Ten days have passed since I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve now watched all ten episodes of the first season.
The show opened with a woman fleeing through the woods, pursued by a group of armed men. They surrounded her and ripped her small child from her arms as she screamed and begged for them not to take her.
If you haven’t watched beyond that yourself and you don’t want plot details spoiled, now’s your chance to look away: I’m about to discuss the season’s final episode, “Night.”
Over the course of the first season we learn that our protagonist and narrator is June, a typical middle-class woman who previously worked as an assistant book editor in a charming Massachusetts college town. All was well in her life—husband, daughter, job, jogging—until, seemingly out of nowhere, a radical right-wing group overthrew the U.S. government in a carefully-planned coup d’état and installed their own theocratic dictatorship. Like many others in the bloody aftermath of the takeover, she and her family attempted to escape the new regime’s oppression by fleeing north to the safety of Canada, but they were hunted down and caught before they could cross the border.
In the show’s present-day timeline, three years have passed since June’s daughter was taken from her, and she still has no idea where she is. She doesn’t even know if she or her husband are still alive. Her new reality: living as a handmaid under the strict surveillance of a commander’s household. She has essentially been living in a state of domestic incarceration all this time, unable to communicate with the outside world or even with her fellow inmates, the other civilians forced into various forms of servitude in the powerful households along the commander’s pretty tree-lined street.
A whole season’s worth of drama unfolds, of course, and I highly recommend the show. Suffice it to say that by episode ten, June has made tentative contact with a mysterious resistance network that has managed to slip her an important package. She doesn’t yet know what it is—a peer whispered furiously that it was too dangerous to take it, since it could be a bomb or anthrax for all she knew—but at last, in this final episode, she has the opportunity to close herself into her bathroom by night and unwrap it.
The wrapping rips away. Left in her hands: a bundle of mismatched folded papers, tightly bound together with twine. She loosens the knot in nervous anticipation and her eyes rove the handwriting—the many different handwritings—scrawled across each page. We hear what she reads in voiceover:
My name is Maria Navarro. I was captured on December 2nd at a checkpoint outside of Hartford. They took my son, Spencer. He was five. He has a red birthmark on his right arm just below the elbow. I don’t know where he is. I was a handmaid in three different houses.
They’re letters written by fellow handmaids, the women she knows must be hidden in the other houses but with whom she’s not permitted to interact.
My name is Allison. I have two daughters. I don’t know where they are.
June’s hands shake and her breath constricts with weeping. All these handmaids are mothers, like her.
My eight-year-old got taken away. My son.
As June sifts through the letters—so many of them, now coming unbundled before her—she finally, finally knows.
The wonderful truth of it: she is not alone.
The awful truth of it: she is not alone.
Her capture, the sudden brutal separation from her child—this is the regime’s standard practice. The problem is systemic. Who knows how many mothers out there are desperately worried about their stolen children?
Note that this episode was released on June 14, 2017. That’s almost a year before the journalists and general population of the United States learned how the Trump administration had cracked down on border crossers. Per Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ order, a new “zero tolerance” policy meant that anyone who entered the country outside an official port of entry was now not merely charged with a civil offense, but prosecuted for a crime. Per coverage at the time:
Jeff Sessions: Parents and Children Illegally Crossing the Border Will Be Separated
BY ARIC JENKINS
MAY 7, 2018
“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said Monday [5/7/18] at a law enforcement event in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions added, describing the new policy as zero tolerance. “We are dealing with a massive influx of illegal aliens across our Southwest Border. But we’re not going to stand for this.” […]
The new policy is being implemented with the goal of a 100% prosecution rate for all that enter the U.S. illegally, officials said. Charged adults will be sent directly to federal court. Children in turn will be sent to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which works with shelters or relatives in the U.S.
This is the policy that led to those shocking images of children in cages, and that horrifying audio of children crying for their parents. This is what led to thousands of children not only ripped from parents’ arms but unable to be reunited: the government agencies that separated families didn’t keep any records of the process, or at least not clear, consistent records. Helping parents find their children proved to be incredibly difficult if not impossible in hundreds, even thousands of cases.
Had I already watched The Handmaid’s Tale when these stories broke in May 2018, June 2018, through to January and February of this year, I wonder if June’s voiceover would have echoed in my mind:
They took my son, Spencer. He was five. He has a red birthmark on his right arm just below the elbow. I don’t know where he is.
