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Hi everyone, long time! I’m just kinda lurking at this point, but look! Someone apparently wrote an academic article on SwanQueen and the OUAT fandom. Has anyone else seen it? It made me grin.
How’s the show going so far? Can’t quite bring myself to watch it yet…[adrotate group="5"]
Ok, some thoughts on Jezebel now that I’ve digested the episode.
I feel super mixed about this episode. There were some things I thought were really effective, but other choices really made me cringe and wonder why they went in that direction. I’m going to do a character break-down instead of themes just because that’s sort of how I viewed the episode.
If ever there was a time to NOT have an episode focused on Nick and Nick’s own feelings, background, ect it was this one. Holy crow, who thought giving the “Jezebel” scene a Nick-centric flashback was a *good* idea? Cause lemme sit them down and tell them why that’s bad.
This was my first reaction to them centering Nick’s backstory too. And on one level, yes, if ever there was a part of the story where I couldn’t give a flying rat’s butt about some secondary character’s manpain, this was it. But on the other hand, once my general distaste settled, I think this was potentially an interesting move, and effective depending on what message they wanted to convey — though it depends on how you read Nick. So here’s my impression of why Nick’s story was there. The usual trope/purpose of the backstory is a character’s genesis, a way to make them more sympathetic by showing the complexity of their life trajectory, and of the decisions they had to make to get to where they are now. It was therefore weird to me to see how they used Nick’s backstory — which makes his character much less sympathetic, not more. This is a kind of “recruitment into the Stazi” story that was an almost textbook illustration of Hannah Arendt’s point on the banality of evil. And in this, Nick is a microcosm of the entire world of Gilead (and of course, this is a commentary on our current world order too), a kind of story of rapid, unproblematic, and almost unthinking normalization of casual cruelty and the enshrinement of the social hierarchy that makes it possible. The actor that plays Nick plays him as a cypher. Even when we get a glint of internal conflict, it passes so quickly it could as well be a facial tick for all we know, and Nick takes one step forward into inhabiting his role of a member of the secret police. In fact, we get a sense that if Nick has an archetype, it’s that of the “collaborator,” his primary feature a kind of cunning cowardice coupled with an almost uncanny ability to survive and adapt. Nick, in other words, is exactly what you’d expect from a piddling snitch member the secret police in a despotic state. In other words, he is utterly unworthy of June’s affection, and therefore his turning on her at the end — indeed, as if it were she who was at fault — confirms this. I think what the show’s doing here is inverting a trope we might have fallen into, that the love interest might save the heroine not just through some sort of action/intervention into the plot, but by virtue of his own moral standing. So as much as we, as the audience, might be tempted to latch on to the Nick/June pairing, seeing Nick’s insider status as a potential boon for June, here we are quickly disabused on that notion. And precisely because this is all happening against the background of Jezebels, the point of which is to confirm that there is absolutely nothing “holy” or “saintly” about the sort of people who are the primary beneficiaries of this social system — that it’s all to the benefit of a self-indulgent and uniquely fragile and threatened masculinity — is what makes this pulling the romantic rug from under June’s feet effective, I think. Essentially, the show is telling us that yes, June is thoroughly alone in that this system doesn’t have an “outside” or “exemptions.” It’s also saying that so far, all the men we’ve seen here are complicit, in one way or another, and have no interest in going against the system, including Nick.
Commander — We already have a sense of that sort of underlying taste for cruelty that he develops as soon as there’s any power differential at play. This is also his mode of relating to Serena — as soon as she is in a hierarchically subordinate position, he essentially ignores or dismisses her. But I keep thinking, what’s the pay off for taking June to Jezebels? I’m assuming this is another power play — I am pretty sure he realizes that this is a horrific experience for June, so there’s something profoundly perverse in his insistence that she should be enjoying herself. I think this is what makes him especially loathsome, that he demands of her not just servitude, but gratefulness for her servitude. And that’s what makes me want to see June rebel all the more, but in this episode that rebellion was absent except for her sneaking out of the room to speak with Moira.
