Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Ofglen’s Subplot and Its Resonance With the Modern Queer Woman

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This analysis includes spoilers through episode 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Content warning for sexual violence, mutilation, homophobia, death by hanging, and rape, as depicted on the show.

Alexis Bledel has broken me. Her completely wordless performance in episode 3 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale was as gut wrenching as it was impeccable.

Despite her limited screen time, she carried the episode emotionally from start to finish. Literally. Her performance built on some already impressive character work in episodes 1 and 2 and proved to any remaining doubters that she has acting range well beyond the “adorable doe-eyed girl” roles she is usually type cast into.

Bledel’s character Emily is a more fleshed out version of Ofglen, an interesting but relatively minor character in Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Along with the real name that is revealed at the end of episode 3, the show’s Ofglen is given a backstory and original arc that are not present in the book. Most notably, this Ofglen is a lesbian.

This is a change I found most welcome when I heard of it. Partly because Alexis Bledel playing a lesbian was something I didn’t realize I needed in my life until then. More seriously, because there is only minor LGBT representation in the book. The protagonist Offred’s best friend Moira is gay, and in the series is portrayed by out lesbian Samira Wiley. And Moira is a badass, let me tell you. I won’t spoil events of the book for those who have not read it, since we will likely see them play out in the series, but suffice it to say Moira plays the foil to Offred’s passive detachment. (As an aside, though it is perhaps a controversial change from the book, I enjoy how Offred in the show is a bit more of a snarky badass herself.)

While Moira is a complex queer character, there is nothing wrong with having both quality and quantity, which is where Emily comes in. Her sexuality gives the show a vehicle to explore the homophobia one would expect in a regressive Christian regime while simultaneously giving us another queer woman to root for. Moira’s storyline in the book has little to do with her sexuality and she is mostly seen through flashbacks anyway, so I welcome the extra queer content and emphasis on what could happen to us in this type of situation.

Our first impressions of Emily/Ofglen line up well with what one might expect from Alexis Bledel. Offred (who’s given the name “June” in the series) aptly describes her as “a pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass,” not far off from her signature roles.

There is a reason for that, however. Handmaids go everywhere in pairs so that someone is always watching them when they are in public, and Emily and June are partnered up. Therefore, they feel the need to put on a show for each other. Emily later tells June she also acted “so frickin’ pious,” which didn’t allow her to let her guard down either.

Though Emily does put on the pious act, her facial expressions betray her, not that June can tell. The blinders they wear to restrict their vision and keep men from looking upon them in public thankfully afford a little privacy, and we get to see both June and Emily’s hesitance and eye rolls as they force their state-prescribed dialogue.

Even if I hadn’t read the book or heard via previews that Bledel was cast as a subversive lesbian and resistance operative, this would have tipped me off early that there is more to Ofglen than June realizes.

Also contrasting June’s narrative that they are not friends, Emily shows quite a bit of concern for her even before they trust each other. Within the first episode, she asks June if she’s okay multiple times and also steers her away from the disturbing sight of a crowd of young girls being watched by men with machine guns. When she overhears June asking about Moira, and Janine’s subsequent assertion that Moira is dead, Emily tries unsuccessfully to check in on her again.

After the particicution, Emily gives June her condolences and asks if she knew Moira from the Red Center (the place where handmaids go to be indoctrinated). Indeed, this is the act that really breaks the ice between the two of them, leading to the conversation where they both admit they thought the other was a true believer. They discuss their families on the way home, and Emily reveals she has a wife and son who escaped to Canada.

June accepts this revelation without question, as one might expect from a woman whose best friend is a lesbian. This didn’t surprise me, but it was still a relief in a sense, because Offred is more homophobic in the book. Though she accepts Moira outwardly, she acknowledges that there was a time when she wouldn’t hug Moira after she came out, not until Moira assured her that she wasn’t into her like that. It makes sense that the show’s version of Offred is less bigoted, though, seeing as young people today are much more favorable toward the queer community than 30 years ago.

We continue to get more insight into Emily in episode 2, when she tells June she used to be a lecturer at the university. Most professors got sent to the colonies (presumably so they couldn’t help whip up rebellion), but she was spared that fate on account of her fertility. Since she was legally married, we can assume the government knows she is a “gender traitor” but did not kill or banish her because she could produce children. This same idea comes back into play later, in a rather unsettling manner.

After the pair witnesses a man being dragged off the street by the Eyes of God (government spies), Emily tells June of the underground resistance network and says she can join them. June says she’s not that kind of person, to which Emily sagely replies, “No one is until they have to be.” She urges June to find out anything she can from her high-ranking Commander.

