Is This Show Actually Just About Humans?
by Jane Hu
Where am I? What day is it? What week of the show are we in?
Between Trump, Tizon, the new Harry Styles album, Miley Cyrus’s comeback, and weekly Handmaid’s Tale episodes, I’m completely losing track.
I have some confessions to make: I know it’s only the sixth episode, but I’m already getting tired of Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not made for serial TV or serial recaps. As a first-person narrated novel about dystopic isolation, it works. As television—at least in this Hulu iteration with episodes clocking in almost at an hour—it flags.
Look, I love Elisabeth Moss as an actor. I fucking adore Top of the Lake, and in both that and this, her face is working overtime—doing magical acrobatics and micro-gestures that I could, theoretically, watch forever. Yet, I was surprised to learn that Top of the Lake actually ran for more episodes than the six that have already aired for Handmaid’s Tale. Because while I can’t wait for the return of the former, I’m struggling to get through to the end of the latter.
This most recent episode, titled “A Woman’s Place,” follows the last episode in increasingly veering away from the novel. Except there are fewer sex scenes, so who’s winning, you tell me. Instead of following Offred’s budding affair with Nick, or tunneling into her past, we get, this week, new perspective on the Commander’s Wife. She used to be a feminist!!! Sort of. That is, she used to protest against second-wave feminists (like Offred’s mom) and, instead, for a return to traditional domesticity. But she did protest. And write. Serena Joy (once named Pam) wrote popular books and made fiery speeches
about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.
So goes Atwood’s book. The Commander’s Wife’s political past is only a detail in the novel, however, which, as Aaron has observed, is only filtered through the insularity of Offred’s present consciousness.
“A Woman’s Place” interrupts Offred’s plot to give us Serena’s flashbacks—which further goes toward padding narrative, since this episode is also about the Commander trying to cinch a trade deal with Mexico, headed by (surprise!) a woman leader. This would obviously never happen in Gilead, and, in fact, this plotline doesn’t happen in the novel at all. It takes up a whole episode in the show, however, and again goes toward enlarging the story world at the expense of the novel’s primary aesthetic effect of first-person present-tense myopia.
In the show, we get more of Serena’s once active political life in order to highlight its transformation post-Gilead. Serena used to run not only the household, but also her husband and his bureaucratic decisions leading up to Gilead. When Fred used to wane in spirit, it was Serena who would assert, “We're going out.” And, when he protests, she replies, “I wasn't asking,” with a smirk. We learn in flashbacks that it was, in fact, the Commander who was originally the more hesitant of the two about Gilead. The irony, of course, is that Serena’s vigorous campaign for “traditional values” sets up the very conditions that now trap her in a position of powerlessness; while the very possibility of that campaigning was a product of the feminist movement against those very values. As Serena’s plans for Gilead manifest, so too does her role in making them contract. It’s provocative commentary on the limitations of a certain feminist rhetoric, but the exhausting amount of time this show takes to draw out the paradox is…boring? Tellingly limiting in itself?
Later, during a dinner party in which the Commander is trying to close the deal with Mexico, Serena tells the Aunt (a relatively sympathetic character in this episode?) to remove the “damaged” handmaids. Since the deal is about trading handmaids, they naturally can’t be showcasing the brutalized bodies of what they’re hoping to sell. “Whatever punishment these girls had to endure was for the greater good,” the Aunt reminds Serena. “But you don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate,” Serena responds. To do so would be to remind their buyers that they’re trading not in produce, but individual bodies with the potential to suffer.
The more I watch this show, the more I wonder if its creators did intentionally try to make it, well, “not a feminist story, but a human story.” Its female networks are tenuous, if not outright antagonistic or destructive, and it seems generally to lack a self-consciousness about the ways female bodies, physical labor, and carework have already been commoditized. As this episode particularly suggests, the themes of global trade and national identity seem more central to the show’s concern. Even (and perhaps especially) in an episode titled “A Woman’s Place,” feminism seems to function as rhetorical gauze for the driving forces of economic crisis. Maybe that’s the point? Near the end of the episode, Offred confronts the Mexican ambassador in an appeal for help: “What are you gonna trade us for? Fucking chocolate? We’re human beings. How can you do that?” Her response finds justification in the fact that her own “country is dying.” How far does all this talk about sacrifice for the “greater good” go, when the show continues to frame not just single women and men, but also nations, as divided?
