The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1/ Episode 8 “Jezebels” – Recap/ Review (with Spoilers)

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Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford asking if June is ready for some excitement.
Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford asking if June is ready for some excitement.

Would it be wrong, if not odd, to say I was a bit bored by “Jezebel?” Granted, we got another character’s background story and saw someone from June’s past, but I found it difficult to be excited or engaged. To help understand why, look below.

The Life and Times of Nick Blaine: Nick, June

Before the formation of Gilead, Nick didn’t have the best life. Due to family issues, he had a hard time holding a job and seemed sort of aimless. However, that was before meeting Commander Pryce and learning about the Sons of Jacob. [note] What likely is the name of the group which took over America and renamed it Gilead.[/note] Through Pryce, Nick got his driving job. The one he has been doing for years. On top of that, Pryce is the one who assigned him to be an eye. One which is supposed to watch over Fred’s household.

Something which he does, but it isn’t clear what he says and who he would even report to. For while even commanders aren’t above the law, we learn they are allowed discretions. Heck, even Nick takes advantage of his position to trade drugs, pregnancy tests, and more [note]With a woman who looks like the original Offred who hanged herself. Also, a woman who Nick seems to have a thing with[/note]. All of which June doesn’t see, but with her knowing so little about Nick, she wonders if he is happy? Could this life he lives really be enough for him? An idea Nick, with his dead in the eye look, may not have truly thought about.

Commentary

Elisabeth Moss as June (Offred) asking Nick if his life is enough for him?
Elisabeth Moss as June (Offred) asking Nick if his life is enough for him?

You know, watching Nick’s storyline reminded me how much presence is importance when it comes to acting. There isn’t a need to be like Aunt Lydia to control a room. June shows this often just by looking indirectly at the camera, often with the same blank look Nick has. Yet, Moss has something you don’t see in _. Which I think was part of the reason I was lulled into complacency for this episode. For really, what reason is there to invest in Nick?

Granted, he is part of The Eye, but even Rita seems more interesting than him. He is like a shadow on a wall, a fitting member of an observer organization. Making for Nick deciding to break things off with June a welcomed end. Especially if that means he can get pushed back into his little room over the garage space. Alongside him just weirdly, almost in an uninterested way, watching everyone.

Never Trust Janine: June, Moira, Fred

Samira Wiley (Moira) embracing June in the women's bathroom after their chance meeting.
Samira Wiley (Moira) embracing June in the women’s bathroom after their chance meeting.

While the wife is away, Fred likes to play. So, the day before Serena Joy is due to return from seeing her mother, he asks June to doll herself. Reason being, they are going to what looks like a swingers party. Well, a swingers party or what I’d imagine the Playboy Club looked like in the 70s or 80s. In this place, somewhere near Boston, are the Jezebels. These women, seemingly too smart and unable to adhere to the wife of a Martha, wife, or Handmaiden, are purely for pleasure. Be it conversation or sexual.

Of these women, we see Moira who is alive and well. Albeit, her spirit is broken now and she hasn’t any new intentions of escaping, but with all the food, booze, and drugs she wants, she is happy. Well, as happy as a trapped sex worker can be.

Leading you to probably wonder: What happened? Well, Moira did get to Boston and was working her way through the Femaleroad [note]The new underground railroad[/note] but her coyote, for a lack of a better term, got caught. Alongside that, she was caught, interrogated, punished and told it was either the colonies or jezebels. So, here she is with a bunch of former CEOs, journalist, and also a handful of professors.

But, we can’t move onto the commentary without bringing Fred more into this. The man who helped craft the Handmaid laws with Commander Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown) and Guthrie (Christian Lloyd) seemingly is a regular to this club. Well, at least her was with the old Offred it seems. In fact, perhaps the main thing worth noting from digging into Nick’s past is how it seems the fault of the former Offred’s death lies squarely on Fred. As for the whys and what was the final straw? Well, maybe that will be the focus of the season will build to. What was the reason the former Offred couldn’t deal with the Waterfords anymore?

 

Amanda Brugel (Rita) as she discovers the former Offred has hanged herself.
Amanda Brugel (Rita) as she discovers the former Offred has hanged herself.

 

Commentary

I was excited to see the title “Jezebels” for the episode but, I gotta admit, outside of seeing Moira, I’m kind of disappointed. For while how sinister Fred was acting was making my skin crawl, nothing really came out of it. He was simply horny and wanted to have sex with June without Nick or Rita around, so it seems. He wanted June to be allowed to be vocal and perhaps really stroke his ego. However, at this point, I think June is using sex as leverage. Maybe, to a certain degree, to feel alive, but mostly as an insurance policy.

After all, with the way laws and society is, who else is Fred or Nick going to get to sleep with? For while Nick is a member of The Eye, as he notes, no one is above the law. So, in a way, while June can’t probably testify against a man, she gains some power by sleeping with these men – willingly. But, while the quest for survival is clearly killing June inside, it does push the question of who is next? Which character shall we look at the past life of next week? I’m hoping for Rita or Aunt Lydia. For while I know Fred’s episode is around the corner, I’m enjoying learning about him in bits and pieces. I think that is better for the character than a Nick or even Luke styled, episode.

