Under the Eye: “Unfit”

I wonder if this is Gilead right here. Three Aunts at a table with a Lazy Susan spinning around. Busy-bodies in con-fab naming names, and discussing “trouble” handmaids like Ofjoseph. This might be Gilead. Lydia sits in concert with other middle-aged women of her ilk with their files and their folders. Despite this “revelation,” this is one of worst episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale I’ve yet seen. This is the fabled Lydia episode everybody seemed to be waiting for. I had my own ideas about Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) going back to the first season. I remember painting a very rudimentary picture; that of a lonely woman who smokes and drinks in a one-room apartment and has nothing but a sick dog to care for when Gilead captures the world. I didn’t see her as a devout, bible verse-quoting Christian.

If she had a job in the before-time, it was probably something along the lines of caring for the elderly like a Nurse’s Aid or a home attendant. She’s the only member of her extended family to not have married or have children so, consequently, she spends her night smoking, drinking, eating microwave meals (when she would rather bake her own bread) and watching MacGyver. She’s Patty and Selma rolled into one. She drinks warm beer and sits in a folding lawn chair in the middle of shabby, decrepit room. That’s how I saw it. Boy, was I wrong. The Lost-style flashbacks do nothing for Gilead world-building, but it is a strange world we see. I wonder if this is how the majority of atheists or irreligious see the world around them. This is a world before Gilead, but making baby steps toward the brutal, indifferent theocracy we will come to know and love.

Lydia is a teacher in, what looks like, a public school. I see no crosses or pictures of Jesus. This is a world of dancing and karaoke and “Islands in the Stream,” so it must be our world, but there seems to be an abundance of religious iconography and discussion. Of course, I could be getting all of this wrong, and this is merely another case of the “Unreliable Narrator.” This may be the story Lydia tells about herself, how she looks at herself, how she lives with herself. As Lydia waits with a boy after school for an absentee (read: “terrible”) mother, she trades Bible verses with co-worker/boss, Principal Jim (John Ortiz), who expresses some kind of interest in her other than professional. When “terrible” mother Noelle (Emily Althaus) finally shows, Lydia invites her and her child for a dinner of chili.

You can tell Lydia is judging her and deeming her to be “unfit” based on the idea that if she has to work late, she doesn’t care for her child, which is a really stupid way to write a character. In my view, Lydia would know (or at the very least, understand) the burdens of single parents, but the writers need her to be closed-minded, otherwise they can’t justify her sadism later in Gilead’s life. They also need her to be dangerously unstable from jumpstreet. Jim asks Lydia on a date and suddenly we have a John Hughes movie with Noelle introducing Lydia to the concept of makeup and hair styles. Lydia goes on the aforementioned karaoke date with Jim. Later, they go back to her place where he makes his move. I’m not quite sure what happens, but Jim seems humiliated, so maybe he had a booster rocket misfire or something.

After Jim makes a swift exit, Lydia flips out and destroys her bathroom mirror. Why? Was it something she said or did? If Jim got too excited, believe me, that’s a good thing for an aging, childless woman. I hate to generalize, but a woman did write this episode, and all writing is autobiographical to a point. Did she base this on a real experience, or did she simply write the reverse to accommodate Lydia’s mental fragility? We get no time to dwell on Lydia’s choices (Lydia always had a choice) thus there’s justification in her past to excuse the decisions she’ll make later in life. The “religious” angle is anti-intellectual lip-service, seemingly from immature writers who don’t understand the “Christian” heart. My mother worked late. She was also a struggling single parent.

She left me in the charge of a Nun who not only taught me piano, but encouraged my early writing efforts. She was one of the sweetest, kindest women I’ve ever known. If God’s work is to help others, she was doing it. I don’t know if that makes me biased, but I’m not a religious man. When I was reading up on filmmaker Todd Haynes, he described himself as “irreligious.” I looked it up. Neglectful of religion : lacking religious emotions, doctrines, or practices : indicating lack of religion. I like that. Based on Noelle’s gentle encouragement (I have to assume this, because it’s never stated) and advice for a successful date with Jim, Lydia decides to take the offensive. She reports that Noelle is an unfit mother and, almost immediately (and unbelievably), the child is taken away. The writer believes that if you report an “unfit” parent, the State comes in and takes the child away (based on a person’s subjective statements). It doesn’t work like that.

In the final analysis, we have Aunt Lydia in Gilead, attempting to twist the knife on June and make her publicly accountable for the death of the Martha from the previous episode, “Under His Eye.” She engages the other handmaids in torment sessions akin to Lord of the Flies and Full Metal Jacket. Conversely, June leads the handmaids in torment sessions for Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) because of her role in ratting out June, which led to the Martha’s execution. Sea change: this show hates women! Ofmatthew finally snaps in the Loaves & Fishes and, for no reason other than her presence as a punching bag, beats the shit out of Janine, smashes a jar over a Guardian’s head, grabs his gun and points it at June. June smiles at her like the evil little shit she is. Ofmatthew turns the gun on Lydia, but is taken down by a Guardian’s bullet.

So why are we so hard on June? She’s a victim like everybody else. Whether you’re a slave of Gilead; a conscription, employee, or authority figure, you are a victim of Gilead, the Ideal and the Progress. If we’ve learned anything in the past two years, the one inescapable truth is that Gilead (or any concept) does not achieve power through terrorism. Gilead is in men’s (and women’s) hearts. Gilead is achieved in silence and fear. Look at what’s happened to us in 18 months? We didn’t need guns and executions. All we needed was fear. My biggest issue with June is that everything she does is in service to herself, not other women, not even her daughter. She doesn’t care about Gilead and what it does to women. All she wants to do is grab her daughter and flee to Canada. Let God, as it were, sort it out. Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

That’s how Gilead starts.

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