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The Handmaid's Tale: The Wilderness

"The righteous will rejoice in vengeance and wash their feet in the blood of the wicked. It's good stuff."

This season finale was incredibly satisfying, but it made me uncomfortable. Why uncomfortable, I asked myself? Is it a societal knee-jerk reaction to women violently expressing their rage, no matter how well deserved?

This episode began with a flashback to Jezebels where June kept telling herself not to kick or bite because her life depended on making Fred Waterford believe that she wanted his attentions. June carried that through during the incredibly tense scene when she visited Fred in prison, indulging in a little auld lang syne and letting him think that she had actually felt something for him. During every single moment of that long conversation, I was on the edge of my seat, expecting her to pull out a hidden weapon, or even break her highball glass and slash his throat.

Even while Fred was buttering June up, telling her how much he missed Offred and that he now empathized with her parental angst, it was so obvious that he still saw her as an object. He understood that she was "uncomfortable" in his house. Uncomfortable? What a word for it. He said he was sorry to June, and she cried. But he was just parroting what he thought he had to say to get what he wanted. Much like June did when she lied to stay alive. Layers and parallels.

The thing is, it isn't just crimes against June. It's the fact that Fred and Serena were complicit in creating Gilead, which has caused countless deaths, enslavements, rapes and mutilations. Whatever their intention, this was the result. But for Canada, the ICC, the world, men's lives are still more important than women's. Fred Waterford was still more important than June. Although when it came down to not one, but 22 living women, it was no longer quite so theoretical.

The flashbacks and callbacks in this episode were everywhere. Fred chained by the neck in that transport van, like June, like Emily. "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" written in blood under his hanged body, evoking justice for the handmaid before June who hung herself in the Waterfords' attic prison. The song, "You Don't Own Me." Scenes in this show are often photographed from above as if God is watching, and there were even more than usual this time around. The most effective was the flashlight circle of former handmaids in a "salvaging" around Fred, who got his Old Testament reward at last.

I understand why June felt compelled to kill Fred. But in exchange, she may have just lost Luke, baby Nichole, Moira, Rita – her family, her support structure. Some of Fred's last words were an appeal to June as a mother, and June herself said that a good mother would be able to just let go. But she couldn't.

I also understood the emotion behind June wearing Fred's blood on her face like war paint. She wore the red coat when she killed him, too. But maybe wash it off before you say goodbye to your baby daughter?


Serena's farewell to Fred was a bit cool. We didn't see her reaction to his death, or to the severed finger with his wedding ring that June sent to her. 

What will happen to Serena Joy? Fred's deal was revoked, but was Serena's? Yes, she has realized that if she goes back to Gilead, they'll take her baby and make her a handmaid. And yet, she was still ordering the ICC reps interrogating Fred to treat him with respect, to call him "Commander." Serena also demanded a big house, and Mark Tuello was surprised that she was planning to live with Fred again. Mark's thing for Serena has been an undercurrent for two seasons. Geez, maybe he has a shot with her now. Run, Mark. Run far, far away.

I really loved the payoff of the new partnership between Joseph Lawrence and Nick Blaine, a most enjoyable new plot thread. And the way June kissed and thanked Nick in front of Fred, like he'd given her the best present ever. Maybe he did.

This has been the best season of The Handmaid's Tale so far. I don't know if this season's storyline changed and became more character-driven because of covid-19, but if it did, maybe that was a good thing.

Bits:

— Right before Mark took Fred prisoner, he got off the phone with someone he called "Ma'am." Is Mark's boss a woman?

— Joseph Lawrence said Fred wasn't a used Subaru. But that's how Gilead treats women, like a used Subaru, or as Rita said, a Nissan Altima.

— The border crossing where Fred was exchanged for all those women was a powerful visual. I also noticed that on the demarcation with "U.S.A." and "CANADA" on either side of the line on the bridge, "U.S.A." was crossed out with red spray paint. Did it say "HELL?" It didn't say "GILEAD."

— Emily was in the group of women that killed Fred; I didn't see Rita or Moira. I assumed they were the former handmaids in the help group that met at the library.