Individual nationhood trumps female solidarity in “A Woman’s Place,” even as the episode asks us to empathize with all women.
Oh, I did finally see an Asian handmaid (she was one of the “damaged”)! But given that the show represents the outside “other” that Gilead needs to engage for economic growth as Hispanic, I’m still left asking: where are all Asians in this show? If Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be not quite our world, but an uncanny counterfictional version of it, then what does its racial erasure do to the very material and historical conditions that it seems to be trying both to represent and critique?
A whole tray of desserts,
The Pursuit of Happiness
by Sarah Mesle
“Are you happy?” the Mexican Ambassador asks Offred. Offred grinds her nails into her own fingers. “I have found happiness,” she replies. Later she curses herself for her lie. “I said I was happy,” Offred spits out, enraged, to Nick.
Here is another place that happiness has figured this week: in the just-released Atlantic cover article, “My Family’s Slave,” written (and published posthumously) by the Pulitzer-winning journalist Alex Tizon. In the piece, Tizon struggles to narrate his lifelong intimacy with the woman, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was given to his mother as a gift when she was a child in the Philippines and remained his family’s slave until her death. For the last twelve years of her life, after Tizon’s mother’s death, Pulido lived with Tizon and his family until she died, “earning” $200 a week.
Describing Pulido late in life, Tizon says: “It was so easy to make Lola happy.”
Happiness is a word that’s important to Americans. There it is, in the Declaration of Independence, a part of our (lol, “our”) basic rights — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In this we are different from, say, the French, who claimed for themselves in the Declaration of the Rights of Man the natural rights of “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” It’s happiness, Jefferson’s words imagine, that’s essential to what we are; in the French version, it’s resistance.
There’s more to the US and France than the words “happiness” and “resistance” imply — obviously I’m being glib. But let’s consider the question. How are happiness and resistance related, how are they different? What does it mean if Americans go around imagining that they’re making themselves, expressing themselves as right-bearing individuals, through happiness? Why is Tizon invested in telling us about Lola’s happiness, his ability to supply it, even as he is also describing her lifetime of suffering at his and his family’s hands? Why is Offred so mad at herself for lying about her happiness? Most importantly: why is she asked about her happiness in the first place? The answer is both obvious — the Mexican ambassador wants moral validation for her interest in trading handmaids — and more complicated than it at first seems.
Purposefully or not, this weirdo episode of The Handmaid’s Tale manages to open up a lot of what’s at stake in the way American culture uses happiness: it’s an emotional state, but it’s also a cypher that disguises, or tries to disguise, various forms of cruelty. The real question is why Americans believe the emotional state of “happiness” is related to the economic negotiations of politics. Happiness, resistance, identity, liberty, property, nation: what’s going on with all this?
Some things to say first: “A Woman’s Place,” Handmaid’s Tale episode 6, was not very good. From scene one, the episode’s world-making had a tenuousness that kept me from getting immersed in the story: I mean, I get that Gilead might make the handmaids scrub blood, it’s scary and poetic, but it’s also inefficient for a society that still has civic workers and presumably power washers. What kind of world are we in here?
And this handmaid trade scheme: how is this gonna work? Does Mexico for some reason have no fertile women? Once Gilead “exports” its handmaids, how is it going to find (grow? raise? breed?) more? Isn’t the whole point that there aren’t enough of them? Are fertile women symbols or characters? And this Mexican ambassador: she seems simultaneously a vehicle for exposition, a meaningful critic of Gilead, and a blind ideologue, willing to ignore her ideals in favor of political need. What might we make of these inconsistencies? Is reproduction here a metaphor or a reality?
This is also the episode, which, as Jane points out, departs most radically from the books and in so doing lays the groundwork for the series that this show is going to become: a television show that can do more than tell the tale of this one handmaid and instead create a world able to sustain multiple plots, multiple tales.
