The Handmaid’s Tale
Are we living in a pre-Gilead era? Along with stellar acting and brilliant writing, it was the fear of that exact idea that propelled the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale to mass popularity. We all watched, transfixed, as our worst fears spilled out across the screen at the same moment an autocratic sexual assailant moved into the White House and toted along a vice-president who calls his wife “Mother” and won’t dine alone with another woman. In the Obama years, The Handmaid’s Tale would have been great television. In the Trump era, it almost feels like a precognitive documentary.
The show’s machinations are sometimes so extreme that you may be shaking your head a little bit right now, as if to say “Really? You’re making the intellectual leap from Pence to the Red Center?” But ask yourself what it would take right now for you to flee the country, to leave behind your home, your life, and your family. A domestic terrorist attack, followed by martial law? The overturning of Roe v. Wade? A law requiring a husband’s signature for birth control? With the luxury of hindsight, we ask why June didn’t get her family out earlier — after the crackdowns, the birth control restrictions, the fall of the government. And in this episode, she is wondering the same thing.
The Boston Globe building has become a de facto home for June over her two months as a self-contained prisoner. She has a workout regimen, her altar to the victims has expanded, and she’s burrowed into the newspaper’s archives, cutting out articles from recent years and pinning them up under categories like “Militarization” and “Curtailment of Civil Rights.” Like an FBI agent tracking a serial killer’s moves, she’s uncovering patterns that indicate how America turned into Gilead, how it crept up slowly and then exploded all at once. “You were there all the time,” she tells the clippings, “but no one noticed you.”
In flashbacks, however, we learn that June was warned that the country was going down the drain. Her mother Holly (Cherry Jones, American icon), a doctor at an abortion clinic, was the sort of feminist that more laissez-faire feminists fantasize about becoming. She took a bottle to the face from furious protesters. She brought a young June to a Take Back the Night rally, where women tossed papers scribbled with the names of their rapists into a blaze. She surrounded and supported and encouraged women.
Except her daughter, that is.
Holly ignores June’s promotion but loudly praises Moira to her friends for designing a queer alliance website. She tells June that she’s “settling” with her job as an assistant editor at an academic press. And, unbidden, she tells June that she doesn’t think she should marry Luke. “You really want to take all that energy and passion and give it to a man?” she asks. It’s cruel and emotionally careless — and obviously, by the look on June’s face, it’s not the first time her mother has expressed disappointment that they don’t share entirely aligned goals.
“Luke is fine,” Holly continues, “but come on, this country is going down the fucking tubes. It’s time to get out in the street and fight, not play house.” She was right about the country, but June, along with the most of the populace, had no way of knowing that the curtailment of women’s rights heralded a tyrannical takeover by a theocratic fringe group. She must have figured, like most of us do, that women being spit on and derided and made to feel like lesser humans is just part of the way this world works.
Later, at the Red Center, in a presentation on how pollution destroyed the planet and human fertility, a photo of a woman laboring on a farm flashes on the screen. It’s Holly, donning a gray kerchief and laboring under a threat that lurks just out of the camera’s range. “She knew,” June explains later to Moira, and since Holly isn’t one to go down without a fight, her life in the Colonies must be a living hell.
Back in real time, the same trucker who deposited June at the Globe is back to retrieve and move her — this time to a dilapidated barn of sorts. Another member of Mayday shows up to take her to an airstrip near Worcester, from which a black-market dealer will fly her up to Canada and drop her off. She’s so close to freedom — and to Luke, although she isn’t entirely sure that he really is alive — just 24 hours until she’ll be out of the country.
But the Mayday courier, Omar, gets a message that the safehouse he’s taking her to has been compromised. Understandably, he heads for the truck and tries to leave June behind. Sensing just how crucial this moment is — that if she’s abandoned now she may never be thought of again, June hurls her body in front of his truck and refuses to move until he takes her in. Is he stupid or brave? Probably a little bit of both.
