Letting Life Lead
Here Be Spoilers.
I don’t usually post about a series or comment much on YouTube recaps, but lately I’ve been keen on The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve noticed that people love to hate June.
“She’s stupid and deserves it.”
They call for her to be sent to the colonies, be hung on the wall, or punished like Janine, Alma, Emily, Francis, and so many others. This episode appears to have really rubbed people the wrong way. It must be bad writing.
But is it?
I have a theory.
We aren’t supposed to like June.
The show has such fine detail and everything you see and every visual element has a purpose: the props, the costumes, the camera perspective. This has been fascinating to me because these small elements can be missed, and it makes me wonder about the unspoken dialogue and unseen interactions.
Are the writer’s of this show just bad?
Some story decisions in retrospect may not have worked so well. Serena getting shot in the lower abdomen, for example. That scene makes viewers thing that she is incapable of having children. This is not the case, it is Fred who is sterile. Some other character development and plot points have room for improvement.
June, I am convinced, is written deliberately as a frustrating, maddening, exceedingly lucky, inexplicably privileged character. We aren’t supposed to like June. We’re not supposed to trust her judgment.
Because her rash, selfish, uncalculated decisions makes us mad.
Yes and no
Francis seemed so sweet and innocent, right? She didn’t deserve to die and she was executed because of June. We see things mainly from June’s perspective, and we are privy to her actions and the consequences of those actions. Francis is not a POV character. She must be innocent and, therefore, her death was for nothing. Is that true though?
In the scope of the story we know one fact: Francis was a risk taker.
Her meeting with June at the grocery was not the first time she has broken rules. We know this even if we haven’t seen her do anything. How did she know Parker otherwise? How many people has she put at risk in her own fumbling in learning how to navigate Gilead while not towing the line? How many mistakes has she made? Has she killed anyone on purpose or inadvertently? We don’t know.
We don’t know a lot of things.
Another woman hung with her was accused of child neglect. We are told the baby was left to cry. Do we know that for sure? We only know what is relayed to the handmaids. It isn’t clear whether or not Aunt Lydia knows the whole truth. Perhaps the baby had colic which would be all the excuse Gilead needed to confiscate the baby and give it to a Wife. Babies are hot commodities, so why not embellish?
What were the two handmaids accused of and was it true? What were they caught doing? Who did they endanger in whatever self-serving endeavor they were involved in? Perhaps, their time was just up or they were needed to scare more valuable handmaids.
It’s easy to forgive the dead and strangers.
Ofglen killed a lot of handmaids and possible allies in a suicide bombing. The body count for that one action is far more than June’s multiple years of actions that have directly and indirectly contributed to deaths. Francis, who appears innocent of all things, is not necessarily dying with unbloodied hands.
Yet, Ofglen is often reflected on as a rebel in favorable light despite the massive loss of life. June, on the other hand, is given the full blame for Francis and others. She is judged for adultery, for not leaving before Gilead came to power, for trying to help a desperate Martha escape and failing, and for ruining an econowife’s family (forever solidifying June as a homewrecker).
Ofglen gets sympathy, but not June.
It ultimately doesn’t matter if the Mackenzie’s Martha did or didn’t do anything wrong. In Gilead you are wrong if Gilead deems so. Truth is irrelevant. If Gilead has to change the rules or make things up, it will. If Aunt Lydia has it in her mind to save or maim a handmaid based on her own judgment compass, she will. If commander Lawrence wants you to pick who lives and who dies from a row of caged women, you do it.
If Gilead needs bodies for the wall, then bodies will be found. Gilead can turn a normal bout of colic into “this woman neglected her baby and let it cry”. The reason is irrelevant as long as the collective gets what it needs. This is done in part by shoving propaganda at its populace. Score one baby for the Team Blue and one econowife for the hanging. When more handmaids are required, the criteria net will be widened.
A Martha can be hung for suspicion for looking sideways on Sunday. Francis could have been charged for walking on the wrong side of the street or on the whim of her commander at any time.
The show has shown precedent for this. Gilead won’t admit flaw. The more handmaids and letters get out, the worse their image. So, they discredit, justify and spin.
Contentment must reign even if it is a lie. Nicole, in the Gilead controlled narrative, belongs to Gilead either as a child or a pawn. Gilead only has to bide its time in order to raise the first generation of Gildeadeans who will know nothing else but oppression and fear. The first tests have been conducted with child brides.
June may have hastened some deaths, but let us not forget that it is the Gilead collective doing the murder. They system has also made all citizens complicit in that murder.
In the book, Offred is shown to be (and admits to being) an unreliable narrator. She is recounting her story on tape. She doesn’t have all the information and is suffering from PTSD etc. She can’t always remember things right or just finds a full truth unbearable. She is more sympathetic.
Gilead is not a a rational, normal place.
In the show, June is far less sympathetic. We see her every flaw and weakness and mistake and all of the ripples caused by every single action. Viewers are supposed to get frustrated and angry at her choices. It’s not just about her character arc. It’s about the viewer’s descent.
When we get mad, we judge.
For the same reason villains are shown doing relatable human (even kind) things, June is shown doing things viewers can easily judge from a position of privilege. The audience is shown only a small fraction of what is going on through very specific, limited POV filters. Assumptions are not knowledge.
There is not one person in the show who hasn’t made irrational choices. It’s random and arbitrary who gets punished. But that is the point. Gilead is not a rational, normal place. The rules are numerous, treacherous, and prone to shifting.
