Monday, July 15, 2024

The Handmaid’s Tale Gives Up On Survival

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The Handmaid’s Tale brought us its fifth episode, “Faithful”. In it, most bets are off.


June is finishing up a Scrabble game with the Commander. She won, or rather, as she believes, he let her win. He has a gift for her – a woman’s magazine. He watches her as she reads it. They flirt.

The next day, she eats her lunch when the driver, Nick, comes in. He seems to deliberately look for an excuse to be in her company. The mistress calls her out to the garden soon, though, ostensibly to get her help. In reality, she wants her to have sex with Nick, because she believes her husband might be sterile. After protesting for a moment that it’s forbidden, June agrees.

She goes shopping, and sees Emily being back. She talks to her for a little while, but the new “Ofglen” drags her away. On the way home, she tells June she doesn’t want to lose her good situation. In the past, she was apparently forced into prostitution by her poverty. Now, she has a place to sleep and people are kind to her, as she says.

June goes to have sex with Nick, accompanied by her mistress. On the way, she remembers how she got together with Luke, her husband from before. He was married, and they had “innocent” lunch dates for a while before finally sleeping together. Afterwards, June asked him to leave his wife, and he agreed.

June’s impregnation attempt with Nick is almost as impersonal as the one with the Commander.

It’s the Ceremony in the evening, and the Commander is actually a little less detached than usual. June is terrified, and goes to him afterwards to berate him. She reminds him she could be send to the Colonies if his wife noticed. He apologises, stating he just finds the Ceremony impersonal. It is possibly the biggest “no shit” moment in the history of television. The commander offers June another woman’s magazine to pacify her.

He comments on how women had it bad back in the time of those magazines, and how so much better they have it now. June responds that back then, they had love. The Commander insists that love doesn’t exist, that it was just glorified lust. June retorts that maybe for him, but for her, it was real. He gets angry and reminds her what happened to Emily, admitting he was involved in the process. June asks what they did to her, and he tells her. He then utters the famous book line that a “better (world) is never better for everyone. It’s always worse for some.”

June leaves and retches in the kitchen sink. Nick finds her there and she asks him if he knows what happened to Emily, and if he’s an Eye – a government spy. He says yes to both, eventually, and sends her to bed.

June meets Emily again. Emily tells her she is no use to Mayday, the resistance movement, now, but that June could help. June asks how to find them. Emily tells her her real name and asks June for hers in return, but before any more contact happens, “Ofglen” comes and drags June away again.

They’re in an outside market, and Emily spots an open car door after one of the wives got out. She jumps in and drives around for a moment, running over one of the soldiers, before black vans come and drag her away. June returns home, “Ofglen” assuring her they are going to watch out for each other.

June, inspired by Emily’s bravery, goes to Nick and has actual sex with him, complete with her being on top.


This episode had two highlights. The first were all the scenes with the Commander. They were brilliantly directed and acted. His voyeuristic pleasure at watching her read was palpable. And later, when he was trying to pacify her with the shiny magazine to make her forget he just recklessly risked her life, it was wonderfully repulsive. It was like offering a dog a treat to distract it.

The writing of that second scene, though, is a little more doubtful. It was a scene from the book, but changed to include mentions of Emily (whose story is an invention). This addition rather ruined the flow. Book!Commander is sincerely defending the regime he created. The show put his overt threatening of June in the middle, significantly changing the tone.

And there is one more thing. I appreciate the effort to make it clear that he was involved with Emily’s fate, making it obvious his hands are very much not clean, but the Commander likes to feel he’s the good guy. The Handmaid’s Tale made that much obvious. He likes feeling he’s being very nice to June, as manifest by their first scene together in “Faithful.” His overt threatening does not fit in with that. Part of his danger is that he doesn’t even need to threaten. His power over her is automatically understood. That allows him to play the kindly benefactor. His threat, in this episode, read as a sign of weakness.

