Under the Eye: “The Wilderness”

A story like this doesn’t end well. It doesn’t end happily. We don’t finish The Handmaid’s Tale with Luke taking June to a hockey rink to watch a grudge match between two rival teams that ends with cheers and celebration, and then we forget about the previous five years and get back to our lives. A story like this doesn’t end with humanity. There is no catharsis either. Catharsis doesn’t exist. We can’t be symbolic in our interactions with fellow human beings. Writers can telegraph and detect catharsis, but these are all just ideas. These are ideas designed to make writers appear thoughtful. These writers define “truth,” and to them truth is not objective. Truth is a matter of choice, subjective—something that isn’t real because it can only be measured by one human being’s singular experience.

Seems wrong and way out-of-whack, doesn’t it? Seems like a writer gets to be a statesman, or a politician injecting rhetoric into a television viewing audience’s brain. When the show first started, it was a cause célèbre. It pissed off conservatives. It made for spirited water cooler conversation. The first year. I’m talking about the first year. After that, it began a sharp descent into obscurity. People stopped talking about the show. It makes sense to have the story become a television serial so that we can understand Gilead as a way of life, but the individual adventures of the characters played out more as a soap opera than anything even remotely interesting. What I cared about was the world building, not if Nick’s love for June was true. A television series exists as a kind of bait-and-switch.

It starts off as one thing, and then becomes something different. The first season (or the first handful of episodes in the show’s run) got a blank check as far as advertising and promotion was concerned (I remember seeing the show advertised on the sides of MTA buses), and then it was forgotten or left to the devices of its fan base. Budgets and salaries increase and promotion became limited to YouTube advertisements. Bruce Miller speculated at one point that the show could last for ten years. I don’t see that happening at this point when several storylines have already been resolved. We must also remember that the popularity of the series increased exponentially on the basis of the 2016 election. Hulu and the producers of the series wanted the viewing public to believe that Gilead was only a matter of time because of Trump being elected President of the United States.

They did it for ratings. Let me repeat this. They scared people into watching a television series. They didn’t say as much, but the meaning was clearly implied. People argued at me until they were hoarse: Trump is going to do this to you, to all women! Trump, somehow, has the authority (and power) to turn women (all women) into sex slaves and kitchen appliances. Remember when Madonna contemplated blowing up the White House? Trump’s Presidency promoted The Handmaid’s Tale. There it is. Plain as day. Four years later, no one is talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. Except for me. People are still talking about Trump, but that’s another matter. When the nightmare of Trump’s Presidency didn’t quite pan out, the next existential threat that fell in line with fascism, Covid-19, had nothing to do with sexual politics.

When we last left off, June (Elisabeth Moss) threatened Tuello (Sam Jaeger) after getting the bad news about Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) “plea deal.” Tuello is all business with June after the death threat. He shows remarkable restraint. He even tells her in no uncertain words that this is a matter for the courts. This wasn’t his decision. “Is he everything you hoped for,” June asks him. “Absolutely,” Tuello responds. June has a habit of assigning blame to individuals rather than groups. She sits in front of a camera in an empty room and makes a statement. They call it a “Provincial Court of Law.” Provincial implies “temporary.” June goes back in her mind to nights of rape. Everything that happens in this, the final episode of the fourth season, is not productive or helpful in any way. It shortly transforms from a bureaucratic nightmare to Old Testament-style wrath of God.

June returns home to be annoyed by Rita (Amanda Brugel), who is always serving her and cleaning the house. Rita tells her she’s in therapy to stop this behavior. Moira (Samira Wiley) tells June that Fred is scheduled to skedaddle, get the fuck out of Dodge, as it were. June smells the hopelessness. Even after all her horror stories, they’re still willing to play ball with Fred.

“Mr. Waterford. I know this is very difficult…”

Fred is questioned about his activities at Jezebel’s. He lies that he never frequented that establishment. Why does Canada assume Fred will offer any useful information? They talk about military strategies and hierarchy. Why wouldn’t Gilead change everything as a result of this? Why wouldn’t they change their “strategy?” When we leave a place of residence, we are required to give back our keys, right? Otherwise, we would enter the residence and steal the new tenant’s stuff, assuming we were less than reputable. Fred should be useless to Gilead at this point. That’s what I would assume. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) tells Tuello she doesn’t want her child born in Canada. There are some interesting looks exchanged between Serena and Tuello. Let’s get into Tuello and Serena for a second. Is Tuello the father of Serena’s child? Fred is supposed to be sterile.

