The Handmaid’s Tale
Should we even have more The Handmaid’s Tale? If you’re a book purist, the answer might be no — season two went far beyond the story Atwood’s novel gave us, and offered a very clear interpretation of its famously vague ending. (With The Testaments, a follow-up coming in September, 25 years after Handmaid’s was first published, we’re also about to get a sequel from the mouth of the creator, her Royal Highness Margaret Atwood, herself.) If June’s yo-yo-ing from (yet another) escape to (yet another) capture left you a little deflated by the show’s circularity, another season might be a bit much to wade through. And if the relentless beatings, rapes, stonings, executions, and pinkie-finger amputations (okay, there was just one of those, but still) left you in an emotional mire you couldn’t shake, you may have fled to TV’s greener pastures — whatever those might be. (Here’s a vote for PEN15.)
But if the American government’s uncanny knack for mirroring the oppressive regime of Gilead — via new campaigns to eliminate women’s reproductive rights, state by red state — has left you in a flailing rage/puddle of hopelessness, this return to June’s story could be the match you need to light a fire under your own #resistance. Sure, it’s “just a TV show,” but a central point of dystopian fiction has always been to knock on our collective subconscious and point out the subtle slippages that might send democracy down the path toward autocracy (or extinction). Last season, viewership of the show doubled, helped in no small part by the activism of handmaid-attired protestors and a bevy of Emmys so vast it could crumble Commander Waterford’s mahogany shelves. Even if season two wandered into a rut, this narrative is too zeitgeisty to keep away ardent (bonneted?) fans.
Season three picks up just seconds after season two left off, with June out on the empty road and baby Nichole tucked away in Emily’s arms, speeding away from Gilead. For a woman whose own recent escape attempt went dreadfully awry, June is rather trusting that the Marthas’ resistance network has a better plan for escorting Emily and the babe out of the country than they did for her. Since season two ended I’ve grown more charitable toward June’s decision, which then felt foolhardy and shortsighted, but now reads a bit braver — and more understandable. (June’s preachy voiceovers, however, are also back — “I’m sorry baby girl, mom’s got work.” — but what once felt sassy and spirited now has the aura of one of those inspirational posters found in particularly subversive seventh-grade classrooms.)
It’s convenient that Commander Lawrence, as opposed to, oh, any single other human, finds the “spunky” June on the road and hustles her into his car. (How exactly does he travel about so undetected when in the first season Commander Waterford had to hide June and offer bribes just to get her to the lounge of ill repute?) But Bradley Whitford’s return bodes well for the season: Lawrence is as dynamic and complex as Waterford once was, back in his Scrabble-playing days. As the engineer of Gilead’s economy, he has high stakes in the state’s success, but a sense of duty toward the oppressed class is coursing through him like a slow-acting poison. In a way, it’s an indictment of modernity’s worshipfulness toward specialists, who sometimes look so narrowly at the facts in front of them that they never glance up or seek out moral clarity. Lawrence, we can imagine, spent so much time tallying up spreadsheets that it wasn’t until bombs exploded in the Capitol Building that he realized his math would foment a coup and a theocracy.
Having June end up at Lawrence’s house may not be logical, but it’s a wise narrative move. The two will (hopefully) play off each other, leaving enough room for us to wonder how vast Lawrence’s spectrum of gray really runs.
With that said, June and the Waterfords’ entanglements this episode break every rule in the Gilead universe, a once carefully constructed place where guards menacingly shush handmaids who chat in the grocery store, but a series of “kidnappings” from one Commander’s family never strikes anyone as odd.
Back at the house, Nick essentially holds the Commander hostage, preventing him from calling the authorities to report June and the baby missing. And yet, once June is returned to their house, Waterford simply moves on, eventually sliding back into the car Nick chauffeurs as if a full-on rebellion didn’t just take place in his house. Yes, Waterford wants to protect himself from the other commanders, but in a war of words, any lie he told about Nick — that he was insolent or rude or was caught pinching a Martha’s behind — would be believed. Yet Nick is given a free pass. (Nick is also told to escort June to her room, a lapse in Gileadean propriety that previously would have occasioned severe punishment.)
The mother in me teared up watching Serena grapple with her decision to let June and the baby escape. Like the true mother in the tale of Solomon, she offers “her” baby to another woman rather than subject her to brutality. Yvonne Strahovski’s (brilliantly played) ice queen is melting, slowly, now unsure what to do with the emotional runoff dripping across the carpet. So she quite literally burns the house down, starting with her sullied marital bed. She’s standing a wee bit too close to the fiery inferno of silk and linen when June finds her, but this shift from implicit to enraged is a long time coming.
But would the Gilead authorities really believe that yet another kidnapping just so happened to strike the Waterford house? Would they return June to the Waterfords AGAIN instead of driving her straight to the Wall? Would the house really crumble as artfully as Thornfield Hall at the end of Jane Eyre? Would Commander Waterford’s lie keep the other commanders from investigating this string of curious incidents? Would he soothe Serena as if he bears no ill will toward her, even though he chopped her little finger off a few days ago for humiliating him in public? Is The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” really fitting for this moment? These logical inconsistencies clutter up the screen and poke annoying little holes in Atwood’s universe.
The biggest shift for June so far this season is her willingness to embrace the other mothers who care for her children. With Serena, that means embracing her in the midst of a breakdown. With Mrs. Mackenzie, that means a heartfelt conversation about Hannah’s well-being. At this point, if plot armor weren’t keeping June alive, it may actually be better for Hannah to grow up in a seemingly loving household. “She’s very happy,” Mrs. Mackenzie offers. “She’s thriving.” June has no prospects for a happier or easier future. This puts her at a crossroads: Should she give up her child, like Serena did, and live at least a while, or is this the moment — now that she’s given up her bid at freedom — to come back for Hannah, as she vows to?
Not for the first time, Emily’s storyline in this episode is more compelling than June’s. We aren’t shown exactly how she gets to the border, but her daring swim across what must be a very narrow section of the St. Lawrence River with baby Nichole tucked into her robes is tense and terrifying. For a brief instant it seems that the baby won’t have survived those long seconds underwater, that when Emily lays her down on Canadian ground and sobs over her, she won’t cry. But luckily — since the brutal death of a tiny being is just one step further than I’m willing to go here — a little wail flies out of her throat.
From there, Emily’s story turns into an emotional guidebook to how much better we Americans could treat refugees. Instead of standing at a fence and begging to be let in, Emily is instantly greeted by a border patrol agent who wants to reassure her, who sees the humanity of the “illegal” who has gone through hell to reach freer shores. His question, “Do you wish to seek asylum in the country of Canada?” is legalistic and necessary for bureaucratic purposes, sure, but it’s also delivered in a pointed tone that wakes Emily up to his hope — that she’ll reply in the affirmative, and he can usher her away from trauma and toward the beginning of healing. It’s necessarily jarring, then, that the agent is a man, that she’s left the clutches of Gilead’s cruel patriarchy and encounters a man who views her both with empathy and respect.
The staff who greets her at the hospital, however, is all female, as if the Canadian authorities have meticulously documented exactly how to handle a refugee handmaid who has been repeatedly raped, beaten, and surgically mutilated. That tenderness has been largely absent from Handmaid’s, and although at times the doctor’s warm, gentle speech sounds like it was placed by the Canadian Board of Tourism, the moment appropriately counterbalances the other horrors we know are in store for the women of Gilead.