The Handmaid's Tale: The Word

I don't usually read reviews by other critics before I write my own, but I've found myself doing it often with The Handmaid's Tale. And I am constantly surprised by how negative they are. I'm not talking about pointing out flaws; no show is perfect. But in general. Oh, it's such a terrific show, the writing, the acting, the photography, consistently excellent, but it's just too bleak, it goes too far, it's simply too horrifying.

For me, though, that's the point. The reason I find The Handmaid's Tale so powerful is because that extreme hatred of women, the constant effort to control and punish women, it's so familiar and strikes a deep chord within me. Everything that happens to women in Gilead has happened to women for real, somewhere else. It's a thread that winds through our history. Gilead is just a matter of degree.

Cleaning up after someone who has died is a particularly emotional experience. As June and Rita washed and dried Eden's uniforms and packed her things into her suitcase to return to her parents, Rita confided in June how deeply she regretted how badly she treated Eden. Interesting, since it was much like the hostile way Rita treated June at the beginning of the series, which has gradually turned into quiet, unwavering support and friendship (and by the end of this episode, so much more). June expressed her own guilt by acknowledging to Rita, out loud for the first time, that June had done much worse – she had slept with Eden's husband.

It was such a shock when June discovered that Eden had hidden a Bible in her suitcase. Eden had tried to understand "The Word," had annotated her interpretations of the text all over it, even though women are not permitted to read, much less write. This discovery compelled June to confront Serena in the ubiquitous dying greenhouse, now filled with spring lilies. (It seemed odd that spring has finally come to Gilead, a place that appropriately seems to be trapped in an eternal winter.)

Scenes between June and Serena are always good, but June confronting Serena with that Bible and what it meant was exceptional, the culmination of all of the "two steps forward, one step back" progress in their relationship this season. June showed her anger to Serena, pointed out that their shared daughter Holly/Nichole wouldn't be permitted to read, even the Bible, and could so easily suffer Eden's fate someday. No matter what Serena did to protect her, Gilead is too dangerous a place for their baby girl, for any girl. "Are you going to lock her up here like an orchid?"

Which led into the discovery later in Fred's study that Eden's father was the one that turned her in. June was so shocked that she actually said it out loud, "You turned her in?" Rita was so upset that she had to leave the room. In the first of two private confrontations with Fred, June asked him, "What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?" Fred carefully closed the door before hitting June in the face and quoting Biblical woman-hating crap from Proverbs at her.

The touchstone of this series is Elisabeth Moss' face. Her expressions, her reactions to what has happened to her in Gilead has been our throughline. In this season finale, the expression we kept seeing on her face was anger. She hit Fred back. That was a wow.

For all the children of Gilead, boys and girls

So of course, Serena rallied the wives, thinking that maybe being allowed to read "The Word," the Bible, wasn't too much to ask. Leading the other wives, she went to a meeting of the Commanders, offering an "amendment." I loved the photography in that scene, the wives beautifully shot with light behind their heads like halos, something they've done a lot this season.

The reaction of the Commanders – did Serena come by because Fred forgot his lunch? – was predictably dismissive, but Serena, being Serena, couldn't leave it at that. She brought out Eden's Bible, opened it and read to the Commanders. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. In him was life and life was the light of men, and the light shinith in the darkness." And I knew right away that Serena was going to lose her finger. Thank you, producers, for not making us watch that. The beating in the study earlier this season was bad enough.

The Waterfords came home. Fred said, thundering understatement, that they'd had a difficult day, but "All will be well from here on." He actually dropped Serena's wedding ring that she obviously couldn't wear at that moment on the bedside table, an example of what I like to call Most Obvious Symbolism. After he left, Serena showed her maimed hand to June and said, with such anguish in her voice, "I tried."


June was so angry at this point that she could no longer contain it. It was like the gloves finally came off, and honestly, I'm not going for a hand pun there. She confronted Fred in the kitchen, where he attempted to bribe her with her daughters. If June were an obedient handmaid, rules could be bent for a high ranking commander. June could stay with the Waterfords and be around her baby. He might even be able to arrange more visits with Hannah. I could see it almost working – it would be a powerful incentive for June, although it was pretty clear that he started losing her when he talked about the two of them trying for a boy this time. Let's keep in mind that Fred knew very well that baby Holly/Nichole wasn't his, that it would just be sexy fun time that he was talking about.

I loved June actually saying, "Go fuck yourself, Fred." That took courage. After all, this is a man who just had his disobedient wife's finger cut off.

Walking on broken glass

There's a point where fury outweighs self-preservation. While June was teetering on the edge, Emily went right over. It was Ceremony night and her son Oliver's seventh birthday was approaching and Emily simply could not do it anymore. She stole a knife from the kitchen and knelt obediently in the study, ready to kill Joseph Lawrence, even though it would certainly mean her own death. Only to have Lawrence tell her, "No. Get up. I'm not gonna do that with you." Wow. And then the next day, he lied to Aunt Lydia that the Ceremony went splendidly. Splendidly!

