The Handmaid’s Tale
The abandoned, frozen-in-time house is a trope of the dystopian genre. In Ling Ma’s gorgeously wacky Severance, books are kept open to the exact resting point where humans grew fevered and walked away. In The Walking Dead, dozens and dozens of houses are wandered through, their belongings spilling out of drawers from the moment the occupants fled. The exact moments of horror — when the world slipped from ordinary to beyond belief — are frozen in time and then invaded by those who are left behind or moved in to conquer.
And yet watching Serena and Olivia Winslow wander through that perfectly appointed home, with its red-wine-ringed glass still placed on the table, shoes and hockey sticks by the door, a spray of dried, dead hydrangea in a vase, a crib’s bedding spread out on the floor, trapped in medias res, has a powerful effect. Perhaps it’s Serena’s slightly haunted expression as she wanders through, or Olivia’s unaffected comments about how this is one of the few “unrestored” — meaning, nobody has yet come in and stripped it of its former humanity — homes in this part of D.C. Or maybe it’s the obvious location, in Kalorama, D.C.’s toniest neighborhood, where the Obamas and the Trump-Kushners now live. Who were the former owners? Serena asks. “I think they were Baptists,” Olivia says lightly, as if that explains quite easily why the parents are most likely now dead and their children handed off to more “worthy” parents.
Handmaid’s Tale may occasionally — okay, frequently — jump the shark in these last two seasons, but as these two rich, beautiful, protected white women waltz through this ghost of a house, it becomes so clear why our country’s own agents will keep a child locked in a freezing-cold cage, or turn a blind eye to the president’s fantastical lies: greed. If you’re wondering what keeps those in the highest echelons of government lying and scheming and oppressing, this is it. The promise of a big house and a taste of power. It’s that simple. Humans are that bad. And Handmaid’s Tale is still better than any other show on television at expressing that distinct horror.
Things in Gilead, as in America, are getting worse. The more resistance an autocracy receives from within, the broader the scope of punishable offenses becomes. The lines of handmaids holding red ropes look unnervingly like peace signs from above, but they’ve been tasked, yet again, with carrying out an execution. But unlike Janine’s Particicution, where the handmaids dropped their rocks and refused to move forward, this time, with a few scared glances, they pick up the ropes and heave until those bodies drop with a thud. These executions, designed to create complicity in the handmaids and, initially, to offer them an outlet for their pent-up rage, have become so commonplace — June later says that this was the fourth one this week — that the handmaids are cowed into submission. (In the novel, we learn that it was Commander Waterford who came up with the idea for Particicutions. Nice guy, that one.)
June, it seems, is cooperating in order to buy herself time. Back at Loaves and Fishes, which has taken on the feel of a meetinghouse for the handmaids and Marthas of the Greater Boston Resistance, she’s reconnected with the Mackenzies’ Martha, and bribes her into revealing a way that June can get to Hannah. Can Lawrence really, as she says, get them all out? Or rather, if the chance arises, will he? Ofmatthew, whose righteous piety has reached such epic proportions that I’m not sure I can stand another moment of her on the screen before I fly into a blind rage of teeth and nails, is watching.
Meanwhile in D.C., when Serena isn’t touring houses, she’s having romantic dinners with the man who cut off one of her fingers a few weeks ago. Just a couple of kids in love, talking about how they’re going to steal back the baby they already kidnapped once! Then it’s off to a party that’s a cross between a Gilded Age ball at Mrs. Manson Mingott’s house and the least-sexy version of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. What we’re supposed to see here is Serena growing enamored of the beauty and power at her fingertips if she just gives in to it. Instead, I was mostly irritated that an entire party stops and applauds her and Fred’s completely mediocre dance moves.
