The Handmaid’s Tale
Like many sophomore efforts, The Handmaid’s Tale season two has been an exercise in patience. It started with a bang, then jerked us around a bit, pushing beloved characters into corners and then yanking them back out again, much to the chagrin of viewers who wanted big changes and expected faster pacing. Some viewers wanted June to pull a Thelma and Louise, shooting her way out of Gilead and riding to freedom (though hopefully not over a cliff) through New England. Others expected Serena to abandon her religious zealotry out of empathy for June’s plight and then smuggle her into Canada. Some must have imagined June would die in childbirth. I wondered if Canadian forces would invade the U.S. as Luke seemed to hint they might. And literally all of us wanted June to finally rid herself of the Waterfords — or for the Waterfords to rid themselves of June.
But we all knew season three was coming, and nothing curtails the adventurous spirit of a season two like a season three. Almost everyone ends this season exactly where they started it: June is out of the Waterford house but unsure where to go, Emily is on a journey to the unknown, Nick has helped the woman he loves escape, and Fred and Serena are trapped in a loveless, degrading marriage. Emotionally, they’re still trying to walk through fire. But let’s leave the end for the end.
Eden, whose plotline always felt a little wedged in, has proven herself a valuable incentive for change in Gilead. Wrapped up in hand-sewn clothes and linens, June discovers a Bible covered in doodles like any high-schooler’s diary, except in this society a glance at the written word by a woman is a crime punishable by a chopped-off finger. At 15, Eden was about 10 when America crumbled and Gilead formed; reading and writing were already part of her identity, and she must have found them difficult to sacrifice, especially in service to God. As a devout student of her faith, it seems that Eden took the spirit of the law more seriously than the letter. Serena dismisses Eden as a sinner when June presents the diary, but June’s blunt reminder that Serena’s own daughter will never be allowed to read the Word of God shakes her. And her discovery that Eden’s own father turned her into the authorities when she showed up with her lover — and that Fred not only condones familial treachery but views Eden’s death as a valuable lesson for her younger sister — sends her into action.
This episode, “The Word,” is actually far more attuned to Serena than to June, a balance that has slowly shifted throughout the season, and which can be entirely attributed to the fact that there is little of interest in the narrative arc of a character who entirely lacks agency, like June does. June can’t realistically plot her own escape — she can’t even walk to the grocery store without accompaniment. Every step she’s taken towards freedom has met with an insurmountable barrier. While she’s bounced around New England like a yo-yo, and her psyche has rocked back and forth between a dark well of depression and a resilient buoyancy, she has undergone very little substantial change: June started the season fighting for freedom and ends the season the same way. Like a Navy SEAL in training, the writers have kept her sinking to the bottom of the pool, only to kick her way to the top where she draws in a fresh draft of air. Ad infinitum.
At this juncture, Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t know if it should become an escape narrative in the vein of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or hew more closely to Margaret Atwood’s original novel, which (spoiler alert) leaves readers in suspense as to whether June escapes Gilead to end up in the clutches of the Guardians. While the show has waffled on June, Serena has emerged as the most fascinating character to watch. Her desires — for a child of her own, for control, for theological tyranny – are in constant tension with the reality of the life she’s essentially created for herself. Serena, unlike June, has almost no one to blame for her current situation other than herself. At times she wallows in self-pity, lashes out with a venomous tongue, or stoically poses like a marble statue, depending on what the scenario demands or her regret dredges up. Serena is real — a woman whose wants got away from her and took on an ugly life of their own. She also has some small amount of power: enough, at least, to ask for “radical change.”
The matter of Serena rounding up the other Wives moves far faster than one would expect in a society with such a gendered power imbalance. But it makes a certain sense — the birth of a child engenders a reevaluation of one’s principles and circumstances perhaps more than any other life change. We expect better for our children than we had for ourselves.
Nonetheless, Serena’s appearance before the Council — and the sudden arrival of dozens of other Wives in support — is one of the most startling and important acts of revolution we’ve yet seen in Gilead, despite the fact that it utterly fails. (Or maybe because it fails.) Serena’s request that girls be taught to read the Bible could be the slippery slope that leads to more parity in general — whether she realizes it or not — a change that would undo Gilead’s entire agenda. Fred at first dismisses it (“Thank you. We will certainly discuss the issue seriously” means bug off in bureaucrat-ese) and stares down his nose with a terrifying glower that he must have learned from Jack Nicholson. But when Serena opens Eden’s Bible and begins to read from the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) she is not only violating the law, she’s telling the powerful that they’re wrong. The latter is far more dangerous than the former.
Serena assumes, somewhat stupidly, that Fred will take her side, will booster support for her cause in the same way he once shouted outside a college hall that she deserved to be heard. But the primary goal of a man in power is to stay in power. This Fred is not the man she married: He’s willing to let armed guards haul his wife off and maim her.
