PRAISED BE, BITCHES! OUR BAD FEMINISTS TALK THE FIRST SEASON OF HANDMAID'S TALE
Zane, Adrienne, and Elizabeth have read the book, watched the show, and may or may not dress up as Handmaids and Marthas for Halloween. Here's what these experts have to say about the first season of HM—
Zane: I have to say that I’m pretty satisfied overall, as reflected in my last recap. The production values are sumptuous, and the acting is beyond beyond. But I have these moments of abject terror when I think too hard about some of the choices that were made by the writers’ room. Obviously, I had a big problem with the Lucky Luke episode. And I found Nick’s flashbacks unilluminating. Plus the timing: both man episodes back to back? Come on. I worry, too, about that “this is not a feminist show” bullshit we saw during the premiere. Hulu clearly wants to appeal to the menfolk, but aside from the woke male feminists and long suffering romantic partners, this show is not their show. And it shouldn’t be. Why can’t we have something that is for us???? If I were grading it, I would give it an A- as a whole, with an F+ for the Lucky Luke episode.
Adrienne: I’m with you on all of this. The only thing that really bothered me over and over again was the Serena Joy casting (we’ll talk more about that later). Mostly my feelings were all positive, especially about Elisabeth Moss’ acting and the production values—it was so stylized and beautiful to look at, while being uber creepy. All the men were disappointments, just like in real life!
Elizabeth: The show hooked me. I was in every moment and easily got sucked into the story, until ANY of the songs came on. The music they selected was a strain on the scenes and so dang typical. I’d rather have my ears tagged than have to watch another slow motion scene to White Rabbit EVER AGAIN. Also, there was definitely not enough Nick with his clothes off.
AG: I forgot about that whole White Rabbit bit! That was also a bad call. And why did that chick have a massive dog in Jezebel’s? They had a couple mis-steps like that. When Serena Joy popped Offred in the head, the camera work and staging was very Flowers in the Attic. (Now I wish we would've chosen Flowers in the Attic for book club!) Zane doesn’t think Nick is hot but I would serve it to him any day.
ZB: Nick is not hot. He’s an eyebrow monster. He, in particular, comes off like a huge cipher who gets less interesting when we know more about him. He’s just a dude who hooked up with the top asshole early on, and we have no idea if he bought into the Gilead line of bullshit or just played along for employment. His Martha friend in the kitchen at Jezebel’s is about 1000 times more interesting, and we’ve seen her for five minutes total.
AG: I agree with that. I want to know more about her. But the writers don't give Nick a lot to work with. Lurking and fucking.
ZB: I agree 100% about the music choices. The vast majority of music, if you averaged the age of the songs, is older than I am. “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore was written in 1963, making it, at 54, the oldest song. “White Rabbit,” aside from being terribly overused, is 50 years old. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds is 32. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone is 52. “American Girl” is 41. These songs are all middle aged! And they are clearly the work of the world’s biggest threat: THE BABY BOOMERS. Why in the hell would June, who is around 30, be attached to any of these songs? Oh yeah, she wouldn’t. Only a Baby Boomer dad would like this.
I have one exception, though, and if it was intentional, I think it is a great choice. In episode three, when June and Moira are running, right before the whole shithouse goes up in flames (Jim Morrison quote, I’m also a secret Baby Boomer dad, don’t tell anyone), June is blasting “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches. This song was released in 2000, which makes it perfect for the teenaged June’s high school angst. I’m sure she’d get drunk at dorm parties in college and sneak this CD on her roommate’s six disc changer. And then she’d wait for the boy that was cool enough to get it, and she’d totally make out with him. (TOO REAL?! MAYBE.) (ALSO, DID I JUST WRITE A BEAUTIFUL AND EVOCATIVE SHORT STORY/FAN FIC ABOUT JUNE’S COLLEGE YEARS? AS CHEKHOV WOULD SAY, BOOMSKI.) The other reason why this song is perfect is because Offred follows the Teaches of Peaches to the letter. She does fuck the pain away with Nick. Double BOOMSKI. Good job, woman in her thirties who snuck this gem in.
But how do we feel about the changes we’ve seen? We have Offred’s real name, a different trajectory for the Hannah blackmail, Moira escaping all the way to the Promised Land, Luke 100% alive, Mexican ambassador doling out chocolates and IDGAFs, and a very different Serena Joy. We have an Offred that is much more active than the passive novel Offred. (A great podcast I listen to, Red All Over, calls her Action Offred.)
For me, some of the changes make sense in the move from media to media. Action Offred, for instance, makes sense because she really doesn’t do anything in the novel but think. That’s not really engaging TV (check out the 1990 adaptation for proof of this.) The Mexican Ambassador gives a picture of what the world is like outside of Gilead. I like that world building stuff. Of course I’m so happy that Moira made it out, and Luke is a fart, but what about Serena Joy?
AG: First of all, Luke would never have made it out alive. PLEASE. Luke has no pluck, in the book or in the movie. I get why they did that, to give her a future for a second season, but I’m like eh about that, it’s a little love conquers all and somehow dulls the female empowerment message. And I think Offred’s top priority would be her kid.