Inside the house, the driver Nick tells June she needs to be careful with Ofglen, warning June not to get too close to her because it’s dangerous. Considering the conversation the two women just had, this comes off rather ominous. Almost as ominous as the next thing he tells her, which is that the Commander wants to see her alone. When June tells Emily of this at the birthing ceremony, Emily says she’ll ask around and find out if anyone knows if he made a similar request to his last handmaid.

A rare shot of Emily smiling, to get us through the rest of this review.

On the way home, Emily reports back that no one knew anything, but assures June that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “He probably just wants a blowjob,” she cracks straight-faced, riding the line between jest and seriousness. To be fair, it’s a much less terrifying prospect than some of the other scenarios June may be playing out in her head.

Emily’s dark humor crops up again when June tells her what Nick said about her. For a moment Emily looks genuinely surprised, until her face hardens as it dawns on her why. “I mean, he’s right, trusting anyone is dangerous.” With a little scoff, she deadpans, “Especially a carpet munching gender traitor.”

This latest joke lends more credence to my theory that the government is aware of Emily’s marriage and thus her sexual orientation. Emily warned June that Nick may work for the Eyes, so it would make sense to her that that he knows and that’s why he warned June to steer clear. Emily actually seems a little hurt by this idea, but not surprised. Why would she be? How many queer people have had similar warnings leveled about us, saying we are bad influences? Just look at the rhetoric about people not wanting gay teachers in schools, as though we are predatory and immoral by virtue of our existence.

Emily: “Trusting anyone is dangerous. Especially a carpet munching gender traitor.”

Emily was raised in Montana, so even if this story is based in the near future, it’s pretty likely she grew up surrounded by homophobia, too. It Got Better, as they say; she moved to a liberal city for school and eventually married a woman and had a son with her. It seemed like she could have a life and family just like everyone else, while staying true to who she was. And then everything came crashing down.

When June goes to her gate the next day and finds Emily replaced by a new Ofglen, we get the sense that things have come crashing down again. The ominous background music as June inquires about where Ofglen went and the new girl answers, “I am Ofglen” doesn’t help. It’s a cliffhanger/hook that makes you want to watch the next episode to find out what has happened. Even if you have heard that what happens is horrible.

I was told to brace myself for episode 3 because it contained some disturbing content, but halfway through it the most disturbing thing I had seen was Emily being walked down a prison hallway in a jumpsuit and a muzzle. The second half of the episode, however, more than made up for it. I have never been more thoroughly disturbed by 25 minutes of television in my life.

Having heard that the episode included the hanging execution of a female gender traitor, I mentally prepared myself for that before pressing play. But what I didn’t know was that the lead up to said execution would make it infinitely more heart wrenching, nor that the most shocking moment was not the hanging itself, but what comes after. Even if I had, there was no way to prepare for that.

The blatant homophobia that informs much of the second half of the episode begins with the interrogation of June by one of the Eyes. She has assumed up to this point that Emily was taken because her ties to the resistance were discovered, and the show has let the audience believe that. “There’d be no mercies for a member of the resistance,” June says in her opening monologue about her friend’s disappearance. Indeed, at first the questioning seems to line up with this theory. What kinds of things did she and Ofglen talk about? Did they ever walk down by the river, where they can talk privately? June avoids mentioning any of their more subversive discussions, claiming they only talked about shopping and the weather. Nothing about the resistance.

Things then take an unexpected turn when Aunt Lydia begins questioning June about whether she thinks Ofglen is pretty. She’s caught off guard, stammering affirmative but non-committal replies as her eyes jump between Aunt Lydia and the Eye. June truthfully denies that Ofglen ever made any advances toward her but admits that she knew she was a gender traitor. When the Eye asks if June knew her partner was involved with a Martha, it becomes clear to her what has happened to Emily and why. She isn’t just being investigated. She’s been caught. Sadness dominates June’s expression as she answers no.

“But you knew what she was?” questions Aunt Lydia.

Steeling herself, June makes her own tiny rebellion by stating, “I knew she was gay.” She gets shocked with the cattle prod for legitimizing Emily’s identity and gets a lecture about it. The Eye asks June why she didn’t report the conversation where Ofglen mentioned her wife, and once again she sets her jaw and takes a stand. “Because she was my friend,” she says.

Aunt Lydia: “That girl, that thing, was an offense to God. She was a disgusting beast.”

This is what a true ally looks like, standing up for her friend despite danger to herself.

All the past tense in that discussion about Emily gives the impression that she is dead, but in the next scene we see that she is indeed alive. While waiting for her trial in the courthouse, she tries to escape by seducing a guard. He lets her touch him through his pants for a few moments before abruptly shoving her back against the wall, procuring a surprised yelp.

