The Handmaid’s Tale
Let’s start at the very beginning.
I don’t remember when prestige TV started airing brief clips from episodes past to remind viewers of vital plot points — it could have been decades ago — but lately they’ve been niggling at me. On heavily populated shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, where some characters only appear intermittently but their actions are vital to plot advancement, those scenes that air after a voice proclaims “Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale” so often signpost what we’re about to see, a not-so-subtle whisper in your ear that the tiny conversation or interaction you saw a few episodes ago is a major plot hinge. So at the beginning of “Chicago,” when those “previously ons” roll and we see Moira with her girlfriend Luna, chatting about how Moira will accompany her on a quick humanitarian mission to the western front, alarm bells should have clanged so loudly in your head that they rendered you temporarily unable to hear the dialogue.
Of course, of all the streets in all the towns in all the world, Moira walks down the same one as June. Is it the world’s biggest coincidence? Yes. Is the sound crew reaching down into your soul and twisting it in knots with that Coldplay “Fix You” cover? Absolutely. Did I still cry a little because this show manipulated me into believing June would never make her way to safety? You didn’t even need to ask.
The setup to get both of them there, in the midst of a bombing campaign during a ceasefire(?), consumes most of this episode, yet another brilliantly acted and woefully written example of how Elisabeth Moss is carrying the Handmaid’s Tale writers’ room on her back across large swaths of North America. June and Janine have only been at the camp in Chicago for a short time (one or two days maybe) when they head out on their first reconnaissance and trading mission. Fresh recruits, if that’s what they are, aren’t typically allowed on such forays, but Janine’s close relationship with Steven is more fruitful than just shooting lessons and a few good orgasms. And so out they go across the city, so June can prove she will pushily demand that everyone obey her commands, even in situations where she lacks even a basic understanding of the terrain. Antiheroines these days, huh?
They end up at a resistance swap-meet at the Field Museum, a place for different rebel factions to barter meals and guns, baseball caps and handmaid cloaks that will immediately put giant targets on the wearers’ backs. It’s a shame the series doesn’t linger in Chicago a little longer. It has so long been confined to Massachuesetts, but its brief diversions into New England and down to D.C. were fascinating and revealing. The citizens of what-was-once-Cambridge and D.C. are the highest echelon of Gilead’s elite, where propaganda is most rampant and oversight most severe. But the map we once glimpsed on Commander Waterford’s desk shows that the whole of America isn’t under Gilead’s control. The coast of California, the Gulf, and the Canadian border are all held by the resistance. Los Angeles is a nuclear wasteland. Vermont is, as we all could have guessed, a disputed territory. But is the resistance one entity? June may have a slight grasp on the workings of Mayday, but it turns out they aren’t even a presence in Chicago. Steven mentions the Nighthawks, a shoot-em-up crew that guns down Gilead soldiers. So what else is out there? How many factions are there? What methods besides train raids are they employing to fight Gilead? Is there communication with the American government in exile? The world Atwood designed is so rich and complex and vast, why not show us more?
Instead, when June and Janine, after a brief and fruitless separation, set out to find the Nighthawks, they end up walking right into a ticket out of Gilead.
Trades are everywhere this episode, swaps both little and big, like the Cubs hat for the handmaid robes and all of Aunt Lydia’s sweet, delicious dirt in exchange for Lawrence’s seat at the table. Back in Gilead proper, the same old buzzards are hovering over the pickings, scratching for a little bit of tyrannical power to sink their claws into.
Aunt Lydia has been exiled to her personal hell, which also happens to be my personal heaven. Bridge and tea and some light classical in an elegant, high-ceilinged room plus a nice light workout on the treadmill. What a treasure. But Aunt Lydia, sucker for cruelty that she is, smells some fresh handmaid blood and wants out of this granny palace. She wants to scold and cattle prod and order bodily harm, not play Bingo! This is one of the highly uneven character deviations that makes me want to rage at the writing staff. How is Aunt Lydia so belittled that she herself is tortured for 19 days, then so vital to the power structure that she is personally sent to June’s torture chamber, then charged with handling a group of clearly rebellious handmaids after their capture, and then put on Auntie probation? Make it make sense. Really. Please.
Commander Lawrence, Nick, and Aunt Lydia are a little double-dealing triangle. Lawrence wants his seat back — whether for purely personal reasons or to help June from the inside is unclear. Nick wants to use his power to help June to safety. Aunt Lydia wants that taser, baby. So they strike a twisted three-way trade. Aunt Lydia will spill to Lawrence what she knows about the other Commanders’ vulnerabilities and proclivities, which he can leverage to return to the board. Lawrence will give her June, when and if she’s found. But at the same time Lawrence is working with Nick to call a ceasefire in Chicago to help June safely escape. Until, that is, Lawrence is actually back on the board, where he strikes an agreement to allow NGOs into Chicago during the ceasefire, but then bomb the shit out of the city just before they arrive. How does this build the “moral high ground” Lawrence pushed for earlier? How does it even make sense from a tactical perspective? (Reader, it does not.)
And so just as June and Janine arrive at the checkpoint (a resistance checkpoint, I’m assuming), they see that the post has been ditched. MREs (meals ready to eat, a military term) are still sitting in bins, so the retreat must have been hasty. And that’s when the bombs start to fall.
Now here’s why I degrade into a puddle of mush. Nothing about this should have worked, especially on a cruel, jaded critic like me. Moira should not have been on that street. June should not have miraculously survived a carpet-bombing with just a concussion. A cover of “Fix You,” the song Chris Martin wrote for his then-wife Gwyenth Paltrow about trying to pull her from the depression that followed her after her father’s death, should never have been allowed within 100 yards of this production. And yet I cried. Big old tears. Maybe it’s because Samira Wiley and Elisabeth Moss are both such fine actors, and a beautiful reunion is their due. Maybe it’s because Coldplay can write a tear-banger. Or maybe it’s because after four seasons recapping this show and rereading the novels and keeping one foot entirely in the big ocean of trauma that follows me from episode to episode, something truly lovely finally happened.
Now, where is Janine?