Hello again, dear readers. We’re back with more Required Viewing, and this one is a doozy. Annemarie successfully avoided the bleak dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale for the better part of a year (it was on the list!), but when the season two trailer landed, Brooke declared the time for avoidance was over. Your favorite WatchFriends did the watching, and as usual, we have thoughts.
Annemarie, start us off with a bit on why you dodged this series for so long. Then tell us how glad you are that your dear friend Brooke made you watch it now.
A: I believe we first discussed this as an option right around Inauguration Day 2017, and we both decided that we just could not. I still don’t know if watching Grease 2 was a better choice, but it was deemed that Sadness Day Part II needed light and fluffy Michelle Pfeiffer instead of sad grey Elisabeth Moss bleakness. Then, June came around, I went to Vegas for a wedding and Vegas won, so we only watched Titanic and ate the macarons, but still didn’t actually Handmaid.
Fast forward to January 2018. The state of the world is decidedly not better than it was a year ago, but for some reason, I decided / we decided that now was the time. Maybe it was a change of perspective that some TV “emotional cutting” would help? Perhaps I just could avoid my fate no longer.
Now I’m all caught up, and I must say, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best produced shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s far worse than I had expected in terms of depressing entertainment value. I largely had no expectations, aside from thinking it’d be sort of like Hunger Games, but it’s worse. Why? Because the characters, especially the adult characters, in The Handmaid’s Tale, remember what it was like just a few short years prior to have their normal lives. The next generation won’t remember, and like Katniss and Peeta, will rail against the evil machine. But they won’t actually remember what it was like to live in a colorful, free world.
So, while I’m not exactly glad you made me watch this Hulu masterpiece, I certainly appreciate the message: stay wary. Fight early. And also get out of the fucking country when they mass fire all women from their jobs.
We’ve set the stage for your thoughts, Brooke. I want to start with something simple: what do you think the men (that is, the straight, property-owning, Christian white men — hello 1775!) really think of this new world order where women have no rights?
B: Wow, AM. Way to start me off with a beast of a question right out the gate. I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question, as not all of the men in The Handmaid’s Tale ended up as Commanders who got to keep their wives and then had cooks and handmaids assigned to them too. But we don’t have time to break down the emotions of every dude in Gilead, so I’ll use a few main characters as examples and paint with a broad brush.
Luke: June’s husband is the kind of guy we’d call woke in 2018 America. He supports June as a strong woman and partner in his life, he playfully spars with her best pal. And yet, when everything goes down, he just doesn’t get it. He says “I’ll take care of you,” when the new “government” tells women everywhere that they don’t have the right to take care of themselves. In the book, he tries to initiate sex that same night … sorry, bro. So Luke is (rightfully) horrified by this new reality, but he didn’t take it seriously until it was too late.
Nick: Before the new government, Nick was no one. Now he’s an Eye with access to the most powerful men in the land. But he’s still low-level. He hasn’t been assigned a woman and he’s constantly working some kind of hustle. He doesn’t seem thrilled with the way things are, but he still has the nerve to get mad at June for the fact that the Commander rapes her, so he has some work to do.
The Commander: This was everything The Commander wanted, and it cost him his happiness. From everything we’ve seen, he was wildly happy with Serena Joy. She helped him start this whole mess. Now she can’t stand him because he’s lost interest in the new her. He’s constantly breaking his own rules because the power trip gets him off. He’s making big deals and acting the hero. Yeah, I think he’s just fine with how things are, especially when his wife goes away for the weekend. He said it best, really: “Better never means better for everyone.”
The Commander’s Bros Who Won’t Let Sarina Joy in on Strategy After Stealing All Her Ideas: They fucking love this.
Okay, AM, what do you think? And while we’re on the topic, tell me about The Handmaid’s Tale moment you found most terrifying, if you had to pick one.
A: Amazing assessment, and I had the same cring-y thought when Luke declared he’d take care of June. So not the point, dude. Yes, you can take care of your wife. Should you take away her ability to take care of herself, ever? Resounding NO. That’s not how we live, and even when you look back to patriarchal societies, say pre-industrial early agricultural. (Let’s pretend I know what I’m talking about.) Men went out hunting. Women stayed close to home, raised the kids, farmed, etc. Who is taking care of whom, here?
