The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood doesn’t shy away from the fact that the world she created in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just about the oppression of women by men. She’s pointed out in several interviews over the years that Gilead is a place where the women stomp all over one another to maintain their place on a rung just slightly higher up the ladder. After all, Serena Joy is one of the major architects of Gilead; the other Wives, as Emily reminded Mrs. O’Conner last episode, hold a woman down and allow their husbands to rape her each month; the Aunts are the primary agents of brainwashing and disciplining the handmaids; and the handmaids themselves are taught to eye each other suspiciously, to turn each other in for any potential infractions.
It would be easy — for the cause of feminism, for our own personal ease — to imagine that every woman who has bought into the system of Gilead has done so under duress. And while in many cases that’s true (especially for Offred in this episode), other women came flocking to the cause or eagerly abandoned their morals so that they might scramble a little higher up the trash heap. Serena knew that persecution was the foundation of her plans for American society, and she aided and abetted the murder of innocent lives to bring it to fruition. Aunt Lydia and the other Aunts certainly didn’t unwittingly stumble into the Red Center and fall under a lasting hypnosis. Even the unseen mother of Nick’s new wife is due some blame, perhaps, for grooming and priming her teenage daughter like a lamb headed to the slaughterhouse.
This season, and this episode in particular, has been far less focused than the last on the interpersonal relationships between men and women, and far more interested in how women of different ranks and situations operate within a closed loop.
Does an Aunt outrank a Wife? A lack of clarity over that issue is stoking the grudge match between Aunt Lydia and Serena, who meet for a tense “check-up” in Offred’s bedroom and silently battle for primacy. Most injurious to Serena’s pride is the small pencil Aunt Lydia uses to record Offred’s weight and fundal height — the distance from the pubic bone to the top of the uterus — in a notebook. Aunt Lydia claims a “special dispensation for Aunts,” adding that it’s “more a burden than anything,” but the remark is meant to goad Serena, an exceptionally smart woman who has, through her own machinations, rendered herself merely decorative.
(The pencil, though, leads me to wonder what else the Aunts record. Is there a central database of all the Handmaids? Someone must keep track of their whereabouts, and such information could be vital to any resistance movement or outside government attempting to invade or intervene. You know who else kept meticulous notes that were then used against them by their enemies …)
Last episode, Aunt Lydia scolded Serena on her smoking habit and, mustering up the small bit of humanity left inside her, commiserated that it is indeed difficult to have a pregnant Handmaid in the house. But now Aunt Lydia is hinting that, if necessary, she will intervene, and Serena will potentially lose “her” child. Narratively, it’s effective — Aunt Lydia’s reminder that “the mood in the house” is integral to the child’s development creates a divide between the two women and pushes Serena to offer Offred the smallest hints of kindness. But logically, this conversation doesn’t quite work. It’s hard to believe that Aunt Lydia, who was so keen to chain Offred to a headboard for six months, would so heartily tsk-tsk some discord between a woman and her husband’s concubine.
(It’s also important to note that even in a future dystopian theocracy, various fruits are still used to indicate a fetus’s size. Offred’s baby is the size of a papaya!)
Offred is, to Elisabeth Moss’s acting credit, a very convincing low-functioning robot throughout the majority of this episode. When Serena takes her for a walk (“a chance for the baby to hear [her] voice”) she can’t find many words inside her besides, “Yes, Mrs. Waterford,” and “No, Mrs. Waterford.” Serena is operating in a language she assumes any woman would graft onto — gossip — but post-escape Offred doesn’t cling to an extended hand the way she might have a few months ago.
The gossip itself is another avenue by which the women create divisions among themselves, albeit a pretty funny one. “She may be God’s chosen vessel,” Serena remarks slyly to Offred, “but I’m surprised he wants to pass along that nose of hers.” And when they bump into Grace and Janine’s baby Angela, Serena rightly notes that if Grace thinks that teething is a way for God to “test” her then she’s in for a world of pain once toddlerhood strikes. For a woman who let her husband rape someone else so that she could have a baby, she doesn’t seem particularly happy with her lot in life. But then again, getting the child we’ve hoped and prayed for doesn’t render any of us completely blissful, does it? Part of the kick of Handmaid’s Tale is that we find ourselves judging women’s decisions with the same derision we’d tut-tut if we saw it offscreen.
