Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale: episode six: nothing to lose but their chains?

As others have commented, this episode ends a more upbeat note, but the framing continues to be quite dark. 

One dark moment comes when the Commander (Fred) demands a kiss from Offred as a pure power play, not a matter of erotic desire. Sex is again used openly to punish and control.

Offred and the Commander: it's all about power. (I couldn't find a still of the two kissing.)

He is at angry at her for not focusing her attention on him in his study. He has privileged her by inviting her into this sanctum where his wife does not enter. But this evening Offred is disinterested in him. She does not adequately play her role of an adoring handmaid grateful for the favor of his company. 

So he dismisses her abruptly for not being attentive enough to him. This means she will have to return to her room, where she has nothing to do but sit around. She is forbidden to read. She also knows that for him to perform sexually, very important as she now is having sex with Nick, he needs to be in emotional relationship with her. She may be killed if it becomes obvious that the sperm impregnating her is not Fred's. Moreover, to be protected by the victimization of his wife, she needs his patronage.

We see her, in a raw, painful moment, with her back to him, her hand on the study's door handle. The camera moves in on her face, showing her chokingly intense struggle to compose herself. We see what it costs her to force herself, by sheer dint of will, to overcome her revulsion against the lies she must tell to survive and her desire to assert her independence. At what is clearly a shattering soul cost, she manages  to compose her face and turn around to grovel to him, begging him to let her stay. He can't see her face during her struggle, but he must sense her inner battle in the time she spends at the door, and he must intuit what it costs her to swallow her pride and perform abjectly.

This scene reminded me of one in Sophie's Choice, where the young daughter of the Nazi family with which Sophie is staying as a servant discovers she has a radio. If the parents find out, it will mean death for Sophie, and we witness her throwing herself on her knees, begging this little girl not to betray her. In this case it works, as the little girl likes having power over a grown woman. In the story of Inkle and Yarico, Yarico's only hope is also abjection: she begs on her knees for him not to sell into slavery, but in this case it doesn't work. 

Offred's abjection does not engender any sympathy in the Commander. Instead, he is determined to punish her. He makes her kiss him with her tongue in his mouth, as if she wants to, because he can. He thus communicates his power over her. He can force her to that. It is a form of rape, but a form of rape or coerced oral sex in which he insists, as he can't in the Ceremony, that she further degrade herself by pretending she likes it. She does it as part of an implicit bargain that he'll let her stay in the room. But once he forces the humiliating concession, he dismisses her--because he can. This is Orwell's boot in the face. I do agree with Ellen that his power--he has too much power--corrupts him. When we see Offred violently brushing her teeth afterwards and spitting into the sink, this conveys that she understands the extent of her degradation and underscores that this act was a proxy for the oral sex he wouldn't let his wife perform. I wonder now if in refusing his wife's gesture he was not rejecting her sexually but attempting to shield her from humiliation. I give the series credit for creating him as a complex character.

Serena Joy: the backstory shows how the regime change she worked for as a powerful woman led to her chains.

This coerced kiss acted as the counterpart to the powerful scene in which Offred tells the ambassador--and summarizes for us as an audience who have witnessed it--the truth about the abuse, enslavement and degradation she and the other handmaids have suffered. At this point,  Offred  can't pretend anymore. Her summary is direct and harrowing, and yet the ambassador's dehumanizing response is very real: too often the "greater good" and "dire need" arguments are used to justify unneeded cruelty. The series cries out between the lines that it doesn't have to be this way. Fertile women can provide children to a society without having to be enslaved and forced to play a part in a sick, twisted fantasy. When you view events from the subaltern perspective, you long to shake the ambassador and say to her, you can achieve your goals without throwing away these women's lives.

The ambassador is no different from Aunt Lydia: she offers sweet talk and some chocolates, but will do nothing to help the handmaids. There's talk and there's walk ...

I found the serendipity of the ambassador's assistant just happening to know Luke and to know who June (Offred) a bit much, at the same time noting that serendipities like that do occur in real life. We all have only, at most, five degrees of separation from most other people on the planet and all that ... but still. However, the hope that Offred can be in touch with Luke  does move the plot in a more hopeful direction. We also now know that the handmaids are more important than we thought: they do have power if they can only realize it, and nothing to lose but their chains. The regime can't kill them, as they are the only commodity it has to shore up their collapsing currency.

As an aside, I initially thought the Mexicans wanting to trade for handmaids a completely new twist on the novel, but I began rereading it and realized the seeds of that plot are embedded in the original: a  Japanese woman tourist asks Offred if she is happy. I recognize that the novel also problematizes our time/culture by emphasizing that ours is a world in which a woman has to very careful, where date rape occurs, and where male power poses a different kind of threat.

I appreciate this series for, as does Man in the High Castle, showing us life from the subaltern point of view, not glamorizing violence and depicting how degrading coerced sex is. I wonder if the entrance of two powerful series told from "below" in the last six months indicates, an awareness that this is the reality for a growing number of Americans. 


  1. Well, I have to say I read the scene in which the Commander refuses his wife's "help" in getting an erection as a simple rejection. It didn't occur to me that he was feeling pity for her, although there is plenty of self-loathing under the surface of the Commander's character. Also in this episode we were treated to a glimpse of Mr and Mrs Commander before the revolution, as a couple of over-achieving yuppies desperately in love. The episode begins with Nick and Offred having "real" sex; later on, we get to see that Mr and Mrs C also had a normal sex life at one point. It seems that these characters have a lot in common -- each is trapped in different ways by the social and sexual roles they are required perform, each missing some vital part of their identity. This was a great episode for Serena Joy, who manages to simultaneously disavow her previous career as feminist author and show herself to be real brains of outfit at the banquet with the Mexicans, sealing the trade deal by showcasing "the children of Gilead." Her calculation mirrors the calculation you describe when Offred decides to beg the Commander to stay. Both women are making difficult choices for survival, and each are paying tremendous costs.

  2. I think what makes the commander an interesting character is that he can be read in so many different ways.

  3. I had not taken into account the scene where Offred is asked to leave and then stands before the door unwilling to return to nothingness in the dark, steels herself to ask to stay and to accept and appear to want this commander's caresses. Yes from that angle this is a form of rape, a raped kiss.

    Yes another aspect of the softening is to show us the original relationship of the commander and his wife: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.

    On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump's utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn't vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

  4. Ellen, agreed. I think many of us have felt helpless since the Iraq war.

  5. Ellen, agreed. I think many of us have felt helpless since the Iraq war.