Book Review- The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments Cover

“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”

These are the opening words of The Testaments, written by one of the book’s three narrators, each of whom is already known to readers of the original book, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the acclaimed Hulu series based on the book. The words were written by the author of books, of course, Margaret Atwood, who once made a cameo appearance in the series as an Aunt.

In Gilead, Aunts are the caste of middle aged women who are in charge of other women, especially the handmaids. They are the only women who are allowed to be educated, including learning to read and write and having access to books.

In the novel, the author of these words reveals herself to be Aunt Lydia, spirited enforcer of the rules with a tendency to play favorites. The self awareness, dry wit and double entendre involved in the comment are indicative of the journey Aunt Lydia and Margaret Atwood are about to take us on. Lydia is honest with herself, if no one else, and has no illusions about what her place in history will be. But, unlike most of the women in Gilead, she chose her own destiny with her eyes wide open.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 2: Mary and Martha Recap

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In Season 3, episode 2, Mary and Martha, June begins to find her place in the complicated Lawrence household, Luke and Moira get used to having a new baby to take care of, and Emily tries to find the parts of herself that her wife would recognize. Everyone except Head Gamemaker Commander Lawrence digs deep inside themselves to meet their new challenges. As usual, Lawrence surveys the system he’s put in place and makes minor tweaks to keep it interesting and functioning at a certain level.

Recap

June’s voiceover: “I used to be bad at waiting. ‘They also serve who stand and wait,’ Aunt Lydia said. She also said, ‘Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. Think of yourselves as seeds. What kind of seed will you be, girls?’ I pretend I’m a tree. And I wait.”

This is a lovely little metaphor, until you realize that the seed is consumed in the creation of the new plant. The baby is all, the mother is nothing. It’s also a story you’d tell to children, as is typical of the infantilization that’s programmed into the women at the Red Center.

But June turns it into a metaphor of empowerment. She doesn’t grow a baby who consumes her, she grows into a strong, immovable tree, who waits for the right time to act. Childbearing is a small part of her. She has a family of trees to help with the baby.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 1: Night Recap

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We’re back for season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale in Gilead with June and the gang, since June selfishly nobly didn’t escape in the season 2 finale. She stayed to rescue her first born daughter, Hannah, who had ordered June to try harder to be her mother just a few weeks before the escape attempt. June sent baby Holly/Nichole safely to Canada with fierce mama bear and dragon slayer Emily, knowing that she could trust Emily with the life of her child.

June also stayed in Gilead to help the Resistance, so that all women and girls could be safe from rape, torture and murder. Even if she can’t get Hannah out, she can try to make a better place for her to grow up in. Most of the people in June’s life take a while to understand the sacrifice she’s made. Serena is inspired to make a big change in her own life, as well.

Recap

The season opens with the standard reminder of what’s come before. Season 2 ended with June handing Baby Holly Nichole to her fellow handmaid Emily, and telling her to call the baby Nichole. Then she sent her younger child to safety in Canada, where she knew her loved ones would take care of her. Having fulfilled the promise she made to Holly before she was even born, that she wouldn’t grow up in Gilead, now June turns away from saving herself and toward her older daughter, Hannah. She made Hannah a promise, too, a promise to try harder.

In season 3, June will try harder.

June prays for safe passage for Nichole and Emily as she runs away. She worries that Nichole won’t know her or forgive her if they ever meet again. But, she’s at peace with her decision. “I’m sorry, baby girl. Mom’s got work.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 4: Other Women Recap

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This week, it’s Aunt Lydia’s turn. June is back under her control at the Red Center, and it’s Lydia’s job to turn willful June into submissive handmaid Offred. Her goal is for Offred and the baby to go back home to the Waterfords, so they can finish the pregnancy in the best environment for the baby. Lydia uses every punitive and manipulative tool at her disposal to break June, and continues once June is back in the Waterford home. Serena Joy and Rita aren’t spared from Lydia’s training either. Lydia is relentless, actively encouraging June toward a mental breakdown and dissociative disorder.