I will also at this time point out when Ofglen V2 (after Rory is yanked away) introduces to June for the first time that this new world order might not be hellacious for everyone. She has a safe place to sleep, only one man having sex with her mostly against her will, and enough to eat. She’s one of the ones who this is better for, at least in her mind.
Hands down, the most terrifying moment is when June and Moira protest and the event becomes deadly. It started off just like any other peaceful gathering of people, not unlike the Women’s March, or even a concert. Knowing that the government was willing to murder its people to hush them was an eye-opener, and I say again, the moment you get the fuck to Canada if you hadn’t already peace-d out.
Brooke, same question back to you, and just for a change of pace, is there anything about Gilead that you liked?
B: I almost didn’t ask because I knew you would bounce it back at me. Your choice of the protest is definitely one that stands out for me too. However, I think I’d give the most terrifying moment award to the scene at the Red Center when the soon-to-be handmaids are told about The Ceremony. We’re watching these women who used to be book editors and professors process a new reality where they’re being coached in how to receive a once-a-month rape and behave like it’s an honor. Props to Samira Wiley (Moira) for killing in this moment as the one who dares to ask the question. And for that matter, the scene where we watch the Commander and his bros decide to call it The Ceremony is also bone-chilling.
I love this second question, because, you know what, I love the houses in Gilead. They are unbelievably gorgeous. The Commander’s study! That sunroom/breakfast nook thing! Serena Joy’s bedroom! It’s all devastatingly beautiful. Serena Joy’s wardrobe isn’t bad either.
Okay, same question back to you AM. And then let’s talk about the worldbuilding here. I think the way Gilead is revealed is brilliant. Give me your thoughts and tell me what still baffles you and what you want to see more of in season two.
A: The architecture for the Commanders’ houses (well, compounds, really) is amazing, and I love that we really only see grey skies in the “present day” scenes, making the whole world look like a gloomy snowglobe. The kitchen and sunroom are the only places with warmth, and even those are carefully controlled and monitored. When we see June and Nick get it on for real, his attic apartment is given a glow as well, which at that point, we hadn’t seen and made the entire proceeding reveal how much we had been missing. It’s like when you don’t really notice that the color green is missing from a room until all of a sudden, you see it and you realize how much you love it and missed seeing it.
From the beginning, we as the audience aren’t sure what’s going on. Why are these women wearing red cloaks and white Puritan bonnets? Why are there no food labels with words? Why are they all saying “Under his eye” all the time? I did love the reveal that for all of the adults, this new world is relatively new, which as I mentioned before, adds to the horror of the proceedings in a rather unexpected way. I could not stop thinking about the parable of the frog in a bucket, that if you drop a frog into boiling water, he’ll jump out. But if you slowly heat a bucket of water with a frog already inside, he won’t notice and slowly boil to death. It’s exactly what’s happened here.
Another stroke of brilliance is the genuinely positive things that have come from a dystopian, controlled world: everyone in Gilead has lots of fresh, organic food to eat and pollution has dropped exponentially. Those are things we’d love to see in our world, but they’re difficult to achieve. It’s a contrast from the world created in Hunger Games, where no one outside the Capital has even a sub-standard level of existence.
Honestly, the most baffling to me in the show is a question no one has an answer to: why is no one fertile? I frankly don’t believe the “God is punishing us for our sins” angle, but I wonder what the scientific reason is behind the lack of healthy babies being born. Again, this is an extreme representation of something that’s very present in our real world: birth rates around the world, especially in the richest countries, is dropping.
Also: what on earth is Nick’s end game? Eyes are set up to spy on Commanders, but is he really in love with June? Also also: WHERE DID THEY TAKE JUNE AND WHAT HAPPENED TO HER AT THE END? I need answers.
B: Oh hi, it’s me. I’m here to disappoint you. BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE ANY OF THE ANSWERS. The Handmaid’s Tale season two will extend beyond the scope of the book, so we’re getting into all new territory. Margaret Atwood was content to let us all sit and fester without the answers to any of these burning questions. But the Hulu overlords want more awards and more of those sweet, sweet Elisabeth Moss dollars. So we’ll find out. Maybe. Probably?