Up in Canada, Emily is being asked to relive her trauma, yet again, this time for the Swiss agent who is an interlocutor for the Canadian and Gileadean governments. For someone who wasn’t there and didn’t suffer the surreality of Gilead, like Sylvia, this list of Emily’s actions must sound unbelievable. Did she intentionally run over a Guardian? Yes. Did she stab her “supervisor” in the back? Yes. Did she then throw her down a staircase? Yes. What Sylvia still doesn’t know is that in the colonies, Emily used her scientific skills to aid the ill and dying — and killed Mrs. O’Conner, a woman who posed no threat to her but whose grotesque piety and devotion to Gilead law turned her into a pariah among the Unwomen. “Every month,” she said to Mrs. O’Conner, “you held a woman down and your husband raped her.” It wasn’t an act of necessity but fury, and now, free at last, Emily must wonder what it says about her that she killed a woman so coldly, so cruelly.
(Sidenote to point out that the supposedly radioactive colonies that felled women in weeks didn’t do Emily any harm, as evidenced by her clean bill of health this season. That’s … odd.)
Emily has always been meek and mild, with sudden flare-ups of rage (at the Guardian, Aunt Lydia, Mrs. O’Conner). Now, egged on by Moira and reminded that in Canada she’s safe and has a voice, she turns back into that empowered Emily, first hanging back at the protest of the Minister of Border Security and then screaming, hurling her body through the air. Is Emily really safe? If Baby Nichole can be shipped back to Gilead as a bargaining chip, can’t anyone? Is there any place on Earth that is safe from the clasp of a mighty military with long arms? As always, Alexis Bledel proves herself more than able to carry the sorrow and futility of a whole class of people in her stellar acting.
It was never really possible that June would sneak Hannah out of her Brookline school, was it? How would she have gotten a Pepto-pink-clad little girl — Gilead’s most precious cargo — back to the Lawrences’? And from there, how would they have fled to Canada? Regardless, the pairing of June with Mrs. Lawrence, who is half–Yellow Wallpaper–style prisoner and half-doted-on wife, makes for an intriguing combo. Mrs. Lawrence is obviously aghast at what Gilead had become, what her husband’s dry economic theory hath wrought, and its child-centricity is a special hellscape for her, a woman who desperately wanted children and was essentially denied them by her husband and doctors. “With bipolar,” she says, “they were always adjusting my dosage.” But she’s “keen on an adventure,” especially when it entails helping June reunite with her own daughter.
Of course, the plan falls apart at the school. The Guardian they’ve been told to seek out isn’t on duty. The other Guardians are suspicious of a strange Wife showing up and demanding a tour. And they keep June locked out.
June’s prowl around the school — a fortress, essentially, with walls that go on forever and ever, and tiny, happy voices dancing over the top — is the perfect metaphor for her connection to Hannah at this point. June can hear her, knows exactly where Hannah is, could get to her and rescue her, if only those machine guns weren’t trained on her. It’s a heartbreaking scene, to let June get so close and then deny her even a glimpse of her daughter’s face.
Back at another hanging, the situation goes from bad to worse. The Mackenzies are gone, says Ofrobert, and nobody knows where. Now June’s information about Hannah is useless — another escape attempt may be impossible. And then the Mackenzies’ Martha comes out on the platform, bound and gagged, just like June herself was in the second season’s opener, when she was dragged into Fenway Park with the other handmaids and taunted with death. For a moment, it looks like June will refuse to hold the rope and carry out the sentence. But she’s grown, in some ways, smarter. Death lies at the other end of another refusal.
Death almost comes for Ofmatthew when June realizes that it was that “pious bitch” who turned her in for conspiring with the Martha. “You should be thankful,” she says. “Your temptation’s been lifted.” She told Aunt Lydia and then claims, “We saved you.”
“You fucking bitch” isn’t the most clever retort from June, but it makes the most damn sense. Lacking earrings to rip off, June pulls off her wings, lunges, and is practically carried off by fellow handmaids, just as Fiona Apple’s wails play over the scene.
“That’s where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t fit the feelings in
Every single night’s alight with my brain”