Sunday, May 7, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - June Tries to Escape Her Confinements in 'Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 1.04 "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum"

Punished by Serena Joy, Offred begins to unravel and reflects on her time with Moira at the Red Center.

The Handmaid's Tale presents itself with its anthem in "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." As Commander Waterford notes it's a Latin phrase that loosely translates to "Don't let the bastards grind you down." That phrase carries such a significance and goes through quite a journey throughout this hour. The opening three episodes of this show were brilliant and beautiful to watch. But they were rough and traumatizing as well because of the unrelenting focus on the abuse these characters endure in this new society. They have been broken down. Their identities have been striped away. The Handmaids are only good for procreation. It's been a consistent theme this season. And yet, it's also been important that the show isn't full of constant peril and torture. That would get tiring and annoying after awhile. So, it's important for the show to hit moments of hopefulness as well. It makes it clear that the characters are on a journey. One of ups and downs. The crushing loses only make an impact when it comes after a moment where the characters were hopeful. This is a cruel world where the smallest details make an impact. And thus, June needs to hold onto those moments in order to survive.

Acts of rebellion are a different type of hopefulness as well. There are distinct ways of acting out too. This hour showcases two very different efforts. Both have complicated and complex resolutions. One is a fight for survival and to hold onto the ideals these characters held in the previous world. The other is a battle of wits to manipulate this world and its circumstances to one's advantage. June is at the center of both of these efforts. They show just how much she has changed in a shirt amount of time because of this new society. The power of it all comes less from words and actions and more from silence. A well crafted show knows when to explain things to the audience and when to let the actors take the audience on an emotional journey through their expressions. This show has used its words very carefully. It's shot in such extreme closeups that it's easy to get into the minds of the characters. And here, that understanding of who these people are is very important because they make crucial decisions about their future.

At the Red Center, June and Moira are learning more about their responsibilities as handmaids. June still doesn't want to act out and get punished. Her fear is defining her actions. It's only after learning about the sex ceremonies that she and Moira try to run. It's an important and pivotal turning point. It's them truly realizing just how depraved and horrifying this world can be. And yet, their escape is just as complicated. It's more than simply escaping one building. The world around them is changing. What used to be familiar landmarks are now strange new buildings altogether. It's disorienting to be out in the real world again because the real world no longer exists in the form they are used to. They are hopeful to find safety and protection from an underground resistance. But they have no idea where to go and are under the constant threat of being watched by the people surrounding them. It's then absolutely devastating to watch as Moira successfully gets on a train to Boston while June is left behind. That's one of the most effective scenes of the series because it conveys so much about their relationship while saying very little. It's because of June that Moira gets on that train. It's because she pushes her to do it through her face that she ultimately does. It's heartbreaking even though the audience knew it had to end in tragedy somehow. June is severely punished as a result but she can take comfort knowing that Moira escaped.

In the present day, June finds herself trapped in a new way. She's forced inside her room even though it has no lock on the door. The fear of leaving is too great for her to do anything. She would rather wallow in despair because of this isolation than do anything to change it. It's her succumbing to her environment because she sees no other options. She wants to live and get her freedom again. But the psychological torture of this house is really getting to her. She's disheveled and finding comfort inside a closet. She's confining herself even more. Even in her brief moment of escape to the doctor, she is still trapped. Confined by her environment because of Serena Joy. She's the one behind all of this seemingly because she has no control or power in her marriage. She has taken away so much from June. But the true sadness of Serena Joy's existence hits even deeper. She is no longer enough to arouse her husband. Ceremony night doesn't happen because he can't get it up. He turns her away instead of seeking her help too. The Commander had been nice to June. He's willing to break the rules for her. And yet, he's still a byproduct of this society who doesn't truly understand the torment that June is experiencing right now.

June took comfort in that Latin phrase because it was carved into the wall of the closet. That's what made her think about more than herself. It gave her a dream that wasn't connected to her happy memories of the past. Remembering her family is important but it can't be the only thing motivated her either. And thus, it's fascinating to hear the importance of this phrase. The Commander knows Latin and say it is an inside joke. June making the connection means that the previous Offred must have had this dynamic with the Commander as well. That prompts the tragic backstory for why the Waterfords needed a new handmaid. The previous one killed herself in her room. Serena Joy doesn't care about fixing past mistakes. She's setting June up to follow that same path. But the Commander does want things to end differently. He doesn't want that for June. That gives her power. She becomes emboldened because she knows she has to present her case to him. In that moment, she is confident and forceful while still being very aware of her words. She doesn't want to sour this relationship even more and endure more torture. But she needs to be the one to act and change her situation. No one is going to make it better for her - even though some do sympathize with her pain. She has to fight for her freedom.

All of this builds to that big ending with the handmaids showing solidarity with each other. In the past, it's just a simple gesture of the handmaids bringing June some pieces of food after she's been physically tortured. It's a hopeful moment that shows that she is not alone even though Moira is now gone. It shows that she can rely on them to get through this. It's a big moment but it's small in scale as well because of the confined environment. It's an effective moment though. Things are a little more problematic with the final image. The episode ends with June strutting out of the house on her own for the first time in weeks. She is joined by the other handmaids who fall into formation behind as she's beaming with confidence and power. It's a strong image. But it doesn't make a lot of sense either. June and her fellow handmaids have been groomed into distrusting each other. They are constantly spying on and reporting each other. So, June may not let the bastards grind her done. But it's weird to end on this moment of solidarity when June has no idea if she can trust any of these women. It's great that she isn't knocked down again after this major revelation. But it's largely just a visual that is empowering to watch while not being all that consistent within the show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" was written by Leila Gerstein and directed by Mike Barker.
  • This is the first episode of the season that isn't written by Bruce Miller and directed by Reed Morano. It does suffer a little bit by not being as distinctive. And yet, the foundation with the characters and world are still strong. 
  • Moira escapes to Boston in this episode. However, June is looking for her in the series premiere when she learns she was sent to a work camp. So, that means this probably isn't the last the two have seen each other.
  • It's really fascinating to see the weak and hollow gestures of the men wanting to do something. Nick wishes he could help while the doctor says he's a good listener. And yet, neither of them ultimately do anything that helps June. Instead, they only care about their selfish desires.
  • That's Donnie from Orphan Black as the doctor June sees. Him being in silhouette for most of that scene is great because it shows the faceless horrors and toxic masculinity of this world. But putting a face to him in the end builds a personal connection to the crime he is suggesting to June. 
  • June being beaten at the feet is a very brutal moment. It carries so much severe weight to it. It shows just how crumbling an injury like that can be. It can ensure that she never wants to run away again even though that's all she wants to do. The gestures from the other handmaids are sweet but not enough to truly make a difference.