But that culminating rage had to go somewhere. The most shocking moment in this episode was when Emily stabbed Aunt Lydia and pushed her down the stairs. It's just too bad that Emily didn't finish her off while she could. Although actually, I'm torn about that. Aunt Lydia is a horror, but Ann Dowd is awesome. But I digress.

I completely understand why Lawrence didn't tell Emily outright that he was an ally, but that certainly heightened the suspense, especially in the car when he was practically dancing along to Annie Lennox. Was he enjoying a bit of classic rock while taking Emily to die? Could he possibly be that perverse? I'll admit that when I saw the fire in the street, I thought, is Lawrence going to have Emily burned to death, like a witch? Oh, Emily. Why didn't you just cut your wrists when you had the chance?

What were those fires? There were several of them. Lawrence is most certainly part of the Resistance; did he have them started as a distraction in order to get Emily out? It had to be coordinated with the Martha network, with Rita suddenly coming to June and saying she could get June and her baby out if they left at that very moment.

Which meant that June had to get the baby away from Serena. And that moment was earned. After everything that had happened to her this season, Serena could finally be reasoned with. June said all the right things to Serena. She cannot grow up here. I know you love her. June's final words to Serena were "Blessings on you," and it wasn't fake pious repetition, June meant it. That was lovely. I particularly loved that June later acknowledged Serena's sacrifice by telling Emily to call the baby Nichole.


Burning down the house

The ending, with June giving her baby to the escaping Emily but deciding to stay in Gilead for Hannah's sake, was earned, too. I was touched, but not surprised. Yes, we all want June to get out of Gilead, but hey, we also know that as long as the series continues, June isn't going to get out of Gilead. Clearly, June must be part of the Resistance that brings down this place, and she can't do it with an infant in her arms. After all, Hannah is important, too. Even though she was adopted by a wealthy family, Hannah is still wearing pink. She's a future handmaid. June cannot just leave her in Gilead.

What now? Where can this series go next year?

Things are changing. Handmaids talk truth with each other outright now. The marthas have a network. There are guardians that helped Nick at the end of last season. Gilead is ripe for rebellion, and Joseph Lawrence is a powerful man. Wouldn't it be perfect for the architect of Gilead's economy to also be the architect of its demise?

It probably depends on how long this series will run. If they want it to go on for years, it's going to be frustrating waiting for Gilead to go under. Not every series should run for seven years, guys. I think it would be smart if it was shorter, if it ended before it lost its impact.

Oh, what am I saying? The suits never make decisions like this. The success of The Handmaid's Tale will probably work against any creative decisions they could make.

Bits:

— The opening scene showed Eden's clothes on a clothesline, billowing like water in a pool. Nice segue from Eden's execution to what was left of her, which was basically nothing.

— Fred looked at a map of Gilead. Here it is, someone screencapped it. I wish it was easier to see.


— Could I say again how much I love Bradley Whitford and what great work he did here? "Have a nice life! Don't get caught! Keep away from drugs!"

— At one point, in a lovely scene, Rita handed baby Nichole to June and Nick and let the two of them be alone with their baby. June told the baby, "This is your daddy," kissed his cheek and told Nick she loved him. I love scenes like this, but they all make me so worried that they'll get caught. But if Emily gets away (please let Emily get away) at least Nick got to hold his daughter once.

— June carved "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" on the wall of her room before she left, a message for Fred. The thing is, that pulled me right out of suspension of belief, because it most certainly would have taken more than a minute, and June was rushing out the door.

— The modern music intertwined into this story is often jarring. Even so, I thought "Walking on Broken Glass" and "Burning Down the House" were perfect.

— I'm an American, and I constantly think about the current administration while watching this show. It's easy to see our current president as Gilead's dear leader, pretending piety as he inflicts the ultimate in cruelty. He'd love it. Just as long as he had the prettiest handmaid.

Quotes:

June: "Heretics don't get to rest in peace. Here, they use them as animal feed."

June: "All we leave behind is a uniform. Wife. Handmaid. Martha. Mother. Daughter. Girlfriend. Queen. Bitch. Criminal. Sinner. Heretic. Prisoner."

June: (after hitting Fred) "I think I broke my hand."
Rita: "Praise be. (to Nick) Your girlfriend is a badass."

Janine: "Do you think they're together in Heaven?"
June: "They should be together here."

June: "We should celebrate."
Janine: "We can bake a cake."
June: "Or tequila."
Janine: "Oh, tequila! I miss you most of all."
Janine always makes me smile.

Four out of four discarded wedding rings, and see you guys next spring,

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

6 comments:

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

Hey Billie,

I figured that June escaping wouldn't be in the cards with season 3 confirmed. Normally, I'd be frustrated, but I expected it.

Odd as it may sound, Six Feet Under's second season had a similar pitch, with the main character going under the knife for a potentially life threatening brain disorder. While he's in a medically induced coma, he hits a crossroad: either embrace his death or live with the consequence, which in his case could have been a life of hardship had the operation gone awry.

