It’s a bit of a bummer that the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale to delve into Serena Joy’s story is the most uneven of the series to date. It’s worth noting, of course, that ‘uneven’ by the standards of The Handmaid’s Tale is still head and shoulders above loads of other things. This is an hour very nearly as gripping as those that preceded it, with scenes, ideas, and especially performances on par (or nearly so) with the some of the most affecting stuff we’ve seen from this series. It’s not disappointing because it’s unsatisfying—quite the contrary—but because the first real showcase for Yvonne Strahovski doesn’t quite land like it should. It reveals Serena Joy to be a character of great complexity, and it’s a shame that the episode in which she comes into focus isn’t quite as subtle as the performance on which it centers.
“A Woman’s Place,” artfully directed by Floria Sigismondi, manages the rather delicate trick of coaxing its audience into a position of empathy before offering an ever-so-gentle condemnation of the very character we’ve just gotten to know. In this, it’s incredibly effective. The camera is so often focused on Strahovski’s controlled, impassive face, which shifts to something slightly less passive whenever no one is looking (no one but us, that is). That impassivity, however, isn’t on display in the flashbacks to her life before Gilead, her life with a kind of dopey husband and a healthy, prayer-filled sex life and a career she clearly loved. Out of that teal wardrobe, she’s full of life, but even before she’s throwing out her heels and her book (more on that later), she willingly surrenders what’s taken from others by force. She leaves an office, notecards in hand, and you can watch all that life slide right off her face.
It’s that choice, and her role in creating the new order, that makes her worthy of condemnation. There’s a line in Patrick Rothfuss’ wonderful The Wise Man’s Fear in which one character confesses to an act of brutality against a group responsible for repeatedly raping two young girls. When he admits that some members of this group were women, the woman to whom he’s speaking snaps into a sudden, quiet, and controlled fury:
“They earned it twice as much … A woman who helps him do it? That’s worse. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what it means.”
Well, she knows what she’s doing. She knows what it means.
We’re given long, clear-eyed shots of Serena Joy caring for her husband emotionally as he prepares to commit treason (and, you know, murder, followed by repeated, institutionalized ritual rape). We see her defend the society that’s made her an accessory, in both senses of the word. She’s confronted with her own words and betrays them. She prepares a theatrical spectacle, a piece of really stellar propaganda, designed to make the export of sex slaves a cornerstone of the new economy. She does it all while looking elegant, and what she gets from that final act is the satisfaction of a job well done. It turns out Serena Joy really liked working (and sex, it would seem). Here, she gets both, at the expense of countless others.
She’s not alone in her complicity here. Visiting Mexican ambassador Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara of Gotham and The Get Down) seems at first like a potential ally, albeit one who might be a bit easily fooled (that’s the least convincing declaration of happiness on film since Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids). Guevara and Sigismondi do a top-notch job of convincing us that this woman is being deftly manipulated into seeing Gilead as something it’s not, but her final scene suggests otherwise. There, she makes it clear that participating in this system is a price she’s willing to pay for a country that’s dying, another moment of complexity and complicity that’s made of the densest, ugliest stuff.
That scene, effective as it is thematically, also represents part of the problem with “A Woman’s Place.” For all the thoughtfulness on display throughout the episode, there are a few moments that have all the subtlety of a felling ax with the words “THIS IS IMPORTANT” painted on the blade. As with the power walk of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” it’s a moment that feels oddly out of place, and one that ignores the brutal realities of the world this series has so carefully painted. It makes perfect sense that June/Offred would leap at the chance to correct her own perceived complicity (though Nick’s point, that there’s absolutely nothing she could have done that wouldn’t have resulted in violence or death, is a good one), but a lengthy, impassioned speech in full voice seems totally unrealistic. In watching it, one keeps waiting for a reveal that this is imagined, a fantasy June/Offred plays out for herself before coming back to the present and muttering a few pleasantries. It is powerful? Sure. Does it work? Well, not really.
While that’s the most egregious instance, it’s not the only one—the shot of Serena Joy’s book in the garbage heap with her stilettos got an actual groan from me. Still, bluntness can be effective when the moment is right, and “A Woman’s Place,” like the episodes that precede it, makes great use of simple, frank shots designed to showcase the realities of Gilead. Ace costume designer Ane Crabtree puts Mrs. Castillo in a white suit, so even before you know she’s the ambassador, your eyes go right to her—look at this woman in normal clothes. A shot of a line of handmaids lingers on a wrist missing a hand. For a long, long moment, we watch June/Offred’s fingers toy with Nick’s; for another, we watch her swallow her bile, perhaps literally, and paste a smile on her face before turning back to manipulate her rapist. Subtle? Not really. Complex and powerful? Hell yes.
In the end, that’s the great strength of this show, and it’s what makes it so easy to forgive when things get a little less effective. In this story, a woman’s place is front and center, filled with contradictions and unknowable depths. It’s a series that takes the time to make sure someone like Serena Joy is both a victim of the system and responsible for its existence; someone who can be both pitied and condemned. And it trusts in its performers, particularly its female performers, to convey that complexity with a look, a word, an unwilling smile at a joke, or an exhilarated breath after a loving touch. It’s really good, is what I’m saying. It’s good, and every once in awhile, it could be better.
- As always, you can find a few great visual moments from the episode highlighted on Twitter. Some interesting visual motifs: gripping things, blood in water, blue and red.
- The vast majority of Sigismondi’s directing credits are for music videos (including some truly great ones). She also directed an upcoming episode of American Gods, so yeah, seems to be having a pretty good year.
- If you have even the tiniest interest in good novels (especially good fantasy novels), read those Patrick Rothfuss books ASAP. The first one is The Name Of The Wind.
- Hasn’t been much of a chance to call it out, but Max Minghella’s performance gets more interesting every week. You never know what he’s going to say until he says it—that face is unreadable in the best and most unsettling way.
- Book stuff: Other than the fact that Serena Joy was a public figure before Gilead, this seems to all be the show’s invention. Others who’ve read the book—am I wrong?
- “I wore it just for you” and “You shouldn’t wear anything for me” belong in the Macabre Flirting Hall Of Fame.
- Um… maybe don’t talk about blowing up all three branches of government in a movie theater?
- I won’t be able to hang out in the comments today—work elsewhere calls—but if you have a point you’re dying to share, please do so (and find me on Twitter if you want a quick response).