all about the misogyny while racial issues don't seem to exist, and really, I totally get that. It's a major change from Atwood's book. In reality, a fascist, misogynistic society like Gilead would almost certainly be deeply racist as well. I initially thought I understood why the producers made this decision. They wanted the focus of this fictional dystopia to be the oppression of women, period. There is also the practical consideration that if they had adhered more faithfully to the source material, the entire cast of this series would be white.

While I was thinking about what I would write about this episode, I realized that I hadn't thought through that assumption. They could have kept Gilead logically racist by having Handmaids of color while all of the Commanders and Wives were white. White slave owners in the past often raped and impregnated their black slaves, didn't they? And of course, June could have still had a black husband and daughter. I wonder why they didn't go that way? It would have made a lot more sense.

More glowing comments about the photography

As usual, the photography in this episode was spectacular. I was particularly struck by the from-above shot of Handmaids circling Ofandy with comfort and hugs, June in the snow with a red umbrella on her way to Loaves and Fishes, and the camera attached and moving with Ofmatthew's gun. The most striking was the line of red blood on white tile as Ofmatthew was dragged out of the store; it reminded me of the red ropes they use for hanging.


And the flashbacks were so pretty that they often looked unreal – the diffused lights on the Christmas tree, the sparkling clothing and hangings at the nightclub, the New Year's Eve glitter. I'm sure that was on purpose. The unreality, I mean.

Do they celebrate Christmas in Gilead? Has it been mentioned? It seems unlikely. But I didn't think they would have dancing, either.

Bits:

— The name of Hannah's Martha wasn't mentioned in the previous episode, but here, the very first scene started with June talking about Frances, and what an ordinary life she led before Gilead. Much like Lydia.

— Janine was kindness itself toward Ofmatthew, and when Ofmatthew lost it in Loaves and Fishes, she beat the crap out of Janine. It would have made more sense if Ofmatthew had attacked June, instead.

— During the birth scenes and the testifying, the Handmaids were acting a little like a bitchy high school clique. "Crybaby! Crybaby! Crybaby! Crybaby!" actually made me laugh.

— June told Joseph Lawrence that he wasn't protecting Eleanor, he was suffocating her. Lawrence didn't take the bait. I'm starting to think the Lawrences are in danger. Gilead turns on its own on a regular basis. No one is safe.

— The Lydia/Ryan twenty questions scene that opened the flashback began with Ryan asking, "Am I alive?" I wonder. Is he?

— Gold acting stars for Ashleigh LaThrop, who played Ofmatthew. I wish we'd known her character's real name. Maybe we'll find out what it was at the beginning of the next episode. (Note from later: Oops, my mistake. Aunt Lydia cried out the name "Natalie" during the melee.)

Quotes:

Aunt Lydia: "Tell your friends to cool it."
June: "I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia. I don't know what you're talking about. You want to take my tongue out? Burn my arm? Better hope they don't need me on TV again for Nichole."

June: "How did that rhyme go? The one we'd jump rope to? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. A game to tell what our children would grow up to be. The list is a lot shorter now, especially if it's a girl. Martha, Jezebel, Handmaid, Wife."
What about "Aunt"?

Noelle: "You're a fucking coldhearted bitch!"
Lydia: "I forgive you."

Aunt Lydia: "Sometimes it's the apple, and sometimes it's the barrel."
Aunt Lydia has decided it's the barrel this time. She wants to transfer June to another household. Uh oh.

June: "I hurt her. and I enjoyed it. The wives and aunts, too, grieving over Ofandy's dead child. And Lawrence. They all deserve to suffer. It's an acquired taste, seeing others in pain. Like that smoky scotch Luke got as a gift once. I grew to like that."

June: "I finally know how Oflgen felt, what made her put on that bomb vest. […] And I know how Emily felt, right before she stuck a knife in Lydia's back."
Again, it sure sounds like June is ready to die.

This is the second episode in a row that I didn't much like. Two out of four smoky scotches,

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

2 comments:

Sjusjun said...

I think Lydia blames her actions with Jim on Noelle. I think in her mind Noelle is the one who pushed her, who corrupted her. I think this is why she smashes the mirror. She does not like what she's become. And ultimately destroys Noelle instead of herself. And she keeps on doing it now. She destroys the women around her because she hates that part of herself so much.

Unknown said...

"Why would their aborted lovemaking on the couch push Lydia over the edge into such overwhelming shame, into violently destroying her own image in a mirror?"

I think a possible reason for both Lydia and Jim is the characteristic they both most clearly share: their deep religiosity. Hooking up with each other while being unmarried may have been distressing for both of them, and I could see it causing Lydia (who clearly values acting morally and being self-controlled) to feel so much shame that she takes it out on herself and then the people around her (i.e., Noelle).