The Problem Of Rose

Or, how The Handmaid’s Tale is failing its own history if it’s not VERY careful.

Spoilers through the end of Season 5. Stop here, or abandon all hope of being unspoiled.

Rose is introduced to us in the first episode of the 5th season, as Nick Blaine’s wife. She uses a cane (the actor has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome), she knows the MacKenzies (the ones who have Hannah) well, and she met Nick at several diplomatic events. She appears to be in her late 20s or early 30s. She is now pregnant. Her specific condition is not defined within the canon of the depicted series, but it has been mentioned outside that the character has pelvic dysplasia (which is a fetal developmental injury, but is not genetic) and her father is THE High Commander, and he fought to keep her.

But we also know that Gilead has only existed for 7 years, and those who founded Gilead mostly came out of the hard right Christian movement. That’s where Serena was making her wingnut welfare money as a conservative show pony, and Fred was her suitcase pimp*. As we know from this reality, that’s where conservative show ponies make their money by writing books that will be bulk-bought with SuperPAC money. This is a well-documented industry.

And the thing most well documented about the Hard Right? The party line on abortion and infanticide is solid in this reality — nobody in Wingnutia would pressure an expectant parent to abort a child for a manageable condition, and the Gilead concept of Shredders ¶ is anathema to our hard right.

Rose is not 7 years old. Nor is she 12 or 14. She’s at least 25, and my guess is closer to 30, so she was born into our world, sometime in the 1990s. She was born into a world where the infanticide of a child with a birth injury is murder, and into a world where it’s unlikely any doctor would have suggested a later abortion to her parents. Her developmental injury is not life-threatening. Her injury would not have harmed her mother to give birth to her — we have Caesareans that don’t kill people. And from a purely political perspective, her father would not be THE High Commander if there was any hint he’d been in favor of any abortion, ever.

But also? Rose is not a child and was educated in our world, and we know this because Eden existed in this universe. Eden could read, because Eden was probably 9 or 10 when Gilead came into being, and at least her mother permitted and encouraged a deep, Protestant faith in Eden, and let Eden keep her Bible. Eden could write, because she’d gone to school since she was five. Eden would now be 19 or 20 if she’d lived. Therefore, Rose is at least 5 years older and probably 10. Rose was at least 18 when Gilead took over. Probably 20-25. Rose could read, could write, had been exposed to the internet, libraries, Britney Spears, skinny jeans, leggings, iPhones and modern medicine. Rose had most likely completed high school, probably college — even if her father subscribed to the Stay At Home Daughter philosophy, a socially valuable young woman for a political aspirant needs education. She might be at a Christian college, but it was accredited and she was getting a fully functional education. Unlike Jayden and like Eden, Rose was not torn away from her family, so her memory is not clouded (as badly) by trauma.

Gilead’s upper class is re-creating all of the customs and social controls of 18th century through early 20th century aristocracy, most especially the Marriage Market. We’ve seen them do social events for their aristocrats — country clubs, dinner parties, ballroom dancing, ladies’ tea parties. And they’re adopting most of the social practices — in-home servants instead of casual household labor, the Angel In The House model of marriage, careful segregation of children by gender. Which means that even a girl with a limp is valuable if her father is important. That her father didn’t push her into an advantageous (to him) marriage before Nick came along says her father has got better qualities in him than most of the Commanders we’ve met — but it’s still a marriage mart, and a daughter is a valuable commodity for cementing social and political alliances.

And Rose was at multiple diplomatic events. An unmarried Daughter who was unsupervised enough to have conversations with an unmarried man. Who of course had been vetted before being invited — and those events are marriage mart events, let’s not delude ourselves. That’s more agency than most Wives have in seven year old Gilead. Rose has not been cloistered the way most daughters have been. She was not being treated as a child, because she was not a child when the government fell. She was likely an adult, and has been afforded the privileges of adulthood. Being her father’s daughter, she was not going to be sent to the Colonies or turned into a Handmaid; as an aristocrat she probably doesn’t have the skills to be a Martha, but she was being treated as a social equal to the married Wives. That makes her a truly unique character so far.

Now, Rose is also well aware of the reality of her situation, more so than most people. To escape Gilead before she married Nick would be nearly impossible; she’d have to trust a driver to not betray her, and she would know that she might need to run, and would not be able to run well enough to save herself, or would endanger another. Disabled people know that escaping dictatorship is more difficult with a disability, and know that most countries will not accept disabled immigrants, and will not allow disabled refugees to apply for citizenship.

So perhaps it’s not so much that she’s happy in Gilead, but that she prefers being alive to being shot dead at the border, and she can either make in Hell a Heaven for those in her orbit, or she can be sent to the Colonies, or hanged. Calling it home is likely an oversimplified shorthand for a deeply complex set of conflicting emotions.

And having married Nick, there’s a good chance that she’s realized escape is more likely with him than without, because she knows he aided others in escape, but she also knows it has to be handled carefully, slowly, with utter precision. And she knows that she’s the ears and eyes inside the Wives’ circle for their pair.

I don’t know what the meeting in jail meant. I cannot imagine she’s so naïve that she thinks their conversation wasn’t overheard/recorded. She already knows significant secrets about Nick’s life and work, details that required significant trust. And she’s also not stupid — she knows there’s no divorce available. But there’s a good chance she must present a specific front for her father, or so that her father has plausible deniability. I have no reason to think this isn’t a 3D chess move… but I also know people behave badly under stress, so her reaction could be the profoundly hurt, impulsive reaction of betrayal.

But that doesn’t fit. (I am specifically avoiding the Doyleist perspective that the writers blew this, because they are very good at their jobs). What we have seen of this character is remarkable, so I hope it persists, and the writers don’t betray her.

*Suitcase pimp – a porn star’s non-porn boyfriend who claims he’s her manager to sponge money off her income. He carries her suitcase when she’s on set. A parasite.**

** I truly believe Serena was the brains of that operation, Fred was a waste of hair and food, and he lived as long as he did only because he was white and male and had enough low cunning to say the right words, and because he was married to a show pony.

¶ : a newborn with such profound birth defects that the child cannot survive. These children are euthanized in Gilead.