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Ramble Meme! Thoughts on the New "Handmaid's Tale" Series

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Ramble Meme! Thoughts on the New "Handmaid's Tale" Series

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[personal profile] jenni_blog asked: "Did you watch the premier of A Handmaid's Tale and what did you think about it?"

Indeed I have! I have watched through Episode 4. I'll put my thoughts below the cut because I'm going to make no attempt to resist spoilers.

Bobby and I were partway through the third season of Orange Is the New Black when A Handmaid's Tale premiered. We watched it on the night of the premier, and we have not watched anything since. (We obviously have skipped a few nights of watching any TV at all!) It's an oddly compelling show to watch: "oddly" because it's a really hard show to watch.

I realized the other night that, when watching AHT, my body feels like it does when watching horror movies. My sympathetic nervous system goes on overdrive. I sit there with my heartbeat heavy and fast, picking at my fingers, stuffing the web between my thumb and forefinger between my teeth. A good dystopia succeeds because it is near enough to reality to become compelling and frightening. As I watch AHT, I can't help but to think that there isn't much that's fictional about this story for many people in the world: places where gay people are murdered, where women lack even the autonomy to leave their homes and walk to the store alone, where minor disobedience leaves one subject to swift and horrible corporal punishment.

Even in places where this can be dismissed as a fantasy, there are enough people whose beliefs draw disturbingly near to what it represents, enough teasing of ideas that, a little further down the slippery slope, lands one square into the Republic of Gilead.

It was interesting to become hooked on AHT while in the midst of watching Orange Is the New Black. It is no secret that what draws me into a story isn't how interesting or exciting the plot is or even the salience of the message but the people, the characters. OItNB is one of those shows where not much happens that is truly monumental, but the characters are drawn so believably and with such complexity that I find myself night after night riveted to their petty prison dramas.

AHT is not that way. As I've watched the show the past couple of nights, knowing I'd be writing this post today, I've tried to think about why I like the show and want to watch it night after night. It's visually beautiful at times--I remember last night having my breath taken away by a shot of rain pouring down the back of Offred's red cloak and white cap--in a way that stands in stark contrast to the hideousness of the world it represents. But that is not enough for me. And frankly, the characters aren't that complex*. Offred is actually pretty banal. We don't know much about her. She doesn't show much of a personality. So why do I care to keep coming back to find out what will happen to her?

I think this is one of the challenges of a text like AHT. It's the story of a woman in a deeply oppressive society. She can't have much of an identity, or much of a personality, because she's not permitted to. The larger-than-life personalities of the women on OItNB, for example, would never fit on a character like Offred, or on Ofglen, who I will talk about specifically in a bit, and in the enormity of her current circumstances, we are no more permitted to know much of her prior life than she is to return to it.

What we know of Offred's life from flashbacks largely concerns her relationship with other people: her daughter Hannah, her husband Luke, her best friend Moira. Ofglen is similar: She tells Offred that she had a wife, a child, and was a professor in the sciences. None of this makes them compelling people.

Ofglen disappears at the end of Episode 2. She is replaced by a new Ofglen. Viewers are led to believe that she is suffering a horrible fate for, presumably, her revolutionary activity. I assume we will never see her again, and her fate will be left to the dark corners of the viewer's imagination to stir up.

But we do see her again, in Episode 3. The scene isn't one of gruesome torture; far worse is shown happening to other characters--including Offred, after Ofglen's arrest. In fact, Ofglen is unharmed when we see her, masked, being dragged into a courtroom to be summarily judged for "gender treachery" alongside a Martha, also masked. Presumably the two have been accused of homosexuality, but we don't know if they were actually lovers. Their sentences are cloaked in cozy euphemisms indecipherable to anyone who doesn't live within the twisted Republic of Gilead.

In the next scene, the two women are shoved into the back of a van. Like another passenger along for the ride, the viewer watches from the back. The door shuts. They tip forward, clutch hands; in the sudden desperation of their affection, their fate begins to crystallize. They were lovers; this realization dawns. But masked, there are no words, no kisses, just hands and faces. Something awful is about to happen; that much is seen in the desperate clutch of those hands. Still watching from the back, the van door is opened. The Martha is dragged out. Ofglen shrieks behind her mask and tries to hold onto her as long as she can. A noose is fixed around her neck. It feels like forever as the guards around her mill about. Then a jerk of a hand, and she is lifted up by a crane. It is a perfunctory act, foregrounded by the writhing and the screams of Ofglen. Still in the same shot, still in the back of the van, we watch as the van begins to pull away. Almost as an afterthought, one of the guards slams the door shut and Ofglen can see no more.

It is the most wrenching scene in the show so far, in my opinion. I had to force myself to watch it, my heart in my throat.

But I think it shows why the show succeeds. In the moments it chooses to show of the characters' lives, they are not revealed to be extraordinary, but they are revealed to be loved, and to have loved. And it is not only romantic love. There is also the tenderness between Offred and her best friend Moira, something we see more of than the love between Offred and her husband. When Offred and Moira succeed in escaping the Red Center, the looks they exchange as Moira faces the choice between escaping or staying to suffer punishment alongside Offred is like the last desperate moments between Ofglen and her Martha. (Part of this is because Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, is a fucking brilliant actor.) In that look is a woman brave enough to give her friend freedom at deep personal cost to herself, and a woman worthy enough of love that her friend ponders not accepting that freedom to share in her fate.

*Since I mentioned Samira Wiley, it's time to offer the asterisked caveat to my assertion that the characters in AHT are flatter than I generally find appealing. There are exceptions to that. Moira is brilliant, but that's largely because Samira Wiley is brilliant and gives life to a character who might otherwise fade into the background. That was an inspired casting choice. And Serena Joy is another character drawn to complexity, in part because, as a commander's wife, she is permitted to show the emotions and personality that make her seem real. I want so badly to despise her, but her character is drawn so that I can not. Even as she perpetrates violence on Offred, there is no mistaking that she is also a victim. And there is something pathetic and sad about the fact that the show over and over again intimates that Serena Joy was an intelligent, competent person in her past life--perhaps a career woman not much different than Offred and Ofglen--and yet her husband rejects not only her sexual overtures but the chance to engage intellectually with her the way he does with Offred.

I'm only four episodes in. I hope the show can keep up its delicate dance with horror, with love always hovering at the periphery, like something glimpsed from the corner of an eye, too quick to be believed.

This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!

  • Randomly Googled and landed here. Hi!

    Good point that the Commander wants to connect intellectually with Offred and not his own wife. What exactly should he do with his wife? Can't speak to her and be stimulated by her mind. Can't be stimulated by her body. Did any of these folks think about joy?

    One review did state that he kind of has to connect with Offred to be able to perform sexually. But why bring a child into a world with no joy? I can't imagine they'd be warm with the kid. It's such odd philosophy.
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