Bledel does an incredible job of acting in that moment and the one following it, making Emily’s sheer terror palpable as she is manhandled and then as the men in suits return to take her into the courtroom. The slight cringing, the jumpiness and trembling, it’s all far too relatable for any woman who has feared violence at the hands of men. Which is, of course, all of us. It’s a small moment, but Bledel’s body language and the slow zoom in on her face raise the emotional stakes heading into the trial.

The “trial” consists of an investigator submitting his report while Emily and her lover stand by helplessly, unable to protest under both the law and their muzzles. Emily can do nothing but take it as she is told she is an abomination and has an eternity of suffering awaiting her in hell. How much do you want to bet she’s heard that before, given her upbringing in a red state? It’s a nightmarish new reality bringing forth all this pain from her past. (On that note, did this give anyone else uncomfortable church flashbacks, or was that just me?)

Like when she was originally captured, Emily is spared death on account of her fertility, sentenced instead to “redemption.” The vague term is ominous, and rightfully so, as we later learn. Her infertile lover, meanwhile, is sentenced to the common mercy of the state, i.e. death.

Judge: “Handmaid 8967, your existence is an abomination. True justice would see you sent to an eternity of suffering. But God has seen fit to make you fruitful, and by that we are bound. Handmaid 8967, you are sentenced to redemption.”

After being marched out of the courthouse and into the back of a van, the two women exude terror and despair as they are carted to their fates. Still muzzled and unable to speak, they hold hands and cry together, exchanging physical comfort in lieu of words. Near the end of this sequence, Emily shakes her head and takes in the situation with what appears to be almost disbelief. How did it come to this? Not long ago, she had a wife and son and could live her life without fear. Now, fear is all there is.

When the van comes to a stop, the Martha is ripped out of Emily’s grasp, and she can only sit and watch as the men slip a noose around her neck. A primal wail of mourning escapes Emily as her lover’s feet leave the ground, and continues as the van pulls away with the dangling body framed in the rear window.

This is one of the most emotional sequences I have seen on television in a long time. There is no dialogue in its entire 2 minutes and 48 seconds, but that only makes it more powerful. A shout out here is necessary to director Reed Morano, as the way it is shot is part of what makes it so effective. The wide rolling shots as Emily is escorted to the van and as her lover is hung trap the viewer just like Emily is trapped, while the close ups of the actors’ hands and faces throughout the van ride make the raw emotion inescapable and searing. The placement of the body so it is visible to the viewers as well as Emily makes the whole thing all the more unsettling.

This shot shattered what was left of my heart.

I will disclose, this was one of only two scenes in the first three episodes that made me cry. The other was the sequence where Janine gives birth and the baby is taken away. Both contain little or no dialogue, finding their power instead through body language, music, and cinematography. Indeed, while the filming style is part of what gives the scene its emotional punch, the ability of Alexis Bledel to act with her eyes and body does the rest.

Speaking of emotional punches, that final scene. OMG. Upon waking up in a white hospital room, Emily feels a stab of pain between her legs when she tries to get up. Pulling up her hospital gown, she finds a bandage covering her vulva. Before she can peel it back and look for herself, Aunt Lydia enters the room and confirms the worst. This will make your life easier, she explains. “You won’t want what you cannot have.”

At first I thought she meant that figuratively, as in Emily won’t want the forbidden fruit of love with a woman (which of course is BS—it’s not as if your genitals make you gay). More likely, Aunt Lydia meant this in a very literal sense: if Emily can’t have sexual pleasure, she won’t seek it out.

That still, however, shows very little understanding of love and desire. But it’s just like the homophobes to assume that sex is the be all end all of being gay. “Blessed be the fruit, dear,” says Aunt Lydia as she leaves… the creepiest use of that phrase yet.

Aunt Lydia: “I know this is a shock for you, Emily. You can still have children, of course, but things will be so much easier for you now. You won’t want what you cannot have.”

Alone again, Emily silently works through the horrifying realization of what has been done to her. Shock, devastation, and anger cross her face, and finally all those emotions coalesce into a scream of rage and grief.

That scene was horrifying and even more haunting than the execution. But it didn’t make me cry, it made me angry. So, so angry. Partly because Emily is a total cinnamon roll and doesn’t deserve any of what happened to her, but also because there are still plenty of people in our society who believe that all of us do deserve it simply on the basis of our orientation.