The main themes of this season are motherhood, isolation and loneliness, but other women is another one. Each of the women that we’ve come to know is facing a challenge this season, and they each need to decide who they are as a woman, and how they relate to other women.

Does a woman see herself as an island, only responsible for herself and her own needs? As a sister, mother and daughter, responsible for the well-being of her family? Or as a member of her community, however she defines it- the handmaids, Gilead, the human family?

Janine is doing her best to spread her love for her lost child out to her community, making her world a better place. Emily has tried to live as an emotional island, but Janine is challenging her to rethink that. Serena’s inability to have children has forced her to focus outward, but June’s pregnancy is giving Serena hope that she’ll be able to have a more intimate relationship with a child.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 3: Baggage Recap

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In episode 2, Baggage, June reflects on her complicated relationship with her own mother, Holly, as she faces leaving her daughter, Hannah, behind in Gilead when she escapes. June is moved from the Boston Globe offices and makes her way closer to freedom, so the reality of what she’s doing hits her in this episode. In Canada, Moira’s already physically free, but she and the other refugees must grapple with the lingering effects of what Gilead did to them and what it forced them to do.

June jogs through the Boston Globe building on what looks to be a well-traveled route. She’s been hiding there for two months and is still maintaining her shrine to the executed employees, with candles burning in remembrance. The employees must have loved candles. You’d think she’d have run out a long time ago. It’s a freedom of speech miracle.

She remembers her mother saying that women are so adaptable that they can get used to anything, and wonders what she’s gotten used to without realizing it. This mirrors Aunt Lydia’s statements that normal is just whatever you’re used to, and things in Gilead would begin to feel ordinary and normal to the handmaids before long.

Moira also still jogs, but she jogs through the streets of Toronto. Her route takes her past the refugees’ shrine for their lost American loved ones. It’s not so different from June’s shrine, except it’s outside.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 2: Unwomen Recap

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Episode 2 is Emily’s episode, the episode of the Unwomen, the gender traitors, the sinners and the resisters. We follow Emily and Janine to the Colonies to get a look at what Gilead is like in another part of the country. And we watch Emily’s back story as a wife, mother and university professor. Emily fights for freedom of expression and sexuality, while June is taken to stay at the former offices of the Boston Globe newspaper, where the entire staff was executed for their part in maintaining the American right to freedom of expression. They each deal with the enormity of the loss of this freedom in their own way.

June rides to freedom, or at least her next hiding place, in the open flatbed of a delivery truck and muses about the meanings of freedom, both symbolic and practical. She wonders whether the Resistance can really get her out, or if the infection that is Gilead is so deep inside her that she’s no longer capable of escaping it.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 1: June Recap

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Welcome back to Gilead! Things are still as much fun as ever, as you can see from the photo above. June is on a roller coaster ride this episode, going from punishment for standing up to Aunt Lydia during last season’s finale, to special treatment because she’s pregnant, to barely being tolerated by Serena (so, back to normal), to a sudden chance at escape. As always, June is never sure where any of this is leading, but she’s not the kind of gal to stay home and knit sweaters, so she jumps into every opportunity, feet first.

“Whether this is my end or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing, and so I step up into the darkness within. Or else the light.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Finale: Did June Betray Rita and the Marthas by Staying in Gilead?

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In the season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, June chooses to stay in Gilead rather than escape with her baby daughter, despite several Marthas and others having risked their lives to help her and Nichole. This has become a controversial choice with the audience. I’ve seen many commenters who feel that June was selfish to stay behind, because the Marthas had taken serious risks to get her and the baby out. Some people think that the Marthas will feel angry and betrayed when they find out that June didn’t leave. Since even major outlets were shocked and disgusted by June’s choice and agree with the judgement that it makes her selfish, I’ve decided to address it in a separate post from my already extra long recap/analysis.

This is a complex issue. First, calling June selfish for sending one child to safety but giving up her own chance at freedom so that she can try to save her other child and work with the Resistance to save more people, is blatantly ridiculous and misogynistic. What would be selfish is saving herself without a thought for the other people it would affect, which is what the Marthas expected her to do.

