Under the Eye: “Pigs”

There’s a war of a thousand cuts when atrocities unravel and we get used to them. We understand tyranny, death, violence, and infinity, but we don’t fight it. We don’t fight infinity any more than we fight the change of seasons. There was snow on the ground, and then it went away and the flowers came back. This is life. Life is change, birth, death, and then rebirth again. Remember the old definition of insanity? “Extreme foolishness or irrationality.” No. That’s not the definition of insanity. Foolishness is foolishness; the act of playing the fool, to be a fool. Insanity is something else. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” That’s better. Insanity is stagnation. Gilead surges on, like some great stagnant inevitability.

In the first images of “Pigs,” the fourth season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re treated to “I Say a Little Prayer” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Aretha Franklin, not Dionne Warwick (which is what I’m used to) as June (Elisabeth Moss) is being carried out of the woods after having been shot by Guardians during the children’s escape to Canada. It’s a great song. Singular. Kind of a gospel love song with a feminist slant. It makes me think of My Best Friend’s Wedding, which was a decent romantic comedy. I don’t know what it has to do with June, or being shot, but there it is. Yet another inappropriate needle drop. It seemed like a lifetime ago that June was transformed into a Holy Roman Saint, the “finder of lost children, the redeemer,” but it wasn’t.

It was last night and we will continue to see the consequences of her actions (how Gilead frames those actions) and we will, as we are want to do, be tortured alongside June for rescuing children from insanity. The problem is nobody can identify the insanity because it’s become normal for them. This is the “new normal,” isn’t it? Like lockdowns, and masks, and quarantines, and camps. It’s normal, and you become abnormal for questioning it. June and the surviving handmaids are taken to a comparatively safe house (more like a safe farm, but I guess we’ll have to get into that eventually) run by a disturbingly unsettled commander’s wife named Esther (McKenna Grace) who is all of 15 years of age. She’s a little girl with an old man for a husband. Based on the editing, it seems that June recovers in less than a week, but we know it has to be longer than that.

Either way, the minute she achieves consciousness, there’s trouble, and it’s mainly from Esther, who assumes June is some kind of a mythological hero. Well she is 15, so we can’t blame her. One other little factoid: she’s batshit crazy. Like, on the order of Janine in the first few episodes after she lost her eye. Esther expects June will be their Moses, parting the Red Sea and seeing her flock to Canadian safety. June tells her, “Someone your age should never need to be this brave.” This sets off Esther, and she goes bipolar in a hurry, telling her she suspects June is a coward, which she might very well be. I suspect June is more an instigator than a coward. She follows an easy path of convenience and opportunity when it comes to her selective bouts of bravery, but I don’t expect her to be a hero the way Esther does.

McKenna Grace is an astonishingly good young actress. I totally buy her trauma and her mood swings, as sometimes she’ll play the part sweetly, full of youth and energy, and other times sullen, browbeaten, and worldly. I can’t believe this is the same young lady from the recent Ghostbusters movie. Bizarre subplots litter this episode. Starting with Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) adoption of a large pig she has named Mr. Darcy. She is required to slaughter the pig to feed the handmaids, and is then shamed by Esther for not eating the meat. I really wish people would leave Janine alone. Does she have a “kick me” sign on her back or something? Meanwhile Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) has spent 19 days being tortured and interrogated after the children escaped. While she indicts June as a “Delilah” (which I don’t understand), to her credit she defends the other handmaids for being stupid enough to follow June. Thanks for that, Lyds.

Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) has spent his 19 days growing out his beard. He is visited by Nick, who keeps thanking him for his service. It seems there was a trial and sentencing is expected to be handed down very soon. Lawrence, ever the skilled manipulator, offers Nick some advice with regard to either waging war or suing for peace in exchange for leniency. Nick leaves, but not before once again thanking Lawrence for his service. He returns a short while later and leads Lawrence to a room with a chair. It isn’t what you think. A barber is there to give his Santa beard a nice trim. It seems the Commanders like his advice. They seek his input on a possible offensive in Chicago.

Tuello (Sam Jaeger) mediates a dispute between Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). This is something I don’t understand. Why don’t we just take them around back and put two behind their ears? Are they still valuable at this point? They’re shocked at the news that June had rescued the children and brought them safely to Canada. They believe this will start a war. A war that could kill those children? That’s about right for Gilead. As Charles Manson once said, “No sense makes sense.” I thought about Esther’s estimation of June and I wrote these words in my notes: “We’ve been witness to remarkable atrocity, but no one dared to fight. What do we know of true courage? We know nothing.” I understand trauma, but I also understand that the mind is always at work inventing stories to fill in the gaps we can’t remember.

Esther tells June that her decrepit, senile husband organized gang-rapes of his bride by Guardians. I have a hard time believing this because June later meets this man, and he doesn’t seem capable. He’s not a Fred. He’s not a Commander Refrigerator Humper. He’s more like a helpless old man, and he seems frightened of his young wife. June chooses to believe Esther, perhaps for no other reason than that she’s scared of her and her propensity for violence. When a Guardian is caught trespassing, Esther tells June this is one of the men who raped her. The handmaids, with the exception of June, all take turns beating him. June advises Esther to move the proceedings to the barn, where the man is tied to a post. June gives Esther a knife and says to her, “Make me proud.” She walks out, leaving Esther and the handmaids to kill him. June lies down. It’s been a big day for her.

Esther, covered in blood, lies down next to June in a grotesque perversion of a Madonna and Child painting. I know this is supposed to be a serious, somber moment, but there’s no way that blood is coming off those sheets. This is one of those times when it’s appropriate and essential to punish your child. So, here we are at the fourth season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale. How long can this show possibly go on? This season promises be just as insane as the previous seasons with even more scenes of lavish cruelty. It’s the one quality this show promises and always delivers on. Cruelty. Torture. Punishment. All within the context of an unbelievable dystopia. That’s why they call it science fiction and not science eventuality. It’s been an excruciatingly long year, and I can’t say I’m glad to be back reviewing this show, but it is a decent palate cleanser after the umpteenth Star Trek or movie review.

Incidentally, you can find more of my work at Second Union.

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