The Handmaid’s Tale
There’s a particular resonance to a TV show that’s set in your own city. Maybe New Yorkers and Angelenos don’t feel it anymore; there’s probably some exposure fatigue after decades of seeing the Empire State Building light up or the rollerbladers of Venice Beach scoot by on the screen. But scenes in D.C., for all my fair city’s recent exposure on TV, usually aren’t shot here. (That park in front of the White House where every senior official takes meetings on Scandal? That’s a green screen, folks.) So you’ll have to forgive me if seeing the Washington Monument — which is visible from virtually every reach of this city and especially from my roof — turned into a Gileadean crucifix has biased me in some way. Sure, the geography is entirely out of whack (one place where you can’t see the Monument is an incoming southbound Amtrak train), but the spectacle of those Handmaids in their crimson robes bowing down to a crushed Lincoln Memorial is far more moving and meaningful than I’d imagined it might be.
Handmaid’s Tale also really, really needed to get out of Boston. Even after so many scene changes this season (moving from the Waterfords’ to the Lawrences’ house; Serena’s mother’s house on the beach) and a smart plot shift toward fleshing out the Mayday resistance, captivity is only intriguing for so long. Freedom or death eventually come for any captive, and while I don’t wish the latter on June, this series continues to feel like an exercise in feminist torture porn the longer it goes on. By moving the action and broadening the world a little bit, there is (some) relief from that stagnation. And Washington, still the seat of power after the Gileadeans’ coup, is the perfect site to demonstrate Gilead at its full hilt; it’s Gilead’s version of the Berlin Hilter planned and longed to build but never saw come to fruition.
One thing this show still does phenomenally well is world-building. Of course the Amtrak train has essentially been turned into a bordello with gauzy red curtains. Of course the men of Gilead wouldn’t realize that the Washington Monument is already a giant phallic symbol of the patriarchy and would feel the need to (rather improbably, from a structural engineering point of view) tack on the crosspiece to turn it into a crucifix. Of course these fools would change the name from Union Station to National Station, even though the term “Union” is technical (as in, the place where many lines meet) and not patriotic. (The fact that they have rebuilt the station entirely, however, is honestly some much-needed progress. That place is in the Stone Ages of train transit.) Of course there are separate escalators for men and women. (You know all the sexual hijinks us slutty desegregated escalator riders get up to.) Of course June has to wait, kneeling, on a big red dot, for a man to come claim her like a piece of luggage. I’m surprised they didn’t put her on a baggage carousel.
June sees the trip as an opportunity to persuade Serena back over to the side of the righteous, even though every moment of her time in D.C. is actually spent in service of Gilead’s PR team, which is doing everything it can to persuade Canada to send back baby Nichole. This, by the way, is a terrible PR strategy. The rest of the world certainly looks at Gilead the way we look at North Korea — repressive, backward, unfit for human habitation. Why they believe acting out all their bizarre religious rites and showcasing their enslaved concubines to be a helpful tactic is beyond me. Regardless, Aunt Lydia is, as she so uncharacteristically explains, “pumped!”
High Commander Winslow is perfectly cast (the strapping Christopher Meloni), along with his fluttery wife (the eternally graceful Elizabeth Reaser), and it’s fascinating to see even further up the chain of command. If the Waterfords’ former home was patrician and imposing, the Winslow house is a grand manor on the order of Versailles. Their children play in a room with its own tree, for goodness’ sake. The kids themselves are a part of that luxury: There’s an absolute mass of them, an unheard of benefit in gestationally challenged Gilead.
Serena seems impressed by Olivia Winslow, who handles the kiddie chaos around her with the aplomb of a woman with multiple nannies and more than eight hours of sleep a night. She’s also, it turns out, a fan of Serena’s work — just daring enough to bring up A Woman’s Place, even though she isn’t supposed to talk about books or even think about the written word — which is just the encouragement Serena needs to believe she was right at the very beginning. The approval of woman like Olivia, who is beautiful and beloved and a former corporate attorney but now blissfully happy in the strong arms of her repressive husband, fills up the holes in Serena’s Swiss cheese heart far easier than a foolish crusade to free Nichole from Gilead’s theocracy.
