The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1/ Episode 2 “Birth Day” – Overview/ Review (with Spoilers)

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The more you learn about the world June was both born into and has been forced into, the more questions you have. Of which, when you think you may receive an answer, you are just left more confused.

Birthday: June, Janine

Janine is giving birth and it is shown to be quite an odd affair. For while all the handmaidens tend to their fellow maiden, especially since the births are all natural, the wives too help. However, they don’t help the pregnant one but the wife. The wife lives vicariously through the handmaiden and her friends pretend she is the one pregnant. It is all very bizarre yet also a tad heartbreaking. For you know that Janine’s mistress, Naomi [Ever Carradine], is going to likely raise the child and poor Janine will be reassigned. Leaving her knowing now that she gave birth to two children, the first being a boy named Caleb, and she’ll probably see neither ever again. [note]Also covered is Hannah’s birthday and how a woman, likely who lost her child, tried to steal her. Possibly even killed a nurse just to take what she mentally thought was her baby.[/note]

Commentary

There are layers to the way their world works, even among women, that is just amusing to me. Let’s first look at the hierarchy of women. Seemingly at the top are the barren women, somehow, who are the wives of commanders. They look down upon, outright call whores, those who can give birth. This division presents the old war strategy of divide and conquer. For on top of people having to be suspicious of one another, there is also this desire to not lose one’s own meager position of power.

I mean, just think about it. The way things are setup by the “Guardians of the Faithful,” they made the most valuable women on the bottom of the totem pole. So the wives, the barren women, always have this constant threat. There is this constant reminder that the one thing their husbands could want from them, bearing a child, they can’t do. Plus, as may be revealed soon, they may have to raise a child which is in no way theirs. Yet, they may have to pretend to do so. Adding a bit of insult to injury and planting seeds of hatred. Something which surely could prevent unity.

Though, of course, things aren’t that great for Handmaids either. Their children, no matter how many they birth, seemingly will never be theirs. They may birth them, breast feed them, get to spend some time with them, but like a Black slave in the 1800s, you can be shipped off and separated from all you know. Perhaps just on a whim.

But, with that said, it does lead you to wonder where would the Aunt Lydias and Ritas of this hierarchy be placed? Aunt Lydia seems to have more power than a commander’s wife, to me anyway, but does that mean she is of greater power? In their world, which has lasted who knows how long at this point, does a handmaiden one day become promoted to someone like aunt Lydia? Maybe even a Rita where, yeah, they maybe doing domestic work, but at least they aren’t being raped until pregnant.

There are so many questions. [note]Of which include, what religion is the “Guardians of the Faithful?” They tear down multiple Catholic churches, such as St. Paul’s and Anthony’s, yet I can’t really imagine those of a Christian faith doing such.[/note]

I Would Like To Play A Game: Commander Waterford [Joseph Fiennes], June, Ofglen [Alexis Bledel]

With Ofglen revealing she is part of some sort of spy network, she tries to recruit June. However, June doesn’t want any trouble. She is just trying to get Hannah and escape. Yet, this may be the way. Even if she just gives small time reports, maybe Ofglen’s network could find Hannah and make things easier? Well, no sooner than Ofglen reveals what she is does Nick [Max Minghella] say Commander Waterford wants to see her, alone, at 9 PM, in his room. All of which is rather against the new social norms.

I mean, a handmaiden, without the commander’s wife? Much less, in his private room where the wife doesn’t go? AT 9 PM? Ofglen thinks it would just be a blowjob or something sordid that he wants to keep secret, since who can really enjoy sex with your wife watching, but it isn’t that at all. He asks to play scrabble and doesn’t even act like an ass when he counts up the score and realizes June almost beat him. In fact, he asks to play with her again and she, taking advantage of this oddly normal interaction, gets out of him that he is going to D.C.

Commentary

You know, when it comes to situations like this, naturally you want to blame men and think the way the world is came about because of them. Yet, something about the commander makes me think that, while certainly no ally, he is just like most of the wives. He simply is making the best of an uncomfortable situation. Hence the June scrabble game. For while it isn’t necessarily clear how women get assigned, I would assume a commander got to make some choices and likely had access to information about his possible handmaidens. So with June formerly working at a publisher, perhaps that was something he considered desirable. For it could very well be his wife was forced upon him due to politics, so to choose a woman who maybe mentally stimulating might have been the goal there.

