By now, The Handmaid’s Tale and the word “timely” are permanently welded together. When the Hulu show premiered in May 2017, only a few months after the U.S. presidential election, practically every review rightfully perceived Gilead’s restrictive society as a dark mirror to Trump’s America. Originally based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale conjured up a possible future where the conservative strings in our nation swell and drown out the rest of the nation’s orchestra. As viewers, we could dip our toes in the show’s scalding thought experiment, but still had the sweet freedom to change the channel.
Until Wednesday’s episode, “The Last Ceremony,” I took comfort in the fact that the show was still just a projection of a dystopian future — emphasis on future. Certainly, some of the new policies coming from the Trump administration were inching towards Gilead at a terrifying rate, like some states’ restricted abortion laws and curtailed voter rights, but we hadn’t collectively arrived at June’s (Elisabeth Moss) grim reality yet. Fundamentally, we resembled the people Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) enviously eyed from her cab in Canada: a spaghetti strap-wearing, PDA-giving public.
Until now. The ending scene in this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t just a “timely” fictional rendering of certain strains in the id of our political system. It was a depiction of something that’s happening right now as I type this, as you read this, between parents and children on the border of the United States and Mexico. While we’re watching a TV show about a woman being separated from her young daughter, women (and men) are being separated from their young daughters (and sons).
As a “reward” for being forcibly sexually assaulted by the Waterfords, Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) gives June the one thing she wants: a reunion with her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake), from whom she’d been forcibly separated five years earlier. June had only caught a glimpse of Hannah in Gilead once before, when Serena tried to use her knowledge of Hannah’s whereabouts to threaten June into submission. With this meeting in a barren mansion, June technically gets what she wants. But “getting what she wants” turns out to be devastating. A guard pronounces that she will have 10 minutes with Hannah. Ten minutes to reunite, to tell her daughter that she loves her, to sew up time and trauma. It is not enough.
Watching June tearfully hug her daughter, I wondered what kind of world would allow this to happen. Or, watching the stoic guard tell her to hurry up, what kind of world would enforce it? The answer is right in front of us: a world like ours. In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance policy” for illegal border crossings, which resulted in the immediate separation of all families caught crossing. Since the policy has taken hold, adults have been sent to federal courts and detention centers. Minors — including babies — have been sent first to Customs and Border Protection facilities, and later to child immigrant shelters and tent camps. In the past six weeks, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents. On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order poised to address children being separated from parents, though we have yet to learn the specifics.
To be clear: There is no plan in place for reuniting these children with their families. Some parents may be deported without their children. When, and if, the children are reunited with their parents, they will likely bear scars from this experience forever. In an official statement condemning the forced separation policy, the American Psychiatric Association wrote, “Any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
While fictional, June and Hannah’s reunion scene shows the devastating ramifications of forced parental separation detailed in the APA’s statement. After recovering from initial fear, Hannah confesses she remembers June. They finally have a chance to talk about That Day — the day they tried to flee, the day June was taken from her daughter and put into a van, the day Hannah was lost in the woods near the Canadian border. Hannah grapples with her abandonment: “Did you try to find me?” she asks. When June answers the affirmative, Hannah asks, “Why didn’t you try harder? I waited for you.”
Hannah’s just a kid. Of course she doesn’t understand the seismic societal shifts that prompted their separation. She only knows that she was lost, and her mom couldn’t find her. How about these kids on the border? What do they know? Many of them are too young to know their parents’ names. They don’t know the “whys” — only the realities. The truth is, no “whys” in the world could justify this practice.
This scene is representative of Gilead’s uniquely warped mission, which is to replace the crucial, organically formed relationships that ultimately define our lives with something stricter and based in written policy. And so: Handmaids give up their infants to powerful couples, 15-year-olds leave their homes to get married, 5-year-olds are captured in the woods. It’s a society that fosters estrangement by prioritizing dogma over humanity. We can see the prioritization mimicked in our country right now, as families are torn apart in the name of a cold policy.
At its core, The Handmaid’s Tale is still just a TV show. It’s designed to be entertainment, albeit extremely dark, always uncomfortable entertainment. For those of us who have stuck it out to season 2, episode 10, I believe we can react to this eerily prescient scene in one of two ways. First, we can allow the TV screen to act as a hard-and-fast boundary between fiction and reality, and treat this scene as merely another progression in a saga we’ve been watching unfold; as a plot-point. As in: June is separated from her daughter. What next?
Or, we can let this episode and its stark timeliness shake us. The Handmaid’s Tale could be more than a TV show we shut off after an hour — it could be tool for radical empathy. In this scene, June must have an impossible conversation with her daughter. She must apologize for a separation she did not choose, and she must impart the kind of love that can put a broken kid back together again. While watching a mother stretch herself to these limits, imagine the thousands of families currently separated affected by the “zero tolerance” policy having the same conversation, one day. Let it make you angry, and let it inspire you to take action.
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