What felt in the episode like a weird cognitive dissonance between poetics and politics is mostly this tension, the show fracturing between its two goals, two worlds: the world that is Margaret Atwood’s tightly focalized story of June/Offred’s consciousness, on the one and, and on the other the world that is this television show’s much larger story of politics and social existence. Can these shows co-habitate? Can there be a show that tells the story of women’s subjectivity around their own reproductivity and captivity and, at the same time, the story of a broader political struggle?
I mean: sure. But this is not seeming to be that show. For the plotting of this show, the effort to reconcile the personal and political aims has a lot to do with how it imagines Offred herself. In the novel, Offred again and again turns away from the possibility of resistance. (In the novel she says “red was never my color;” in this episode, she says it is.) What she wants in the novel, mostly, is to survive, and the reason she wants to survive is because she’s holding on to the possibility of being reunited with her daughter. (In fact, she first agrees to have sex with Nick because Mrs. Waterford —in the novel, always called Serena Joy — hints that she can give her information about her daughter — a picture.) Atwood’s novel, partly, draws its force from the way it presses against the demands of genre: dystopias want heroes, and as Atwood’s novel shows us, motherhood’s relation to the stories of heroism our culture knows how to tell is vexed at best.
So it’s significant that the TV show downplays Offred’s memories of her own daughter and instead emphasizes her increasing political consciousness, and —as it tries to create a broader world that can carry a show over multiple seasons —Offred’s consciousness alongside Mrs. Waterford’s, a woman without children.
It’s not that reproduction doesn’t matter to the story of political resistance this show seems to be trying to tell; sex and reproduction will remain central. In fact, Mrs. Waterford’s imagined center for her next book — as she says, “fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative” — will become the plot of this series. Reproduction will remain; it’s the mothers, the mothering, as a narrative focus, that unless something changes in the next few episodes, will drop out as the book becomes a television series.
As one marker of this shift, think of the under-explained continuing presence of Ofwarren in this show. The show wants her here as a mad speaker of truth, not unlike Pip from Moby-Dick (which, I mean: cool! Mad Mom Pip!). But the explanation of her remaining as Ofwarren in this circle is that she is still nursing. How can she be nursing and also scrubbing walls, going to banquets? Does Gilead provide handmaids with breast pumps? These are the logistical questions of actual mothering that The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seem interested in attending to, despite its erstwhile feminist politics.
And this is a shame, because the question of how actual mothering, the raising of children, love, happiness, fits into political plots, global economics, international trade, capitalism, is one that our world still has a hard time answering.
It’s the continuing difficulty in answering this question that makes Alex Tizon’s article about his family’s slave, as well as the response to it, so intense. Tizon’s article forces readers to think about how enforced and unpaid labor continues to sustain modern American economics today, long after the abolition of slavery. Tizon’s story is horrifying because it describes slavery persisting in modern America, but it’s also horrifying, as many have noticed, because it’s a confession written from the scene of the crime, half-blinded to its own scene of injury. One of the best responses I’ve seen is Sarah Jeong’s twitter thread, where she notes Tizon’s inability to see the broader stakes, stakes both economic and gendered, of the family story he tells. He can see Pulido’s story only at its intimate scale.
Tizon’s story is grabbing at so many readers because of the complex intersection of property, politics, and love it traces. These are the same topics at play in this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Neither story seems to be doing a very great job of honestly looking at its management of its own central terms. And both stories fail to accomplish the narrative task it’s clear their readers need for them to perform: developing a meaningful interplay between the intimate and global scales of the stories of women’s exploitation that they seek to tell.
“Happiness” becomes the switch point between these scales. Economic policies, characters in these stories believe, are okay if they make you feel okay, emotionally. But the problem is that even though both of these stories' authors see how happiness can be faked, demanded, produced, they still seem to believe in happiness as something real, something that can do real work socially. And maybe it can, but that doesn’t mean it’s work is always good.