Second, June didn’t ask the Marthas to get her out. She owes them now that her baby is hopefully free, but she wasn’t required to take them up on their offer, since she didn’t request it in the first place. Even if she requested it, she would have been allowed to change her mind. Her life and her children’s lives are the lives most at stake in an escape attempt. If she wasn’t comfortable with what was happening, she had the right to change her mind. After all of the uproar about the rapes in this show, are people now saying that June doesn’t have the right of consent to the escape plan that others devised for her and her children? That’s insane. Hannah and Nichole are the most innocent victims, and as their parent, June’s first responsibility is always to them. She has the right to consent to the plan or not, and to withdraw her consent if needed when conditions change. Which they did, when she saw that she could send Nichole to Canada with Emily.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 13/Season Finale: The Word Recap

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Also: Serena’s Doors and Windows; June and Serena’s Journeys in Season 2 and the Future; Silencing the Women of Gilead; The Changes in Gilead: From Motherhood to Obedience to Polygamy?; Baby Nichole’s Big Adventure; John 1:1 and Teaching Daughters to Read the Word of God; The Martha Relay Race; and Maps of Gilead and Interpretation

In season 2 episode 13, The Word, Serena reads a Bible verse out loud to the Council that ends by saying the word was God. In this episode, the word is also Out. Everyone wants out of their current situation. Serena and the wives speak out for their daughters and all of the daughters of Gilead. The Marthas out themselves as the true Resistance. Rita is outed as the Black Widow of Gilead, just as I always knew she was. Emily and Nichole get out of Boston, maybe Gilead. Fred wants disobedient women out of his life. June opts out of escaping, choosing instead to work toward getting Hannah and all of the daughters of Gilead out of danger from the growing reign of terror. And Lydia is taken out of the game by Emily, at least temporarily.

By the end of the episode, everyone is outside of their normal status, and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever go back to what had become normal. In the beginning of season 1, Aunt Lydia promised the handmaids that the rules and restrictions of Gilead would come to feel normal and ordinary to them with time. She was wrong. In the last few episodes we’ve seen women and men at every level of Gilead society rebel, from a high-ranking commander to an Unwoman who barely got a reprieve from the Colonies and death.

Serena quoted Isaiah last episode, verse 49:25, in which God promises to deliver the captives and save the children. This episode, a captive was delivered, and a child was saved, but they were brought out of their captivity in Gilead, the enemy of the good. She left out the next verse, where God promises to “make your oppressors eat their own flesh” (Isaiah 49:26*). This is literally and figuratively what’s happening in Gilead. Gilead is cutting up its people, a piece at a time. In this episode, we saw Commander Putnam, who has one hand; Cora and Janine, who each have one eye; Emily, who had a clitorectomy and lost a tooth; Serena, who gave up a finger to the cause; and we heard Aunt Lydia refer to Lillie, who had her tongue cut out. Mr Spencer metaphorically ate his own flesh by turning his daughter in to the Guardians, leading to her execution. Commander Lawrence drove his wife insane by becoming a mass murderer in service of Gilead.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 12: Postpartum Recap

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Also: Eden’s Choice, Handmaid or Surrogate? & Emily and Herr Friar Commander Lawrence

This week on The Handmaid’s Tale, the characters try again to make their lives make sense. They tell themselves whatever lies or fantasies are necessary to keep going in Gilead. But, as always, the truth wins out in the end. What makes this a fascinating show is the combination of what each character is striving for, with how they cope when they inevitably lose their dream. Reality can never live up to the fantasy of a long hoped for dream, so even success is a form of loss, when you have to accept the imperfect real world in the place of your perfect imaginings.

This episode looks at the consequences of getting what you wish for. June is out of the Waterford’s house. Serena has her baby. Eden has found true love, after her marriage didn’t live up to her expectations and nothing she did could turn it into a happily ever after. Commander Waterford has the prestige and promotion that come with being a father.

But June is lonely, bored, and misses Holly. Serena is essentially a single parent and her baby is continuously fussy. Eden’s love is forbidden. And Fred knows the child didn’t spring from his own loins, so he doesn’t even try to bond with her. To him, the baby is a status symbol, tool to help him control Nick and bait for getting June back.

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