'The Handmaid's Tale, Episode 6: 'A Woman's Place'? Hold My Beer
I have a drinking game inspired by this episode. Every time something happens that makes you say “FUCK YOU!!!”, do a shot. (Editor’s note: don’t do this at all. You will die.)
Spoilers will follow! If you’re staying, line up the shot glasses. Let’s get this rage party started.
It’s almost as if the makers of the show read last week’s review and the comments, because this week’s episode kind of gave us a lot of what we wanted. Serena’s backstory! Offred talks about rape! Wider world-building! How it all came to pass! But it didn’t make me happy. I didn’t think the show could deliberately make me any angrier. I was wrong.
This week, we saw how Gilead presents a tidied up image of itself for visitors, which reveals much of the insecurity at the root of the regime. They aren’t necessarily proud of the ways things work. They don’t stand by all of their decisions. They hide them away. They use euphemisms to mask their cruelty: “Traditional values are at the core of everything we do here.” (SHOT!) The curious tourists in the novel have been replaced by Mexican diplomats, in what must surely be an attack on Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric. Here are the progressive Mexicans, apparently horrified by what they are seeing. For about 50 minutes, I loved Mrs Castillo. That awkward moment where Offred assumes the man was the important diplomat proved that Gilead has become ‘normal’ for her. But it was such a relief to see a woman with power, confidently refusing to suppress her intellect or follow the ‘rules’. It was such a blessed relief to have a female character that could make the Commanders squirm. She asked all of the difficult questions, which were natural and pertinent, but dangerous.
“Did you choose to be a handmaid?”
“What was your given name?”
It’s important for Gileadan marketing that the handmaids appear to be volunteers, so the issue of choice and consent was at the fore again:
“Offred knows how grateful we are for her choice in this.” (SHOT!)
“You have chosen such a difficult life. Are you happy?”
Offred’s painful, eventual answer was as carefully worded as possible: “I have found happiness, yes.” Later, this answer haunts her.
Mrs Castillo quoted Serena’s book at her: “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness,” following this up with another uncomfortable question: “Did you ever imagine a society in which women can no longer read your book?” Boom. Mrs Castillo for the win. (Again, for about 50 minutes. I have never felt so let down by a character. So very cruel.)
The title of the episode is the title of Serena’s book, A Woman’s Place, which espouses Serena’s version of gender politics: domestic feminism. (SHOT!) We see the passion she and Fred used to have, albeit with frantic prayer as foreplay. Seeing them pre-Gilead emphasises the fact that they are part of a terrorist plot; as such, they are tailed by the FBI. The scene where they are in the cinema and hear that the attacks are imminent was chilling in its juxtaposition of terrorism and everyday life. The attacks happen as follows: congress first, then the White House, the the court. “We’re saving them. We’re doing God’s work.” (SHOT!) I’m pretty certain the Waterford-esque real people of the world aren’t watching, but I was a bit concerned that they might get ideas from this comment…
The cross-cut to Serena lighting a cigarette in her room was the editing equivalent of saying “Well done, bitch.” Gilead uses the phrase ‘gender traitor’ for homosexuals, but it’s clear who the real gender traitor is here. It doesn’t take long for her to feel the change. No more conference calls for Serena. No second book. She’s not even allowed in the meetings, and the random suited man observes, “This is our fault. We gave them more than they could handle. We let them forget their real purpose.” (SHOT!)
The Commander is annoyed by how judgemental the Mexicans were, and in his delusions thinks that Offred is an appropriate person to rant to. For a short time, her face tells us how she is really feeling, and Fred is furious. “Am I boring you? Being in here is a privilege.” (SHOT!) With massive effort, she controls her face. I know I keep harping on about this, but Elisabeth Moss is awesome.
“I’m sorry. Can I stay here with you? Please?”
“You wanna stay? Come here. Kiss me. Not like that. Like you mean it.” (SHOT! Wait, just give me the bottle!)
She does a good job at pretending, and some danger is averted. But at what cost? As she frantically scrubs her teeth, there is a greater sense that she has sullied herself with this interaction, and is ashamed. If sleeping with Nick felt like cheating, with the Commander it’s either institutional rape or prostitution.