Why does June get to keep both eyes and not Janine? Why was Emily spared death more than once and not the countless nameless handmaids? No reason. It is unfair, of course. It’s Gilead.
Why are so many Wives in Gilead facilitating and excusing rape and kidnapping and murder? Because they judge that what other women get without effort is unfair and thus deserve punishment. They believe that they know all and have all the answers. They know sin when they see it. They believe in their own insight and protection. They believe they are deserving.
And viewers judge, too. And the audience is widely erratic on who deserves what.
Who are we to judge?
We can say we would never be so stupid and as reactive as June, yet, do we really know that?
Hindsight Is 20/20 and Viewer Sight Is Being Manipulated
June’s decisions are often worthy of a good TV-shout. Most people in reality do make questionable choices especially in the spur of the moment or because they are focused on a goal. Some get an infinite amount of chances no matter how many times they screw up. And the sweetest, kindest, most generous people get shafted constantly.
June decisions are like this:
You plan in your head what message you are going leave on voicemail and promptly panic when someone answers because you hadn’t thought of that possibility.
Why wouldn’t you presume someone might pick up!? It seems like common sense after all your years of phone experience. However, you are human and you had an expectation and it went off script.
We can say: Hey, June, you aren’t getting into that school with any plan much less that flimsy one you dumbass. It’s so easy to dismiss that June has been kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, raped, brutalized, gaslighted, had her name erased, tagged like an animal, witnessed and participated in hangings, had two children taken from her, has lived with her rapist and a woman who facilitated those rapes and took her baby, and has the sword of Damoclese hanging over her head at all times.
It’s a wonder that she can function at all much less make sensible, well-planned missions. What sort of experience does she even have with subterfuge? She plays it by ear because she has to. She makes rash decisions because she can’t think straight. She looks “alright” and say’s she’s fine, but she isn’t okay.
How about Emily? Her selfish actions not only hastened the death of a Martha she was caught with, but she also stabbed Aunt Lydia in the back in her new Commander’s home endangering Mrs. Lawrence and a Martha. Consequences be damned.
Her survival was a lucky break. Yet, she is beloved and June is hated for not being calculating.
In the freezer scene where Francis and June were both not being discreet enough. Francis suggested that Hannah/Agnes might be better off where she was. It sounded as if Francis was coming to believe that one could exist in Gilead and live “okay”. That it was better where they were than to risk escape. It is amazing what one can get used to in the interest of survival. June reminds her that Hannah has two living parents. And that reminds us, too.
No one is safe in Gilead. Not the children led from a prison facility leashed by their hands. Not all the child bride Edens. Not even pious handmaids nor Wives with the tightest chignons.
Viewers might be disgusted at how self-centered and selfish June can be. She is not the only one with these traits. This makes her flawed and very human. Every moment is pressure and possible death, and that changes what you think danger is. It would be weird if she was being rational.
June has tried manipulation and sleeping with the enemy. She tried to make nice with a kidnapper. She tried making a political deal. She has tried appealing to Nick.
She takes desperate, panicked risks. Why?
Why did she go to that school? No thanks to the Martha who said maybe Hannah/Agnes was better off growing up in a raping-murdering-childstealing cult because she is “doing well”. How does June know that Hannah/Agnes wants to go? Well, ask her, June thinks!
June is playing it by ear with the limited resources she has as opportunities appear. Opportunities that might never come again.
To understand just how deep irrationality goes in all of Gilead, watch the house scene with Serena again. The lives of the last moments of the previous occupants are entombed: the children’s shoes, the family portrait, the name Phoebe on the wall in the bedroom.
They were a well-off family with well-cared for children (we presume, of course). But neither Serena nor Winslow had any spark of seeing any damage or the horror that has been inflicted. Self-centeredness in the other direction. It is not born of self-preservation of the oppressed but of the blind privilege of entitlement.
Serena Joy and Winslow’s Wife care only for possessing and enjoying their false privilege.
This is the world Hannah is in. A world that will change the rules if they run low on handmaids. Serena can’t see that; June does. June is terrified. Her growing anger and pain is beginning to wave over the terror, but it will always be there driving her.
Serena had no reaction to ringed handmaids. June writhed with visceral horror.
The lesson: things are always fucked and are going to get worse that you can ever imagine.
June is taking desperate leaps is in fitting with an imperfect, traumatized human being who is only allowed a very narrow scope to move. She is learning harsh lessons. People are going to get hurt with or without her intention. It’s only a matter of time.
She does squeak out of trouble due to luck or unexpected help. We could say that about several characters, including Commander Lawrence. Nick is also relatively unscathed. It’s a wonder how Janine is still alive.
Who is to say that others that we don’t get to follow around in their POV aren’t just as lucky? We are mostly seeing June’s antics, but what about all the mayday people? They are all taking risks. Their actions must be causing someone to lose their life even if they try to be careful. This is Gilead!
Commander Lawrence’s Martha said in an an earlier episode, “This is why we don’t move people.” That poor doomed Martha was desperate enough to risk it anyway. This tell a us that people in Gilead do take risks at great peril to themselves and others. I’m sure their hindsight was 20/20, too.
June is not the only one who has made grievous mistakes and run fast and loose with people.
Disdain Is Powerful
Are the show writers giving June a pass purposely to draw out scorn? If so, I think its brilliant. What better way to show that Gilead is not that far removed from reality?
Whatever, June is still too damn lucky and undeserving, right?
Isn’t that what Aunt Lydia would say?
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