Elisabeth Moss
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I really have discovered something at last.

Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.

The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.

We’re nearing the end of the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale—not that many seasons, not that many episodes—and somehow this is the second time I’ve begun a review with an excerpt from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The first was “Other Women,” a season-two standout and the rare chapter of this show that’s followed through on the promise of its brilliant first three episodes.  This episode, “Heroic,” might not have intentionally been made to serve spiritual successor to that one, though it does cover some very similar territory, but they’re linked all the same. In that earlier hour, it was a defiant June being beaten, tortured, isolated, and emotionally tormented until she became Offred, note June, even inside her own head.

“I’m sorry I was such a shit to you,” June says to the dying body of Natalie. “I got lost, I think. Not that that’s a good excuse, but I don’t really have another reason. They just take everything from you, you know. They really do.”

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“Heroic” is not on the level of “Other Women,” but if this “June gets selfish and gets people killed” storyline had been better handled, it perhaps could have been. Unfortunately, this evocative, expertly made bottle episode can’t recover from the major missteps that came before. Imagine that speech above if Natalie was a developed character, a person we actually got to know and understand, and maybe even someone we cared about. Imagine if she was more than a plot device. Would seeing Ashleigh LaThrop’s motionless body over and over again rankle quite so much then? I think not. But the major missteps with that character throughout the season, and those of the last two episodes more broadly, make it impossible to engage with “Heroic” in the way one might otherwise be able to. Natalie’s body is a prop, and that’s upsetting—both for reasons one assumes are intended, and for reasons that were not.

Let’s focus for a bit on what works, because a lot of this works, and not just in the meager “everything is beautiful and the acting is extraordinary, so acknowledged, but this sucks” way of the last several episodes. As directed by Daina Reid from a script credited to Lynn Renee Maxcy, “Heroic” is an inventive, atmospheric, upsetting hour, is anchored by the always able Elisabeth Moss, with brief but excellent assists from Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, and Yvonne Strahovski, guest stars Gil Bellows (as the doctor) and Sadie Munro (as Rose, the daughter who carries June’s suitcase), and various handmaids, nurses, and wives for brief moments. The editing, rocketing us forward in time in a jarring, disconcerting way, is superb. The use of sound is creative and remarkably effective, using the beeps and drips of the many, many machines keeping Natalie’s body alive as a flesh-and-blood incubator for her baby to create the sonic yellow wallpaper on which June fixates. The writing is smart and surprising (not something that’s been true all that often this season); while there are still a few clunkers, dialogue-wise, it’s expertly structured and (by Handmaid’s Tale standards) subtle and restrained.

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And yes, the cinematography and production design are as good as ever, but for once, that’s not a fact that sits like a stone in one’s shoe, reminding you of what a good show this has been and could be. Instead, those elements are just part of a greater whole.

It’s the sound that’s really the star here (okay, maybe it’s a tie between the sound and Moss). Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” kicks off the episode, but it’s quickly succeeded by those beeps, timed (in June’s head) to the rhythm of the chorus. Instantly, we know she’s been here a long time, and that all is far from well; her Fleabag-like take to the camera helps there, too, revealing that June’s isolation has forced her to forge a connection with no one at all, just some imagined or unseen force. (It’s one of very few instances I can think of in this show where a direct appeal to the camera has been effective, but still—it’s no Fleabag.) It rises and falls, and while the beeps are ever-present, the melody they echo isn’t, returning only in tiny, almost ghostly snippets. The goal is to once again put us inside June’s head, and the sound does that better even than Moss’ predictably expert narration.

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It’s not the only excellent element, however. Those quick, disorienting cuts do quite a lot of work, particularly the one that takes us from June singing the song alone to doing so in a handmaid prayer circle, and the one that jolts us forward into the late hours of an unknown day, June having knelt for so long her knees have welted and she’s unable to stand. We never know how long it’s been, just that it’s been a very long time;.Moss’ face grows increasingly unfamiliar, June’s grip on reality progressively fainter, her relationship to time, physical sensation, and even smell changing without warning. (The show’s acknowledgment that Serena held June down while Fred raped her is both upsetting and welcome, as it seemed to have forgotten that earlier this season.)

Then there are the regular appearances of the daughters in pink, which seem at first to be hallucinations, but Maxcy’s clever teleplay somehow makes the reality even more horrifying, reminding both June and the audience of precisely why even Hannah’s comparatively cushy existence is a full-tilt emergency situation. June’s scene with Rose hammers that home further; like Sydney Sweeney’s Eden, Rose believes (or is telling herself she believes) that this is a good and healthy way to live. That’s where Hannah is headed. That, if Nichole is taken back by Gilead, is where she’ll be headed, too. And if they want more for themselves, then they’ll be headed for the wall.

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That’s great, smart stuff, as is the brief appearance of Serena Joy who, though a monster, is perfectly positioned to recognize June’s illness for what it is. After all, she’s seen this version of her before. Yet it still doesn’t hit home the way it should. Were Natalie a fully developed character, it might, and the sight of that actor laying motionless in that bed as a prop toward which monologues are directed would be much less upsetting. Upsetting in a bad way, that is. It’s also upsetting to see Natalie’s body treated so cavalierly by the medical staff, wives, and Aunt Lydia, who see dead body exactly as they saw her live body—as a baby-making machine. That’s what should be the focus here, but the failures of this arc make that much more difficult.

Nearly as bad as the utter mishandling of that character and this story arc, and even more frustrating, is this reality: The end of this episode puts June precisely where she was at the beginning of the season. She wants to help the children escape, but she doesn’t know how. The Handmaid’s Tale clearly wanted to illustrate how the dehumanization of a person can lead to that person dehumanizing others, to great peril; there’s no doubt now that we were always supposed to see June’s actions in the last several episodes as foolish, selfish, reckless, and cruel. But it didn’t work, and now we’re back at the beginning, ready for June to learn more lessons before she actually does something.

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That, frankly, sucks. But hey, great episode.

Stray observations

  • Moss is great in that last scene, and it’s far more affecting than most of the big music moments on this show, but know this: it’s only the second best scene in which Elisabeth Moss sings a power ballad and cries this year, and it’s not close.
  • While we’re imagining ways in which this episode could have been the stunner it ought to have been, let’s imagine that, rather than killing Eden off last season, Gilead had forced her to become a handmaid (which makes way more sense, what with the population crisis and all). Would she still have been a true believer? Probably. Could she have imagined that she was doing June a favor by reporting the Martha? Yes, definitely. Would that death have meant more than this one? One thousand percent yes. I don’t know what Bruce Miller’s eight-season plan is, but it doesn’t seem to include notes on supporting characters.
  • I miss Canada.
  • By the time the episode ended, I was on board with it, but other TV shows should note that “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” is 100 percent owned by “San Junipero,” always and forever.

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