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Friday, May 12, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale, Episode 5: When dystopia is better than real life, do we worry?

Near the end of episode five, the genitally mutilated Emily engages in a spontaneous act of desperation: she leaps into a car and brutally runs over a guard. While we sympathize with her anger, it's an appallingly inhumane act (she is disconnected from reality) and accomplishes all of nothing. It's political energy wasted in the form of inchoate rage. It reminded me of the real woman named Miriam Carey in Washington D.C. shot to death for ramming her car into Congressional barricades, ( obviously confused, perhaps angry, but not deserving to die. She had an infant in the back seat. Clearly the US situation is worse than in Atwood's dystopia: the real woman who rammed the Congressional barricades killed nobody but was killed by the police (I still can't get over it) and in contrast, Emily, who killed somebody in the dystopic world was not killed herself on the spot--she will presumably be subject to some sort of legal process, no matter how dubious. Should we worry--or at least think-- when a dystopic world is not as bad as our own reality?

Episode five is interesting as well in stepping outside of the frame of Atwood's novel to a problematize the time before the new world order. It is troubling that Offred takes such a cavalier attitude--utterly insensitive--towards her lover's wife, demanding that he leave her, and that he agrees, saying that he will divorce her because it is Offred he loves. If Offred is dehumanized, she has previously dehumanized another woman. And what happens when her husband falls "in love" with someone else? That's apparently grounds for moving on. We learn from  Offred's new handmaid walking partner, who comes from a background of drugs and poverty, that her life is better now than it was, and she's not about to mess it up. So we see an intelligent calibrating of what could have become a "the past good, the future bad" dichotomy. The commander speaks the truth, loathsome as he is, about the magazines Offred loves--women in the pages of those kinds of pubs never are good enough, young, enough, pretty enough--because the magazines have to sell product. The trade off seems far worse, but yes, the point is made: social revolutions don't arise in a vacuum.

So this seems to me an interesting gloss on Atwood, who, as I remember, is more unequivocally positive about the old days to show those days as also fraught with problems and cruelties. She shows too the importance of the seemingly trivial rights women in our society have--being able, for instance, to walk boldly down the street with long strides, head held high, boots tucked into jeans.

Ellen makes a good point that the Offred of the past (our time) always appears in some sort of mechanized jungle: she is walking down a city street, or in a hotel, an office, at an amusement park. Beyond that her old existence presents as largely vacuous: she "hangs" with Moira, she goes to work, she has a lover, she bears a child she loves, she gets a latte, but she doesn't have any interests that distinguish her as an individual human in her past any more than she does in her dystopic world. Is the series saying that our world flattens women into banal stereotypes as thoroughly as the new world does? Or is Offred supposed to be "everywoman," at least educated, privileged white everywoman, in both past and future? Why does she seem so vacuous and superficial in her past life? Are we supposed to think that her lack of thinking or substance led to the dystopia? And while it's relieving to see some decent sex at the end of the episode after all the horrifyingly dehumanized sex "acts," a sad desperation drove that final connection.

And then I return to pondering that it is easier to get killed in the United States today, at least if you are black, than it is in a dystopic fiction.


  1. I find your statement that our world can be worse than that of the dystopic fiction scary but true. It's interesting that race isn't really an issue in this miniseries but just gender. I wonder how the black women are treated - we only see Offred's one black friend in bits of the film but no clear story for her. No black males are depicted, other than Offred's husband - no one black seems to be in a position of power.

  2. Tyler,
    Yes it is interesting how race doesn't factor in at all.