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The Handmaid’s Tale Has Its Priorities All Wrong

The Handmaid’s Tale delivered its eighth episode, “Jezebels”. We get a glimpse of an entirely new side of the Gilead life, and some important moments for June happen.

Recap

June muses about Luke being alive. She hardly remembers him any more, and she keeps sleeping with Nick. In fact, this is where we open, in his room. June then returns to hers, and finds the Commander sitting there. He says he has a surprise for June. Then he proceeds to shave her legs. He gives her makeup and holds the mirror for her while she uses it, and then he gives her a very revealing sequin dress. He says that Mrs. Waterford is away for the night, and that he’s taking June out.

Nick drives them to some location in Boston. We see his flashbacks to the life before Gilead. He used to be unemployed, but his career counselor was one of the Gilead commanders and he recruited Nick. As an Eye, he chiefly gives information on different commanders, most importantly Waterford.

June is smuggled into the building that the Commander calls Jezebel’s. It’s a brothel. It’s full of women in revealing clothes and smart-dressed men. June asks who the women are. Apparently, some used to be sex workers, some were sent here because they couldn’t “assimilate”—he points out one sociology professor. Then June spots Moira.

Moira leaves the room with a significant look and June excuses herself to the bathroom. They embrace and weep when they meet again, but soon enough, an Aunt tells Moira to leave, as she’s exceeding the number of times she’s allowed in the bathroom. Moira tells June to find her later in the dormitory.

June gets back to the Commander, who has to scare away one lesser officer trying to chat her up before he takes her to his room. Nick watches them leave, having a flashback of the previous “Offred” being found hanged in her room. Up in the room, the Commander first complains about people trying to get him and about rumours of a purge. Later, he begins to caress June as she silently cries, unseen.

We cut to after sex. June tiptoes out of the room as the Commander sleeps. She finds Moira, and they have a brief talk. Moira describes how she was caught, and says there’s no hope of escape. June points out Luke got out. Moira says that’s great, but their own situation is entirely different, and they have to look out for themselves. They are alone.

We see Nick bringing some contraband to a “Martha” who works at Jezebel’s, and getting alcohol in exchange. She seems to be reporting to the Eyes. They’re clearly having an affair, but Nick rejects her that night.

June returns to the Commander, and they leave Jezebel’s. The next morning, the Commander lovingly welcomes his wife back. June sits in the kitchen, trying to talk to Nick. Nick, however, mostly ignores her. She has an emotional speech regarding how she doesn’t know anything about him but how this life can’t be enough for him, and asks if he knows she had no choice last night. Nick points out them having sex is too dangerous. June insists it isn’t, because if they hang her, she’ll be remembered by someone at least.

When June is returning to her room, Mrs. Waterford stops her and gives her a music box. It has a dancing ballerina inside. June remarks it’s the perfect metaphor, a girl locked in a box who dances when others wants her to. She carves “you are not alone” into the wall of her closet.

Review

To start on a positive note, the whole matter with June at Jezebel’s was handled brilliantly, from start to finish. The fear she feels when she first sees the Commander in her room. The fear deepening when she doesn’t know where he’s taking her. The amazement at seeing the Jezebel’s. The playacting of enjoying herself, of being enamoured. The quiet despair when he begins to caress her, the silent tears.

The Commander, too, was excellent, in his ever-present gestures of protective paternalism. His constant need to feel that he’s doing her a favour, that he’s being a benevolent father. Every little moment was just right, and I was thinking that this could perhaps be the best episode yet.

But then we got to Moira.

As I’ve mentioned already, in the book, Moira is the only character besides “Offred” who gets a story. The protagonist even takes care to tell it in words similar to Moira’s tone. On the show, we get a few throwaway lines about what happened to her, that’s all.

We got Nick’s flashbacks. Bloody Nick’s. Luke got an entire damn episode to himself. But Moira’s story gets two lines of script?

It’s a great story, too. It isn’t just about her, even though it would have been enough. It’s about the different people who helped her, different faces of the resistance. The Quaker couple who, in the book, says they save her for religious reasons. The workings of underground female-road. In the book, she went through a few places before she was caught. All of those would have been fascinating to see, people who aren’t as directly persecuted by the regime and use that to help those who are most targeted. Amazing stories each and every one of them.

And even at Jezebel’s, there’s a kind of companionship among the women, mutual support that’s almost tangible in the book. Here, none of that was left. There wasn’t enough room, I guess.

Instead, we got an entire episode of Luke retreading old ground last week.

I just don’t get it. This is a story about the persecution of women. How do you prioritise two different bland men over a woman of colour’s wonderful, fascinating tale? How do you prioritise anything over Moira’s story, containing some of the most interesting bits of the book?

I’ve had worries about the priorities in this show for a while, but there has certainly never been anything as blatant as this.

Not that Nick’s story was terrible. It was alright, I guess. The manner of his recruitment into this super-secret organisation was rather blunt, to be honest. But then that’s a theme in this show, and in the book as well. No one can do secrecy for a damn. Still, one would expect the Commander would wait for some indication from Nick that he shared his religious values before he tried to make the offer.

But, whatever. Nick is from a poor family and got a job as a spy. There are bits of him doing that job. They’re fine. I wouldn’t enthuse about them under any circumstances, but if they didn’t come at Moira’s expense, I wouldn’t bat an eye at them.

The best part of his story was the Martha at Jezabel’s. She seemed to tease out the most agency of this regime out of any of the women we saw, without participating in the oppression. She was free and natural with Nick. It was like a breath of fresh air.

However, together with the last episode, this show seems to have a tendency to slip towards a focus on manpain. I’m sure Luke was devastated when he got separated from his wife and daughter. I’m also sure Nick was deeply shocked and saddened by the death of the previous “Offred”. However, the things said wife and daughter and “Offred” went through are rather more important, and the focus should be firmly on them. We don’t need quite as many shots of Nick’s anguished face. And once again,we certainly don’t need them when they come at Moira’s cost.

I loved the visual of Jezabel’s, including the different body types represented. Credit were credit is due. Though it’s perhaps a pity it’s not been in evidence anywhere else yet—all the handmaids seem to have pretty much the same body type.

Another good thing about Jezabel’s was the actual first reunion of Moira and June. The emotion there was very real, the happiness of meeting again, the relief that the other isn’t dead. That was excellent. It’s why the rest hurt even more.

The very end left mixed impressions. The semi-argument with Nick felt kind of strangely out of place. I do not understand why June says the things she says at the time she says them. She has just come back from an experience that was rather humiliating for her, and Moira gave her a speech about futility. But she seems to get inspired instead. It seems her fighting spirit is strengthened. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d like to understand why. She opens the episode by saying she wishes she were stronger, that it was a different story. She ends by declaring strength. It’s obviously meant to be the framing of what happened this week, but somehow what was in the middle of that frame doesn’t line up with it.

The final gift from Mrs. Waterford is, I suspect, meant chiefly to provide contrast with next episode. I’m very glad that the backstory with why the previous “Offred” hanged herself stayed the same, contrary to previous indications. I suspect we’ll get that reveal next week, as well. The episode is called “The Bridge”, which could mean anything, but given this episode, there’s perhaps a chance it could mean the bridge to Boston. Will June try to get away? Tune in next week to find out!


Images courtesy of Hulu

Barbara
Written By

Barbara is a religious studies grad student who uses fandom to avoid working on her thesis.

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