The Handmaid's Tale

Episode 2: “Birth Day” — The Generational Divide and Return to “Tradition”

“A return to traditional values. That’s what they fought for,” Offred wryly comments in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The authority figures of Gilead decry the progressive values of the past years — Tinder, birth control, contraception, homosexuality — anything that interrupt the idealized nuclear family. But in following an Old Testament reading of the Bible — the verses of which are sprinkled offhandedly throughout the show — they managed to disrupt that nuclear family even further. The concept of surrogacy is nothing new, but the monthly ritual of impregnating the Handmaid while she lies in the lap of the Wife is — a rite the government derived from a literal reading of a Biblical passage in which Rachel pleads with Jacob to have children by her handmaid Bilhah — is something else.

Like the passage, Gilead takes to Bible with an Old Testament fervor — only it doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the religion itself, only using passages to pass laws that suit them.

“A priest, a doctor, a gay man. I think I heard this joke once. This wasn’t the punch line,” Offred says wearily as she and Ofglen pass a wall whereupon three men have been hung to their death as punishment for their crimes.

The Handmaid's Tale

Later, a newly befriended Offred and Ofglen pass by that wall, speaking in hurried whispers about their past lives — June as an assistant book editor, and Ofglen as a lesbian student from Missouri living in Cambridge. Ofglen had to hide her sexuality, as being gay is deemed one of the highest crimes, punishable by death. “Gender traitors” they call it, with Gilead banning the word “gay” completely. I don’t have to mention what a political lightning rod gay rights have been in our world, which threaten to backslide even after the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage. The campaign against transgender students using bathrooms of their preference is still raging, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaling that transgender rights would no longer be protected under civil rights law. Just last month, a Scottish politician compared gay people to gorillas. It was only six years ago that President Obama repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” but its effects and the culture from which it sprang still echoes today — and in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ofglen is not just a secret lesbian, however, she is also a member of the resistance. She pleads with Offred to join them and give them information on her Commander, one of the highest-ranked figures in Gilead. In a stroke of luck, Offred finds herself invited by her Commander for a private, after-dark meeting, in which he asks if she wants to play Scrabble.

This is where the show could have taken another chance for commentary, by casting the Commander and Serena Joy as older and unable to bear children, as they were in the books. It makes sense in terms of today’s generational divides, how older generations are responsible for a sliding backwards of progress — they were the ones who voted for Brexit and Trump, promised a return to the lost years before globalization and the dangers of war and refugees. With an older Commander and Serena, it would be a fascinating view of the generation who got what they wanted, and had to reap those consequences. The only positive I can see to a young Commander challenging Offred to Scrabble is that it becomes about the young, beautiful surrogates like Ivanka and Jared Kushner or Paul Ryan, who espouse dangerous ideology that we don’t pay attention to because they seem safe.

The “return to tradition” seems most present with the birth of Janine’s baby, which all of the Handmaids attend in an orgy of chanting and labor. While the wives conduct their own placebo birthing ritual, the Handmaids surround Janine in a womb-like mass, forgoing doctors and gynecologists in favor of the tent-like conditions of Biblical times.

In contrast, we see a flashback where June is in labor with her child and Luke is driving her to the hospital. As they pass the entrance, a mob of people are in a chant-like prayer outside, sparking visual parallels to both the Handmaid birthing ritual and Planned Parenthood protesters. The illusion of modernity is shattered with small hints like that — and again when June’s nurse says “Praise Be” in passing.

The Handmaid's Tale

Episode 3: “Late” – Christian Fundamentalism Without Christianity

Discovered for her sexuality after she had an affair with a Martha, Ofglen was captured and imprisoned by the Eyes, June later learns, after encountering another woman replacing the Ofglen she knew.

Ofglen gets put on (a very short) trial for her “gender treachery,” and the lawyers base trials on Biblical verses, calling the Handmaids and Marthas by numerical IDs in further dehumanization of the women (I don’t need to mention what that is in reference to). Ofglen — who learn is Emily — is subjected to “redemption,” which in this case, means female genital mutilation — a practice still used in many countries and regimes to subdue women today. Like Atwood said in her New York Times op-ed, The Handmaid’s Tale is not based on any particular religion, but rather how totalitarian regimes will use religion to assert their power. As much as The Handmaid’s Tale has ties to America’s Puritanical roots, it has ties to Islamic or Communist regimes which use religion for similarly oppressive purposes.

At the Red Center, the Handmaid’s had drilled into their heads the Bible scripture “Blessed are the meek.” But Offred wryly noticed, “They always left out the part about inheriting the Earth.”

The Handmaid's Tale

Much of this episode takes place in flashback, to explain how a fairly modern America turned into the totalitarian Gilead. June and Moira (Samira Wiley) — who I feel sorry for not mentioning her earlier since she appears first in the Red Center and steals the show in each of the flashbacks — see signs of a changing world as they go about their normal days. In “revealing” jogging gear, they get judgmental stares from a woman on the street, at a coffeeshop June’s card gets declined and their new (young white male) cashier insults them and calls them “fucking sluts.” Moira lashes out at him, but June gets them to leave. Later at June’s work, a heavily harmed group of soldiers walk by to escort them out after a new law has been instituted banning women from working or owning property.

June and Moira commiserate over their frozen bank accounts and law and Moira points out, “You know, they needed to do it this way. All the banks accounts and the jobs all at the same time. Can you imagine the airports otherwise?” June brushes it off, but Moira reminds her they’ve been under martial law since the attack on Congress, and continually refutes June’s excuses that it was for their safety. Despite her protestations and her hassling of Luke for his patronizing language against June, she ends up taking him up on his offer to walk her to the station. Like Moira had argued earlier, the regime had made women and everyone dependent on them, so they couldn’t even think to escape.

After witnessing the disappearance of Ofglen and the mental unraveling of Janine, Offred defiantly points out the irreligious nature of Gilead to Aunt Lydia, continuing to quote the scripture and getting a cattle prod in the face from the Aunt, who beats her until she’s ironically saved by Serena.

However, Serena — who had been endearing herself to Offred after thinking she was pregnant — flips on a dime as soon as Offred confesses she’d gotten her period, throwing her and threatening, “Things can get much worse for you.”

The eerie parallels — some obvious, some not — that echo throughout the three-episode premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale feel like a wake-up call to us viewers, who until now had been complacent, and perhaps, complicit. But more importantly, it feels like a wake-up call to conservatives, whose recent actions and political obstructionism could put us on the slippery slope leading to something akin to this dystopian future. So in watching The Handmaid’s Tale, we have to ask ourselves, is this truly the future that conservatives want?

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