— Nothing about Aunt Lydia, Janine and Esther Keyes. Next season, I assume.

— Poor Luke. But he must have suspected it was coming.

— In the Hulu behind the scenes bit for this episode, Joseph Fiennes talked in his refined British accent about playing a character he found as distasteful as Fred Waterford. When you can't help cheering when a character dies, it's a sign that the actor did his or her job. Good job, Mr. Fiennes. I despised Fred Waterford.


— I visited Niagara Falls and Toronto in 2018, and had lunch in that restaurant! It's called Hutch's on the Beach, and it has absolutely decadent fried fish.

Quotes:

June: "Weak men, hm? They do make the world go round."

Moira: (enraged) "And then he's a free man. He's free to just set up wherever the fuck he wants, with his Viking-ass wife."
Absolutely loved that.

June: "We're enjoying very fine weather."
Emily: "Pious little shit."


Emily: "What do you want?"
June: "I want him to be afraid. Because I was afraid for so long."
Emily: "How afraid?"
June: "Like in the woods when I was caught. And they took Hannah."
Emily: "More than that."
June: "I want him to be scared to death."

Fred: "I'm a man and I have rights!"
Wow. That said it all, didn't it?

A fantastic finale to the best season ever. Four out of four silver whistles,

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

13 comments:

fourmi said...

Best season ? The worst for me ! Here are the notes I give to each season (out of ten):
S1 : 9
S2 : 7
S3 : 4
S4 : 3
The story is full on non-sense and particularly in the end of this finale ├ępisode. A spit to Margaret Atwood who insisted in her foreword to her book (2017) that she always stuck to credible things when writing the story.
The writers of the show turned June into a pure psychopath, responsible of so many innocent deaths around her, just to fulfill her will of revenge and save her daughter. She has become very despicable and at the start of each episode I was hoping she was going to be killed. But it is the show itself that has been killed after the second season.
And my god, enough is enough of this psycho close-ups of June ! Purely unbearable ! What a lazy direction. And what vanity from the actress when directing herself and multiplying those close-ups...
Interesting characters have been compltely sacrificed (Moira, Jeanine, Aunt Lydia), it was June, June, June whith her mad expressions.
I really hated this season and most of everything this last episode. When I read the comments on IMDB or your review, I feel sick to see how many people rejoice with such violent, animal vengeance. How can you rejoice about a lynching, even of the most awful man ? I just feel disgusted.
I really don't have many hopes for what season 5 will be...

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

Billie,

some random thoughts going forward.

-- With Fred gone, it looks like they're going to position Serena as June's primary nemesis, which means the writers are going to have to figure out how to get her back into Gilead.

-- Once back in Gilead, I believe Serena will circumvent all Gilead based punishments and the reason why I say this is for a couple of reasons.
1. Hypocrisy has always been a hallmark of her character. She helped create Gilead to subjugate all women except for her. Going forward, I expect she'll figure out a way to bend Gilead's infrastructure to benefit her. For example, I could see a scenario where she ends up marrying a commander who's prone to blackmail and who can be more overtly controlled than Fred.
2. Serena needs to be kept strong for her inevitable confrontation with June when June eventually returns to Gilead to find her daughter.

-- I'm hoping that the death of Commander Waterford serves an important purpose going forward other than satisfying what fans of the show have been clamoring over for the past few seasons. Now that one Waterford has been removed from the board, it'll be interesting to see how the other Waterford will regain her footing.

-- As for June, I see this as the beginning of what will be beginning of a self-destructive journey. No one wants to see her getting raped once again, so having her lose her humanity and by proxy her loved ones as a result is probably the next best option in terms of the storytelling. Will her thirst for revenge overtake her desire to rescue her daughter, Hanna? That's probably going to be moral conundrum for her character going forward.


