Under the Eye: “Milk”

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go! I can’t help but be merry as I join June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) in their escape. Janine has second thoughts. She wants to go back and see if the others are all right. June, having eyes in the back of her head, tells Janine the others are pretty much worm food. Rage already grows in Janine, but she doesn’t dare tip her hand, and when she does, she will be smacked down because in the hierarchy of tormented characters, there is Job and then several meters lower, there is Janine. It is in this episode, oddly titled “Milk,” that we finally get Janine’s backstory. There is a change in characterization from the first few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale where Janine is shown to have a bit of an attitude before, and some time after, her eye is plucked out.

In this episode (in the before-time), she’s a sweet if dense young woman. June convinces her to keep running; to press west and find Chicago where Gilead will make its stand against the resistance (if there is a resistance). June lies to Janine telling her, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” They actually run in those ridiculous handmaid get-ups, and now I understand the design. They don’t lend well to escape, as would say a jumpsuit. These are big, billowy gowns. They certainly think of everything in Gilead, don’t they? They come across a stopped train and climb into a milk tanker, which is a quaint throwback from 1930’s England. It’s a strange, somewhat unclean way to transport milk and it was abolished some sixty years ago, but Gilead brings it back in full force.

This is going to do wonders for their skin, but I won’t make any claims as to the milk’s flavor. June and Janine submerge themselves in the milk so they won’t be seen when a Guardian comes around to shut the conveniently-placed hatch. The hatch is then locked to keep the milk from escaping. Runaway milk is the second biggest problem in Gilead. June finds a release valve and empties the tanker. Nobody notices this? Nobody notices that hundreds of gallons of milk are being emptied? In Canada, Rita (Amanda Brugel) is summoned to speak with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), who tells her she is pregnant and wants Rita to help her take care of the child. I begin to think about hate, the notion of hate and how it works. Rita is a character that has (very) quietly evolved in a brief time.

In earlier seasons, she was an implement; just a tool and a pin cushion, as well as an outlet Serena could use to act out her frustrations. Serena is nice to her, which makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It isn’t the kind of “nice” you’d expect in a human-to-human context, but rather as a master speaking to her pet, and this is how Serena still views everyone. Rita is still an object to be moved around. Remember the time she smacked Rita hard across the face just for trying to help her? I do. I’m sure Rita does. I’d just as soon take away this woman’s happiness than I would care for her child. Amanda Brugel does a fine job of wanting to care for Serena in her predicament. She can’t bring herself to do it because she’s adjusting to being a human being again after so many years.

Rita keeps a healthy amount of what could possibly be hate in her heart, not only for Serena, but also for Gilead. She won’t show the hate, because it isn’t healthy to show it, nor is it polite, and Rita still has those boundaries she would rather not cross. The victim psychology has always intrigued me. Every so often I go back to an old screenplay I worked on about a former cult member trying to adjust to life after being deprogrammed. I imagine the character is a lot like Rita. She’s an incomplete woman, and a healing shell of her former self, but she still loves God, and she won’t let anyone manipulate her further, not even those who were her masters. She also learns that Fred doesn’t know about the pregnancy. Later, Tuello (Sam Jaeger) visits Rita and tells her Serena wants her to provide character testimony to make it seem that Fred was abusive to her, thus making her a victim. Rita quickly deduces she is a pawn in the struggle.

Rita sees Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and gives him a copy of Serena’s sonogram, thus spilling the beans. Good for her. In the milk tanker, June tortures Janine further by telling her she can’t sleep. Janine, to her credit, finally lashes out at June, who persists in her fantasy as a handmaid savior. Janine rationalizes a greater plan, but has difficulty reconciling June’s obvious betrayal in revealing the location of their safehouse. June tells her about Hannah in the cage. About the fear. She neglects to tell the truth: that Hannah was afraid of June, not the threat of punishment. This infuriates Janine. She blames their fellow handmaids’ deaths on June, and I can’t even begin to tell you how richly satisfying this is. June finally gets her comeuppance. Maybe there is a sin of pride to be suffered here, in that for a brief moment, June had power, and then it turned into dust in her hands and scattered in the wind.

We’ll find out how little power she has as this episode ends, but for now June has to resort to bullying Janine into submission like so many others have. She needs to feel superior and better about herself. This is when we get Janine’s backstory. It’s a story she doesn’t share with anyone, and I don’t know how it pertains to the episode as a whole. All you need is this one sentence as a descriptor: Janine skips her shift at Denny’s to get an abortion. That’s all you need to know. This whole section of the episode is incredibly insulting not only to Janine, a truly remarkable character, but to a group of people I know this show is lampooning. She goes to something called a Crisis Pregnancy Center where they don’t actually perform abortions.