Oh, yeah, we’re watching season two when it comes out.
What else do we need to unpack?
A: I have one more important question for you: what do you think of June? We already discussed in person that we know she’s not a perfectly moral person, and I recall you saying that we have to fall in love with June first before we find out she has flaws. Aside from that being an amazingly effective narrative device, it’s used as justification for how June and the rest of the Handmaids are treated.
So Brooke, obviously June doesn’t deserve what happens to her, but what do you think of her?
B: First, I’m flattered that you committed what I said to memory, pretty much verbatim too. I absolutely think that reveal that Luke and June got together via an affair is brilliantly timed. By then we love June, we’re on her side and we can’t imagine that she could have done anything to deserve this. And you know what, we’re right. She shocks herself when she becomes “the other woman,” but even knowing that I still look at her and see a smart, loyal, strong woman. And what’s more, I see a dynamic human, not some untouchable hero. Should it change our perception of June to learn that she made some very human mistakes? There’s shock value, sure. But I don’t think it changes the facts of who she is for me. Most of what she does, she does from a place of passion — from a determination to find a way to survive and save her daughter. Take her out of this situation and I bet the very thing that makes her our hero is what made her unable to resist Luke, even against her better judgment.
What say you, AM? Does knowing the truth of June’s relationship change how you see her? And to your point, how exactly do the people in charge know all about her past?
A: I was a little shocked, yes. But only briefly, and since we really don’t get to spend much time with Luke and June at the beginning of their relationship, ultimately we see them as a loving couple who didn’t mean to hurt his wife. Perhaps she was super mean to Luke and it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. But I like to think that she was also blindsided by his affair and didn’t deserve the hurt that came her way either.
Knowing the juicy details is one of my favorite things. I want to know all the things, positive, negative and in between. So it doesn’t make me like June less, but it does give me a better idea of her whole story. It’s actually more shocking that the Gilead overlords know that June had an affair at all, but I imagine they have lots of techniques for finding out information they can use to their advantage: credit card statements, surveillance video, old-fashioned torturing your relatives, etc.
Speaking of June’s daughter, we simply cannot leave this post without a few more words on Serena Joy. We’ve already talked about how she got to this place (this whole damn thing was her idea!), but we didn’t talk much about how she treats June and the lengths she’s willing to go to have a baby of her “own.” I naively thought that Serena Joy was going to give June a minute with her daughter, just as a tease of course, but allow her to actually hug her and let her know her mom was still alive. I WAS SO FOOLISH. Of course, Serena Joy went the manipulative, evil route here. And June has an appropriately explicit-laced rage at her in return. I enjoyed quite a bit how much, once pregnant for real, June lets loose on all these fools.
I have (I think) just one more question about the last episode. Why is it, do you think, that the ordered stoning of Crazy Janine was the step too far for the Handmaids? After all, they shouldn’t have given them a uniform if they didn’t want them to be an army, but why was that the moment they finally resisted?
B: I can’t believe we almost forgot to talk about THAT Serena Joy moment. It was one of my favorite in this rewatch with you because, I heard the optimism in your gasp when we saw Hannah. It was just like when I watched the Red Wedding with my mom and got to wait for the reveal. (Satisfying.) Anyway, she is an evil genius and she earns the status of supreme evil genius with that move.
Oh dear sweet Janine. I think the ordered stoning of Janine is a bridge too far because Janine is one of them. The most innocent of them all, even, and that’s where the Powers That Be lost it. Sure, they can put a nameless man in front of them and say he raped a handmaid and they’re going to get some revenge even knowing he might be lying. They can’t strike back at the men who rape them, but dammit, they can let one man serve as the symbol for their oppressors. But there’s simply no way Janine can be painted to fit that mold. The Aunts cut Janine’s eye out. The handmaids watched Janine give birth to a baby and have it ripped from her. They watched as Serena Joy denied her the right to go to the party because she was damaged goods. Whatever else is happening in this world, Janine is purity and innocence and the handmaids finally decide enough is enough. And who can blame them?
What happens to them next is another question entirely. And we’ll find out soon enough.
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