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Bradley Whitford and Julie Dretzin offer a gripping reminder of The Handmaid’s Tale’s strengths

Bradley Whitford, Elisabeth Moss
Screenshot: Hulu
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If you close your eyes slightly and tilt your head a little to the left, it’s possible to see the season of The Handmaid’s Tale that built, deliberately and carefully, to “Witness.” In that alternate reality, this episode is a twin of sorts to last week’s “Heroic,” and that’s sort of true in this reality, too. In both episodes, a central character is forced into a situation where they cannot help but confront the consequences of their actions in a visceral, immediate way. Both come out the other side with remorse, clarity, and some shame (particularly here). In both, Serena Joy squints hard enough to peer through the veil of delusion she’s drawn over herself, becoming one of only a few people to see and acknowledge a woman’s suffering, and in both, she manages to find some small moment of decency, fleeting though it may be.

Hell, they’re even linked by Janine’s space pirate eyepatch. In “Heroic,” Aunt Lydia pounces on Janine’s shame about her infected eye as an instance of vanity, then later comes around to see it as the harmless, human reaction that it is, paralleling June’s failure to see Natalie as a human being. (June could blame a lot of that on bad writing, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.) Here, Commander Stabler notes that the space pirate eyepatch is not regulation, and Aunt Lydia gives him the context, adding that she’s comfortable making the exception. “At present.”

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That’s what Commander Lawrence finally understands here. The exception is always “at present.”

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“Witness” has something else in common with “Heroic”: Both wind up being pretty frustrating to watch, because it’s easy to see how much more impactful they might have been, had the rest of the season actually built to this point. That’s not to say that “Witness” is a perfect episode. The first 10 minutes or so consist of June hobbling around (Elisabeth Moss’ physicality is excellent, as June looks both injured and unhinged and telling people she’s going to “get the children out”—a real step back from the self-awareness we saw percolating in the lsat episode, as she’s got no plan, no power, and no apparent memory of the fact that she just got two people killed. To her (and the show’s) credit, Moss doesn’t play June like a calm, focused hero who has her shit together: “No, I am not fuckin’ okay,” she tells Alma, and you cannot blame anyone for keeping her at arms’ length. So yes, it all feels like more of the same, but at least it’s slightly more clear-eyed about it.

“Witness” also has, as nearly every episode in which they appear does, a Waterford problem. In this case, at least, their presence does add complexity to the proceedings, but it’s also not totally necessary. In “Unfit,” we learn that Aunt Lydia suspects that either or both Commander and Mrs. Lawrence aren’t true believers, and that the household is somehow making the handmaids go nuts (a somewhat inexplicable perspective, it must be said, since both Emily and June had “incidents” before they ever entered his household, and June’s last household was subject to a kidnapping and arson in the same 24-hour period). That’s all that was needed to set that up. The Handmaid’s Tale seems to think Fred’s petulant temper tantrums about and fixation on June are a lot more compelling than they actually are, at this point; yes, it makes sense that he’d feel the need to jab at Lawrence, who he probably sees as June’s new “boyfriend,” but it’s so much less interesting than what actually happens as a result. Serena’s stuff is more interesting, as always—Strahovski’s face when Serena asks June how she’s feeling, and the tension in her voice when she says prays nothing will “impede God’s will tonight,” are both top-tier examples of letting complexity and ambiguity help tell the story—but it pales in comparison to the main event.

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Imagine a world in which Commander and Mrs. Lawrence, played with great thought and subtlety by Bradley Whitford and Julie Dretzin, had been better deployed this season. You can absolutely draw a straight line from Whitford’s satisfied smile as he sends the two handmaids and one baby off to Canada at the end of season two, to the moment when he leans heavily in the doorway and grimly acknowledges that, if he smuggled out a bunch of the “stolen children of Gilead,” he’d be a “hero.” The first is an eyepatch moment, an exception that allows him to feel like a good person for a minute before going back to the hellscape he helped to create. The second is reality.

What’s so refreshing about this episode—which is, in terms of its content, far from refreshing, returning to the well of pain and contradiction that served the show so well in its first season and part of its second—is that it anchors the story in the here and now. That room, those people, that moment. Nearly all The Handmaid’s Tale’s best moments have been anchored in that way. Those moments don’t need to make big statements about The World or The Way Things Are or Strong Women, because such moments only exist because of those outside forces, and thus we draw the connecting lines ourselves. The local is inextricably linked to the global. More importantly, the human cost is inextricably linked to the forces that come to collect.

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“You helped to create this world. How long did you think it would be before it came for you?”

The scene in the art-free library is good, but the stuff that matters all takes place once June heads up those stairs. Trapped in that bedroom are three people who, by the simple virtue of acting in and reacting to a nightmarish situation, illustrate the big ideas The Handmaid’s Tale is so fond of skywriting. This is much more effective. Who does this system hurt? Everyone (or everyone with any semblance of decency, anyway). Lawrence has to rape someone, or he’ll die alongside his wife and everyone in his household will be punished. He has to do it knowing he put himself in that situation. He has to do it knowing the incredible pain it will cause to both of the other people in the room. Eleanor (and holy cow, Julie Dretzin is great in this episode) can’t shut out the shame of who her husband is and the fact that she loves him anyway, has to live with brutality of what’s happening to another woman and the fact that she can’t stop it and didn’t do anything to prevent it, and must do it all, despite the fact that she’s being given “herbal tea” instead of vital and potentially life-saving medication, in perfect silence. And June has to suffer the indignity of laying out the facts: The ceremony has to happen, here’s how it has to go, and this is what you can do to survive it.

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It’s some of Moss’ best work of the season (the same is true of her later scene with Whitford, when Lawrence gives June a packet of birth control) but it works because Whitford and Dretzin invest in all of that complexity with every ounce of their beings, and Moss, the writers, and director Daina Reid give them the room to do so.

It’s hard to watch this episode and not think about how much harder it would hit if both Lawrences had been better developed this season, but it’s incredibly well done all the same.

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The magic muffins, though? That’s another story.

Stray observations

  • The line above is maybe a little unfair. If we hadn’t had a bunch of big hero moments for June, it might work better. It also seems pretty improbable that there’d be this overwhelming response from the Marthas when June just got one of them killed, like five minutes ago. It’s a cool visual though, and a smart and even playful idea. Scones mean no, muffins mean yes. What does banana bread mean?
  • Also, probably a pick two situation: muffins, Vivaldi, or Jaws. All three = way too much. There’s a lot of too-much in Handmaid’s, but closing scenes are the worst offenders.
  • Madeline Brewer and Nina Kiri (Alma) are both great here, too.
  • Is Chris Meloni really just gonna be smug all season?
  • Next week (probably): Chekhov’s cell phone finally goes off.
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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.