Breathe, RG! 🙂 (and yeah, I know)
To me, what seemed so interesting about this part of the story is the internal fracturing of Gilead’s governing elite. Whereby you actually have ideological zealots on the one end, and these sorts of cynical debaucherers on the other, and from what we see in the end, the zealots are seemingly gaining the upper-hand. This spells trouble for the Commander, and in this the show’s very clever, because at this point the Commander is so utterly gross that you as the audience just might start rooting for the fanatics, because at least they mean it and it would be so very satisfying to see him brought to heel. But that’s a weird slippery slope to be on.
Okay, I’m behind! I haven’t watched last week’s episode yet but I’m going to try to do so before the new one drops. Hopefully will have thoughts on both by Thursday!
Yes, please what Jezebel so I have someone to rant about it with. Ugh, what an episode.
I disagree. There was a terrorist attack, but that was, from what i understand of what is happening, a reaction to the catastrophic event which is that people are unable to have children. The rise of the cult was a reaction to the catastrophic even, people’s inability to have children. This caused the creation of this cult that is not right winged religious anything. They showed them destroying all the churches. This is a fanatical violent cult.
My point is that the inability to have children on the show is not an “event.” It’s a condition of the show’s world that, as far as we can tell from the story, had a progressive onset. Like, say, climate change or some other slow environmental or social transformation. So while I agree with you that a collapse in fertility underpins the turn to religious fundamentalism and leads eventually to the establishment of Gilead, it is not the cause of the political take-over (in the sense that it is not the event that then precipitates a series of political maneuvers which culminate in a theocracy).
What do you mean that it is not right wing or religious? It is religious insofar as it explicitly based on taking literally Biblical scripture, and it is right-wing insofar as we use that label to talk about conservative values. If you mean that it is not economically right-wing, then that’s an interesting point too, and I’d have to think about that more. But just because they destroy churches does not mean that they are not religious. They are simply eliminating the competition in the name of what they perceive as the only correct interpretation. For historical analogues we might think of the Crusades. Or the Thirty Year’s War (Catholics vs Protestants). Etc etc etc.
don’t really want to go down the political rabbit hole in here.
In saying that “it’s already here”, I was paraphrasing one of Atwood’s statements about the book, where she says that she wrote it not as a hypothetical future dystopia, but as a mishmash of actually existing practices, pulling eclectically from different societies and historical periods (some quite recent). I don’t disagree with anything you write below, though I’m not sure how my comment got us to the question of free speech and protecting established political institutions and principles. But yes, I get what you’re saying — there’s something missing from making the coup realistic. Either we need a sense that more people are secretly on board and that there is a huge but as-of-yet unarticulated social support (as with, say, the Russian revolution), or you need a foreign power orchestrating/supporting/financing it (as, say, the CIA backed 1973 Chilean coup d’etat). In the absence of that, one does wonder where all these people were hiding. Revolutions need money 🙂
It is a global issue. Their child is around 8 years old at the time they ran. It has been 3 years since then. At the time they gave birth to their child, the inability to have children was already happening. Their child was the only child on the ward and someone tried to steal her. That would mean this event has been happening for at the very least 15 years. The ambassador from that other country said that there hadn’t been a birth in their country in 7 years.
That only tells us that this is a North American issue. Do we actually know this is global? As in, does the show’s text confirm this? I’ve only seen part of the last episode, so apologies if something to this effect is mentioned there, and I haven’t gotten to it. But just because it’s in North America (say, Canada, US, and Mexico), it doesn’t mean it’s global.
If they were suggesting that this cult blew up congress and took control of Boston and was now oppressing or murdering the people of a small area, i could accept that. But the show is suggesting that this cult took of the United States except for a couple of pockets in like Chicago and, i think they said, Alaska. They must have taken control of the army.
Wasn’t there a civil war with the use of nuclear weapons on US soil? I thought that was the idea.
