Two women spot each other from across a room. In that one moment, years and miles are covered. Two friends lock eyes and their minds flood with joy, horror, guilt, and relief. Their faces remain impassive, because if they show any of that, there’s a pretty decent chance they’d die. Still, their eyes lock, seeing and speaking horrible truths, and in that one moment, you understand exactly what they’re feeling without either speaking so much as a word.
Let’s begin there, because to start anywhere else with this scattered and somewhat troubling episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is to do the same disservice to this remarkable moment that the episode itself does. “Jezebels” is a messy hour, journeying between Nick’s backstory and June/Offred’s nightmarish field trip by way of thematic links that, to be generous, require some work on a viewer’s part to make them feel relevant. Add in some ambiguities that may or may not be intentional, tonal inconsistencies that can’t really be ignored, and a performance that’s fine, but just not up to par, and you’ve got what’s easily the weakest outing of a series that’s been good-to-excellent thus far.
Reviewing a television show episode by episode is an odd experience. What’s good one week can seem faulty the next, as new information undermines that which preceded it. What seems lousy at first release can be revealed as much more thoughtful weeks later, as we see how the story has turned. In the case of “Jezebels” and “The Other Side,” plotting isn’t to blame. Instead, it’s proximity.
Each episode focuses, at least partially, on a male character. Each has thematic threads one can hungrily grab, promising ideas to explore. Both seem to see themselves as good guys; both are revealed, however briefly, to put little consideration into how the women around them actually live and survive. Luke sees himself as a protector, but seems to think the danger can’t really reach his wife; he knows the world has changed, but seems to think that doesn’t apply to him. Nick talks a lot of talk about being sorry that June/Offred is living this horrifying life, but when he takes her to a brothel filled with women whose choices were a) become a sex slave or b) die in the colonies, when he sees her go upstairs with Waterford to be raped, this time without any trappings of ceremony, he somehow manages to make it about him.
That’s an interesting idea, or would be, if the show didn’t make it about him, too. Why else would Nick’s backstory crop up here, immediately after an episode focused on Luke? Why would we spend time away from this huge moment and its similarly devastating aftermath to see not one but two of the show’s male characters in flashback? The safest bet is that this is all table-setting, and that as we move into the final two episodes of the season, some plotting needs to happen. Going back to the problem of episodic reviews, it’s entirely possible that by the time the finale arrives, these choices will seem totally justified. Still, in this moment, it’s hard to believe that all of them will, because this episode is a mess, and even if individual scenes have merit—seeing Nick get essentially recruited to a cult was interesting stuff, and the introduction of Commander Pryce seems likely to pay off later—the whole feels a little shallow and a lot thoughtless.
There’s one example that sticks out as particularly troubling, and which got worse on a second viewing—the moment where we see Nick pull down the lifeless body of the previous Offred. The problem is not that the scene exists, though the previous Offred’s story and death would almost certainly be more effective when left to the imagination, so that we, like June/Offred, have to imagine the woman who gave June the gift of those words in the closet. Still, the issue isn’t its presence. The issue is that a young woman killed herself and the show makes the moment of her death all about Nick.
In “Jezebels,” the experiences of both Offreds feed into our understanding of Nick. Why not the reverse? It’s possible that this is intended, as some of Luke’s scenes seem to have been, to illustrate another aspect of toxic masculinity, something you don’t need a dystopian landscape to encounter on the daily. She’s raped, and he’s… jealous? Angry? Resentful? It’s not clear, an issue that’s probably of both writing and performance—Max Minghella’s great in tense group scenes, but maybe not so terrific when he’s carrying an episode. Because these ideas are present, one can give the episode the benefit of the doubt, and assume it’s all intentional, subtle, smart stuff. When paired with “The Other Side,” however, that becomes a lot harder to do.
What’s worse is that it detracts from a truly compelling storyline. It’s unsurprising that Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley are great here, and frustrating that their scenes feel so brief. Practicality seems to demand it, but this is a series that let June/Offred give a rousing fuck-you of a speech just down the hallway from people who might up and kill her, so practicality doesn’t seem to be much of a concern. In the novel, Offred’s trip to Jezebel’s is a memorable and horrifying sequence, and that’s true here, too, but it is robbed of some of its power by the fact that so much of the episode focuses on the guy behind the wheel, and not the woman he ferries (and those she encounters).
There’s a terrifically upsetting moment at Jezebel’s when June/Offred asks the Commander who the people surrounding them are, and he responds by explaining the presence of the men. She’s asking about the women, of course. If that isn’t this episode in miniature, I don’t know what is.
- Seriously, what?
- As always, you’ll be able to find a few great visual moments from the episode highlighted on Twitter later this morning. As with last week, there are fewer than usual.
- This is a personal rather than critical observation, but maybe I just don’t care about the backstories of the men on this show. That’s not what this story is about. (I feel similarly about Orange Is The New Black.)
- Two mirrors in this episode, one held by the Commander, one given to June/Offred by Serena Joy in the music box. Unless the show means to suggest that SJ is deliberately giving June the tools to kill herself if she wants, that seems really, really shortsighted.
- Part of the reason I have a hard time believing this is a subtle character portrait of a well-meaning toxic man: this episode’s openers and closers have all the subtlety of a paint roller. Good writing, beautiful to look at, and absolutely lacking nuance.
- “Stick around, I’ll make you that pesto that got me a James Beard nomination.”