Under the Eye: “Progress”

A liar knows when a lie is told. Someone who is no stranger to truth has a hard time at detecting falsehood. While Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) may have been an instigator of infidelity, he’s an honest man. Remember when I said I could detect June’s (Elisabeth Moss) bullshit? It was based on her record-to-date, as well as her shifting eyes and judging brow. She knows lies can be comforting, yet she has very little respect for her husband. At least until it starts to gnaw at her. The previous episode ended with her coming clean about Hannah. We can only hope she brought up the transparent cage and the fear in her daughter’s face. Luke wants to know more about his daughter. That is his right. He shows June all the information he has accumulated; all the stories about Hannah, various files.

June seems surprised at his diligence. Again, she does him a mighty disservice. Freedom is its own transparent cage of a sort. We can see through the walls at a life we’ll never be allowed to experience, but we still live in a cage. As long as Hannah is in Gilead, June (with Luke) is still a prisoner. She decides, under Tuello’s watchful eye, to call Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) to see if she can arrange to bring Hannah home. The Commander still enjoys a good game; a shell game, in this case. First, he tells June to get on with her life; that Hannah is being well cared for. At their last meeting, he made certain threats regarding Hannah’s safety. He then tells June she needs to understand the art of negotiation. He tells her he might be willing to support Hannah’s release in exchange for ten of the children she rescued.

June tells him that’s not possible. Lawrence, being a skilled manipulator, forces her to understand that this is her choice, hence this entire situation is her fault. At least, from my vantage point, she didn’t blow up the White House and capture the world, but that’s neither here nor there. Conversely, June promises he would be safe if he were to defect to Canada. Lawrence ignores her. That’s what he does. In Gilead, Esther (McKenna Grace) is revealed to have been demoted to handmaid and Janine (Madeline Brewer) is back to scrubbing floors. Esther remains defiant and she refuses to eat. The Aunts have a feast of overcooked chicken and discuss the Esther situation. Lydia (Ann Dowd) sets about trying to place Janine with a new family. Janine goes to bat for Esther, telling Lydia about her abuse on the farm. There is some sweetness in Janine that simply refuses to die.

No matter what setback or crappy hand the writers deal her, she remains innocent and young. “Milk,” the episode that showcased the character proved the writers have little sympathy for Janine insofar as her intelligence and motivations, may have been the final death-rattle for her character. I suspect the writers are going to use Janine going forward into the next season as a catalyst for a major handmaid revolt at least equaling the human time bomb of Ofglen the Second, and she will be sacrificed on the altar of Progress. Moving forward, we see that Esther has been confined to her room, and tethered to a load-bearing column. Janine tells her she must eat or she will be punished. Esther being a child, speaks Janine’s language. She doesn’t understand why Janine would betray her, or advocate for Aunt Lydia. Has Janine given up?

Later, we see that Esther has effectively been broken. Aunt Lydia is insufferably pleased with herself, but this episode isn’t about Lydia, Janine, or Esther. This episode is about the shell game. The next pea under the shell is Nick: the last living man in Gilead that still cares about June. Luke suggests Nick, knowing he would move heaven and earth for her as much as he can. I was never a fan of their “love.” I always saw it as one-sided. Basically, what happens is a man will fall in love with a woman when she has sex with him. Yes, it’s true. Even if the woman is forced or coerced by another party, in this case Serena. The man will still want to believe that he has captured a woman’s heart. That is the way men think, and that is primarily why more male hearts are broken than female hearts.

I know women want to believe men are horrible monsters that destroy them, that men do not feel the entire spectrum of emotions, but they actually do. The reasoning is simple. Men want women more than women want men. It’s always been that way. This is why Atwood (nor the show’s writers, including Bruce Miller) doesn’t understand men. She thinks men will gather en masse to destroy women. We can’t. We love women too much. Gilead should’ve been an instrument of toxic femininity, not masculinity*. If you have an argument to make about this idea, I think it says more about you than the idea. For a time (though I can’t fathom why) Johnny Depp worshipped Amber Heard. I’ll safely wager that’s how their relationship began. And then it ended rather badly, but it did originate from the male worship of female.