With that said, I’d love to learn more about the Sons of Jacob in one sitting. For if there is one thing about Fred I wouldn’t mind focused on, in his inevitable episode, is the formation of Gilead vs. him specifically. Especially the fall of America and rise of Gilead.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. RE: “Is this it? Is this enough for you, this bullshit life?”

    Is it enough for June / Offred? Doesn’t seem like it was enough for the former Offred. Seems, from your description, that June / Offred is desperate to find a kindred spirit. Either that or she is trying to find a way to make herself valuable enough to someone to, as you say, gain a bit of leverage. The promise is something beyond the mundane rut – excitement.

    That one was given a choice between the colonies or the Jezebels – what was that choice exactly! What was one choosing between? If June / Offred said that she did not want to go with Fred to see the Jezebels – could she say no? Reading between the lines, June’s / Offred’s fate is seen by the authorities as being better than the Jezebels – or they would not hold it up as a punishment for wayward handmaids.

    If June could change places with Nick, would she? In her eyes, how does his life compare to hers?

  2. I fear that my previous comments, in which I said that The Jezebels scenes were the most shocking and dramatically powerful moments for me when I read the novel for the first time, have contributed to your sense of disappointment… though I must say, as a fan of the novel, I’m also disappointed by some of the development here….

    I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, when I was 16 – which was probably too young to properly comprehend all the pertinent themes of the text – both personal and political. But at the time, I took a kind of pride in tackling stories considered beyond my age range. Perhaps my youthful naïveté was part of why I found the Jezebels sequence to be such a dramatic punch in the gut when I read it for the first time.

    What I found shocking about the Jezebels scenes was not the blatant drugs and sex on display, or the way in which it showed a defeated Moira, hinting that maybe she never really was the heroic character June thought she was (maybe June was just projecting her own wish-fulfilment fantasy in her earlier characterisation of Moira?)

    No, what shocked me about The Jezebels scene was the hypocrisy it exposed. Not just the full extent of Fred’s hypocrisy (which was foreshadowed with his earlier half-assed rationalisations for reading forbidden books and fraternising with the staff) but the institutionalised, systematic hypocrisy of the regime itself… that preaches the importance of maintaining wholesome, traditional family values, that extols the virtue of pious self-denial… whilst allowing select members of the ruling elite to indulge in all the pleasurable vices forbidden to the general population. That such hypocrisy could be so deeply rooted in the system that a large portion of its members perceive such double standards as perfectly normal astounded me.

    Perhaps, if I had read the book for the first time when I was older, knowing what I know now, then these scenes would not have had such impact…. now I know of the way in which high-ranking members of the Catholic Church sought to cover up paedophiles in their midst… or the actions of real life hypocrites such as Ted Haggard, who like Fred Waterford, preached about the importance of wholesome traditional values whilst behaving in a very promiscuous and ungodly way in his spare time.

    The rest of your complaints about this episode I’d say are symptomatic of the general “leave no stone unturned” approach the writers have taken to adapting a very short novel into a 10 hour long season of TV.

    Pretty much everything you see about Nick in this episode is made up for this series… the book said nothing about Nick’s childhood, who is parents were or how he came to be working for the Waterfords.

    The novel leaves Nick’s true allegiances unknown and his feelings for June ambiguous… is he an agent of the resistance or merely a corrupt government employee? Does he love June or is he just using her?

    When I read the book, I had a much less charitable interpretation of Nick’s character than the Hulu scriptwriters. I also imagined a much more badass backstory for him than the stereotypical juvenile delinquent led astray schtick they’ve come up with here. I imagined him as a sociopath who made his living as a con artist in the time before and when he found himself stuck in Gilead and conscripted into the Eyes, decided to become a double agent – playing both the resistance and the establishment for his own benefit.

    It doesn’t help that I’m also comparing it to the movie…

    Do you have a strong opinion of Aidan Quinn as an actor?

    I thought Quinn had what you call “presence” as Nick… he could be charming, but often with a darkly smarmy undercurrent and there were times he came across as a physically threatening player. He had the posture, mannerisms and movement that immediately says “this guy is career military and you don’t wanna mess with him”… something I can’t say when I look at Max Minghella. Fine actor though he is, when I first heard of his casting I was sceptical… he seemed too young, and lacking the physical prowess that the role of Nick requires. I’m sure though Minghella is trying hard to capture the emotional turmoil of the character, he just lacks the necessary menace, allure and physicality… qualities that Aidan Quinn had in spades in the late-80s, even if he wasn’t the most sophisticated thespian on the planet….

    perhaps you’d be better qualified to judge the sex appeal of 1990-Quinn versus 2017-Minghella (I’m a straight male) but one thing June remarks upon in the book is that Nick is really attractive and she finds his musculature very impressive (she also later admonishes herself for being so shallow). But physical attraction and the yearning for a real emotional connection is a large part of what drives June into Nicks arms again and again… and I can’t help but feel perhaps this is another area where Minghella might fall short.