ALSO SERENA JOY. Just so everyone knows, in the book Serena Joy is the Tammy Faye Bakker of Gilead. I really disapproved of her being approximately the same age as Offred, it creates a weird competitive dynamic between the women, whereas in the book, it’s like a almost grandmotherly, Flowers in the Attic (again!) type of dominance. Watching hot Serena Joy knit is like whut. Every time beautiful young Serena Joy comes on screen it just feels wrong to me. And generally her character is a little ciphery. I know in the Mexican ambassador episode we get to see some of her backstory, but I think there were a lot of missed opportunities with good ol’ SJ. And like, if they're the same age, there's just something weird about the fact that they never connect. They're both 30-something white ladies living in this new world, it just feels like they're too similar to be in these disparate situations.
But overall I loved the book and I think they did a great, faithful, job with the series.
EG: I haven’t read the book since I was in junior high so I’ll be real, I’ve needed my google box (phone) nearby to refresh my memory. SERENA JOY HAS BEEN HARD. That I do remember and fuck Luke. But, the worst offense to me was what happened to the original Ofglen. As if rape, stoning, and hanging wasn’t enough for tv, the creators had to throw in a clitoridectomy. Like someone was actually in a writers room and said, “Mutilating a vagina always gets the viewers going.”
AG: That was so hard core. All the medical scenes were hard core. But necessary, because otherwise you’re like, why wouldn’t people just do x, y, z, and escape?? It also harkened back to Nazi Germany and all the medical testing they did on Jews and disabled people. I feel like they did stick to Atwood’s mantra of everything that happens in Gilead happened in the world somewhere at sometime.
EG: I think “necessary” is a strong word. Between people publicly hanging people on walls, armed guards, rapes, taser scenes, hitting, and stonings, the picture was pretty clear without having to remove Ofglen’s special button. How did that move the story forward? It was gratuitous. Whereas, I think the scene when Putnam gets his arm removed tells us that even the Commanders and their wives have reason to fear, which also explains why they don’t just run away and fuck their wives in bathtub full of poutine.
AG: Yeah, but don’t you think it furthers this puritanical message that sex isn’t for pleasure, it’s only for procreation?
ZB: Female genital mutilation: a hot topic. It was gratuitous, but the one thing it did was underline the regime’s commitment to reproduction. They weren’t going to just throw away Emily/Ofglen because she was too valuable as a breeder. So, they took a very disgusting, patriarchal viewpoint and removed her ability for pleasure. It happens at the end of episode three, and I think it is really a moment of “hey, viewer, just so you know, we are not fucking around here.” Raising those stakes, drowning the cat or whatever that screenwriting proverb is. Killing the grandma (hey, did I just make that up, because it is pretty good.)
AG: It's "save the cat" and it means to include a scene that makes the viewer immediately like the protagonist. Hi, I wrote a couple screenplays and read all the books but still work at a law school.
ZB: Anyway, I think it’s tough to balance. The producers are serving it for shock value, but it does underline the cruelty and insanity of the regime. Even worse, I think, will be if we ever seen Emily/Ofglen again. What else can they do to this woman? But the way she was dragged out of the car and not murdered right there in front of everyone suggests that the writers could pull that card next season. I really thought we might get an entry into the Colonies through her character, and I was horrified and titillated by that idea.
AG: Oh shit the colonies! I mean I want to see the colonies for sure. They need to take a page out of Game of Thrones and keep expanding our world.
ZB: As for Serena Joy: first off, hot women can and do knit, Gunn. Second, if they were going to make her young, I really wish her flashback had shown her as a Fox News blonde. Instead, almost every scene of flashback revolved around Devil Fred. We don’t see her inciting riots with her gender treachery, we are told by the Mexican ambassador that happened. Wow, what would a upper level undergraduate fiction workshop say about that? ALSO bathtubs full of poutine: the most erotic phrase I’ve ever read.
But let's talk about race—this is a big one. The creator made a conscious decision to include people of color in the series, even though they have been removed by the regime in the novel. Bruce Miller, the creator, stated that there was no difference in his eyes between a racist society being depicted on screen and a racist show (visually, at least). But I think that it weirdly overlooks some key aspects of human behavior: namely, that an extremely misogynistic society is also going to be super racist. During the finale, I was so relieved that both African American characters (Luke and Moira) made it out alive. At least they didn’t fall into that trap (yet).
In other casting decisions, we have an aged down/sexified Serena Joy and Commander Devil Fred. Early on I was not too happy with that: Devil Fred was too sexy and suffering, and Serena Joy is so beautiful she’s hard to look at. But, I do think that turned out okay. Maybe I don’t. I’m feeling conflicted.
AG: The race thing is very interesting. ZB, is “no difference in his eyes between a racist society being depicted on screen and a racist show (visually, at least)” the imitative fallacy or like a backwards imitative fallacy? I am all about representation, it’s so important. But it feels like representation in this sense undermines some of Atwood’s messages about the dangers of sexism, racism, misogyny, religion as state. My feeling is that Gilead is supposed to be what could happen to our society right this very second. So as we’re witch hunting Muslims and cops are shooting African American men and we’re building a wall, it feels like, bro, if this regime fell to make way for a police state, they wouldn’t forget to be racist as fuck.
