Back in season two, I wrote, naively it seems, that The Handmaid’s Tale was transitioning into something that might better be called The Handmaid Tales. The episode in question was “Unwomen,” an Emily-centric episode that covered the character’s backstory, showed us life in the Colonies, and gave Alexis Bledel a chance to navigate some fascinating, quiet scenes with Marisa Tomei, culminating in Emily killing Tomei’s character, an unnamed Wife. June was in that one, too, jogging around the Boston Globe and building a shrine to the journalists murdered there while awaiting the first of what feels like many, many failed or abandoned escapes. But that was an Emily hour, make no mistake, and it seemed to promise more hours like it to come—a suggestion that made showrunner Bruce Miller’s apparent eight-season plan seem far more feasible than it otherwise might.
There have been a handful of episodes since then that have almost followed through on that promise—the very next hour followed Moira as she jogged her way through her new life and tried, and failed, to hide the lingering effects of her trauma, while Janine and Emily each got an additional hour or two in which their stories felt as important to the story as June’s—but for the most part, The Handmaid’s Tale has failed to really mine those stories. A few brief, bright flashes, a B-plot here and there, scattered amidst the endless and often repetitive scenes between June and the Waterfords, and that’s it. What “Under His Eye,” an episode title pulled straight from the Handmaid’s magnetic poetry kit, demonstrates is that perhaps that scarcity has been something of a blessing, because even when the stories told about June and the Waterfords come from someplace new, they often miss. The only bright spot here is Canada. O, Canada.
As always, there’s one giant caveat about any review of The Handmaid’s Tale that bends toward the negative, and it’s that this is an incredibly well-made show. The argument here is not that the two non-Canadian storylines—the Waterfords looking at a new life in D.C. and dancing a dance that would absolutely be considered too sexual by Gilead standards, and June’s attempts to get to Hannah, no matter the cost—are completely without virtue. Elisabeth Moss is one of the greats, nearly everyone in the cast does excellent work, the production design and cinematography are stellar, and there’s one sequence in particular that’s among the season’s best (that would be Yvonne Strahovski and Elizabeth Reaser wandering through a house still filled with the ghosts of the family who lived there). In fact, Moira and Emily’s storyline might seem slight by comparison. But it’s active, a story about two survivors still struggling, one more than the other, to find a new equilibrium in Little America, still living with trauma, haunted by ghosts of their own.
What does it mean for Moira (Samira Wiley, excellent as always) to have someone to help, who also happens to be someone she can talk to? What does it mean for Emily to wear everyday clothes, the clothes of a past life, and hear her actions in Gilead brought up as though they are line items on a resumé? What happens to her at that protest? What does that conversation in jail mean for them both? Ongoing stories, both, with links to the past and the future. They could have added 15 more minutes of Moira and Emily and it still would have been easy to wish for more. It’s new ground, covered with the dust and detritus of the old ground.
The other stories should feel that way, too. June has reached a new place; the Waterfords have too, insomuch as we have not yet seen them go on a date in which they both ignore the whole finger-cutting-off thing. But there’s been so much meandering, so much time spent revisiting old ground dressed up like new ground, and (a byproduct of the latter) such frequent disregard by the writers themselves for the dangers posed by the world they’re writing, that it’s hard to get invested. To invest in scenes, in individual performances and character beats, that’s simple. But when even what’s new feels old, investing in the actual events is much harder.
That’s especially true of Serena and Fred, because wow, it’s hard to care about those two at all. Strahovski has been a reliable bright spot on the show, but Serena has done the same “I love Gilead/I hate Gilead/I understand my crimes/I am blameless/This is good/This is bad” thing so often that it’s hard to care about this latest swing, especially as the seeds of yet another one seem to be sown here. Fred’s assertion that he’ll leave Nichole in Canada to serve as a political football will eventually come out, and then it’s likely that we’ll back at the other end of that arc. Strahovski does admirable work in marrying the Serena who worked with June, lost her finger, and gave up the baby she perceives as hers to the Serena who wanders around that house like she’s just picked up a pamphlet from the realtor, but it’s not enough—and the moment their dance becomes ever-so-slightly reminiscent of a tango is the latest in a series of head-scratchers.
June’s storyline, on the other hand, should be fascinating. The pieces are all there. Moss uses that expressive-as-hell face to chart the ebbs and flows of June’s drive, guilt, self-disgust, and determination, and it’s especially compelling when they co-exist. The moments in which the realities of Gilead are disregarded can be swallowed, if only because we’ve had practice, but even so, the idea that June would just run around stone walls waiting to get shot in the back by a guard is ludicrous. Children are prized above almost everything, this particular Handmaid is suspected of kidnapping and associated with various other suspicious occurrences, and not that long ago a Handmaid acted as a suicide bomber, but sure, that’s a safe and sensible idea. Still, as with other episodes of this series, you can overlook a lot when the acting is this good.
The issue is that the series has so inconsistently handled its big ideas that it’s hard to tell what’s deliberate and what’s just an accident. What is the show’s opinion of June’s willingness to put a Martha (and thus her daughter, not knowing who this Martha’s replacement might be) in terrible danger in hopes of having a brief conversation with Hannah? It’s not as though June would be able to remove her from school. What is its opinion of her decision to manipulate a mentally ill woman into accompanying her on this dangerous and mostly pointless mission? What does it mean to the show when she picks up that rope?
I have no idea, and there’s not reason to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale does either. I hope it does. There are the seeds of interesting stories here. But June’s story has included so many stumbles, contradictions, and missed opportunities that it’s much harder to trust that the writers know where they’re going. Unfortunately, the success that The Handmaid’s Tale has when it turns its gaze to the other Handmaids only serves to underline how shoddily it often tells the tale of the Handmaid, singular.
- No sign of June making more tapes.
- Surely there’s got to be more for Chris Meloni and Reaser to do?
- I know the stone-throwing particicution ritual has been done a few times, but even so, this rope-pulling contraction seems needlessly complex.
- Wouldn’t there be cameras in the grocery stores? Seems like anywhere the women would be able to talk to each other would be closely monitored.
- Next week: It’s the Ann Dowd show!