    But yeah…

    …generally I feel that “The Handmaid’s Tale” could’ve been told in three or four hours… but ten is overkill and it results in padding like this episode.

    • I’ll admit, you did have me a bit jazzed about the Jezebels since I was really thinking they could be a rebel group of some kind. Well, one which had weight and wasn’t mentioned once or twice and never heard about again. But I think the main reason I was very meh about that whole thing was because I’m desensitized.

      I pretty much grew up on HBO and came up in the era of violent and sexual content being part of acclaimed media. So to shock me would require something beyond this. Something beyond even what we saw in the torture porn of the 00s. Making the sort of playboy club atmosphere, that I guess was nodded to with Moira’s ears, didn’t do much.

      Even in terms of hypocrisy, it was made clear from the get go that this whole change in society was about male ego. Family values is a well known code word for the man being head of the household and the woman disenfranchised. It, to me, is about going back to when women were property, didn’t really pursue divorce, and put up with whatever vices their man had because they had no other options. So all the sex club did was show how much of a liar Fred is and hint at what maybe pushed old Offred over the edge. For something tells me he took her to that club and something happened. The type of thing a person can’t mentally recover from.

      As for Quinn vs. Minghella, I feel the need to push up watching the movie version because I am seeing your point that 9-10 hours is leading to too much fluff. I think it is beneficial to the actors, since they can really discover and settle into their characters, but as you noted before, there is a balance being pursued here.

      With this show, there is just as much an investment in its talent as there is modernizing the story. Now, the addition of Moira and Luke living I realize are because of tax credits, since I think this films in Canada and they have diversity quotas. That’s fine. However, the way you describe the book, I do feel they watered things down, made characters a bit more to the appeal of modern audiences, and it took away from the impact the book had.

      Like, I constantly think of what you said in regards to June being a unreliable lead and put it next to Elliot in Mr. Robot. I keep wanting to think, what if she is making up these back stories to fill in the blanks? Could there be a grand “GOT YA!” coming up? But I think between your comments and that initial high, that is the main thing keeping me hyped about this show.

      • You know… now I’m worried that my comments are hyping up the 1990 movie too much… you should know before you watch it that the film was both a critical and commercial failure. Most people don’t like it as much as I do….. and come to think of it, I didn’t realise myself just how much I really liked the movie until I started reading your blog and you noted all the things this series is doing wrong.

        I used to regard the movie as something of a disappointment. Basically I felt that it suffered from being too short, rushing through certain plot points, only providing the bare minimum of world-building exposition and tacking on a happy ending…. but reading your blog has helped me realise that for all its faults, the movie was still more faithful to the book in terms of characterisation (casting older and less glamorous actors – who tended to play the parts less sympathetically) and politics (the white supremacist agenda of the regime is still there along with other social injustices that the series has glossed over). Plus, being made only five years after the book was published means the “future technology” depicted in the film has the same “retro” feel as much of the book.

        But still, like I said…. Don’t go into the movie with high hopes based on my words, most people hate it…..

        For many years I held out hope that one day someone would adapt “The Handmaid’s Tale” to TV, because a TV series wouldn’t be bound by the time constraints of a movie, they could cover all the plot and really delve deep into the emotions of the characters… and now my wish has come true….

        Goes to show you should be careful what you wish for…

        To be fair to this series, a “watered down” version still says a lot of important things about the insidious appeal of authoritarianism, how extremist ideologies manipulate the populace and the twisted ways in which prejudice can be rationalised. There is still more thematic complexity and intellectual ambition in Hulu’s series than in most television being produced these days.

        If the writers had not been willing to compromise the characterisation in order to appeal to a modern audience, simplified the politics in order to accomodate diversity quotas (and associated tax breaks) – then it’s quite likely the series would never have been produced at all… and even if an uncompromised version was produced, it would likely have flopped just as badly as the movie did.

        Flaws and all, I think this series surely does deserve some points for effort, and maybe that’s something I should’ve said earlier.

        I doubt that all these added scenes will be revealed as figments of June’s imagination (though that would be in keeping with the novel)… I think it’s just accomodating the long TV format…. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rita and Cora get a “day in the limelight” episode next, especially if the rumours online about a second season are true (in which case they’ll be on their own, because as it stands they’ve nearly run out of stuff from the book to adapt).

        • Do you think this would have been better as an event series like HBO has done, or how Netflix adapted A Series of Unfortunate Events?

          • I think “The Handmaid’s Tale” would’ve been a great four hour TV miniseries. That is enough time, I think, to cover all the major plot points of the novel and provide sufficient background information.

            As I’ve said before, there was a very good BBC Radio adaptation of around that length. The script for that dramatisation was dynamic enough that it could probably have been used for a TV series… the way it divided the events of the story into “present day” and “flashback” sequences, whilst keeping the focus on June makes it my preferred adaptation despite the lack of a visual element…. the movie is too short and explains too little… the series is too long and explains too much… although I paid close attention to each adaptation anyway. Probably because there are some great actors doing damn fine work in each adaptation.

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