Which I say mostly because, again, he wasn’t an ass about her coming close to beating him. In fact, I think he liked the fact they had a normal moment when she wasn’t being overly submissive and he felt like he was dealing with an actual person. But it does make you wonder, what would happen if his wife found out? Nick was the one who provided the direction to go to the commander’s chambers, seems to perhaps like June, so would he use what he knows against her? For, lest we forget, somewhere in that household is a member of The Eye. So with June revealing herself to be smarter than some may think, she could end up with the rest of the academics who seemingly were all sent to the colonies.

I Am Ofglen: June

Something has happened to Oflgen. Suddenly, without warning, a new woman has assumed her name and it is completely unclear what happened to the woman June once knew. However, considering Ofglen has been a bit too open perhaps about being a “carpet muncher” and her past life, maybe someone overheard something?

Commentary

Again, there is a real need to understand how things work here and I swear to you, like The Color Purple and most recently IT, I feel driven to read the book. If only because, to maintain this sense of mystery, I feel like most of the answers I crave will only be given in measured spoonfuls. All of which will still leave this insatiable first and leave me clawing for more.

Collected Quote(s)

To want is to have a weakness.

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1 COMMENT

  1. As someone who has read the novel multiple times (and seen the 1990 movie adaptation), I’m finding it fascinating to read the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the original text… someone who considers the overall story arc mysterious and for whom each development of the plot will come as something of a surprise… it takes me back to how I felt when I first read the novel.

    I’m naturally approaching the Hulu series with certain preconceived notions with regards to how the story should unfold and how the world is depicted, one can’t help but make comparisons when one is familiar with the source material of an adaptation.

    It is interesting that the Hulu series has retained the non-linear, stream-of-consciousness method of storytelling that the novel used, and has tried to incorporate the main character’s internal monologues into voice over narration. Much of the suspense in the book is derived from this, and there are passages where June comes across as an “unreliable narrator” who may be lying, speculating or delusional as a result of trauma. I will be interested to see how the series handles the parts of June’s story that Margaret Atwood’s novel left deliberately ambiguous.

    However, the series has changed many aesthetic details of how this regime is organised in order to “modernise” the story, so the technology, costumes and sets are subtly different… and in order to accomodate racial diversity in the casting, they have changed the policies of the ruling government, who in the novel are white-supremacists that have a plan to systematically eliminate all Jews, Blacks and people of colour.

    The Hulu series also makes the questionable decision of casting younger and more physically attractive actors in key roles, and I’m disappointed that a series so brave in other ways panders to the prevailing TV bias that the leads must always be attractive… for instance, Joseph Fiennes plays The Commander, in the 1990 film adaptation he was played by the considerably older and less attractive Robert Duvall.

    The 1990 movie version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes a lot of liberties with the story (re-ordering the events of the plot so they occur in chronological order, cutting out all the flashbacks to “the time before”, removing the internal monologues and racking on an unambiguous happy ending)… but it is more faithful to Atwood’s novel in terms of casting and in it’s visual depiction of this future world. Generally the cast are less conventionally attractive, a little bit older and of the same ethnicity that they were in the novel
    (the 1990 movie of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stars Natasha Richardson in the title role, with Faye Dunaway as Serena, Elizabeth McGovern as Moira, Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia and Aidan Quinn as Nick)
    The film was directed by a German filmmaker, Volker Schlondorff and he depicts the inner workings of a fascist society with chilling precision and he doesn’t avoid the issue of racism the way that Hulu’s series does… The Commander openly expresses his racist beliefs to the heroine during their meetings in his study and the way that Schlondorff directs Robert Duvall to deliver various bigoted comments in a casual way makes them all the more sinister…. Schlondorff’s film also contains propagandistic “news footage” which shows Jews and Blacks being “deported”… the 1990 movie version also shows various racist characters who survive in the novel being killed by the heroic resistance in a very humiliating manner and Schlondorff’s camera seems to relish in showing these bigoted fascists get their just desserts. Literary purists tend to scoff at these scenes but I have to admit, I found it satisfying to watch these racist, sexist, homophobic, fundamentalist jerks pay for their crimes against humanity – something that is only IMPLIED in the novel.

    I hope you do read the novel and see the 1990 movie after you’ve watched this show, it contains most of the answers to your questions above, but many are cast in an ambiguous light.

    I’ll just say in response to your question about what religion rules Gilead… it is basically a fictional religious movement that combines all the worst elements of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam and Judaism… hence why pretty much all present day religions are depicted as the enemies of this new, future religion.

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