Why Does The Handmaid's Tale Keep Trying To Make Us Care What Men Are Feeling?
And more not-quite-burning questions sparked by 'Jezebels.'
Why does the show keep trying to make us care what men are feeling?
Or, to be more precise, to tell us what straight men are feeling; I would have been happy to spend an episode with the gay man from Zoey's crew of refugees in the last episode -- but, of course, thanks in part to a straight man's inability to follow instructions from someone who knows better than he does just because she happened to be a woman, that gay dude missed his chance to get boated into Canada; instead he was left on the bank of a river, presumably to be gunned down by Guardians. But instead of finding out more backstory on someone who doesn't enjoy the privilege of a straight man in a patriarchal theocracy, this week's episode shows us how Nick got where he is today, and I hope you are mentally prepared for the shocking surprise that his problem was fragile masculinity!
We meet the Nick of Before as he talks to a career counsellor, claiming he's ready to do any kind of work, his stints at the other jobs on his checkered résumé were all very short. When the guy in line behind Nick starts getting testy about having to wait and Nick is INSTANTLY ready to throw down, getting himself kicked out of the agency, Mr. Pryce follows him, takes him to a coffee shop, and gets Nick's whole sob story: his dad got laid off from a steel mill; his brother's an alcoholic. "It's hard making it in a society that only cares about profit and pleasure," smirks Pryce. "No wonder God has turned His back on us. No wonder there are no children. He doesn't want them to grow up in this screwed-up world. Who can blame Him?" Nick mumbles that there's nothing Pryce can do about it, and Pryce just happens to be able to tell Nick that there's actually a group that wants to make things better! They're called the Sons of Jacob! Maybe Nick should come to a meeting -- there could be a job in it for him!
And sure enough, when we next see Nick, he's driving Pryce, Waterford, and a third Son of Jacob named Guthrie as they brainstorm how their "concubine" concept will work in Gilead; Nick is present for history as Waterford suggests calling it "The Ceremony" rather than "the act" in order to sell it to Wives! After they drop off the other two guys, Waterford pretends to care what Nick thinks, and Nick agrees that it's better not to form attachments, which I guess is the lens through which we're supposed to view Nick's announcement to Offred, at the end of the episode, that they need to end their affair (of which more later). The point of showing us that Nick drifted into this when he had nothing much going on in his life in the United States of America is, presumably, so we know that he wasn't political; he's just been carried along by the tides of events. I want to give the show's producers the benefit of the doubt in terms of their understanding of the subject matter, which is why I didn't write that "he's just been carried along by the tides of events like Offred has," but I fear that's exactly the parallel we're supposed to draw. True, Offred has submitted to her circumstances now that she knows what could happen to her if she doesn't: if Gilead is ever overthrown, Hannah will need a parent to look after her, so Offred can only do so much for the opposition cause if she can't risk getting herself killed. But Nick, for all his economic anxiety, was very privileged before. Is it worse to join the Sons of Jacob because you believe in their misogynistic cause, or to take their money because you don't care about anyone but yourself? (The latter. The Sons of Jacob are obviously evil, but at least they have an ethos.)
Handmaids can't go natural?
When Offred returns to her room from her episode-opening assignation with Nick, she finds the Commander in her room, busting to take her on a surprise adventure -- but before they go, he says, they'll have to "do something about her legs." Offred stares at him for a while, swallowing hard, since this could mean anything, including that he intends to cut them off.
"Once a month, Rita waits outside while I shave my legs in the tub. We're not to be trusted with razors." This event, assumedly, coincides with The Ceremony, meaning that on top of the violation inherent in it, Handmaids also still have to groom themselves to Playboy standards of heteronormativity before they're subjected to it? That shit's not in the Bible.
Later, the Commander produces cosmetics from somewhere or other for Offred to make up her face with (it's not spelled out in the episode, but in the book makeup has been outlawed) -- including mascara. SOME OTHER WOMAN'S VERY OLD MASCARA. Is the season finale cliffhanger going to be whether Offred has given herself an infection so bad her eye might fall out?
Was anyone unclear about the Commander being a creep?
Admittedly, I wrote in my New Show Fact Sheet that I worried about the series making the Commander too sympathetic, and I guess "A Woman's Place" might have done that for some viewers by showing us Fred Waterford back when he only dreamed about subjugating women but hadn't actually managed to make that state policy yet. But when the Commander's getting Offred ready for their outing, was this necessary?
The relationship between these two characters is that he rapes her on a regular basis. I don't think it's necessary for the show to revert to this cliché of sexual maladjustment when sexual maladjustment is his life's work.
What is with the meritocratic narrative all of a sudden?
The place the Commander brings Offred is Jezebel's, apparently a former luxury hotel that's been reborn as a brothel. Offred asks who the women are, and the Commander shrugs, "All women who couldn't assimilate. Some were working girls before. That over there -- she's a Sociology professor, or she was. We've got lawyers, a CEO, a few journalists."