I can’t believe they still have these in an apocalypse situation where the human race is dying off; obviously these are political talking points. At the Crisis Pregnancy Center, they tell her horror stories about abortion. They tell her lies about what botched abortions will do to her body, and they encourage her (by means of bullying) to have her baby. They even tell her the father might step up and do the right thing in taking care of the baby. This is absolutely disgusting, and it is obvious (reverse) propaganda catering to an audience that has already made up its mind. She goes to another place, and they give her the opposite information. Abortions are good, m’kay, here’s your pills. No wonder young women are so confused. They keep getting rhetoric instead of science, as are we all. We’re in an apocalypse with the human race dying off. I know I keep harping on about the apocalypse, but that’s what this is.

I remember I speculated about how incentives could be introduced for women to have children. This is weird. Particularly the whole part about propaganda being introduced into a show that is made for women. I realize this is a hot-button topic amongst voters that will never be resolved. If it is resolved then either political Party will not have as potent and divisive an issue with which to manipulate the public and obtain power. Abortion is a dead topic in The Handmaid’s Tale. Remember the book and the beginning of the movie? The live birth rate has plummeted. I’m sure Janine would appreciate incentives. She’s (as written) uneducated, works at a Denny’s, already has one child, and lives in an attic, but she’s smart enough to know that the guy who knocked her up won’t be coming back. She’s the perfect Liberal Nightmare. She is everything we fear. I don’t understand who is being ridiculed here. The show has always had a passionate pro-life stance. What exactly is the message?

The train stops and there are sounds of shouting and guns firing. June and Janine escape the milk tanker. They see dead Guardian bodies, and an angry woman points a machine gun at them. Janine rather cutely says, “Hi!” The woman demands they be searched. Yeah, because they might be hiding guns! In short order, she’s revealed to be part of a resistance movement, and their leader Steven (Omar Maskati), agrees to shelter them. We’ve now gotten to the portion of the series where refugees can be ignored, abused, or neglected. June might be considered a messiah, a goddess of Mayday, but here, in this resistance, she’s meat. Steven lays it on the line for her. She (and Janine) will get food and clothing and shelter in return for sexual favors. Yes! Apocalypse! End of the world! We could be bombed at any minute. We could be tortured and executed at any moment but Little Steven needs to get laid!

We’re finally back to hating one group of people over another. The hate had been distributed about fifty-fifty in the previous three episodes, but this episode hates men. I thought the episode hated Janine, but no. It’s men. I have a question though. His angry female assistant there with the machine gun, what’s her name…Theresa? How come she hasn’t sodomized Little Steven with a lead pipe? You get him all nice and relaxed and just when he’s about to release, blammo! Lead pipe! Has Theresa been demoralized to the point that she just doesn’t care who gets exploited? Is she actually okay with this? June agrees to “pleasure” Little Steven in exchange for food and clothes. Her hands start shaking. He tells her he’s “not gonna force her,” that they can just leave. What a fucking cunt! He demands sexual services from two escaped handmaids. I mean, this guy is a serious cunt. He’s not a leader, he’s a temporary despot.

June walks out, grabs Janine, and tells her they can’t stay here. Smart move, but I think the lead pipe is a better idea. How do we humiliate Janine even further? Adding injury to insult, Janine mulls it over and blows Little Steven (she probably needed tweezers and plastic tubing) for a slice of Wonder bread, which she shares with June. I wonder how much baby formula costs? Even after all her suffering, Janine has a rather blasé attitude about the whole affair, which is curious considering her very young life up to that point was nothing more than a series of terrible decisions. The writers want to make a case for her. She worked at Denny’s, therefore she’s a moron. Meanwhile, the writers*, a privileged lot I’m fairly certain, are still paying off their student loans. Who’s the real asshole here? Like the previous season’s disappointing “Unfit,” which told the tale of Lydia, “Milk” takes one of the better characters of the series and destroys her by applying cut-and-paste logic to choices that seriously undermine her value.

*People who’ve received every opportunity in life because “Daddy made a phone call.” Those people don’t really understand the beautiful nuances in life that bring about success as well as failure. These are also the same people who have the temerity to decide what is and what is not an “essential” worker. This show is written and produced by the Elite. This is what they believe, and the “Elite” have no need for political affiliation.

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