The Handmaid’s Tale
For three seasons now, The Handmaid’s Tale has been building up to one central question: How will June get her revenge? Moss has been ramping up the character’s long stares and twisted smiles. The stars have been pushed into alignment so she can confront the show’s Big Bads time and again. The rules of Margaret Atwood’s universe have been bent and twisted and mottled to give June — and presumably, many viewers — closure.
I expect we were meant to feel good, or maybe even jubilant, at the sight of Fred Waterford curled up on the ground with righteous fists and feet pummeling him from all angles. Here were June and her angels of fury, giving one Commander the sort of ending he’d designed and approved for so many others. And the symmetry was beautifully designed: the former handmaids (and maybe Marthas) arranged in a perfect circle around him, just as they’d been trained to do when told to stone and kill one of their own kind. They turned the system’s tactics against him. The irony was delicious.
But I didn’t feel gleeful watching Fred take a swift one to the face. Instead, I wondered whether we’re meant to think of this as female empowerment, and if revenge — violent, bloody, tit for tat, Old Testament-style retribution — is the best possible outcome we can imagine for victims.
Legally, June has exhausted all her options. Perched in front of that video camera in a lonely (but chic) bureaucratic building, she knows that her statement is a blip. Nobody will care. No judge will toss out the agreement with Waterford just because June is still traumatized. She isn’t wrong when she explains to Moira and Rita that the International Criminal Court cares more about what their new source can bring them versus what horror he’s wrought in the past. “Maybe what he’s giving them is more valuable than what he took from me,” she says. Moira thinks a trip to Switzerland to speak at his final hearing or a media blitz will jolt the ICC into action. But only June, to her credit, sees that the machine in Canada and the machine in Gilead are equally fixated on their own agendas.
What the show needed was to put June’s back up against the wall (not The Wall, just the proverbial one) and force her to bare her fangs again. Sitting outside Tuello’s apartment building, just hoping he’d jog on by, she’s ready with a plan. A ludicrous plan, but a plan nonetheless.
Even if only for a moment, The Handmaid’s Tale finally threw a character in June’s way who wouldn’t yield to her demands just because she’s, as Moira puts it, “June fucking Osborne.” Tuello is the other side of the coin — dedicated to the rule of law, a company man. If the legal system doesn’t yield a fair result, well, he’s sorry but one must simply accept it. He’s right that it’s rather inappropriate for Miss Osborne to show up outside his home and try to June her way into a diplomatic backdoor. But one gets the feeling that the Waterfords’ newfound show of entitlement pushes him to turn on them far more than June’s pleas for a long, cold prison sentence for a war criminal.
Serena has learned nothing from her time in the Axel Vervoordt pseudo-Hague. (Although who can blame her? That place is a palace, equipped with 5G and Hatch-designed crepe de chine alabaster pajamas. If that was the “jail” I was sent to for crimes against humanity, I’d probably feel pretty vindicated, too.) The moment Fred turns on Gilead she senses that they have the advantage, hence the entitled rant to Tuello. Call him Commander! Change that interrogator’s tone! Faster internet! A house! SECURITY! AN EXPEDITED RULING! She might as well ask for a seat in Canada’s Parliament, too.
It’s more clear than ever that Serena is the power broker of the couple. She packs the reading material for Fred’s trans-Atlantic flight, and you can bet it’s chock full of tabs and highlighted bits. But while she’s outwardly insistent that she and Fred will live together as a family once they’re released, there are signs she’s still (understandably!) hesitant to recommit herself to the man who placidly watched as his friends lopped off her finger. Does she kiss him goodbye or offer any love? Nope. Will she Zoom with Fred while he’s gone? Um… maybe.
Killing Fred and keeping Serena alive — and dangling — is exactly right, considering how much men have fallen by the wayside in The Handmaid’s Tale’s narrative. I’m hoping next season opens with Serena’s discovery that she is now alone, and possibly fucked.
Of course, the machinations to set Fred’s trade in motion are ludicrous. June reaches out to the embassy, who snag Lawrence for another easy-peasy call, and the two arrange a casual diner meetup. Crossing the borders is again no big deal. And Lawrence, who in the past season has moved from man imprisoned for treason to Big Boy Commander, readily offers 22 women for a Commander who has already sung his sweet little song to the authorities. Why would Gilead want Fred Waterford back at this point? Just to kill him? That doesn’t sound equitable, but the argument that Lawrence, that trickster, is doing this behind the backs of his fellow Commanders because at heart he’s a good guy also stretches the imagination. The Eyes are everywhere.
What did June want from that final visit with Waterford in prison? Thematically, she was appeasing him the same way she did at Jezebel’s, convincing him that she’s in his thrall, that she too feels a spark – “not love,” but something like it — between them. She was extinguishing herself as a possible threat to him, though at times it looked like she was about to poison his whiskey or bludgeon him with his damn Bible. But instead of turning the other cheek, she takes the Old Testament to heart. “The righteous will rejoice in vengeance and wash their feet in the blood of the wicked,” Emily tells her. Psalm 58. A prophecy.
The moments before the former handmaids descend on Fred like wolves in some particularly anti-wolf fairytale (why all the wolf hate, hm?) are far more terrifying than the violence itself. (With the exception of June’s bite, which I watched through my fingers twice while a desperate scream left my body.) That’s June’s hope. She wants Fred to feel what she felt, to run in the woods, scared for his life, before beasts fall on him to the sound of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and take away his life and child. But still, his lifeless body dangling from a crumbled wall in No Man’s Land didn’t send me. (Though sending his finger to Serena as a little taunt was a nice touch.) Watching June stalk back through the woods with blood on her face, watching that blood smear on her baby daughter’s cheek, didn’t start a revolution or tear down the patriarchy. And it may only give June a temporary reprieve. Is that enough? When Luke finds her with Nichole, and instantly realizes what she’s done, she asks for five minutes and then says she’ll be gone. Is she turning herself in? Running away? Was killing Fred Waterford worth the cost of leaving her daughter again, so soon?
So, what next? Season five is reportedly the last of the series, although Hulu has also bought the rights to The Testaments, so our Gileadean adventures won’t come to an end so soon. Praise be?