Under the Eye: “Ballet”

“Dozens of people are feared to have died in six days of protests in Iran sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who had been detained by morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an ‘improper’ way. The official line is that Amini died from heart failure or a stroke, but her family and protesters say she died of injuries sustained from a beating by police.”
The Guardian

September 23, 2022

It only occurs to me now that the bloodletting, the execution of Fred Waterford, might have been a terrible miscalculation. What did June want more than anything in the world of Gilead? Let’s speculate she made a shopping list at some point. What would she want more than anything, and what is it she will ultimately regret more than anything else? Hannah, silly! Her little girl. Her … raison d’être! Considering you have Fred’s life in your hands, would it not be possible to barter for Hannah? Bring her home to … wherever home is at this point—Canada, the land of spring water and Muslim women? Nevermind. What matters most in “Ballet” is ballet.

The producers know they can pad out the episode’s running time with five uninterrupted minutes of Godfather rip-off scenes meant to juxtapose the imagery of Fred’s fancy-pants funeral and June’s inexplicable trip to the ballet. I mean, we have ballet in the apocalypse? Incredible. Essentially a political and social traitor, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) demands to be taken back to Gilead with what remains of her husband’s body for the aforementioned fancy-pants funeral because, as we know, people with an overestimated view of their worth demand overestimated celebrations of their death. It’s interesting (and a bit hilariously macabre) that this episode comes out five days before the Queen’s expensive organic droppage.

You have to look at the whole thing with sober eyes. Fred Waterford was not one of the founders of “Gilead.” He was a terrorist. Waterford was a perpetrator of terror. He chopped off his own wife’s finger for reading from the Bible. Unless Serena has an interesting end game (playing 4D chess and all the other over-used idioms bandied about these days), I see no use for her except to deliver a child and then throw her bullet-ridden carcass into the grave with Fred. Remember that in Gilead, the only use a woman has is to bear children. Tuello (Sam Jaeger) accompanies Serena to Gilead even though in the previous episode, Serena was taken, barefoot and pregnant, by soldiers with machine guns to a “secured location.”

Basically, she’s useless on both sides of the divide, but she still gets her way. When it becomes clear that Fred will not get a fancy-pants funeral given to his current status as a “traitor,” Serena attempts to manipulate the Commanders into publicizing Fred’s funeral as a symbol of unity and strength. She fails on this level because Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) reminds her she is a woman and women are silly and pretty much exist only to be abused and raped, or something. Lawrence goes back to the Commanders and makes the same suggestion, which suddenly becomes a great idea because … penis, frankly. Penises (or penes?) always have the best ideas. Vaginas are stupid. Serena gets her State funeral. Slow drums. Solemn.

Meanwhile, June enjoys the ballet because everything is beautiful at the ball-et. Graceful men lift lovely girls in white! Whatever. This whole thing goes on forever. When she and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) leave to go home, they are assaulted with a Times Square-worth of televisions everywhere broadcasting Fred’s funeral. This must be some kind of hell, but it gets worse. Accompanying Serena in her death march is Hannah, and it’s like the camera knows to zoom in on Hannah for the benefit of June. Even Serena seems to know June is watching because she grins as the camera zooms in on her. As Serena smiles, June glares. If there is a character that earns the right to glare, it has to be Esther (McKenna Grace), former Commander’s wife turned handmaid.

Esther is given to the slimy, sleazy Commander Putnam who offers her chocolates in his study. “Ballet” manages to pull off something clever in that we casually forget Esther’s special skill. She knows how to make poisons. She swipes chocolates from the Putnam gathering and shares them with Janine (Madeline Brewer), but not before poisoning them. This, to me, is the more important story but it is given the “B-plot” treatment. The show is called The Handmaid’s Tale, not the The Former Handmaid’s Glare, or The Former Commander’s Wife’s Grin. Janine has always been a character given short shrift by the writers of the show and the characters with whom she interacts. Meanwhile, in the real world, women are being killed for not wearing their hijabs properly.

This is happening in 2022, and these stories are being buried or marginalized. Notice the structure of the Guardian piece about Mahsa Amini. The actual story is buried in the details. The emphasis of the story is the protests and ensuing death and not the fact that a woman was beaten to death for not wearing her hijab properly. I’m sorry, American woman think they have it bad? When stories like this surface, debates about “American Exceptionalism” are not very far under that surface. These atrocities become minor anecdotes or isolated incidents in the cultural sieve, and it becomes easier and easier to forget that yes, even in 2022, a woman lives on borrowed time in backward cultures. She may be the most powerful voting block in the West, but she is valueless in places that are not “exceptional.”

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