And Serena isn’t being punished for reading. Serena is being punished for reading in front of the Council. For embarrassing her husband by leading the other women to rebellion. For daring to assume she could do such things. But in the end, while Serena has lost a pinky, she’s gained an awakening. If her husband will order her own finger chopped off, what will he do to their daughter if she strays?
Emily, too, has had enough of the status quo. She’s facing her first ceremony with the enigmatic Commander Lawrence, whose house she shuffles about in like a ghost. Before kneeling down on the designated red pillow to accept his raping body into her own, she tucks a knife into the folds of her dress. Is it for the Commander? Herself? We never find out, because Commander Lawrence is far too busy kvetching about how hard it is to find good help these days (“How am I supposed to motivate employees if I can’t leverage salaries?”) to even remember that the ceremony was meant to take place. Emily’s reminder that they are meant to fulfill their Godly duties that evening is only met with a curt “I’m not going to do that with you,” and a demand that she go to her room.
The next morning all our dreams come true.
Aunt Lydia had, oddly, softened in recent months. She promised to look after June’s baby for her and encouraged the Waterfords to take June back into their house. She was still a devilish bitch with ice in her veins and fire for a soul, but she’d revealed a few weaknesses. Emily has always prickled her more than any of the Handmaids — Aunt Lydia got most of her pleasure from subduing the wily ones. So after Aunt Lydia explains that the Commander (who must have lied) said their ceremony went well, and Emily remains silent, it isn’t shocking that she reaches for the cruelest remark she can muster. Referring to the surgery to remove Emily’s clitoris, which she ordered, she snaps, “It’s like I cut out your tongue.”
The slash of the knife through her back and the crack of her body hitting the steps is almost pleasurable after all the hell she’s rained down upon the Handmaids. Emily’s added kicks — a callback to the blows she delivered to her dead Commander’s balls a few episodes ago — are just a bonus. Aunt Lydia doesn’t speak, but she looks terrified, which is what she deserves. There is none of the peace of a woman who has lived a God-fearing life and is on the way to meet her Maker.
Alexis Bledel proves how much you can do with no lines in her manic, hair-tearing pacing and breakdown in her bedroom after the two women are found at the bottom of the steps and Cora sends her to her room. Her rolling, wide-open eyes are at first giddy and then suddenly alert to her new reality. Her hands clutch at anything around her that might offer stability. I couldn’t help but imagine that this is exactly how I would respond in the same situation.
By the way he drags her down the steps and into the car, it seems like Commander Lawrence is prepared to drive Emily out to the middle of nowhere and leave her for dead. (Although I had to laugh at Emily’s good manners as she called back to Mrs. Lawrence “It was good meeting you!”) And then it seemed he must be torturing her — what other cruel reason can you imagine for forcing someone to listen to Annie Lennox’s “Walkin’ on Broken Glass” that loudly? It isn’t until he pulls up under the overpass where June waits that we know that he’s doing penance for his sins—establishing the colonies, building Gilead’s economic architecture — by freeing Emily from a death sentence.
He also has some excellent life advice, including “Don’t do drugs.”
Finally, back at the Waterford manse comes the moment June and all of us have been waiting for. The Marthas, whom we vastly underestimated, have set up an escape route that functions the way the Underground Railroad did in many places along the Eastern seaboard, with each Martha hurrying you along to the next stop. The fire down the street is merely a distraction (and didn’t I remind you last week to look for fire?). One glance lets us know that Nick is in on it, arranging his love and his child’s escape into a future where he most likely won’t join them.
June almost makes it to the corner of the yard where the first Martha will meet her when Serena appears like a bedraggled ghost.
I’m not sure who the scene is more wrenching for — June, who might be sent back to the Waterfords yet again, or Serena, who has committed war crimes to have a child and is now about to lose her. But Yvonne Strahovski plays it quietly, beautifully, meekly. Serena already knows she will let the baby go — her own missing finger is proof that, as June reminds her, “she cannot grow up in this place.” And I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but my heart broke for her when she slipped the baby back into June’s hands and watched them flee. If we can’t feel for Serena, then she is a useless villain, a cardboard cutout of evil.
So now for that ending.
Yes, it’s disappointing that June chooses to stay in Gilead. I yelled, out loud, at my screen, “What the hell is wrong with you?” when she handed the baby, now to be called Nicole, to Emily, and slammed the door on her own escape. I suspect that the move will lose Handmaid’s Tale some viewers — people who see escape as June’s goal. But that misunderstands who she is. June is a rescuer, a woman who holds the hand of her oppressor to console her, who would sacrifice her life for the potential chance to save her child from suffering. The Wives of Gilead stood up and fought in this episode, in the best way they knew how, for their daughters. If June had hopped on the back of that truck and left Hannah in Gilead, what would we have made of her?
And there is no certainty that she’ll head back to the Waterfords. In our last glimpse of her, June pulls up her hood and rises like a sith lord. It would have meant more if June hadn’t glowered determinedly into the camera a half dozen times already this season, but still, it’s promising.