June and her mistress’s talk in the garden was well enough done, though I missed the “you might as well” line the book version of the wife uses as an argument. It sums up June’s situation perfectly. Unless she gets pregnant within a short time-frame, she is going to be sent to the colonies, where she will die painfully. Under the circumstances, she really isn’t taking that much of a risk with Nick. But it did a good job of showing us the way one of the more privileged women views the regime and its rules. It did that much effectively.

As an aside, the show picks strange moments to include June’s inner monologue. I could see it adding something to her conversation with the wife, but there, she was silent. But then we have her voice during the Ceremony, telling us of the dangers of the Commander not being wholly impersonal. But she goes to the Commander later and tells him what her problem was explicitly. We didn’t need to hear it in her inner monologue.

The new “Ofglen”’s approach is another show addition, which does a similar job to the scene with the wife, in establishing differing viewpoints. I’m rather in two minds about it. On one hand, it’s good to include various viewpoints of different handmaids. On the other, I’m not certain this was the best way to do it. At the very least, some interaction with her household should have been included. We could have seen they were actually kind to her, as she declares. We could have seen her forming bonds. What we got was Emily’s kind mistress instead, which I don’t think was particularly relevant to her story.

Seeing “Ofglen” in an actual loving family, treated as its member, would have worked together with her reminiscences of the past – perhaps even flashbacks to see the contrast. As it was presented, however, it leaves a bad taste. It seems to imply that most homeless sex workers would be happy to exchange their life for what the handmaids have, which I’m quite certain is not the case.

Speaking of different handmaids, the other highlight of this episode were Emily’s scenes. Alexis Bledel’s acting makes a treat of every scene in which she appears. But here, as with the Commander scenes, there are more doubts about the writing. I commented last episode that it would be unfortunate to create a prominent wlw character only to throw some torture at her and abandon her. Well, she has not been abandoned, but she has been allowed only to feel a small moment of freedom before she was dragged away for, presumably, more torture.

It was amazing that she served as an inspiration for June to take control of her sexuality. I do not want to undervalue the example she gave the other handmaids. But did it have to end in such a way? I understand The Handmaid’s Tale is not a happy story, but that’s not the same as taking pleasure in displaying the suffering of the same character over and over again. We already saw Emily taken by a black van. We had no need to see it again.

And speaking of black vans, and Eyes. The story with Nick, as it stands, has me wondering too. June effectively knew he was an Eye before she had sex with him for the first time. He had warned her about the interrogation awaiting her, after all. Yes she still doesn’t protest the idea of sleeping with him on these grounds. He could report both her and her mistress easily.

On the other hand, the contrast of their two sex scenes was done perfectly. The impersonality, the lack of connection of the first one and the very real sexual tension of the second. Much like the two Commander scenes that stood in contrast, one filled with cheerful flirting and the other with threats and repulsion.

I’m rather uncomfortable with the framing June’s memories provided to this episode. She talks about how for her, love was real, and the context we get for that is her sleeping with a married man and then asking him to leave his wife and he simply agreeing, because “I’m in love with you, so what am I gonna do?”

Look, I’m not here to shame her. But I do wonder how seriously we are to take her declarations that her love was real and deep if this is the context. This is something that bothered me in the book already, that when the Commander asks Offred “what did we forget?”, she replied “love, falling in love.” That is so not the biggest problem of the regime. But in the show, the explicit context of her memories – not of her happy life with Luke later, but of him being unfaithful to his wife with her – makes it even more bizarre.

That husbands could no more leave their wives just like that is one of the very few things I can actually imagine any sane person would claim were good about the regime (instead of the bullshit claims the Commander makes – respect for women? Really?). It’s a strange choice to pick that as the biggest issue, instead of the numerous terrible acts of mental and physical violence they do. Especially when there are so many good things from “before” it could focus on instead. All the other kinds of love to frame this by.

The Handmaid’s Tale has already adapted most of the things that actually happen int he book, and we’re only in the middle. I wait with mixed feelings and bated breath about what is to come next.

All images courtesy of Hulu.

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