There is just a whole lot of world building that would be necessary for this world to exist for me and from what they have shown of the world before the event, there were less babies, protests about that, women lost their right to work, men took their money, their were protests, people shot in the streets, and they blew up the government and took over and yet the world before all this happened people were still doing normal things going out to dinner, writing books, working, going to the movies as if nothing was happening.
Yes, but I think that’s intentional. The show is largely from June’s perspective, and we get the distinct impression that she didn’t think that things could get truly bad until they did. In the meantime, Serena and Fred and their co-conspirators were obviously playing the long game, in that we do get a sense that the coup was years in the making, with the ground for it being prepared ideologically over time. Similarly, in 1930s Germany some people could see the writing on the wall, but most just went about their habitual lives, with the expectation that things will “blow over” and go back to normal precisely because “it couldn’t happen here” and “but we’re normal people”. Nor was necessarily a sense of what “it” would be. Ditto Russia of the 1910s. Yes, you could say later that something was fomenting and we all should have seen it coming, but the whole point of this show is in the analogy of the pot that gets too hot, but does so slowly, until the frog is boiled.
I guess my question would be what would the actual mechanisms be that would prevent things from getting from point A to point B as they are stated in the show. You seem to be saying that people just wouldn’t stand for it, or wouldn’t buy into it — I agree. But honestly, I think this would boil down to one single thing: who has the allegiance of the military.
Once again from what we have seen, something catastrophic has happened, in that people cannot have children. That is the catastrophic event. That is the zombie apocalypse. That is the world ending event. What the world has become is supposed to be, i think, how America might react to the catastrophic event. I just don’t see this is a remotely realistic reaction in America to that occurrence.
The catastrophic event is actually a terrorist attack (or something to that effect) that enables what is in essence an opportunistic military coup by right-wing religious fanatics who have been infiltrating different levels of the government over a longer period. I’d have to rewatch it, but I think that we learn from the episode before last that said terrorist attack was orchestrated by that same political group — as a kind of provocation.
The inability — or difficulty — to have children is not an “event” per se, it’s a slow catastrophe, and humans generally react differently to slow catastrophe. We get a sense in the show that it’s the thing that gets used to justify the system put in place, but it’s not the catalyst for revolution. Though I agree that because we actually don’t know how much of the world is affected, it feels a bit too vague. As in, is the entire world affected or just the US (the first problem is a “species level” problem, and the argument can be made that since humans are severely overpopulating the planet, a decrease in fertility might not be a bad thing; if it’s localized, then it’s a geopolitical problem more than a global catastrophe).
In some senses, the point of the story is not so much that this could happen, but that it’s already here in some form, and has been actively and obviously here in very recent history (in particular in relation to slavery and US racial politics more generally), with some women bearing the brunt of patriarchal power structures that seek to control their bodies, sexuality, and intellect, and others benefiting from it, but always only partially. I take the show to be a meditation on power.
As to the possibility of something like this happening in the US? If you look at the historical records of revolutions in different cultural contexts, it turns out that while historical hindsight it 20/20, contemporaries usually expressed the sentiment that “it could never happen here” until, inevitably, it did.
This made me dig deeper about my indignation on behalf of Milah. Having seen the lives of women, and men, in developing countries first hand, I got to see what obstacles they faced. So it angers me when people dismiss the difficulties these people experience. Milah was treated like garbage on the show – murdered, and then tossed into the River of Souls. The sad truth is that underprivileged people are, all too often, treated in a similar fashion in the real world. I will admit that it doesn’t sit well with me when people, many of whom have privileges they don’t even realise they have, are so quick to pass judgement on the less fortunate without taking so much as a moment to try to understand or empathise.