Meanwhile, in the basement kitchen, Nick is trading pills and pregnancy tests (eventually to make their way to the sex workers) for booze and hair dye (en route to Wives) with the resident Martha, who -- after giving the viewer to understand that the two of them sometimes sleep together consensually -- offers, "Stick around, I'll make you that pesto that got me a James Beard nomination." It's been very easy to this point to empathize with fairly ordinary women -- like June, and also Moira, who turns out to be one of the women who couldn't assimilate, and is now working at Jezebel's, as Offred is thrilled to see. Making this nightmare of a rogue state seem so much more horrifying by telling us how it's degraded very accomplished women reminds me of this tweet...
A Syrian migrants' child. pic.twitter.com/sjBxuInpEp
— David Galbraith (@daveg) September 2, 2015
...in response to the death of Aylan Kurdi, as if every migrant fleeing certain death at home doesn't deserve to live, including the ones who might not grow up to found successful tech companies. The same goes for women whose pesto was only okay.
How much does Mrs. Waterford know about Fred and Offred's unofficial relationship?
Part of Nick's flashback is to the moment the Commander had already told Offred about, though not in detail: the suicide of the Handmaid who preceded her. We see Rita open the bedroom door to see her hanging from the light fixture above the bed, and her scream summon Nick, who tries to save her life, and then all the members of the household standing outside as coroners wheel the body away.
"What did you think was going to happen?" Mrs. Waterford demands of her husband -- but does she mean what would happen if he and his co-conspirators made The Ceremony the law of the land, or what would happen if he tried to confuse his relationship with her by offering her indulgences in his study? Or, the opposite -- what would happen if a woman in a Handmaid's situation were granted no pleasures in life at all? It doesn't seem like Offred and the Commander are all that stealthy; is Mrs. Waterford possibly completely aware of their "secret" Scrabble games? Were they maybe even her idea, to give Offred one tiny thing to look forward to, which the Commander then took advantage of, much as he's taking advantage of Offred's inability to refuse to take her to this brothel and have louder sex without his wife being present?
What's more likely to destroy Offred's hope for the future?
Offred, who's only just learned that Luke is still alive and that she has one more person to live for, has emotional conversations with two people in "Jezebels."
First up is Moira, who tells Offred the story of her failed escape attempt and that Jezebel's seemed like the better choice when the only other one on offer was to be sentenced to the Colonies: "There's a few good years before your pussy wears out. All the booze and drugs you want, food's good. You only work nights -- I mean, it's not so bad." Offred urgently wants to talk about how they'll get her out, but Moira thinks that's ridiculous: "This is Gilead, no one gets out." Offred says Luke did, but that makes no difference to Moira: "He isn't us and he isn't here. We're alone, June. Just take care of yourself." It's the same strategy we saw her employ back in that train station, for which Moira effusively apologizes when she and Offred are reunited in the ladies' lounge at Jezebel's, but Offred forgives her -- of course -- since if they'd both been caught, there's no way of knowing which of them would still be alive now, or in what condition. We don't know exactly what Moira went through after she was captured trying to cross the border and got taken "somewhere else," but if she's less bold now as a consequence of whatever happened to her somewhere else, who could blame her.
Then, the next day, Offred's eating lunch at the kitchen island when Nick walks through; she asks if she'll see him later, and when he doesn't answer, she figures that something's changed between them even before he tells her, "We can't do this anymore." In desperation, Offred starts babbling: "You know I had to go with him last night, right? You know I didn't have a choice, I don't have any choice." She begs him to answer her, and when he won't, she gets mad, spitting that she doesn't know anything about him and casting aspersions on the "bullshit life" he's chosen, just polishing the Commander's car and occasionally trying to get a Handmaid pregnant. When he finally tells her they're being stupid, that it's too dangerous, and that she'll end up on the Wall, she melodramatically replies, "But at least-- At least someone will remember me in this place. At least someone will care when I'm gone. That's something. That is something." But...is it? What is her endgame here? She knows he's an Eye; is she trying to cultivate him as an intel source? Does she think that if they actually start to care about each other, they'll be able to formulate a plan to flee together? But if, as it has seemed to this point, she's basically just using him to defy the state while getting hers, what is this tearful overreaction to Nick's actually quite sensible decision to avoid getting purged or informed upon himself? If the events of "Jezebel's" cause Offred to backslide in her revolutionary fervor, will it be because her dearest, oldest friend has advised her that her own physical survival is her sole purpose right now, or because a boy broke her heart?
Must the end of every episode be so on-the-nose?
I already rolled my eyes at episode-closing song choices like "You Don't Own Me" and "Don't You Forget About Me." But then along comes Mrs. Waterford's gift to Offred of her childhood music box, of which Offred voiceovers, "A perfect gift: a girl trapped in a box. She only dances when someone else opens the lid, when someone else winds her up." We...we got it. But thanks for making absolutely sure.