Season 1, Episode 3: Late
Moving forward to the next installment of our blog series on The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s Emmy-award winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal work, we have arrived at episode three “Late,” in which Offred flashes back to the start of the revolution and see both Offred and Ofglen face changes and challenges (Missed Episode 2?).
The further we progress into the story, the more we learn about the current state of Gilead and how we got there, so let’s dive in!
EH: In each episode they seem to up the shock factor, so it was not surprising that “Late” opens with the revelation that Ofglen had an affair with the Martha in her household and we see her dragged away by Eyes. This first overt representation of imprisonment gives us insight into what actions constitute a violation of law and order in Gilead and it leads to some salient flashbacks from Offred.
What immediately struck me during these flashbacks was how easily I could make comparisons to situations in contemporary America, which was no doubt Atwood’s point when she first wrote the book. Naturally, these scenes, in which new social norms are entirely directed a the role of women in society, made me reflect on how I would reacted to these changes?
My first thoughts in this episode were about the nature of protest and the use of fear and intimidation to quell them. Happy thoughts as always. Offred has been through a time, that’s for sure. What did you make of these flashbacks and what we learn about Ofglen’s fate?
KD: My notes for this opening sequence are a lot of “holy shiiiiiiiiite”s, but the quote I have underlined about seven times is from Offred’’s narration. “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.”
What are we asleep to at this moment? Internationally, as I type this, Americans are dying in Puerto Rico, children are starving in Malawi from drought, and my Google alerts about everything from religious liberty to food security are coming fast and thick. What else are we asleep to? Not even that, but in our own organization? I think we’re doing okay - one of the side benefits of working with your best friend who will constantly call you and your ideas on their crap - but what if we’re not?
The consequences for Gilead to not being awake is that no citizen has autonomy or agency anymore. I was struck that even the Commander is bound by ritual and law and autocracy. What they have done in creating this “utopia” (read: waking nightmare) that is Gilead is strip everyone of their free will. Theologically, this is the core of the problem and what makes my skin itch the most when they invoke God’s name for this malarkey. Free will is essential to God’s relationship to humanity and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something.
*takes breath and sips wine*
Sorry, I get a little carried away. Where was I?
Oh yes, the opening. So when we got to the flashbacks when the women were told they had to stop working, did you get nauseous? My jaw dropped a bit and I just felt … deeply off.
EH: Yeah, I think your opening salvo could not be more relevant. Especially after I spent my Sunday following the news of Spanish police attacking voters in Catalonia (mirroring the state suppression in the flashbacks). I think the show so gripping particularly because we live in a world where we have this pretense of knowledge, because we can be so connected, because we can get Google Alerts and Twitter updates. I think there’s this sense of watching what is happening and perhaps not believing what we are seeing that is echoed in Offred’s narration and the flashbacks to how the revolution started.
I think one of the themes that’s really significant for me in this show is how a system of social control is implemented. I can’t help but think of the little precipitating events that could motivate a group to consider a coup. Offred’s narration continues, “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.” What kinds of bathtubs are heating around us and how aware are we of our positions in those tubs? But, I think on some level human beings crave order and control, and when inexplicable things happen, it’s not hard to imagine people accepting any explanation that gives them that perception of control.
Anyway, I know we could write for days on this, but more immediate events within the episode require some unpacking. We learn that Offred is late, and it’s illuminating to see how the whole household changes in attitude when they think she might be pregnant. And changes again when they realize she isn’t. You have to love a world where the woman is blamed for not getting pregnant and there is no discussion of whether the Commander has viable sperm. “It takes two to tango,” as the old saying goes.
What did you make of that evolving dynamic? And certainly the more shocking parts of the episode involve Ofglen’s fate - gender traitor is new language for an old, old problem. You are the expert on gender and religion, so I’m keen to hear your thoughts on that!
KD: First of all, the situation with men having zero blame for infertility is something I could harp on about for pages and pages, but I’m also sure another episode will give us space to talk about it, so let’s jump straight to gender traitor.
That is so deeply problematic from a social science perspective, and yet so telling.
First of all, gender is a social construct. Sex (male, female) is biological, but gender (man, woman, trans, non-binary) is something that cultures build and reinforce in small and large ways. What it means to be a woman is something that each culture has decided upon throughout the ages. For example, there is zero biological need for women to wear makeup. However, mascara is one of the ways we construct femininity.
Sexuality is both biological and cultural. Science has agreed that someone’s innate sexuality is biological, but their choices regarding acting on it, exploring it at different times, engaging or not engaging, are all cultural. I recognize this issue is one of deep debate, especially in theological circles, so that’s why I emphasized science has agreed. For the sake of this argument construction, and because I believe this is the point of view of the show, let’s accept it as fact.
By talking about lesbians as ‘gender traitors’, Gilead is therefore saying two things: one, gender is biological and two, procreation is tied to gender appropriateness. In order to be a woman in Gilead, one must be straight because the only purpose of sex is to procreate. You are a traitor to your gender if you chose to have sex that does not result in procreative possibility.
They don’t use that word for the handmaid’s or any straight woman who chooses not to have children because they’ve removed that choice entirely. The construction of gender as a biologically (and in this world, therefore religiously) certain pathway is significant. It speaks to everything being biological certainties and is another way in which they adapt the theology of creation to fit their worldview. Nowhere in the Christian Scriptures does it command women to bear children or they’re being sinful; it takes some serious manipulation of the metanarrative to get there and this dystopian draws all its power from that manipulation.
I just checked the word count and we are getting loooooong on this one. I nominate we hit *pause* on this discussion and move on to episode 4, which I’m sure will give us more layers to add to these questions. Sound good?
EH: Sounds great, there was a lot of material in this episode and we clearly have some opinions. We end with Ofglen and Offred as literal prisoners for ‘failing’ in their gender roles, so it can only go up from there!