I think there’s a broader conversation here about OUAT and the way in handles questions of “culture.” I get a bit twitchy when we try to apply our own conceptual categories (or diagnoses) to putatively different cultural or social milieus, whether we’re interpreting another society or historical period. OUAT generally relies on a kind of “common knowledge” (mostly based on pop culture tropes) to telegraph the details of EF’s social conditions – so it assumes we have a particular set of assumptions about medieval Europe, or feudal society, but the whole thing is kind of a mish-mashed construct, not a living breathing world. This becomes especially obvious with OUAT’s total inability to decide what the status of women in EF actually is. (Say, Mulan vs Cora, Snow vs Regina etc). Are they at the mercy of their social roles? Depends on what suits the plot. Does socioeconomic class overdetermine life opportunities? Same answer. Do they get to choose they mate? Well, they do, until they don’t. If we want to parse it apart, the whole thing about Milah and Rumple’s relationship is pretty unrealistic. “We can start a family?” Haha. They would have started a family in their late teens, and by this age (say they are supposed to be in their 30s, even if the actors are older), they should have either had 10 children, 6 of which died, and statistically speaking, Rumple should be a widower (the likelihood of death in childbirth and all that). And certainly, we wouldn’t be seeing Milah knocking it back at the bar because she’s pissed off at her loser husband — in a lot of ways, this is a middle-class, suburban drama transposed onto a fantasy setting.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to get at — perhaps that actually trying to evaluate Milah’s state of being is a thankless task because OUAT’s worldbuilding itself offers very little by way of firm cultural coordinates. It’s whatever’s needed for that week’s plot.
Man, I knew I should have fled to Canada back in November… (okay, semi-lame political joke aside…)
Lol! Ok, I’m going to watch this tonight, and write up some comments after. I’d love to talk more about the narrative structure of the show vs the book — I always thought that the non-linearity of the book is an extremely effective way of showing the psychological effects of incarceration/dehumanization. In this, I think the book partially belongs to the genre of the carceral novels more generally, and the particularity of its structure, with its lines of flight and jumbled narrative. So if the show loses some of that, it’s a pity.
However, the case of Milah is interesting because the audience has swallowed the show’s predominant line about her without any protest at all.
That is very interesting.
I think one of the big exciting potentials and then disappointments of OUAT for me is how the show has dealt with the intersection of gender and class. The source material often deals with socioeconomic hierarchies very explicitly, especially when the fairytales aren’t about “princes” and “princesses” (which is usually what Disney gravitates towards), but about “common” folk. OUAT has at times tried to tackle class directly — Rumple’s story is, in a lot of ways, a story about class and masculinity — at least that’s how I read his DO “genesis” backstory. And it’s actually done fairly well — it is complex and compelling and ambivalent (for OUAT), which makes for satisfying storytelling.
But when the intersections of class & femininity are tackled – Cora’s story, and by extension, Regina’s, but also Milah’s story, and also to some extent Belle’s – this gets really hoary, heavy handed, and often extremely flat-footed. I suspect the reason behind it is that the show frames motherhood as a requirement for the full self-realization of its female characters. So while we all ooh and ahh over what a sweet dad Rumple is (and he is, and Bobby does this sort of role amazingly well), we (the audience) don’t usually extend the same credit to female protagonists, and even minor missteps are represented by the show as major violations. By extension, many of the female characters who fail to have children altogether (either naturally or by adoption) are either permanently villified (Cruella, Nimue) or infantilized (Guinevere, Emma until she ‘accepts’ Henry as her child). [With the exception of fairies, whose reproductive patterns are unknown]
Yet, despite this apparent focus on motherhood/parenthood, OUAT is risibly unconcerned with the pragmatics of the process once the child “pops out”, in particular in the most recent seasons — baby Snowflake disappears into the ether for most of 3 seasons, children are aged up to actually make them interesting or important to plot (Gideon), Robyn is nothing more than an accessory to Zelena’s redemption etc. The show doesn’t actually focus on anything even remotely realistic in terms of the pragmatics of rearing children in its rather crazy world. Belle and the nuns just babysit whenever needed. In other words, the actual pragmatics and dilemmas of parenthood, and its intersection with, say, class and gender — outside of the grand dramatic gestures of rescue and abandonment — don’t interest OUAT in the slightest. But this is totally unsurprising: this is a Hollywood product, after all, and Hollywood is itself the product of a particular culture/mentality.