For decades, men have been accused of objectifying women. Objectification is how we begin to worship. Whether it’s a woman or a god. Luke worships June. Luke wants June to be happy. I think O.T. Fagbenle is such a marvelous actor, he doesn’t betray anything in his obvious jealousy of Nick, but he wants what’s best for June. Even if he has taken a back seat to June’s blithering histrionics over the last four years, he’s still a fantastic male specimen. Under Tuello’s (Sam Jaeger) watchful eye, June meets Nick in a disquieting no-man’s-land: the site of an abandoned Catholic school where the faculty was no doubt executed. I’m reminded of the time Luke saw bodies hanging from rafters in a church; the visual confirmation of Gilead’s twisted psychotic nightmare kingdom. Gilead’s cruelty has been somewhat muted as time went on.

We were subjected to Reed Birney’s inquisitor earlier in the season, but there’s not much effort in pushing Marthas off of a roof to scare June. I feel like they’ve run out of ideas. Nick gets to see his daughter and in return he gives June information about Hannah. Apparently, she’s doing very well in school, or something, though I don’t know how you can claim to educate females when you deny them the right to read. Or he could be lying and she could be mutilated in a ditch somewhere. These people are murderers after all. Nick still loves June, kisses her like she’s his girlfriend. Um, what about Luke? For a minute there, Nichole registers “daddy” vibes with Nick. A child can tell. This is a stunning performance from a baby, the way she locks eyes with him. After June leaves, Nick reaches into his coat pocket, produces a wedding band and puts it on his finger.

It’s bizarre that you do feel a “lost love” vibe from this scene. June returns home with wonderful news about Hannah, but Tuello quickly pisses on their parade by telling them Fred is to become their material witness against Gilead in exchange for his freedom. June is so angry she threatens to kill Tuello, even though this probably wasn’t his decision. Tuello, even as a slick American operative, is nothing more than a dogsbody and glorified chauffeur, and you can watch as it wears down on him when he has to deal with these self-righteous nitwits. So why did Fred decide to turn State’s evidence on Gilead? It started with a visit from Warren and Naomi Puttnam, the Commander and his wife, Fred’s former boss and Serena’s former “friend.” I don’t even know if these Wives have friends. To me, it always seemed like a social x-ray club.

Naomi (Ever Carradine) was the envy of the Wives in the beginning of the series because her handmaid, Janine, was the first to have a child, which they stole from her and renamed Angela. My favorite part of this storyline was when Naomi pretended to have labor pains as Janine was giving birth, vicariously “giving birth” to a child. Maybe we get a little more about Serena through her interaction with Naomi Puttnam. Naomi has a vacuous demeanor when it comes to Gilead’s relationship with the rest of world. She seems stupid in view of her years, and Serena appears to be threatened by her. For his part, Warren (Stephen Kunken) twists the knife by telling Fred Gilead hasn’t even attempted to negotiate for Fred and Serena’s release. Warren can only offer “thoughts and prayers,” and we all know how well that works out.

It’s strange how things have changed over the course of five years, because of a shifting social/political divide. The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in 2017, and if I thought things were radically different in 2012 as compared to 2022, 2017 seems just as dustily different and distant. At least in 2017, there was still room for compassion and understanding, even if it was tainted by hostility. Historic injustice was a factor, but it wasn’t elevated to the point of destroying the other. The other didn’t exist yet. It was still a dissenting opinion or argument and given as much weight as other opinions and arguments. In the pop culture, men and women are not permitted to exist anymore without enormous qualifications and labored antipathies. True freedom is illusory, and criticisms are met with accusations of racism and sexism. This is fertile ground for Gilead.

*I upset (and amused) a great many people in the A.V. Club comments when I postulated that it was a woman’s biological imperative to have children, and a male’s biological imperative to simply spread his seed. Hence, Gilead would make no sense as an instrument guided by men to oppress women.

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