Also, Fred should’ve been old and old man smelly. Onions and mothballs.
EG: I have read so many think pieces on this subject, and have to tell you that as a woman of color, I feel like the biggest question is why didn’t they choose to keep Nick topless the whole time? BROWN MINDS WANT TO KNOW.
AG: Elizabeth, I love you.
ZB: I read Vulture’s long piece about the show’s fumble on race, and the writer mentions there is a black Commander in the trial of Putnam. I was too focused on the Marco Rubio lookalike to notice.
One of the things I really liked is when the New Ofglen calls Offred on her pre-Gilead privilege. I think it mirrors the privilege we see when we start talking about intersectionality in feminism. It’s easier for an educated, middle class white woman to spout her beliefs, but it is harder to be conscious of the different experiences people might have. I felt this very strongly when Offred returned to Jezebel’s and hectored Moira about giving up. Yes, Offred has it bad, but Moira, as a gay woman, is forced to have sex (and seduce) multiple men. That is several layers worse, in my opinion. She also has no idea about what Moira suffered after she was captured, but I know it was worse than a foot whipping.
Similarly, I feel like the show really put Offred in the center of the confrontation with Aunt Lydia during Janine’s aborted stoning. But New Ofglen was the first to speak up, and is dragged off screen, while Offred gets to saunter in the streets.
AG: HATED the song choice (Feeling Good by Nina Simone) during Offred’s walk of triumph. Tacky tacky tacky. And I agree, having that chick get her face smashed in and then we walk off and leave her (after our big moment of solidarity!) feels like main character privilege, lol. But overall there does feel like a real of the moment conversation happening about white woman privilege.
EG: GAH!! THE SOUNDTRACK IS THE WORST. I did find a lot of the privilege/power dynamic difficult, especially when it came to Moira. In the hotel room, I struggled with Offred’s “believe in yourself” speech because that really centered around what Offred needed—her child, her husband, the promise Moira made to her. Not for a second does Offred find out anything truly personal about Moira’s experience up to this point. To be honest, I find it a bit funny to talk about intersectionality in a show that’s premise is about white women bearing more white people. Talk about privilege.
ZB: Yeah, Offred is like, I have so much to live for, so you better fight for me, Moira. Which is gross, Offred. Just because you shopped at Anthropologie doesn’t mean you are the most important person in the world. The show itself denies Moira a chance to really tell her story, and that makes me so mad. If I’ve said it a hundred times, I’ve said it a thousand times: I’d much rather see a Moira flashback than that fart, Luke, farting around New England, jamming out to James Taylor (“Sweet Baby James” is 47. Also, my mom’s favorite song.)
AG: But is E Moss a great actress or the greatest actress?
ZB: She’s so good she should get all the awards. Greatest. She makes the luminous Carrie Coon look like dog barf.
AG: Amazing actress. No one can quiver a chin like Elisabeth Moss.
EG: She cool but Moira’s pretty badass, too!!
AG: Love Samira Wiley. Pousey forever! Who is the worst character?
ZB: So many contenders! Devil Fred and Serena Joy are almost tied. I don’t have any sympathy for Serena Joy after seeing her flashback, really. She’s an asshole.
Another contender: Aunt Lydia. What makes her especially horrid is that she is a true believer. She weeps as she instructs the Handmaids to stone Janine.
AG: I HATE ALL THESE PEOPLE. Aunt Lydia makes an amazing villain though. Ann Dowd is an amazing actress. I loved how she used to torture Justin Theroux in The Leftovers. Really anything she's in ever.
EG: The biggest villains are Nick’s shirts.
AG: Again, I love Elizabeth.
EG: Predictions for season 2?
ZB: So, is Offred going to make it Canada? Are Luke and Moira going to lead a strike team to get her out? What’s going to happen to her baby? What about Hannah? How scared should we be about leaving the confines of the novel and launching into a new world?
AG: I assume she’s gonna get reunited with Luke and they’re gonna have to come back for their kid?
EG: I think Offred is going to be tricked into somehow staying in Gilead because she’s gonna have to save the other handmaids (yawn). But I really want Moira to Fury Road that shiz and show up with an army of bitches to blow the whole place up! PEW! PEW!
AG: I like the idea of Season 2, we throw Offred aside and let Moira and an army of lesbians take over Gilead!
ZB: Totally into Moira Furiousa. What if we get a whole season about the courtroom battle that begins because Offred has “stolen” the Waterfords’ baby? Like just full on Law and Order: Gilead. Maybe we will finally get that Devil Fred workplace comedy we’ve been dying for. Oops, Commander Pig put an obscene watermark on 500 reams of paper! Oh no, Devil Fred can’t find his flashdrive! Did Mayday steal it or did he leave it in his other pants? Maybe the Commanders have a band that plays dad rock. That’s all fertile (hahahahah) ground.
AG: But the real question is, what are we going to watch next??? I mean, especially now that Bachelor in Paradise is kaput!
ZB: Praised be, bitches.