“They do not own you. And they do not own who you will become.”
WORDS BY JULIET LOCHRIN
Presenting to you: Episode Five of The Handmaid’s Tale, with what was probably the most uplifting ending yet. That’s right, you bunch of sadists – JUNE IS BACK, BABY!!
I, for one, am immensely happy about this development. There is nothing more satisfying in a story than seeing a character succeed (a relative term) against all odds – thanks for the cultural conditioning, Hollywood.
Anyway. Onto the review.
The depiction of C-PTSD (a continuous dealing with traumatic stress disorder) in the series is realistic and harrowing; a credit to the complexity of the writing by Kira Snyder for this episode, and to Elizabeth Moss’ phenomenal acting. We open on such emotions, with Offred going into the bathroom (which has no mirror, by the way – an exquisite symbolic detail reflective of Gilead’s disdain for vanity).
In a cinematographic telling of a narrative that contains all the suspense and ‘reveal’ that I simply cannot replicate in a review, Offred proceeds to burn the letters, unblinkingly. Before you go ahead and scream “nooOOOOO”, as I did while watching this scene, Nick salvages the unburnt letters and tries to confront Offred. But she simply walks out of the room, muttering about how she shouldn’t be out of bed.
This very first scene reminded me of the way that the complexity that Elizabeth Moss brings to her acting is epitomised in the moments before she speaks. Offred does not just have a ‘blank’ expression; she has not just given up, despite the lack of ‘overt’ rebellion in her snarky comments to the Waterford couple. She is ‘crushed’ – and is crushed in a way that is perpetual and unforgiving. In the moments before she speaks, we hope so badly that the June we know will come back. We hope that, somehow, something that Nick says will fire her back up again, or that she will somehow snap out of it and give Gilead the Hell it deserves.
We hope that, when Mrs Waterford is being obviously intrusive by accurately answering physically-intimate questions (like when Offred’s last bowel movements were) as Aunt Lydia examines Offred, that Aunt Lydia will realise that Serena Joy/Mrs Waterford has completely lost it and Gilead has gone too far with the class system of Wives, Handmaids, and the overruling Commanders. Or that, when Mrs Waterford demandingly asks Offred what is wrong with her on their daily walk, she will realise that what they have done to the handmaid is wrong, and that they are playing into a nasty, totalitarian system with distorted morality – one that has been justified in the name of a socio-historically established mass morality (ie. religion), and one of which they were the pioneers.
But Offred doesn’t snap out of it. She can’t. And neither do the Waterfords, nor Aunt Lydia, nor any of the Marthas, nor any of the other Wives. They cannot wake up in a society that has a culture which is so entrenched in the moral panic regarding the extinction of the human race. Whether they see Gilead as a necessary evil in the [reproductively-]barren nuclear wasteland that they live in, or as a decent ethical development in an increasingly secular modern society, the fear of human extinction and the twisted survival instinct that has manifested in our socially-advanced contemporary world entraps all of them – both in physical routine, and in psychological mindset.
This entrapment is most pertinent in the wedding scene. Yes, that scene. Keep in mind that, up until this point (and despite the fact that Offred still looked dead inside), I was somehow hoping that this episode was where we saw Gilead breaking down from the inside out. I mean, Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy were giving each other the biggest dirties, Serena was talking about Nick to her husband as if she was lustful for him, and Mr Waterford’s request for Nick to be transferred to Washington was both untactful and rejected. But, ohhhhhh, how wrong I was.
The shots of Mr and Mrs Waterford in this wedding scene were smirking and calculated, as if to express the writers’ bemusement in their success at leading me to false hope, and not just encapsulating the couple’s reaction to their next successful political (and social, being a reproductive scheme) move in Gilead.
This scene went to places that we probably guessed the series would go to, but that we sorely hoped wouldn’t. The fact that the title of the episode is “Seeds” makes it that much more horrifying and objectifying. Clad all in white as symbols of virginity and purity, figures are led out and handed over to Angels (the soldiers of Gilead) – Nick, of course, being one of them. When the Angels lift the opaque, white veils… what do we see?
We see children. Freakin’ CHILDREN. I mean… GUYS. I honestly swore about three times consecutively at this point.
And, what’s worse?
When Nick lifts the veil of his new wife, the child looks back and SMILES at her mother… WHO IS ONE OF THE WIVES CLAD IN BLUE. The level of normalisation of absolute moral f*ckery is practically glorious – one can only desensitise themselves upon viewing this scene (not to mention the entire series) if they don’t want to be a weeping puddle on the floor. Serena Joy is clapping, Mr Waterford is clapping, Nick looks like he’s about to throw up, Offred’s blank veneer has cracked and she’s streaming tears at the realisation that this will be the future of her unborn child…
It’s an absolute mess.
To be fair, though, Serena Joy seems like she has some regrets about traumatising a young child with the burden of having to reproduce for the sake of the state (let alone the human race), as she talks to her before the new couple are to bed each other that night.
The final point that I will leave you all with, is the ‘reincarnation’ of June at the end. Quite early on in the episode, June has – at least what I thought was – a miscarriage. She bleeds slightly as she goes to the toilet, and then over the episode, we disparately witness scenes of a vulnerable Offred in blood-soaked underwear. Offred tries to hide her miscarriage by folding toilet paper into her underwear, instead of asking for pads, but by one of the final scenes it is obvious that she will no longer be able to hide it. June had immortality by being pregnant, but now that she has miscarried, she will be executed. So, in an act of desperation that we do not see, Offred throws herself out the window, and is discovered by Nick. I honestly hope that the Waterford couple feel like absolute garbage after this (they probably won’t).
The final scene (the one where the headlined image is from) shows Offred in a hospital… with her baby back (as implied by “You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”)??? If anyone wants to let me know what I’ve misunderstood somewhere along the way, please feel free. Serena Joy runs off to get the doctor, and June talks to her baby under the blankets (upon realising that she is being watched behind a one-way mirror).
I literally cannot wait for episode six. Traumatise me more, Hulu!!!!
PS. I’d also just like to acknowledge my complete neglect of another storyline in this series – the one of Emily and Janine in the Colonies. This was a relatively wholesome one where Janine organises a(n albeit, morbid) wedding for two women – one of whom is on her deathbed – and where one of Emily’s teeth falls out as she washes them (not so wholesome).
Image credit: Hulu