The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu in the spring of 2017, at the start of the administration that eventually appointed three of the five Supreme Court justices who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade. At the time, her story of a woman who had been kidnapped and separated from her daughter and her husband and held captive by a couple who repeatedly raped her in the hope that she would produce a baby – the one that they would also take from him – got attention for being a chilling and disturbing take on what the worst-case scenarios of losing your freedom could look like.
But it also drew attention, increasingly over the next few years, for its limitations. Most blatantly, its central character, June (Elisabeth Moss) is a white woman, and most of the other women held at Gilead as servants also appeared to be white. “It Could Happen Here” was a wild warning to those who knew that in the United States and elsewhere, enslaved women and Indigenous women, among others, had long experienced captivity, forced separation from their children, loss of autonomy, and on the violence of rape in the context of so-called “ownership” or state-sanctioned domination over other human beings. The show’s failure to take race into account when talking about the subjugation of women and in particular the forceful control of their fertility rings deeply false, and refer to the show when lamenting the loss of bodily autonomy sometimes comes to represent a limited view of what it meant.
At the same time, story-wise, the show struggled with stasis issues. For over three seasons, he focused on June’s three main goals: escape; to get revenge on his captors, the Waterfords; and to find Hannah, the daughter Gilead took from her and her husband and placed with “relatives” who were, in fact, kidnappers. And for a long time, it seemed like June would keep approaching progress on those fronts, then be thwarted or change her mind, until boredom.
In its fourth season, the series made perhaps its most significant shift in perspective when June left Gilead. She escaped through Chicago and was accepted in Canada as a refugee. She was reunited with her husband Luke, her friend Moira (Samara Wiley), and her daughter Nicole (the baby she had while a prisoner, whom she had successfully smuggled out earlier in the story). In one of the best and simplest scenes in the series, June testified at the trial of the Waterfords, who had been arrested and charged in Canada. With her freedom secured, one of June’s goals was achieved.
Then, at the end of season four, she pulled off a more shocking turnaround. Through a combination of fierce determination and knowing the right people, she led Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) out into the woods at night unprotected, where she and a group of other former servants beat him to death. Vengeance was assured, at least against Fred, while Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) remained in a Canadian prison.
We come back for season five right after June and his band kills Fred. She flicked her finger at Serena, both as a taunt and as an offer of proof. And the obvious question arises: What will be June’s punishment for doing this? The answer to that question, which the new season delivers early on, isn’t entirely satisfying, but it does narrow down June’s goals to just one that remains: get Hannah out of Gilead. She is otherwise ready to walk away from the larger struggle in which she is engaged.
The problem with this turns out to be that for some Gilead women (past and present), June is a leader of their critical resistance movement. And as she released to and got his revenge, other women start looking at her and wondering if her fight has something for someone else. Because other women, of course, want revenge as much as she does, and they helped her get it. Now they expect her to do the same, and they are appalled that she has little taste for it. “It was your monster,” says another woman – a black woman named Danielle (Natasha Mumba) – who participated in Fred’s murder. “And we tore it up for you. Now it’s up to me. “Are you a leader if you stop when you realize your own individual freedom? Get inspired? What does a woman lucky enough to achieve her own ends owe to those who were her countrymen?” She was there for you,” Vicki (Amanda Zhou) says, pulling out a gun and pointing it at June. “Are you there for her? Are you here for any of us?” In this scene, June transitions from a character viewed solely as a traumatized person to one who is also seen through the prism of what she owes others. and whether she was ever really interested in resistance.
At the same time, the series begins to investigate not just Serena’s complicity but her active participation in Gilead’s abusive system. Strahovski is doing a good job this season as a woman who constantly tries to position herself in a favorable position for her comfort and safety. The show has always recognized, but now confronts more fully, that one of the main threats to vulnerable women in any society that oppresses them is, in fact, less vulnerable women who calculate that participating in injustice will work. better for them than resistance. . Patriarchy, under this argument, would go nowhere without women embracing it for its benefits.
In some past episodes, Serena has functioned as a different type of victim, certainly better off than June but also suffering from violence (such as having her finger cut off for the sin of questioning authority). But she is now an almost entirely threatening figure. Fred was replaced by Serena as the primary representation of Gilead’s brutality. Plus, Serena wants June executed — she wants it so precisely that she wants Canada to change its entire legal approach to capital punishment just for that purpose. Serena therefore shares June’s desire to kill her enemies. she just hopes that as a distinguished pregnant woman who practices yoga and considers herself a person of special importance, she can convince the state to do it for her rather than chasing someone through the woods to beat him with his own hands.
The fifth season also continues its exploration of June’s rage, in its entirety – completed — lack of interest in forgiveness, apologies or healing. Even when her husband wants her to move on, even when her best friend wants her to move on, June is consumed not just by the desire to get Hannah back, but by her deserved anger. During the seasons when she was a prisoner, The Handmaid’s Tale used June’s anger as fuel, the thing that kept her able to function, and in fact the thing that kept her from despair. (“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” she carved into her bedroom wood early in her stay with the Waterfords. It’s not really Latin, but it makes the point.) That anger was a driving force. , a means to an end.
But now that June is out of Gilead, her anger has not gone away. If anything, he grew up. She killed Fred Fortunatelyshe rejoiced in it, where she once had to be ordered by Aunt Lydia to participate in the ritual murder of a man with the blessing of the state as punishment for breaking the law. It’s less she can’t heal and more she feels past the very idea. She feels impatient with people who believe healing is possible and resented by those who see her as her duty. She sometimes beats with a literal bloodlust.
Stories of trauma survivors often focus on portraying them as crying, lost, and seeking only peace. At this point, the boldest thing about The Handmaid’s Tale may be his willingness to explore trauma as a motor of rage that demands retaliation and can lead to tunnel vision and the loss of all other purpose in life, not a hurt that reliably responds to love or inevitably leads to growth.
None of this negates the complaints about the show that have been shared for several years now. The show is always about June and Serena, more than anything else. It cannot be transformed into something that it is not. But his examination of these two women embraces a more complicated dynamic than before. It became a more thoughtful study of complicity, both in Serena’s level of active violence and participation and in June’s level of commitment to individual rather than collective resistance. And it became an unusual story, for television, of a trauma survivor whose eyes still darken with precisely the same rolled-up fury, even after the immediate danger has passed.
And there is something else too. In Canada, as the authorities secure their grip on her, Serena seems isolated; it appears that she has been severed from her support base. But then she gets out of jail on a supervised trip, and though she remains in custody, she discovers something. The sidewalk is lined with supporters, people right here in Canada who are drawn to the Gilead lifestyle, who seek to support it and spread it where it has yet to take root. No oppressive system is as simple as its most obvious villains, after all. It’s his tentacles and his tendency to get bigger that make him scary.
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