Friday, July 19, 2024

The Handmaid’s Tale Shows The Effects Of Its Monstrosity

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The Handmaid’s Tale delivered its ninth and penultimate episode, “The Bridge”. In it, various degrees of terrible things happen.


All the handmaids from the district go to sort of oversee from a distance a ceremony in which Janine gives up her child and leaves the family. She’s very reluctant, and only acquiesces when the Commander of the family smiles at her. While leaving, she tells June that she shouldn’t be sad because Commander Warren is coming for her. June worriedly asks Aunt Lydia if Janine is all right, relatively speaking. Aunt Lydia insists she is stronger than she looks.

While leaving the house afterwards, June tells a friend from the Red Centre that she wants to help with Mayday. The friend insists she doesn’t know what she means.

Mrs. Waterford and Mrs. Putnam, Janine’s old mistress, are walking with the pram. Mrs. Putnam complains about how her baby doesn’t sleep enough, because she has no self-awareness.

June goes shopping, and speaks to the friend again. She is tasked with retrieving a package from Jezabel’s. To that end, she goes to see the Commander and tells him how much she enjoyed that night. He offers to take her again.

He doesn’t hesitate to mention it was her idea in the car, leading to an exchange of significant looks with Nick. Once at Jezabel’s, however, the Commander wants to go directly to the room. June asks about the bar, since that’s where the package is, but he dismisses it with “maybe later”.

Meanwhile at the Waterford house, Mrs. Waterford and her maid are having a midnight drink. Mrs. Waterford complains about Mrs. Putnam. Her maid talks about the son she had, that she lost in the war.

Janine is taken to the first Ceremony in her new residence. She protests, but everyone ignores her. At one point, though, she can no longer take it, and she pushes the Commander off her and curls up in a corner.

Waterford is having sex with June. Afterwards, he rolls off and asks if she enjoyed it. When she says she did, he chastises her for not showing it more. She then asks about a bar, because she’s a pro at this spying business. She tries to pretend it’s because she likes how everyone looks up to the Commander there, but he sees through the excuse. He says he knows she wants to meet someone, and has Moira brought in. He assumes they are going to have sex. When he finds out they aren’t lovers, he tells them to talk as he takes a shower.

June tells Moira that she’s there on a mission from Mayday. Moira tells her she is crazy. When June asks her to get the package from the bar, Moira flat out refuses. June then tells her she turned into a coward. Moira leaves, and June cries. Waterford tells her to pull herself together, as they’ll be leaving soon. His wife sees him when he comes in, but she doesn’t see June.

Later, June is woken up by Mrs. Waterford and taken to a bridge. Janine is standing there with her daughter in her arms, getting ready to jump. Putnam tries to talk her down, but she accuses him of being a “lying fuck”. She publicly talks about having sex with him outside of the Ceremony.

June approaches Janine. First she tries to talk about the bright future they are going to have together after the regime falls. When that doesn’t work, she tells Janine she has to make her daughter a priority. After that, Janine hands the baby to June and jumps.

Mrs. Waterford tries to cheer up Mrs. Putnam, but she’s not exactly in the mood. She reminds Mrs. Waterford that her own husband slept with their previous handmaid too, and tells her than “men don’t change.” Mrs. Waterford rushes home, and bursts into her husband’s office.

Janine is pulled from the river and taken to a hospital, where Aunt Lydia sits with her.

June goes shopping and the butcher hands her a package he claims to be especially kept meat. In reality, it’s the package from Jezabel’s, forwarded by Moira.

We see Moira in the bathroom of a room at Jezabel’s, clearly stealing herself for something. She uses her old trick with taking a toilet apart. Then we see her dressed as a driver with blood on her hand as she gets into the car and drives off.


The high point of this episode was definitely Janine. Every moment with her was very well done. Her reluctance to give away her child, the relief when Putnam smiled at her and she thought she knew what it meant. And then, particularly poignant, the rape scene.

It stood in very sharp contrast to June’s companion saying that Janine was “so lucky” because she went to “such a nice family.” And that is the point—they are nice, in a way. They speak kindly to Janine. They smile at each other.

And they still rape her.

This reminds me of the conversations that are sometimes had about “nice slave owners”. I think this episode managed to convey what a “nice” slave owner looks like pretty brilliantly. Sure, it is probably better when they treat you kindly. But the fundamental monstrosity of the situation remains unchanged. And in some ways, the stark contrast makes it even more obvious.

Janine begs, desperately, to be let go, and the couple smiles at each other over her head. That was a truly memorable scene. It is also a great example of how to film rape without being exploitative or cheaply shocking.