I don't know if this is ever officially the case with television shows, but the third season always seems to be about upsetting the status quo. So here's hoping that season 3 won't involve June returning back to the Waterfords. Hopefully there should be enough acrimony between Fred and Serena to compensate for her absence. And it could give the writers an opportunity to see what unique twists that the new Offred can bring.

One of the big concern I had for this season was what central grounding there would be in Gilead among the handmaids with June at large. Well, I didn't have to worry much with June having spent most of this season back with the Waterfords. So with her presumably at large once again in season 3, I wonder how they'll manage to keep Gilead's point of view in focus without its main character as its frame of reference. So in lieu of June's absence, who would be the logical figurehead to balance out the Waterfords as June herself navigates herself though Gilead's treacherous infrastructure?

And I wonder if the following seasons with play out with June working her way up the ranks of the resistance, while Serena does the same to gain a more elevated standing in Gilead.


milostanfield said...

Just finished watching and I’m still too emotional to write a decent "what’ll happen next" comment. Should rewatch first but I gotta say something now.

I’ve cried over shows before but I have never cried, hyperventilated, yelled, and fist pumped like I have with the endings of both seasons of this wonderful difficult show. Burning Down The House!

Love the way they use songs at the endings of episodes, like "Burning Down…", "Bondage, Up Yours", and "American Girl", which ended Season 1 when June got in that van. After an hour of Gilead it’s wonderful to be hit with an electric blast of rock and roll, reminding us that the real world, in all it’s messy, contradictary glory, is still out there. Is there a list of all the songs somewhere? Would love to predict what song will end Season 3 but I have no clue. A happy child’s lullaby maybe, sung by June?

I too was surprised by the negative press. Made the mistake of going to NYT right after watching, and wading into the Lyons review with the ensuing comment wars. Lotta cat food. Shoulda come here first but didn’t think your review would be up so quick.

Most of the negatives seemed frustrated that superheroes aren’t coming down from Canada and liberating all in typical television show style (cue Mission Impossible theme).

Or Serena’s (and Aunt Lydia’s) contradictions. Any writer would love to create such messy characters. The kind with the potential to get up and walk away on their own in unpredictable directions. And let’s face it: much of the power of Gilead’s structure comes from the complicity of women like Serena and Lydia in their own enslavement, a favorite Atwood theme. Kudos to both actresses.

Or that June seemed to give up a baby still dependent on mother’s milk to a risky journey "so easily". Thought decent points were made by both sides on that issue. My 2 cents: Hannah’s still in Gilead, and the fact that June is no longer the apolitical, comfort loving person she was in the Before Times. She is becoming a warrior.

I thought, as you noted, that the opening, with June’s "All she left behind…" voiceover was tremendous. Almost a poem. I remember three outdoor scenes in the show where the camera panned up to an eye in the sky view: this scene, the scene where they blow up the new Rape University, and near the end of this episode with the burning houses. To me that says that the show is moving focus from the House Of Horrors to Gilead as a whole. It is time for a reckoning.

There’s a saying going around: "The future is female". I would really love to stick around long enough to see that happen, and not just in Gilead. Blessed *&^%ing be.

Victoria Grossack said...

I think a lot of the negative press is politically motivated, so it may not be how real people feel. I saw a lot of it while reviewing Supergirl.

Juan Alberto Roche Rodríguez said...

I personally don't know to much about the political ideologies behind the backlash to The Handmaid's Tale, but I do know one thing, and its that I simplely don't like the series. In fact I can't stand it. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the production or the performance of its actors. Im sure there are excellent.

Its just that this series seems like a masochistic endeavour to me. I personally couldn't past the third episode. Is a series that ask to much to its audiense. I dont find any satisfaction in watching women been phisical and psychologically torture, rape, mutilate and who know what other horrors in a weekly basis. I just can find the enjoyment to engage in its narrative to only suffer. It seems to me like another way to justify showing violence against women.

Saddly it seems to be a trend in Hollywood this days. To spread misery for shock value. Like for example the upcoming series from the creators of Game of Thrones (another series that while really good in its own merits still have some gratious demostration of violence against women)thats is about an alternative world where slavery wasn't abolished.

I don't mean that this real issues of our world shouldn't be treated. Art is a reflect of the world after all. But showing the crudity just for the shock of it for entertainment, without any solace o hope, seems cheap to me.

Meaby I'm wrong, meaby this issus should be show more often in the media in order to call atention to them, but I don't know.

I don't want to criticize anyone who likes the series, is perfectly fine of course, but I can understand if theres is people who doesn't like it.

Just my two cents.

Billie Doux said...

Juan Alberto, I personally cannot stand Game of Thrones. Sometimes a show just doesn't work for us. I would never suggest that it's a bad show, though. (Don't tell any of the other Doux writers that I said this. :)

Juan Alberto Roche Rodríguez said...

Not worry ;)