So why should this not apply to Milah too? I would argue that in the context of the show, it’s likelier that that her poor choices stem from unpleasant experiences than not. Besides, we do have evidence that she probably did hard labour (hauling wood in ‘Devil’s Due), she was depressed (she drank, she left her family!), and we know she thought things would be better if they moved, but Rumple didn’t want to. It’s not about probability, it’s about giving Milah the benefit of the doubt.
I think I agree with most of your points. The problem isn’t so much Milah — it’s the overall grammar of the show that frames Milah’s actions, and which tends to be pretty black and white. On OUAT, you can be a terrible partner/significant other without being narratively framed as a completely hopeless villain (case in point, Arthur), but you can’t be a bad parent and avoid being villainized. In fact, being a bad parent is the one reliable symptom of villainy on OUAT. Similarly, villains are made sympathetic via their “correct(ed)” attitude to motherhood/fatherhood (hence Rumple, Zelena, Regina, Maleficient, and eventually Cora all have their sympathetic side revolve around their relationship to their children, and their redemption, when applicable, is framed around that too). So based on the way the show ties moral worth and parenthood, Milah actually is in the same league as Pan, the BF, and whatever other unrepentantly terrible parents we’ve seen. So it’s not her relationship with Rumple that makes her unsympathetic. It’s that the show systematically equates ambivalence, rejection, or improper interpretation of parenthood (see Cora & BF) with moral bankruptcy. I think we can discuss whether that’s a problematic message or not, but I think that’s what’s behind the audience’s dislike of Milah.
Ok, some general thoughts on the Serena topic, though I might still be a bit under the influence of this article — I don’t necessarily completely agree with its critique of the show, because like many leftist critiques it tends to reify class struggle at the expense of all other forms of domination, but it does make a valid point.
Anyway, Serena. I think the way the show handled that was absolutely brilliant, not just because it casts Serena as a hypocrite (though it does so quite effectively), but because we see a process of ideological emergence that is absolutely chilling. So it’s not that the Commander and the other men of Gilead are these closet religious fundamentalist from the get go. This isn’t exactly a hostile takeover by a preexisting force — they emerge as such over time, as part of a dialogue not just with each other, but apparently with women like Serena, that allow them to feel like they can speak on all women’s behalf. And you actually see this transformation in the Commander — Serena for a long time is oblivious to the writing on the wall, and that’s something that makes her character both tragic and ridiculous. That scene in the cinema where she is preaching her ideological position while totally oblivious to the conditions of possibility that make this preaching possible in the first place is such an amazing and uncomfortable moment.
There is another theme in this episode around the sort of libidinal economy of this society, and how it works on a geopolitical level (the Handmaids as essentially reproductive chattel slaves, presumably commodified for export) on the one hand, and on the personal level on the other. In other words, because we only learn about sexual relations through the Ceremony — and their apparent absence or illicitness in other contexts — it is unclear whether the sorts of taboos on non-reproductively-aimed sex (even, say, within marriage) apply to everyone, or only to the elites. I can’t remember this from the book. But for example, are servants allowed to have lovers? Because if there’s a generalized taboo on sexuality except for reproductive sexuality mediated through the Handmaidens, and if the goal is to fix the demographic collapse, then this is a pretty exceptionally inefficient method of going about it.
The micro-level aspect of this seems to concern Serena directly. As in, what was the show trying to say with that sex scene b/ween Serena and Fred? My guess is that the message is that the more Serena occupies the socially allotted role they both fought so hard for, the less attractive she becomes to Fred. During the Handmaiden gala scene, Serena comes to occupy a position of relative power — both because she is the speaker/host and because the whole event is a spectacle of domination of the Wives/Commanders over the Handmaidens. And that, apparently, makes the Commander interested. In fact, the Commander as a character seems to be defined by a kind of profound fragility of male desire (also apparent in his relationship with Offred).
Also, do we think Luke might actually be alive?