The Handmaid's Tale: Night

"It's their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army."

Do you know when a horror story is the most frightening? It's when it is so real and plausible that you can easily imagine it happening to you. That's what this series does to me. I've had nightmares twice after watching an episode, and this finale made me cry, not once, but several times.

The Republic of Gilead is what Serena Joy desperately desired, and she is at the pinnacle of women in her new society. And yet, she is so terribly unhappy. She is struggling for power and purpose in a place where she is voluntarily powerless and purposeless, and she takes out her rage and misery on June: she hits her, uses her, and blames her husband's infidelity on her.

(Interesting that Fred turned around and blamed Serena Joy for what he did with June. I guess nothing is ever Fred's fault. Fred won't even play Scrabble with Serena Joy any more, actually or metaphorically.)

Why would Serena Joy take June to see Hannah? Why would she be so cruel? Suicide prevention, of course. Serena Joy thinks June is about to do what Janine and the first Offred did. But it backfired, didn't it? It pushed June over the edge at the Salvaging. Those moments in the car might have been Elisabeth Moss's best performance in a season full of terrific performances. I couldn't help crying as June stared at her daughter through the glass and screamed, "Let me out!" while flailing helplessly at the box that Serena Joy kept her in. That stream of obscenities that June spit at Serena Joy afterward was all the more powerful because June tries to stay calm and mostly succeeds.

So we went from the insanity of Serena Joy's unbelievable cruelty toward June to the insanity of Warren Putnam's trial and "harshest possible" punishment, as decreed by his nearly powerless wife. Fred wanted the Commanders to forgive Putnam because of course, Fred has committed the same "crime" not once but twice, and apparently, they're big on cutting off body parts in Gilead even if they like you. That matter-of-fact amputation in that glaringly white operating room was way too graphic and uncomfortably disturbing. At least Putnam got anesthesia. Do the handmaids get anesthesia? The tag that was stapled into June's ear during the Red Center flashback doesn't bode well for handmaid anesthesia. I don't care about Putnam, of course, but that nightmarish operation felt like a deliberate preview of what might happen to June.

When it was revealed during that gorgeous scene in the snow that the Handmaids were supposed to stone Janine, it felt as if the entire season had led up to this. The series began with Janine losing her eye, and ended when she was to lose her life. Janine has been effectively portrayed as the opposite of June: way too emotional, not very smart, and she could never keep her mouth shut when it counted.

It really wasn't surprising by this point that June led by example and dropped her stone. But it was even better that the first person to refuse was Ofglen the second, the one who has been the happiest with her lot. Only minutes before, she had complained that June was, like, the worst shopping partner ever. Since Ofglen was new, she hadn't been to a stoning before, and questioning her duty got her a rifle butt to the face. I guess handmaids don't need teeth to give birth, do they?

That moment of triumph as the Handmaids walked home, set to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," was cool, although we know it won't change anything. Janine will certainly be executed, anyway. But June did finally reach the point where torture was no longer a deterrent. And that brings us to the Lady or the Tiger ending.

June has entered the black van, and they're taking her away. Will it be darkness or light, life or death? She has given herself over to the hands of strangers, or in this case, the cipher that is Nick Blaine. He did seem moved when he learned she was pregnant; he knelt beside her and touched her ever so gently. But there is simply no way to be sure what Nick will do. We don't know enough about him to even guess. Will June lose a hand or an eye? Will she get hung on the Wall? Or is she on her way to a safehouse on the FemaleRoad, and eventually to a reunion with Luke in Canada?

I feel like I have to go with hope, especially if these systematically brutalized Handmaids could simultaneously reach a point where they refused to stone one of their own. And especially since the B plot was all about Moira's successful dash for the border. What a perfect little scene, with Moira's face all wonderment and confusion as her caseworker gave her the physical trappings of freedom: money, a cell phone, a medical ID card, the offer of coffee or a book to pass the time – all things that June cannot have.

I especially appreciated that final moment where Moira and Luke hugged so tightly in that memorial hallway. The whole world seems so cold and grim now, but at least Moira has reached sanity. There are still good people in this dystopian world, although apparently, they're mostly in Canada now.


— During the brief Red Center flashback, June was tagged like a cow, in a chair that looked very much as if they were about to execute her. I often find myself comparing what happens to the Handmaids to what happens to animals. A good argument for animal liberation.

— Serena Joy was practically worshiping June's positive pregnancy test. There was an interesting echo of the same body language when June opened the package and found all those letters from Handmaids. Note that what was emphasized in those letters were the Handmaids' real names.

— Serena Joy is always knitting. Every time they show her doing it, my mind goes to do-it-yourself abortions.

— I liked that sweet moment when Rita hugged and kissed June, and the even more poignant moment when June told Rita to look behind the tub.

— Fred apologized to Serena Joy, probably because he doesn't want to lose a hand. Would Serena Joy ask for the maximum punishment for Fred? Of course she would.

Love the placement of the mobile. It looks like very strange Fallopian tubes.
— June told Fred that he'd better protect Hannah from Serena Joy. Here's hoping.


June: "That look was terror. Utter and unutterable. Tastes like gunmetal. Like the point of a carpenter's nail."

June: "It's their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army."

Serena Joy: "Praise be. He answered our prayers."
June: "Do you think I prayed for this?"

Serena Joy: "She's pregnant."
Fred: (after a pregnant pause) "Praise be."
Serena Joy: "Praise be. It isn't yours. You're weak, and God would never let you pass on that weakness."

Handmaid: "Oh, man. I hate stoning."

Janine: (as she was about to be stoned) "Not too hard, okay?"
What a Janine thing to say.

June: "I ought to be terrified but I feel serene. There's a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility."

Nick: "Just go with them. Trust me."

This series has been renewed, even though this is where the original book ends. I find myself wishing that it ended here so that I can pretend Nick is on the level and is about to get June out of the country. I bet we'll get no such happy ending in season two.

Four out of four Ontario license plates,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


Corona Zschusschen said...

This show is an emotional rollercoaster for me. My boyfriend who's watching this with me has a totally different experience. Though he finds the series moving it doesn't impact him on a deep level.

magritte said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reviews of the first season of this show, Billie. It's interesting how many TV series are now based on novels, which historically tended to get made into films. But films are generally too short, so TV has a much better opportunity to flesh out the complexity of good books. Though sometimes I think TV has a little too much time and the series can be a little flabby, and sometimes the ruthless editing of films down to essentials has its pluses.

While the novel implied that Offred might have escaped to Canada, the "underground railroad" referred to was never dramatized. The scenes of Moira's wintry entry into Canada deliberately recalled the highly publicized (in Canada, at least) surge in asylum claimants illegally crossing the border last winter. I expect next season to explore the refugee experience in more detail, which is more topical than it was when Atwood wrote the novel.

There's some risk of a dip in quality as the writers can no longer adapt but must create entirely from scratch, but Atwood is said to be involved in helping them create the new season. I am anxious to see what they have in store for us next year. Though the book said that Offred's story was from "early in the Gilead period", implying the society continued for a while, the events of the final episode suggest that revolution may come earlier in the series. Or perhaps it will show the totalitarian crushing of resistance movements instead; either way they have new thematic territory to explore.

Anonymous said...

Three cheers for the manner in which the producers so painstakingly followed the events from the book to what we see every time we turn on the news in our now terribly dystopian-leaning political world. We are left on the fictional precipice that so mirrors our impending election precipice looming this November.