Billie Doux said...

fisher and diaz, I think you're right that Serena is going to be June's primary nemesis now. Serena has always been smarter, crueler and more diabolical than Fred could ever be. And now she has even more reason to hate June.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

I think season 5 will show how she maneuvers her way back into Gilead's good graces. Hypocrisy is a hallmark of her character. She will never become a handmaid nor be subjected to any of the same harsh policies that she set in place to subjugate other women. And I don't think it would be constructive in an ongoing narrative. If the show were wrapping up, I could see that being a more plausible conclusion. But this is sort of the midway point in June's story.

I'm thinking of this through the lens of the hero's journey. I think the death of Fred will be the beginning of June's low point period. And in these types of narratives, the main character has to hit rock bottom before they can regain their sense of agency. I think June's main themetic objective will be reuniting with her daughter, Hanna, and that in order to do so she'll have to salvage what is left of her humanity, which has sort of begun to unravel with the killing of Fred. As cathartic as Fred's execution was, it's going to set off a chain of unintended consequences for June.

I know a lot of people bristle at the idea of June going back to Gilead, but I feel that she'll have to set foot back to that land in order to keep the story moving forward. Is anyone going to want to see June in Canada for potentially the next 2 seasons? And wouldn't the story fall flat if the main character is no longer ever in peril?

On that same token, I'm perplexed why anyone would want Serena to remain in Canada indefinitely seeing as how most of the characters in Gilead were kind of boring this season. But with Fred's departure, will a new actor be cast for the show to replace the Commander, or do the writers plan to beef up their secondary characters like Commander Lawrence, the Putnam's, and to a certain extent Nick, who's been relegated into a secondary character himself?

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

I could see a situation of Serena miscarrying, and that becoming an ironic twist of fate that allows her to escape becoming a handmaid.

Billie Doux said...

I'm okay with June returning to Gilead, as long as she's not an imprisoned handmaid again. I just don't want them to return to the Waterfords' attic, or something like it. Although at this point, June is public enemy number one in Gilead and if caught, would almost certainly be promptly executed.

Serena miscarrying would make sense storywise. It would certainly push her over an emotional cliff, given how singularly focused she has been on having a child.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

I don't think anyone wants June to become a handmaid again, and the writers are probably aware of it. But as always in the hero's journey, the main character does hit rock bottom, so I'm assuming that this particular trial will involve psychological punishments involving friends and family paying a heavy price.

I imagine all future depictions of June in the role of Handmaid will be in occasional flashbacks.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

Much like the impending June vs. Serena feud the writers are setting up, so you see a Janine vs. Aunt Lydia feud as being the other end game?

Billie Doux said...

I hope you're right. The writers are clearly not stupid, as this fourth season has proven.

Billie Doux said...

Yes, I suspect love for Janine will turn Aunt Lydia. I've been hoping for that for a long time.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

Can Aunt Lydia really be redeemed? Would that be a bridge too far? I love Ann Dowd, but her character is just awful. Honestly, I don't think anyone in Gilead's power structure can be redeemed. They're all complicit.

milostanfield said...

The low point for June could also be the failure to rescue Hannah at all, because it's logistically not possible.

Or, maybe more likely, that it is too late because Hannah is too far along the road to "Of-hood" to rescue at all. They seemed to be setting that up with the comment someone (Lawrence?) had that all of the newer handmaids have known nothing but Gilead their whole lives, and how Hannah behaved when June last saw her.

Also, the clock is still ticking on Hannah becoming fertile and thus a handmaid. She's never been more than a McGuffin so far, but as she gets older and can potentially have at least some agency, what will she be: a rebel like her mom and Moira, or a true believer like that poor child bride they forced on Nick? Could Serena get her claws on Hannah, as a handmaid or even (gasp) an ally? I hate myself for this whole conjecture but this show is dark enough to go there.

As for Janine/Lydia, I would love to see Janine have some agency of her own, not just be Lydia's toady. I love it when a meek and mild character like her takes charge, kind of like the "final girl" in those old 80's horror movies.

Anonymous said...

Maybe because I work at a university, and they are routinely handed out as part of safety orientation sessions, my first thought when June met Fred in the wilderness was "Oh, June called her accomplices with a rape whistle, how appropriate." I wonder if the writers intended that?