The show follows the story of June Osborne (played by Elisabeth Moss), who was separated from her husband and daughter while trying to flee the United States into Canada as the Gilead regime was taking over. She’s now a handmaid assigned to Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy Waterford (played by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski) where she’s forced to have sex with the commander once a month as part of ‘the ceremony’ — loosely based on the biblical story of Abraham impregnating Sarah’s handmaid Hagar because Sarah was barren. Oh, and she’s no longer called June anymore but Offred, or of-Fred because she’s literally Fred’s property now. That’s the naming scheme for all the handmaids.
Through the first season, we see her battle with coming to grips with her new life, falling in love and having a child with the commander’s driver, Nick (played by Max Minghella) and later discovering that her husband actually made it to Canada and is still alive and her daughter, Hannah, was ‘adopted’ by a family in Gilead.
This wasn’t my first time trying this show. I had given it a shot back in 2019 when it was first released and I just didn’t get it. This time around, however, I was completely hooked on the first episode. Maybe because I was stuck in the hotel room with nowhere else to go and no distractions. Whatever the case, this time I found the show absolutely brilliant, owing mostly to the phenomenal performances by Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski, who I think really carried the show.
My excitement came to a screeching halt on the finale of season 2. I haven’t felt that frustrated with a show since the last season of Game of Thrones. (Well, and the CW’s The Flash, which is annoyingly inconsistent and, frankly, bad, but I still watch it for some reason) In the finale, June lands a surprising chance to escape Gilead into Canada with her new baby through the elaborate planning of the Marthas, who have developed a kind of underground railroad. You need to watch it for yourself to fully appreciate how much of a good fortune that was.
After being guided through several yards and fields by the Marthas, June stands by the roadside in the dark, baby in hand. It turns out that Commander Lawrence (played Bradley Whitford), who seems to have doubts about the whole Gilead thing, is in collusion with the Marthas. He has decided to help his handmaid, Emily, escape by organising a truck that will take them to Canada. And then it happens; at the last moment, June hands her baby to Emily, tells her to take care of her then turns away and walks back to her life in Gilead with some kind of determination in her eyes. And the credits roll. This was absolutely inexplicable!
The show worked hard in the past two seasons to reinforce the fact that neither June, Nick, Serena or any of their friends had any power to change anything despite their best efforts. Then, after all that, she leaves her baby and turns around to face it all again like she’s Rambo. I was really frustrated and despite my wife trying to explain that there’s some sense in that decision, I couldn’t see it. It made little sense for June to choose to abandon her baby and her chance at freedom for a chance — a very slim and dim chance — to save her other daughter somehow. A daughter whose whereabouts she barely knew.
What made June such a powerful character is that she’s just an ordinary person. She’s not a superhero. She wasn’t a soldier in her past life. She’s just an ordinary person made a slave by an oppressive regime. Something that could happen to any of us. That made her relatable. And with all this, with no special skill besides sheer will, she had to struggle to survive through manipulation. Sometimes being pushed to consider compromising her own principles to achieve her ends. Again, something I’m sure we can all relate to. Then suddenly, when freedom is in sight, she drops it all. Fully aware that nothing is ever forgiven in Gilead. She might be dead in the next hour then both her children won’t have a mother.
That decision by the writers reeked of an attempt to keep the story alive so that the show gets another season (which happened since the show had four seasons). If June had gone to Canada, there would be no more story to tell. Sonia Saraiya put it really well in her Vanity Fair article:
For a season that has revolved entirely about June’s fraught attempts to survive in Gilead as a pregnant woman and new mother, those final moments have her renouncing her own baby with surprising calm. When she visualized escaping early in the season, June was wracked with guilt about leaving her eldest daughter, Hannah, behind—but concluded that saving herself and the new baby was worth the risk. In this final scene, though, June leaves her baby with a traumatized and confused friend—and a company of complete strangers, who might be saviors heading to Canada, but also might very well be evil Eyes. … She’s choosing to lengthen her stay in a repressive regime that has repeatedly sanctioned her own rape—that has mutilated her, tagged her, whipped her, and confined her to the life of a glorified broodmare. … This would appear to be the dumbest possible decision, and yet the show highlights it as a moment of unmitigated triumph. Something is very wrong here. — Sonia Saraiya, Why Did The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Finale Have to End Like This?
That decision was enough to put me off the show. I tried to watch season three but — and my wife agrees on this — it just went downhill from there. Sure, it was still entertaining, but the story was no longer as gripping as the first two seasons were. Maybe because the show had outpaced the book, it was no longer guided by Margaret Atwood’s brilliant writing. I don’t know.
Anyway, this is not meant to be a review of The Handmaid’s Tale. Rather, it’s about a book I read this week that has made me rethink my stance and made me understand, a little, why June would have done that.