The big event was the special dinner to ‘honour’ the handmaids. Except, of course it wasn’t. It was a sales pitch. Just when you thought this couldn’t possibly be any worse. Gilead has brought back slavery, and now it wants to move into human trafficking. Suddenly, Offred’s lie to save herself looks like it has doomed countless others. The guilt comes off her in waves. Has she betrayed her sisters?
I did enjoy the power play between Aunt Lydia and Serena. In fact, and I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this, Aunt Lydia came out of the exchange looking like the kindly supportive one. How the hell did that happen?
This is a marketing event built on the lie that handmaids chose their path. Evidence of torture is an inconvenient truth, so Serena’s politely worded order, “Please remove the damaged ones,” makes sense in one way. But it’s another sign that the regime doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Aunt Lydia has perhaps a more honest take on the situation, though I can’t hear a certain part of this line without getting Hot Fuzz flashbacks: “Whatever punishment those girls endured was for the greater good. They deserved to be honoured just like everyone else.” When Janine freaks out at being excluded, Aunt Lydia even calls her by her real name; she at least treats the handmaids like people rather than livestock. “It’s not fair. You’re right. But sometimes we need to do what’s best for everyone.” When she kisses the eyelid where Janine was mutilated, this was horrible again. But there is at least warmth to Aunt Lydia. Maybe that makes her more sinister overall? As I’ve said before, at least you know where you stand with someone who is openly horrible.
Of course, the handmaids are only the first part of the marketing campaign. The results are more important than the process. As the children are paraded, the cameras focus on the faces of the handmaids: the women who were forced to bear those children and then had them taken away. Serena claims that this honours them; of course it doesn’t. It pains them. It was never about them. It was about showing off to the Mexicans, and making a deal. (SHOT!)
Offred’s guilt explodes. Because she is a decent human being, she feels responsible, while those who are actually responsible feel nothing. Even though Nick tries to calm her, saying “What choice did you have?”, she has found her moment to fight back. And it’s beautiful. She has found her voice. She calls the Ceremony rape. She tells Nick her real name. And her speech to Mrs Castillo was a thing of beauty. She could not have been clearer. I wish I had written more of it down, but truth be told, I was enjoying it too much to type at the same time. Here are some snippets though:
“This is a brutal place. We are prisoners. I didn’t choose this. They caught me. I was trying to escape. They took my daughter. So don’t be sorry. Please do something.”
Mrs Castillo reluctantly admits that she can’t help, and Offred counters with “What are you going to trade us for? Fucking chocolate? How can you do that?” It’s her turn to ask the difficult questions, and she doesn’t hold back. There hasn’t been a child born alive in Mrs Castillo’s hometown for 6 years. “My country is dying,” she says. Offred can beat that: “My country’s already dead.”
So, Mrs Castillo, did you ever care? Were you asking the questions because you wanted to stand up for women’s rights? Or were you just checking it was OK, so that you could take part in human trafficking with a clear conscience? (SHOT!) Mrs Castillo might hate the process but needs the results. And so, decency goes out of the window when a crisis comes along. The big picture blocks her humanity. What’s worse: someone who knows this is wrong and is horrified by it, but willingly trades anyway, or someone who hasn’t got a problem with it at all? Either way, there is blood on the hands of the people who countenance this. It’s just a question of what stings more: the self-righteous delusion or the hypocrisy?
The show’s message is clear: principles must come before desperate measures. The end doesn’t justify the means. If the only way to perpetuate humanity is to create reproductive slaves, then perhaps the human race doesn’t deserve to survive. (FINISHES THE BOTTLE)
At least Mrs Castillo covers for Offred when Fred comes in. Small mercies. You’re not forgotten though, Mrs C. You are on my list as a gender traitor for sure.
Were there any lighter moments this week? Offred has found her desire again, and her relationship with Nick is as adorable as it could be under the circumstances. I’d like there to be some schadenfreude with Serena, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. I guess the big reveal at the end, that Luke is alive, might offer up some hope. We shall see. I did laugh once: it’s clear that some patronyms are grander than others. Let us all show sympathy for Oftim.
If you were playing the drinking game, please seek medical attention. I fear for our livers.
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