Photo: Elly Dassas (Hulu)
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The Handmaid’s Tale loves a close-up. (You would too, if you had Elisabeth Moss parked in front of a camera.) It also loves a living nightmare, throwing its characters into horrifying situations with frequency and relish. Some of those close-ups have been more effective than others; some of the nightmares have lingered, while others have felt more gratuitous, like punishment for punishment’s sake. “Mary And Martha” has both, and neither is unsuccessful, exactly, but while this episode’s nightmare—an attempted escape for a bomb-making Martha that ends badly—struggles a bit with pacing after a promisingly complex start, its quieter moments, mostly involving Emily’s transition into life in Little America in Canada, is as rich and thoughtful as this show’s best moments. It underlines one of the strengths of The Handmaid’s Tale which, when absent, underlines its weaknesses: When it focuses on lived experience, on contradiction and complexity and survival, it thrives. When it paints in broad strokes, it stumbles.

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The look on Elisabeth Moss’ face when she realizes the three Marthas in the kitchen are part of the resistance sells that story better than almost anything else that follows. She’s just excited to get involved. She wants to be useful (a word that will be used a lot), and perhaps the fact that she’s survived this long has made her particularly confident. When Allison, the chemistry teacher, asks June if she was in the military “before,” June fires back immediately, saying, “No, were you?” She offers to “handle” Lawrence in the way she might once have “handled” Waterford. She insists on making the journey with Beth and Allison, slipping into a Martha uniform and enjoying the temporary invisibility. She wants to help, she wants to fight, she wants to save lives and eventually save her daughter—but she’s enjoying it, too.

And she doesn’t listen. Not to Beth and Cora when they say they don’t move people. Not to Lawrence when he gets out of her way, not because he wants to help, but for reasons that remain his own. “Your funeral,” he says; not a sign of encouragement. Then she’s burying a dead body in the basement, having put herself in a precarious position in a household she doesn’t yet understand. The June of season one would never have dared make moves this big; the June of season two would not have stopped to consider the risks or analyze the people involved. That’s not to say she doesn’t make smart moves as well—pulling the injured woman out of sight in the nick of time was a brave and smart move—but she makes a mistake well-meaning people make all the time. She lets her enthusiasm overrun the experience of others.

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The pacing’s a little odd here. Is the climax meant to be when those flashlights come sailing through the windows, when Mrs. Lawrence spots the blood on the wall, or when the Commander charges into the basement to storm at June and task her with gravedigging? No shortage of tension and anxiety, but the ebb and flow is a little off. Still, Moss and Whitford are both excellent, June’s perception of the household shifts in interesting ways, and the show’s willingness to make her sloppy pays off again. (Her dead-eyed stare as she prays over the grave, followed by her motionless, grimy hand hanging limply over the tub, as in death, makes it all even more dreadful, another example of this show’s excellent filmmaking.)

But while June’s misadventure might be the episode’s A-story, it’s Emily’s much quieter arc in Canada, and its effect on Moira and Luke (the latter less successful), that proves the most compelling. Alexis Bledel’s nearly silent turn in the first season’s third episode is one of the show’s high watermarks, and in a much smaller way, she’s every bit as good here. When the doctor tells her she has high cholesterol, a hundred things flash across her face. Confusion. Irritation. Sadness. Loss. Shock. Even a little humor. The camera moves slowly closer and closer, letting it all play out. Such a simple, common thing, but so surreal in this world.

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It’s just recovery, plain and simple. It’s painful and not immediate. This episode is about getting Emily to make that traffic-stopping phone call, just as surely as it’s about getting June to that backyard. “Better or worse,” the optometrist keeps saying, as Emily finds herself at the point where that phone call needs to be made. For better or worse, she needs to know what will happen when her wife picks up that phone. She’s in the “after,” as Moira puts it, and it’s time to find out what that looks like.

Her presence in Moira and Luke’s lives also reveals how far one of them has come, and how much the other is still struggling. Moira seems to have found a lifeline in helping other people, talking openly about the painful struggle towards something like stability she experienced last season. (Samira Wiley remains underused, but that scene in the bar bathroom from last year still haunts me.) “There’s just after” is a simple piece of dialogue, and could easily come off trite or too on-the-nose, but coming from that character, in that moment, it becomes something of a thesis statement for Emily’s arc in this episode.

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Luke, on the other hand, can’t process what’s happened, so he gets drunk and needles this woman who brought him his wife’s baby about why she hasn’t contacted her family. As Moira says, he looks at her and sees June; as he later tells Moira, he’s keenly aware that Emily and June together saved this baby, and the latter only stayed in that nightmarish place to save another baby, one he can’t help. It’s a compelling enough idea, but doesn’t totally work—a little too much telling, not enough showing, and definitely too much talk about green onions.

Stray observations

  • At long last, more Clea Duvall!
  • Always upsetting when the stigma attached to the handmaids gets echoed by other women. Beth apologizes for her “hell of a blowjob” joke, and I’m curious to know how much of that has to do with her connection with Nick.
  • “It’s me”: Another gutpunch line.
  • Welcome back, Ann Dowd!

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