Janine’s suicide attempt was good in the sense that it showed the extremes to which it has driven her in full. However, I do have some issues with the execution there. In the context of previous episodes focusing much more strongly on June’s motherhood than the book does, I’m rather uncomfortable with the framing of this. June tries to focus on Janine and saving her first. That fails, and it fails partly because June conveniently finds herself speechless when the script wants her to. She was talking about going dancing, and Janine argued that no one would dance with her. June had no answer for that.

I mean, what? I could think of five different answers, and Janine isn’t my friend. What woman wouldn’t know how to answer a friend who claims no one would want to dance with her? With how many women have body issues, this kind of conversation is pretty much par for the course. We all know the answers to that. Janine is awesome and brave and spirited and charming and strong and everyone would be clamouring to dance with her.

But June stays silent, and Janine jumps off the bridge. Seriously?

And it wouldn’t have been that hard to write it convincingly if they really wanted Janine to end up dead, or seriously injured. She has every right to say that she has no more taste for all that fun, that she feels dead inside, that there’s no point to anything any more, that even if the regime falls it will never be the same for her again. That she went through too much. Any of a thousand things June couldn’t have a legitimate answer to. But “who would dance with me”? For real?

And then the holy motherhood is invoked, the irrefutable argument, and the baby is saved. Hurray! I mean, not that I don’t think saving the life of the child has value. But, to borrow from Julie,

it's the pattern.

And speaking of patterns, and of Julie. Did anyone else get Game of Thrones vibes from this episode? And not in a good way. (Assuming there is a good way to get GoT vibes.)

The womb syndrome—the glorification of motherhood—is one aspect of that, but the other is the Yara Patented Method of treating PTSD. That is, screaming it away.

So Moira, the spirited, fighting woman, went through something that took all the fight out of her. The show didn’t mention it specifically, because it didn’t mention much of anything, but the book clearly indicated she went though extensive torture. So then she becomes an obedient sex slave. Until June comes in and calls her a coward. Then, suddenly, she is ready to take up the fight once again!

This, taken together with June’s changed characterisation, forms a pattern of what I was afraid of right at the start. It makes it seem like there is only one kind of woman worthy of having her story told, worthy of following. It’s the fighter. The one who resists, who rebels. Book Offred isn’t that. June very much is. And now she sunk so low that when her best friend refuses to take part in a resistance movement that could very easily cost her her life, she calls her a coward.

This is not the story I’m here for. This is not the kind of female friendship and support I want to see.

But, of course, it works. Just like with Yara and Theon. Moira just needs to be told she’s a coward by her best friend to stop being one and go in full speed. Including a Smirk of Empowerment.

Which, again, don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t blame Moira for killing one of her oppressors. I don’t even blame fer for feeling triumphant about the freedom she gained in that way. But once more, the framing and the pattern make me a little more nervous about this.

Escaping from the Red Centre, Moira and June didn’t kill the Aunt whose dress they stole. Even though it would have been safer for them, since she wouldn’t have been able to tell on them. Now, Moira kills, or at least seriously wounds, a Commander. That could be shown to illustrate brilliantly what the regime did to her, how monstrosities like this erode our ideals, the risk of becoming the monsters we fear. There’s an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about how far can one go in resistance.

But somehow, the Smirk of Empowerment didn’t exactly convey to me that the show is willing to have this conversation. And that’s a pity.

There is a number of other nitpicks I can mention. There’s the irritating detail that the pram didn’t match the colour of the wives’ dress, which it absolutely would. There is the fact that the ceremony of handing over the child makes no sense in universe, since they do their best to pretend the child belongs to the wife right from the start, including having her pretend she actually births it. There’s June’s atrocious lack of ability to pretend again, the one that would have got her caught ages ago (I was better at faking orgasms when I was 15 and my life wasn’t actually on the line). But these are all details. I would forgive that in a heartbeat. What I mention above, though, is harder to let go.

But to end on a positive note, one detail that worked excellently was when Waterford brought Moira in. He very clearly expected a “hot lesbian show”. At the same time, he expresses contempt for Moira for being gay. It’s just there, understated but present, and does an excellent job of showing the twofold attitudes of sexist men towards wlw women. In fact, it was my second favourite moment of the episode.

Next week we are in the finale, with an episode titled “Night.” It doesn’t sound very cheerful. And of course, we’re up for a confrontation with Mrs. Waterford. I am truly curious how the show will handle it. Given its problems, though, I’m also rather apprehensive.

All images courtesy of Hulu

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