It’s revealing, I think, that the question of Pulido’s happiness becomes the most important to Tizon’s story towards its end, when Tizon is himself most responsible — and most unwilling to see his responsibility — for the conditions of Pulido’s life. His family, his children, make Pulido happy. How does he know? Did he ask her? Was the scene of his asking her like the scene in which the Ambassador asks Offred about her emotional state, in front of her Commander? Is it useful to think about Tizon as a kind of Commander? How far can we push on this parallel? Is Mrs. Waterford a useful parallel for Tizon’s mother? Do we want to go there? What do the women who work in service roles — the secretaries, house cleaners, nannies — around you think of you?
Note that I don’t want to say that Pulido was not made happy by the experience of caring for children. I have no idea. But what I can see from here is that if she was something we might usefully call “happy,” if Pulido, like Offred claims she is, she is able to find happiness, a way to sustain herself in brutal conditions, then what we see in Tizon’s insistence on Pulido’s happiness is a further act of cruelty whereby Pulido’s attempts to survive her experience of enslavement become a further justification for it.
As many have noted, throughout the essay, Tizon does not call his family’s slave, Pulido, by her name. He calls her Lola. Lola means, ish, grandmother—it’s a term of “affection.” (I don’t know enough about Tagalog to know how similar it is to the intimate names of American slavery, like Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom.) Its intimacy links it to Offred’s name. As the Commander says to the Mexican ambassador, “our handmaids take patronymic derived from their head of household…it’s a symbol of their sacred position.”
Offred sees, in her rant to Nick, the way her alleged happiness is used as a glue to attach her to the regime that confines her, to adhere Offred as a mask over June. And that’s why it’s in this scene, in her anger, that she finally insists that Nick cast Offred, as a name, aside. She is not happy. She is not Offred. She does not want to be a slave.
In his staggeringly wise essay “Uses of the Blues,” James Baldwin has something to say about happiness. The blues, he says, are about pain and anguish; they “contain the toughness that manages to make this experience articulate.” In making pain articulate, they are, counterintuitively, expressive of “a kind of joy.” “Now joy is a true state,” Baldwin says. “It has a reality; it has nothing to do with what most people have in mind when they talk about happiness, which is not a real state and does not really exist.”
Let’s consider that again: “Happiness, which is not a real state and does not really exist.”
I’m mentioning Baldwin here not only because his essay is one of the best I know, but also because doing so forces us to remember, again, that the story of enforced sexual slavery that The Handmaid’s Tale tells is one that can’t be told in the US without an account of the pain of slavery; that the trade in women that both The Handmaid’s Tale and Tizon’s article parse always happens across lines of race and class. That there is a strange irony in making the Mexican ambassador the villain in this story for her willingness to negate the personhood of Offred, when so many families in the US now depend on the underpaid, illegal labor of women from Mexico and the global south to raise their children, clean their homes. The show both knows this and won’t admit it; doesn’t seem to see itself as it treats this woman as mostly a plot device there for Offred’s political development, without a developed character of her own.
Baldwin praises the blues as a genre with the “toughness” to account for pain. He says that most people like to talk about happiness; he’s dismissive of the work people want happiness to do. Happiness is a nice idea, I like it myself. But I’m inclined to agree with Baldwin that it’s an idea that should cause us some concern.
The “happy slave” myth has a long history in American culture. Happiness, in American apologist literature, justifies cruelty all the way down.
The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t yet seem to be finding its way towards a genre tough enough to hold the pain it wants to describe. It’s too weird towards its own topic; too unclear about how women’s lives might fit into television; too scared of the radicalism of what its story might help us see. And yet, in the way it shows how women’s happiness is used against them, glimmers of a more useful story shine through.
In one of the episode’s wrenching moments, Ofwarren weeps, causes a scene, at being excluded from a party because she is damaged. Aunt Lydia calms her down, promises her desserts, all the desserts she wants. This promise makes Ofwarren smile. It quells her resistance. It gives her a promise of happiness. And when she is calm, when she relents, Aunt Lydia, her warden, feels she has done right by her slave, feels intimately with her: she places her lips on Ofwarren’s one gouged out eye. It’s a perfect metaphor the show only partially understands. The show wants to make Ofwarren into its mad speaker of wisdom, but perhaps the show is most like Ofwarren: one eye open, and one eye closed to the way its belief in the promise of happiness makes it blind.
Very interested in Mrs. Waterford’s arrest record,