The Handmaid’s Tale
While I was watching this episode on my living room couch, my husband turned to me and requested that I put on some headphones. “Just listening to this,” he said, “is traumatizing.”
Margaret Atwood famously explained that every type of violence, cruelty, indecency, and humiliation in The Handmaid’s Tale novel was based on the real world or came straight from the Bible. She had simply combined the wife-witnessed rapes of concubines, collective stonings, and eyeball removals into her own special stew of riveting misery. Since the show’s creators moved past Atwood’s creation after season one, and the gore ratcheted upwards, it has been critics’ (and my) most frequent complaint: At what point does all this abuse and persecution shift from “fitting glimpses into the future if we aren’t careful” to “excuses to keep viewers on the edge of their seats”?
Personally, the clitoris removals and pinkie choppings and rape after rape after rape have been a bit too much for me, thanks! But although “The Crossing” may go down as the most fucked up episode in a series overflowing with fucked-upness — 75 percent of it is plain old torture in an actual torture chamber — something here clicked for me. True, the writers designed yet another implausible parachute to get June out of a quick execution. But there’s a sense of unlikely momentum, as if June has to go backwards to finally move forwards, that just clicked. (Perhaps because Bruce Miller wrote the episode himself?)
Gilead’s hold on resources is loose, and we don’t know much about the international situation: Do China or other authoritarian states recognize Gilead and trade with them? Did Commander Lawrence create a successful closed economy? What kinds of materials and goods are Econopeople producing? One thing is for sure: They may be cleaning up toxic waste all over the country, but Gileadean architects — Albert Speers each and every one — have whipped up some facades that truly scream Evil Regime. Case in point is the Lego brutalist concrete prison June pulls up to, bound and gagged in artisanal leather, Hannibal Lecter–style.
What awaits her inside is a composite of every nightmare I’ve ever had about filling out my taxes incorrectly and ending up in some hellish prison. The lights flicker to cause disorientation, screams and moans snake down corridors, time moves by at whatever damn pace it chooses. June’s particular torture methods are tried and true, though they have a Gileadean spin on them. When they slip the cross-emblazoned cloth over her face to begin waterboarding, it looks like a rarely used method for a distributing Catholic communion is about to take place. And the Lieutenant — with his Austrain-econ-professor look and chipper mien — gives off true-believer vibes.
Torture in Gilead is typically pro forma. When Serena Joy committed the crime of reading while female, the Commanders took a pinkie from the second joint up. When Janine raised hell with Aunt Lydia in season one, they popped out an eye. June’s torture is goal-oriented. The regime wants to find the missing Handmaids; their uteruses are a desperately needed commodity, especially considering the recent loss of the 86 kids sent to Toronto on Air Canada.
The Lieutenant is a snappy creation (“Wow, what a crazy night!” he yelps on the prison roof), but I was more delighted to see Aunt Lydia and June back together again, trapped anew in their hate-hate relationship. Elisabeth Moss’s performance is often at its best in these mano-a-mano moments, especially up against a performer like Ann Dowd, whose face shifts more fluidly than a ball of Play-Doh. She can inject doom into anything: When Aunt Lydia greets June at the back of the open van and announces, “I am here as her advocate. Think of me as her guardian angel,” that’s when I knew shit would get really bad. (Mrs. Keyes, we learn, is “safe in custody,” an oxymoron for sure.)
June and Lydia’s evolutions go hand-in-hand. Lydia sees herself as a righteous crusader — starved for love in her years as a teacher, she believes in her destiny as a shepherdess of the wayward Handmaids. The Aunts weren’t dragged into this service, they volunteered. June is her most desperately lost sheep, and a small part of Lydia seems to believe she can reform June back into an obedient little creature, silent but not sullen. It worked with Janine — Lydia broke her so many times that Janine eventually hobbled into her arms, delighted by even the smallest token of affection, that red eyepatch sewn to cover up the empty socket Lydia gave her in the first place. And Lydia and June both know precisely how to push each other’s buttons. “It’s all your fault” is exactly June’s fear, that she brought her misfortune, her family’s disemboweling, on herself, by not fleeing America more quickly. Lydia worries that this flock of girls will never see her as anything besides an enforcer, so knowing that Janine turned on her is a blow.
If the pliers tugging at her fingernails and the steel box June’s compacted into are physical enticements to spill the truth about the handmaids’ location, the scene on the roof is nothing but emotional terrorism. I don’t know where The Handmaid’s Tale finds these extras who pull out Sally Field tears at the drop of a hat, but I say give them bigger roles, because these ladies can obviously act. This scene is deranged, full-on trolley-problem-ratcheted-up-to-11 nutso. At first, I assumed June would have to choose one to kill in order to save herself or the other Handmaids. Then I thought she’d be commanded to push them herself. But no, this isn’t a Shirley Jackson short story, it’s WORSE, because the Lieutenant pushes both of those sobbing, helpless girls right off the roof and doesn’t even get any good intel out of June for it.
Gileadean Derangement Syndrome apparently affects anyone with testicles because both Nick and Lawrence act like confused little squirrels trying to hide away any sustenance they can save for themselves. Lawrence shows up to a banquet put on by Emperor Peter III of Russia and arranges for June’s daughter to be held captive in a Hannibal Lecter–style (that guy again!) glass cage so he can keep the house that other Commanders maybe, kinda want to take away from him? And Nick takes part in the single most embarrassing television kiss ever orchestrated? (The bridge, the babbling stream, the running, the awkward fact that June then has to mosey on down the road to the refurb’d Birthmobile and head out to a Magdalen colony. I get it that they are trying to cleverly rewrite fairy-tale motifs, but no, please don’t.)
The moment with Hannah could have been rigged purely for emotional payoff (and it certainly had some of that as well), but it also seems engineered to untie June from her mission to rescue Hannah herself. It has been at least five years since Hannah and June were ripped apart in the woods, about four since June broke into Hannah’s bedroom. Raised as an affluent child of Gilead, parted from her mother since kindergarten, Hannah wouldn’t run with June even if Mayday designed the perfect getaway plan. Now, the unspoken assumption is that June has to bring down the whole system to get Hannah back (an outcome I can’t square with Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments).
The biggest emotional wrecking ball of the episode comes at the very end. One boon of the TV series’ spiral away from its source material has been a better understanding of the relationships between the Handmaids, how they bond and drift, what discourages them, what keeps them going. To see this group of women back together behind the strawberry gauze of the van’s curtains pricked something in me. And the exquisite silent acting among the group — their fury with June, followed by recognition that they could overpower Aunt Lydia and her cattle prod, and then the unison with which they leap up and charge out the back of the (unlocked?) van — harkens back to the original promise of the show. June is not the only sufferer, her story is not unique. All of these women have been drafted into a nightmare, and they have only one another.
It isn’t surprising that the Guardian picks off two Handmaids with his rifle (though it’s irritating that June leaves Aunt Lydia alive, conscious, and free to climb out the back of the van — why doesn’t anyone ever learn?). But the charging train and the (im)perfect timing that crush Alma (my favorite!) and Brianna is simultaneously shocking and one of the best decisions the writing team has recently made. The fictional world’s reliability depends on it maintaining and following its own logic. That means if you build a cruel, punishing world, people have to keep on dying.