Emily (Alexis Bledel) and June talk on a porch. We haven’t seen much of Emily this season. She had a couple of perfunctory appearances as part of the Rescued Angels/Angels Flight or-whatever-it-is project, and there was no Clea DuVall this season either. There were fewer episodes this year than in previous seasons, but there were also at least two examples of filler shows that were ultimately unnecessary. Something occurs to me. You didn’t escape Gilead. You didn’t see the end of a war, and watch the final carnage from the tops of foothills, on horseback. The plumes of smoke rising from devastated structures. You can’t smell the gunpowder, the sting of sulfur. This isn’t a “changed reality.” This is reality. That’s what this show does so well. It gives us futility, and it never relents.

June visits Fred, who will be departing shortly for Geneva. Fred tells her he holds no ill will for June. Fred is building a world in his mind where he can claim to be blissfully ignorant of what he had wrought on June. He treats his exchange with June as a kind of divorce court. This makes June weep. If it were me, I’d be figuring out how I can castrate this absolute waste of humanity before my eyes. She threatened to kill Tuello. We remember that. Fred pours them a drink. He’s supposed to be a smart guy, one of the architects of Gilead, but he’s really a moron. He tells June he misses “Offred.” This is a smart guy who believes in the idea of a slave name. The slave name is the concept of the removal of a person’s identity, the beginning of atrocity. Later, June, filled with murderous rage, tells Luke she’s going to put Fred “on the wall.”

June confronts Tuello and tells him they’re not going to let Fred escape justice. I remember experiencing a kind of déjà vu in watching this scene. I distinctly remember Tuello jogging, being interrupted by June, and having a brief, unsettling conversation with her. There was never a similar scene like this in previous episodes, but it seemed oddly familiar to me. Tuello and June meet Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) in an empty diner. Lawrence wants Fred back. He is aware Fred has been singing like a canary. Lawrence is willing to trade twenty-two Mayday members in exchange for Fred. I wish this diner was still in operation. How about a shake and a cheeseburger? I could discuss anything if I had a cheeseburger on a plate in front of me with french fries and mozzarella sticks.

Lawrence tells June it won’t be enough for her, whatever happens to Fred. Of course, this is all subterfuge. Everybody’s being cagey. Lawrence is right, though. This will never be enough. June wants Fred to be scared to death. It’s obvious to everyone at this point that Fred life’s is now worth nothing. I don’t understand how Serena doesn’t see this. Their final scene together is cold, a far cry from their passion before Gilead. Outside, Tuello tells Fred he isn’t going to Geneva, and that he no longer has rights. He is taken to a no-man’s-land between Canada and Gilead. Tuello lies to him and tells him he will be taken back to Gilead, but he instead abandons him to June, Emily, and group of former handmaids who proceed to tear him to pieces, and all of this occurs under Lawrence’s (and Nick’s) watchful eye.

What if you had taken everything you hated, everything that made you hate, and put it into one man’s body? What if you pummeled that body, destroyed it, mutilated it, left nothing but a wedding ring and a finger for that man’s wife to find in an envelope the next day? Did you do right by those you left behind? I realize this scene was meant to be catharsis, but only writers want you to embrace their catharsis, and only writers truly know what it is they wrote. The next day, these former handmaid’s are clean, bathed in the blood of their tormentor (or at least, June’s tormentor). Fred was vengeance for June, but catharsis for everyone else, including the viewers. June returns home fatigued and covered in Fred’s blood. The first thing she does is see Nichole. Luke appears confused, but that’s pretty much what he does.

June asks Luke for five minutes with Nichole, and then she’ll go. Just where is she going? The next image we see is that of Fred’s headless corpse hanging from a wall over some graffiti that reads: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I don’t know how much more I can add to this except to say bastards are not men. Bastards are not one group of people. The bastards are the people who seek to control others. The bastards are those who would take away your money, take away your freedom. Take away your right to your speech. Rewrite the past to establish a new narrative with new villains. Make words into weapons. Tell you you’re capable of nothing more than mindless, menial labor. Those are the bastards.

So as I said, a story like this doesn’t end well. It’s too much to consider we are children on the Earth, and some of us decide we want to lead and control the other children. We play with building blocks and pretend to own whole sections, chunks of this Earth, and we accumulate useless possessions, and then we die. We die, don’t we? We take none of this Earth with us. There’s a reason somebody says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We’re born from those ashes, and then we return to those ashes. I’ll end this review with a bit from Philip Kindred Dick, but first I thought of what Harlan Ellison warned when it felt you were about to open your heart to a stranger:

“… all I can advise is an impossible stance for all of you: utter openness and reasonable caution. Don’t close yourself off, but jeezus, be careful of monsters with teeth. The package is so pretty, one can only urge you to remember Pandora. Be careful which boxes you open, troops.”

That was from Valerie: A True Memoir about a woman to whom Ellison opened his heart. Be mindful of writers who promise you they know what they’re talking about. Look into that writer’s life before you buy his or her vision of it, and don’t let the bastards grind you down, troops.

“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”

― Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

David Lawler
Astoria, New York

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