Faith and Doubt
I’ve often heard people say as a parent you fall in love with your baby at first sight. That it’s an instant, honest and inexplicable love. The baby won’t give you anything. Instead, you’ll spend the next few years bowing to their every demand, worried about their wellbeing, sacrificing a lot of your dreams and desires for them. And yet, the moment you hold your baby for the first time, nothing else matters. Even the mother, who’s spent the last couple of hours in what is described as the most excruciating pain a woman can endure, immediately forgets all of that as they are absolutely beholden to this new life in their arms.
I read the book “Faith and Doubt” by John Ortberg on Friday and it really gave me pause. It’s really well written. The book has one of the strongest opening chapters I’ve read. In the first chapter titled “Faith, Doubt, and Being Born” John Ortberg says the reason he believes in God is tied to the story of his baby, Laura. She wasn’t the beginning of his faith, but a new chapter in it. I can’t possibly paraphrase it adequately, so I’ll quote the whole passage here, enjoy;
On our second anniversary, Nancy began what would be twelve hours of labor. … Laura’s body was unusually positioned inside Nancy (the phrase the nurses used was “sunny-side up”) so that the hardest part of her head was pressing against Nancy’s spine. Each contraction was excruciating. The worst moment came after eleven hours and several doses of Pitocin to heighten the contractions. The doctor, with a single hand, wrenched the baby 180 degrees around inside my wife’s body. Nancy let out a scream I will never forget.
… They finally had to use a vacuum cleaner with a special attachment to get the baby out. (The Lamaze people had warned us this procedure might make the cranium look pointed, but it would only be temporary.)
Suddenly the pain was over, and we held this little conehead in our arms and were totally unprepared for the world we had entered. Nancy, who had never been particularly attracted to anybody else’s children, held the baby and looked around the room like a mother tigress. “I would kill for this baby.”
I pointed out that I thought most mothers would say that they would die for their children.
“Die? Why would I want to die? If I died for her, then I couldn’t be with her. I’d kill for her.” And she looked around the room, clearly hoping someone would give her the chance to show she wasn’t bluffing.
I took the baby from her and was overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of the presence of a human person. Not just the mechanics of her body—though they were amazing. Not just my sudden love for this being—though it was a flood tide. What overwhelmed me was being in the presence of a new soul.
“I can’t believe that there is a live, flesh-and-blood, immortal being in this room who didn’t used to exist. She will grow up—and we’ll watch her. She’ll become a woman. And then one day she’ll grow old. This red hair will turn to gray and then to white; this same skin that is so pink and smooth right now will be mottled and wrinkled, and she’ll be an old lady sitting in a rocking chair—and it will be this same person,” I said to Nancy. “Yes,” she said. “And I’d kill for the old lady too.”
We propped that tiny body with towels and blankets in the car seat of my old VW Super Beetle to take her home. I drove like I was transporting nitroglycerin. I crawled along the freeway in the slow lane, hazard lights flashing, doing twenty-five miles per hour, ticking off motorists from Northridge to Pasadena. How do you travel carefully enough to protect a new soul?
When I held Laura, I found myself incapable of believing that she was an accident. I found myself incapable of believing that the universe was a random chaotic machine that did not care whether I loved her or hated her. I don’t mean that I had a group of arguments for her having a soul and I believed those arguments. I don’t mean this conviction is always present in my mind with equal force. It’s not.
I mean the conviction welled up inside me and I could not get away from it. I could not look at Laura and believe otherwise. I could not hold her without saying thank you to Someone for her. I could not think of her future without praying for Someone more powerful and wiser than me to watch over her. When she arrived, she brought along with her a world that was meant to be a home for persons. A God-breathed world.
— Faith And Doubt, John Ortberg and Zondervan
This right here is the reason I can’t believe that June could just hand her baby over to someone she barely knew. Someone who in action had shown that Gilead had broken her. And yet it is also the reason I can believe that she couldn’t leave her other daughter behind to grow up as a woman in a place so unkind to women. A place that had “repeatedly sanctioned her own rape—that has mutilated her, tagged her, whipped her, and confined her to the life of a glorified broodmare.”
So maybe there was some sense to the reasoning of the writers. I wonder how I am going to feel when I first hold my baby. As someone who has never really been that attracted to children, I wonder if I will be immediately struck by an inexplicable love at first sight for this new soul in my hand or it will take a while (I’ve read of parents who say it took a while).
Parents, can you relate to the feelings that John and Nancy had? How did you feel when you first saw and held your baby? What was going on in your mind? What were you thinking? And would you have made the same decision as June? Please hit reply and let me know. As someone who wishes to be a parent one day, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. And to my parents (I know you’re reading this), I’d love to know how you felt when you first held me 😁.
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I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July
I know I was targeting 78kg for today, but after a strong first two weeks, things didn’t go so great this week. I used to snack non-stop throughout the day and I’m finding it really difficult to stop that habit. But I’m not giving up yet. The target for next week is again 78kg. Let’s get it!