Their arrival at Omar’s apartment block opens up an entirely new part of Gilead that we haven’t seen yet: the communities of the lower classes. In Margaret Atwood’s novel, the Econowives — the women married to poorer men like laborers, Guardians, and farmers — don’t have a large presence. But just like Handmaids and Wives, they are entirely subservient to their husband’s wishes. The Econowives cook, clean, and shop for their families. It’s enforced housewifery.
June notes that this is “where I’d live if I hadn’t been an adultress, if I’d gone to church. If I’d played my cards right. If I’d known I was supposed to be playing cards.” And Omar’s family is an uncanny mirror of June’s own: a biracial couple, a child about the same age as Hannah. The first child June has probably seen up close or interacted with in a long time. They aren’t exactly happy, but they’re together and alive. June was too traditional for her mother’s tastes, but also too sinful for Gilead to accept as an Econowife, considering her affair with Luke while he was still married to another woman.
Heather, Omar’s wife, is obviously dismayed at the thought of harboring a fugitive handmaid in their apartment. First, because no unusual movements go unnoticed in their neighborhood. Like neighbors in Nazi Germany, they’ve been frightened into informing on one another. Second, because Heather has been brainwashed into looking down upon the Handmaids — women she might have known or befriended in pre-Gilead life — as cold and uncaring. “I don’t know how you could give your kid up to somebody else. I would die first,” she tells June, who responds, “Yeah, I used to think that, too.” It isn’t just the Aunts or the Commanders who keep Handmaids in their place, it’s all of the other women who buy into the narrative that Gilead’s men are pushing. Which speaks to a particular point that Atwood has made several times about her novel: The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t about one type of oppression; she wanted to deal honestly with the ways in which women hold one another back and push one another down.
June is left in their apartment while Omar and Heather attend church. In the meantime, while hiding under the bed, June discovers one of Omar’s own secrets: a Quran and prayer rug tucked into the boxspring. They promised to be home by two, but five o’clock rolls around and there is still no sign of them. “I waited before,” June thinks, referring to her reluctance to flee America as democracy circled the drain, “I thought things might be okay. I swore I’d never do that again.” She pulls on Heather’s gray Econowife outfit — which must be difficult, given how she relished burning her red dress and wings — grabs the map Omar showed her earlier, walks out the door, and blends right in, so similar to the other women that she might as well be invisible. It’s an odd silver lining to Gilead’s harsh restrictions.
The world around June is totally washed of color and personality. In the novel, Econowives look slightly different, with multi-striped dresses meant to show that they perform the roles of Handmaids, Marthas, and Wives simultaneously. Here, the entire scene looks straight out of communist Russia — or rather, like communist Russian propaganda — with covered heads and plots of vegetables, strict adherence to communal values, and submission to a higher power. It’s compelling this way, especially when you compare the uniforms of the Econowives to those of the Handmaids. A scarlet letter is too subtle for Handmaids, who must stand out to mark their sins and to make them easy targets. An Econowife has no role but to blend in.
The train June that boards is stripped of all demarcation, and it’s a miracle she ends up even close to the right part of Massachusetts. Her time in the woods is even more harrowing, as memories of fleeing with Hannah flood back to her in a flush of panic. To leave Gilead, June must also leave behind Hannah, and potentially any hope of ever seeing her again. She knows, too, that Hannah’s little pink dress signifies a life as a Handmaid in training, damned to the same torment as her mother. But June lets go and makes it to the airstrip.
Now, you didn’t think she’d make it so easily out of the country after just three episodes, did you? You weren’t surprised when the shooting began, were you? The Handmaid’s Tale would never treat a woman as kindly as that. The sight of the Guardians dragging June’s body out the small hatch in the side of the plane seemed oddly birthlike, and for an episode dedicated to how we mother, and how hard it is to mother, it made sense for June to end up reborn.
But who is she now? She isn’t June, but she certainly isn’t Offred, either.