The relationship between Fred and Winslow is slightly more complex. At first, Winslow seems to hint that it was his wife who extended the invitation and that he, in fact, wasn’t particularly interested in hosting the Waterfords at all. Maybe Olivia has more say-so at the Winslow household than Serena does at the Waterfords’, or maybe Winslow is just using his wife as a scapegoat. Either way, his remark that “we have to be judicious about the images we release to the world” sounds like a scold, and it isn’t until Fred arranges the PR videos and the meeting with the Swiss diplomats that Winslow is impressed by him.
The mention of a promotion for Fred, however, is utterly illogical, and yet another example of Handmaid’s Tale refusing to follow up with appropriate consequences for characters who disobey. Fred was just demoted for the kidnapping kerfuffle. His star isn’t rising, it’s crashing and burning out of the sky. Yes, a government with only men in it would certainly be inept, counterproductive, and illogical, but that doesn’t explain the way the characters, especially Fred and June, seem to avoid punishment.
Unless, and maybe I’m crazy here, Commander Winslow was … hitting on Fred? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, because I’m dying to know if I imagined that or not.
“Household” turns particularly grave when June notices the masks covering the necks and mouths of Washington’s handmaids. At first I wondered if these were issued for the cold, or merely as a mechanism to keep them from whispering to one another. But the moment when the Winslows’ Handmaid turns around and June sees the massive staples looping through her lips like an extraordinarily twisted Jack Skellington was exceedingly perverse. Not to mention indicative of the fact that things can always, always get worse.
It’s the ever-neutral Swiss, of course, who agree to broker an agreement between the Waterfords and the Canadian government. Would the Canadian government even sit down for intermediated talks with a terrorist government that landed in power by literally blowing up Congress? I’m guessing no, but Handmaid’s Tale isn’t letting a detail like that get in its way.
June’s meetings with the Swiss are valuable moments for the character. Suddenly, June is back in a room where her voice matters, where she’s entitled to speak, where she has rights as a woman and a human. Certainly she expects the Swiss to immediately agree to her demands that Nichole stay in Canada. She is the child’s mother. The child’s father is in agreement. The Waterfords are hysterical kidnappers. But the Swiss (and perhaps their allies) are determined to use this as an intel-gathering operation. Gilead has a strong military, they say (they have the U.S. military, I suppose), but it’s a “black box,” and they don’t know “how decisions are made, where the power lies.” June knows very little, but Nick (whose entire arrival and departure is one of the most egregious conveniences of plot this show has deployed), freshly made a Commander, can spill their secrets and vulnerabilities. He can be the flaw in the Death Star.
But when the Swiss show back up at the Winslows’ house (and the Commander improbably leaves June ALONE to talk with the diplomat) she explains to June what she’s never known, but we have — that Nick was a soldier in the crusade. For that reason they feel they can’t trust him, and just like that, June’s flight plan is derailed.
Essentially every Handmaid’s Tale ends one of two ways: with June looking into the camera defiant and determined, or with June looking into the camera defiant and deflated. This one has two banger conversations. First, June’s heart-to-heart with Aunt Lydia, whose superfluous presence on the trip (don’t they have their own Aunts in D.C.?) finally yields some meaning. June, too, is about to be subjected to a mouth cover when she asks, “Do you want us all to be silenced?” Aunt Lydia’s answer is out of left field: “No, I don’t,” she says, and then tears up. It’s beautiful! But what the hell? Aunt Lydia tasers women and sends them to have their clits removed. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about silencing women, so long as the silenced woman isn’t her.
At the Lincoln Memorial, where the statue and the words behind him (“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever”) are shattered, June sees that only his fist remains. Perhaps that’s inspiring to her, because June launches into a tirade I’ve been hoping to hear for a while (and June goes on a lot of tirades). “You built this whole world just so you could have someone,” she tells Serena, “and it didn’t work. You’re small, you’re cruel, and you’re empty.”
She steps out to the hundreds of Handmaids on the Mall, lined up by the same Reflecting Pool where thousands gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. declare his most famous words on equality, and she kneels.
If Handmaid’s Tale can maintain this staggeringly good pomp and keep its characters honest to who they are, this show just might save itself from going off the rails.