Offred has entirely disappeared inside herself, so much so that the initial smudges of dark blood on her underwear don’t move her to action. Execution is what most likely awaits her if this pregnancy doesn’t end in a crying newborn, and it’s possible her silence is fear-based, but more likely it’s just numbness. Last episode I found myself intolerant of Offred’s self-pity, but now — after that glimpse of her in a tub so full of blood that its only comparison was the fourth-season-of-Dexter discovery of the protagonist’s wife, dead in the tub at the hands of a serial killer — I have only sympathy. Perhaps that’s a result of watching women rip each other to shreds this episode: Even if it’s my job to judge the show, I don’t want to judge the woman.
Things do (of course) get worse for Offred before they get better. Commander Waterford is determined to reward Nick for what he thinks has been his loyal service (although I’m curious how Nick explained his absences when he was away visiting Offred at the Boston Globe offices). But when a fellow Commander points out that it doesn’t make any sense to promote a trusted servant to another role, Commander Waterford rewards him in a manner any Gileadean would be proud of — a Moonie-like mass wedding ceremony that pawns off teenage girls as domestic servants and sex slaves.
The “Prayvaganza” marriage scene is a combination of so many kinds of horrifying: Serena’s cruel “doesn’t he look handsome” whisper. Offred’s still, broken expression. The lifting veils and tender, young faces underneath them. There is no violence, no blood, no self-mutilation, but it’s the most shocking moment in the episode by far. Offred has nothing left inside her but her secret devotion to Nick, and now that’s been hacked into with a sharp and twisting knife.
Like the Bible story of Rachel and Leah (which the new Red Center that Commander Waterford is overseeing is winkingly named after), this episode features two weddings. First, the shocking ceremony where a veil conceals an unknown bride, and the second, where two lovers are united after far too many hours of hard labor.
In the worst of times, is it better to face the horror or retreat to your happy place? Over in the colonies, Emily and Janine are unwittingly debating this question. While Emily is doing her best to impress upon Janine the severity of their situation (“We come here, we work, we die”), Janine is literally picking wildflowers from a field of toxic sludge and babbling about how God is holding her in the palm of his hand. (“He couldn’t hold you in the palm of his hand somewhere else? Like Bora Bora?” feels like a perfect Rory Gilmore line by way of Gilead’s Emily.)
But what will it accomplish if Emily convinces Janine to be more serious and less sunny? She might live a few weeks longer, dragging out her time in this polluted Arctic tundra. She might fill up a couple dozen more bags of crusty, steaming earth. But she’ll have lost her will, her Janine-ness, something she must have worked very hard to get back after last season’s near-infanticide/suicide. Janine is living in a daydream where she can put on weddings like a little girl does with dolls, but so what? All emotions are manufactured — why not delusional happiness?
For Emily, the delusion sucks away at her anger, and without her anger, she doesn’t know what will keep her going.
The wedding of Kit and Fiona, presided over by a Jewish rabbi, presents a final sticking point for Emily and Janine. “Gilead took your eye,” Emily rages, “They took my clit. Now we’re cows being worked to death, and you’re dressing up the slaughterhouse for them.” But it also leads to a moment of healing for a group of women thrown together by those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. While the women of Gilead scheme and deride one another, the Unwomen, those deemed unworthy of even the most basic of human rights, unite two women of two different races under a leader of one of our planet’s most long-suffering faiths. And they find a deep pleasure in it.
The next morning Kit’s body is carried out for burial; Emily’s small adjustment of the flowers resting on her body can be read as an act of submission to Janine’s contagious joy. But there’s no denying the finality of death — or the vast expanse of the graveyard, which looks as if it belongs by the side of a Civil War battlefield.
There’s a small bit of hope to be found back in Gilead, too. Like The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood curled up in the crawlspace of her family’s basement, wishing for death, Offred is covered in blood, cast out among the shrubbery of the Waterfords’ home when Nick finds her.
And when she wakes up in the hospital, she’s no longer Offred, she’s June again. And she has a rousing speech for the tough little papaya still in her uterus. “Now you listen to me, okay? I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us outta here. I promise you.”
Hold onto your butts, Gilead.