Similarly, I was very upset when Jeanine got her eye gouged out for insubordination at the Red Center. It was partly because that was a rather shocking departure from the book, but still, purposely damaging a person’s body in a way that will not heal is a particularly sadistic form of punishment. And while Emily’s female genital mutilation (FGM) is not as disabling as losing an eye in terms of everyday functionality, it is taking away something deeper. Not only does it rob her of control of her own body and some of her sexual agency, it also destroys her ability to ever again fulfill some of her deepest desires. Not to mention engage in a great form of stress relief.

But what else could we expect in Gilead? This is a place that doesn’t care at all whether women (or men, for that matter) enjoy sex—it is all about procreation. In the book, Offred says that men spilling their seed is considered a sacrilege. But let’s not kid ourselves, the greatest control is exerted over women and their bodies. In a place where state-sanctioned rape of fertile women is the norm, what’s a little clitoridectomy?

Emily’s mutilation is easily justified in the government’s eyes by the idea that it is “helping her” overcome her sinful desires, and perhaps even become pure in the sight of God. In hindsight, Janine’s eye gouging was blatant foreshadowing of Emily’s FGM, and the verse that Moira quotes regarding it sets the table for this punishment. Another translation of that verse is “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29, BSB).

If one follows the same logic as Aunt Lydia wherein a gay person without genitals will no longer have any desire for gay sex, this is completely rational. Certain segments of Evangelical Christian culture have unfortunately led to this pattern where people will condone anything in the name of saving people by converting them to Christianity and/or forcing conservative Christian morals upon them. “Redemption,” as it were.

Admittedly, a large part of what made this development so shocking was that it happened to a character I so relate to: an educated North American lesbian who has come to see her love legitimized in the eyes of the law. This was done on purpose. We know this kind of thing happens in other cultures, but it’s easy not to think about it because “that doesn’t happen here.” (Maybe it does, but it’s illegal and we certainly don’t hear about it.) It’s embarrassing to admit, but when humans are far removed from atrocities, we have a tendency to ignore them or only engage in short-lived slacktivism (remember Kony 2012, anyone?).

Really, that is one of the main messages of this book/series: complacency kills, and it comes back to bite you. “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.” If people don’t come together to protect the rights of minorities, how easy is it for all of us to lose our rights?

Of course, this feels more immediate for those of us in vulnerable minorities. It is incredibly unnerving to see someone in a similar position as you have her rights stripped away and face such violent oppression. Those rights have only recently been won (and against staunch opposition, at that), which makes the whole thing feel so much more plausible. While the series is a terrifying prospect for all women, straight ciswomen have the luxury of viewing it as an unlikely cautionary tale. For queer women who have already grown up hearing hate speech that promises violent deaths or conversion tactics, it feels far too close to reality, a reality that could easily manifest itself again.

While the series is a terrifying prospect for all women, straight ciswomen have the luxury of viewing it as an unlikely cautionary tale.

Between the recent exposure of the concentration camps for gay men in Chechnya and continued reports of gay teens being hung in Middle Eastern theocracies, the idea that those things could happen here is not so far-fetched. Indeed, the Orlando massacre proved that it isn’t. It is important for us to remember that even if we have equal rights, we need to stay alert and keep fighting for our right to live our lives without judgment. And it is equally important for our allies to recognize our precarious position and continue to stand up for us, like June stands up for Emily in the small way she can.

In closing, I want to return for a moment to my opening remarks about Alexis Bledel and how she absolutely destroyed me in episode 3. Reviewers are unanimously lauding her performance in “Late”, and she deserves every bit of praise coming her way. As I said, she carries the episode emotionally throughout, bookending the episode with poignant depictions of powerlessness in bright white settings. Kudos to Reed Morano and the rest of the creative team for that excellent visual parallel, by the way.

Bledel’s expressive eyes flawlessly convey Emily’s emotional states even when she cannot talk and half her face is covered. Emily’s first eye contact with her lover in the back of the van screams a silent apology, and the last a desperate attempt to will strength into the other woman. Subtle flares of her nostrils in the trial and “redemption” scenes illustrate her simmering anger leading up to the chilling scream that ends the episode.

The shooting style full of close-ups in the opening three episodes highlights every small movement of the actors’ faces and thus requires great attention to detail. Elisabeth Moss does an amazing job of acting with her face in the leading role, but Alexis Bledel has turned out to be quite the show stealer, especially in episode 3. Seeing the psychological impact of these events on Emily is sure to be just as scarring for the audience as witnessing the actual events, if she keeps up the remarkable performances. And I have no doubt that she will.

Seriously, someone give this woman an Emmy.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are released every Wednesday on Hulu.

Addendum: For a detailed analysis of queer representation in the rest of season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale, click here.

Images courtesy of Hulu

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