Sunday, April 30, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - A Potential Pregnancy Disrupts the Natural Order of Gilead in 'Late'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 1.03 "Late"

Offred visits Janine's baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge.

"Late" is a deeply traumatizing and unsettling episode of television. That's been a consistent quality of this show throughout these opening three episodes. And yet, this hour is different because the events linger and reverberate in some profound and uncomfortable ways. They leave a pit in the stomach. Bones ache and the mind is horrified by what is happening to these characters. This hour makes such an impact because the creative team already has such mastery over this material. The audience is already deeply attached to these characters. It's a traumatizing and very bleak show. But it's also profoundly necessary to see as well. Not only is it depicting the way the world of Gilead is oppressive to women, it's showing the path to how it all got there. All of this is deeply rooted in a grounded reality that hits very close to home in 2017. It makes me very worried for the future. And yet, it also serves as motivation to do more now. To be a better person who actively works against these themes.

A lot has been said about Elisabeth Moss' performance on this show. It is all rightfully given praise as well. She's terrific on this show and that continues in this hour. But the true standout performance here is Alexis Bledel. She is so stunning to watch as she's being physically mutilated by this world. It was such a gut punch in the previous episode when it was revealed Emily was taken away and replaced by a new Ofglen. And yes, I will now be referring to Bledel's character as Emily because that's her real name from her life before Gilead. That was revealed here as she undergoes all of this trauma and torture. This world has always been extremely brutal. This hour ups that considerably. Bledel carries so much through her body movements and eyes. It's a near wordless performance. She let's out a couple of grunts and screams. When those moments hit, they are absolutely devastating.

Emily isn't arrested for being a member of the resistance. Aunt Lydia and the other people in charge don't even know about that. Instead, she is arrested simply for being gay. In this world, it is referred to as being a gender traitor. That's such a horrifying phrase. Aunt Lydia utters it with profound self-righteousness. She truly believes in all of it. It's nasty to hear her refer to gay people as beasts who are less than human. It's even more upsetting to see the punishment that comes from being accused of this crime. Emily was having an affair with the Martha of her house. The Martha is put to death right away. It's a traumatizing shot because it all occurs in quick succession. Emily avoids that fate because she's a handmaid. And yet, her punishment may even be worse. Her essence as a woman is being ripped away from her. For the most part, that's just been psychological torture in this world. But here, it becomes physical as Emily is cut open and a part of herself is taken away. To Aunt Lydia, it's the part that makes Emily lust for sinful sex. To Emily though, it's a part of her humanity and identity. And now, she's being stripped away for the soul purpose of being an obedient servant of God. All she can do is scream and the audience weeps alongside her.

Things are pretty bleak for June as well because Serena Joy believes she's pregnant. She's a few days late and that leads to a quick change in the mood of the house. It's alienating and different. The Martha and Serena Joy are being more pleasant and inquisitive about June's well-being. It's all in the hopes of another miracle baby. Serena Joy even allows June to tag along to go see the new baby, Angela. That's a brutal sequence as well. Everyone can agree that it's so beautiful and special to hold a baby again. But it also reveals how much the handmaids are seen as servants who are good for nothing other than procreation. Serena Joy seems better. She allows June to hold Angela and to visit Janine. But that only further highlights the deep divisions in this world. Janine's life is falling apart. The lady of the house wants her gone while she believes she can run away with her commander, who is in love with her. It's clear she's having another psychotic break. June is still there for her. But it's clear Janine isn't completely accepting of her current reality. That can be very dangerous for the future.

These interactions also reveal something new within Serena Joy. She truly believes that the strong will remain in this world. People need to be strong in order to survive everything that is happening. Serena Joy is strong because she's allowing her husband to fuck another woman. She's strong because she holds onto the hope of one day having a baby. That strength makes her protection of June as well. When Aunt Lydia and a representative from the government show up asking questions about Emily, Serena Joy is quick to protect June from suffering any more abuse. She does so because she's hopeful for a pregnancy. That's what she wants right now. She's willing to put up with all the darkness and trauma in this world if it delivers her a baby one day. She got her hopes up only to be disappointed. June is not pregnant. She delivers that news with a smile after Serena Joy bares her soul to her. That flips a switches. She turns from the nurturing caretaker to the spiteful and scorned wife who promises to make June's life even worse than it already is. I don't know how that's possible given what happens here. But this show won't hold its punches either.

Plus, it's so insightful to see the world before all of this happened. This show truly understands and gets the audience into the mindset of what it means to be a woman in 2017. Even before the world turns crazy, the casual sexism and abuse is abundant - from a woman giving June and Moira a dirty look for their jogging attire to a barista having no patience with them when a card gets declined. Those are the introductions to a world of broad and sweeping oppression. The newly formed government has enacted marital law and suspended the constitution. It's all in the name of protecting citizens during this crisis. Even June seems to be willing to go along with everything being said. And yet, new laws say women can't do anything without a man's permission. Luke seems like a good guy but he jokes about all of this instead of really being there for June and Moira. The later protest makes all of this seem very topical and relevant as well. But things take a dark turn once the armed soldiers start firing on the protesters. That's a horrifying visual. The audience knows both June and Moira survive. But it's a traumatizing and deeply unsettling experience as well. They are left wondering how any of this happened. Once they woke up to the truth, it was already too late to change anything. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Late" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Reed Morano.
  • In addition to Moss and Bledel, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Madeline Brewer and Ann Dowd deliver some strong performances too. This is such a strong ensemble filled with characters who have very different views of this world.
  • There is growing sexual tension between June and Nick. He claims to be doing his best to protect her in the house. And yet, he's clearly not doing enough. He still brings her to Aunt Lydia to be punished. He may bring ice later on but he's still not a good, nice guy.
  • Of course, June has a small but significant act of rebellion against Aunt Lydia as well. She quotes the Bible back to her to make a point. Lydia doesn't like that because she loves imposing her beliefs on others no matter how much beating it takes to do so.
  • When one of the wives wonders if June should hold Angela, Serena Joy says it's okay because she's done it before. Does that mean she knows about Hannah? Or is it her simply saying whatever to give June this nice moment of release from a stressful situation? 
  • The government quotes scripture in the courtroom as well. They say "gender traitoring" is a crime because of a specific bible verse. Plus, the word of a man is taken seriously right away while the women who stand accessed are literally silenced. That's a chilling visual.
  • It's nice to see men at the protest supporting women's rights. But they are largely the ones targeted by the shooters. It shows that this action simply wasn't enough to stop the people in charge who don't care who they hurt in the process.