I have two daughters. I don’t know where they are.
The scene changes abruptly. We go from June’s weeping over the bundle of letters to… where are we? It’s disorienting at first, but fortunately there’s a kind man whose job it is to welcome us and explain what’s happening. He sits across the table from us—we watch over the shoulder of Moira, an old friend of June who was originally held captive as a handmaid as well but, last episode, managed a daring dark-of-night escape. Last we saw her she was speeding north in a stolen vehicle, racing against time and law enforcement toward the border. Has she made it?
“Sorry for the delay,” the man says. He’s dressed in business casual and shuffles some papers on the table. “You got coffee, great. You get something to eat?”
Moira hesitates. “Yes, thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. You came on mac and cheese night. Lucky.”
The camera slowly turns around the room now, and we see that the walls are lined with folding tables, one bearing industrial-sized coffeemakers and mugs, others set up like a potluck buffet with plates, utensils, and a series of chafing dishes.
“Welcome to Ontario,” he continues, his tone soft and sympathetic. “I wish it was under different circumstances, but we’re happy to have you here.”
Moira looks dazed. It’s clear from her face that she’s barely able to process the kindness with which this stranger is treating her. She looks his way, but with her gaze downcast, too traumatized to make eye contact.
“There’s a lot to go over,” he says, “but I will walk you through it! Come follow me.” They stand and he leads her from the makeshift cafeteria room through an office area, handing her materials as they go. “Here is your refugee ID card. I am your temp, you will be assigned a permanent caseworker in the next couple of days. At some point you may be moved to another refugee program elsewhere in Canada or even another country. Cell phone: all paid up for the next twelve months, and you have two hundred dollars for cabs on there just to get you started. Four hundred and seventy dollars in cash. Medical insurance card. Prescription drug card. Okay? Here: some clothes.”
By now Moira’s arms are filled with envelopes and bags.
He pauses to think. “What’s next? Do you want more to eat?”
“I’m okay, I think.”
“Okay, then, shower? Or do you want to just grab a book and find somewhere quiet? Whatever you want, it’s completely up to you.”
The shot slowly creeps toward Moira’s face, focusing our attention on her expression. Her eyes are wide and brows are furrowed in a mixture of shock and grief. What is that numbness we see? Disbelief, perhaps.
Disbelief that after all her years of suffering the violence of a totalitarian regime, the world still has a country, a government, a population, that care for humanity. Canada hasn’t closed its borders to migrants. Its government doesn’t prosecute people who cross outside ports of entry. The people there have chosen to create a system where their collective resources are dedicated to providing refugees with a humane greeting, basic assistance, and comfort as they transition to a new life. In other words, refuge.
Disbelief that refuge is possible.
Just to reiterate, this episode aired a year before our national conversation shifted to the growing humanitarian crisis on our southern border. It was written and produced even earlier: filming for season one began in September 2016, back when most pundits had already called the election for Hillary Clinton, and wrapped in February 2017, just a few weeks into Trump’s presidency and more than a year before Sessions announced his zero tolerance policy at the border.
In other words, the show’s writers weren’t offering commentary on practices that were already in place or common knowledge at the U.S.-Mexico border. They were envisioning what a totalitarian state would do versus what a democratic republic would do when it comes to law enforcement at international borders, and spinning out stories from their imagination.
It just so happens that in their dystopian vision, they predicted elements of the Trump administration’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers: arrest, family separation, incarceration.
So here we are. In both dystopian fiction and our dystopian present, the United States, this supposed Land of the Free is not the utopia to the north, the land of refuge. It’s the precise opposite: the government that persecutes and prosecutes those in desperate need of refuge.
But the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale don’t just show us how horribly a nation can abuse people. It also shows us how it could coordinate systems of compassion. Systems that respect human dignity. Systems in which caring for individuals’ needs adds up to a healthier society for all.
Take that scene in Ontario—the official greeting Canada extends to Moira when she arrives. The automatic reassurances that she is safe and welcome here. The resources they offer her to help her transition smoothly into their society without any time locked in detention or risk of homelessness and destitution on their city streets.
Don’t you think the U.S. has the resources and willpower to set up such a system at the Mexican border, if only our leadership would allow it?
I’d like to schedule a viewing of this episode for all our lawmakers to kick off a legislation-writing session in which we set up a refugee program as beautifully humane as the one imagined in, of all things, a dystopian TV drama.