Into the darkness within; or else the light.
There’s an incredible amount of power in ambiguous storytelling. At its best, it can open up doors into previously unknown corners of one’s mind, evoking a different reaction from nearly every viewer. Many a great work of art demands you pour yourself into it. The result can be challenging, astonishing, and infuriating, but rarely is such an experience boring.
Over the course of its often staggering first season, The Handmaid’s Tale has been many things, but ambiguous hasn’t often been one of them. When they did go to that particular well, it was often emotional in nature, achieved through extended close-ups and killer performances. The show didn’t need to tell us what was going on with June/Offred, or Moira, or Emily/Ofglen, or Serena Joy, because the faces of those performers carried that burden. Elisabeth Moss would smirk, or stare, or shudder, and it was up to us to decide what that meant. Because Moss is very, very good at her job, it probably meant lots of things, all at once, and so the feelings of those watching her work became tied up in the moment, too.
In “Night,” writer and creator Bruce Miller embraces narrative ambiguity as well, and the marriage of the two in the episode’s final seconds makes for an image and a moment as striking as any we’ve yet seen from this series. What happens to June/Offred after she climbs into that van? Are the hands that help her those of friends or enemies, saviors or oppressors? Are they both? From whence, exactly does her serenity spring—from trust, from acceptance, from defiance, from the knowledge that she’s pregnant? We don’t know, and we’re not meant to. What we know is what she tells us, and what she tells us is that she doesn’t know, either. Into the darkness within; or else the light.
The next paragraph contains spoilers for Margaret Atwood’s novel. Well, sort of.
Of course, Miller manages to take that ending—very similar to that of the book, with the exception that the series confirms June/Offred is pregnant—and turn it into something incredibly familiar to television audiences: a cliffhanger. Atwood’s ending is rich with the unknown. The knowledge that only a few brief pages remain make it clear that readers won’t ever find out what became of Offred, just as Offred never found out what became of Moira, never knew for sure what happened to Ofglen, never really knew who she could trust or whether any given piece of information was true. She was in the dark, and so we were too. Now, we’ll only be in the dark until season two rolls around.
That it will make viewers hungry for more doesn’t diminish the moment’s power, nor is it the only example of Miller (and director Kari Skogland) allowing the unknown to make ”Night” more potent. When June/Offred tells Nick she’s pregnant, something happens. There’s moment of tenderness, or sorrow, or probably both. Hands are clasped over a belly. Serena Joy sees this, and Nick sees her see it, and they have a brief exchange. What transpires in those moments is both crystal clear and a total mystery. As indispensable as June/Offred’s narration has often been, its absence in this scene makes it possible for them to contain multitudes. Is Nick’s lack of concern about Serena Joy an act of defiance, an assertion of power, or the action of a man who perhaps wrongly believes he’s safe from retribution by virtue of his position? Is his reaction one of relief that June/Offred will be safe for at least nine months, or one of joy that they’ve somehow made a baby together? And how does it all tie into June/Offred’s walk to that van?
Your mileage may vary, and that’s an act of sophisticated storytelling. (It also goes a long way to making Nick, who actually got less interesting the more we learned about him, a compelling figure again.) The same can be said of many of the highlights of “Night”: Moira wandering around a refugee center, clutching a bag of clothes and cash and health insurance, Serena Joy’s silent tears over a crib, and June/Offred’s silent trudge up the garage steps to a locked door, to name a few. But there was no way The Handmaid’s Tale was going to close out its first season without a few more on-the-nose moments, and mercifully, most of these feel pretty damn sophisticated, too.
There’s a simple reason for this: They’re nearly all earned, and that hasn’t always been the case. In some instances, it almost feels as though Miller and company wanted a do-over. Compare this slow-motion power strut to that at the end of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” There, the unity of the handmaids felt a little dishonest, even cheap. Here, on the heels of an “I am Spartacus” moment, it might be heavy-handed, but it certainly isn’t false. Another example would be Luke’s reunion with Moira, a scene that feels like a deliberate echo of the end of “The Other Side,” only a thousand times more emotionally potent. This series hasn’t always been subtle, but with “Night,” it returns to the balance of blunt and thoughtful that made its first three episodes so remarkable.
As with those episodes, the power that results from that balance makes it easy to forgive all manner of sins. So what if June/Offred fell asleep surrounded by the letters of other handmaids, where anyone could find her? It matters little, compared to the sight of her whispering “Behind the tub” in Rita’s ear. So what if “Feelin’ Good” felt a bit jarring, when the scene that preceded it packed such an incredible wallop? Another flashback to physical brutality might seem unwelcome, but not when the payoff is that gorgeous phrase: “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia.”
When The Handmaid’s Tale really buckles down, it can be as subtle as an oversized mallet and incredibly layered, all at once. The episode’s most powerful scene, that in which Serena Joy talks with Hannah while June/Offred screams in the car, is proof of that. Some will take what’s on the surface and run, and that’s fine. Others will stew over the mess that is Nick seeming to take action only when June/Offred is pregnant, or the nightmare of Serena Joy writing the laws that outlawed reading and writing for women, and that’s great, too. Like remarkable performances, like complex characters, and like all of us, it is vast and contains multitudes.
Perhaps that’s the best way to take the show. It isn’t darkness or light. The men with the van aren’t saviors or oppressors. Aunt Lydia is a monster and maternal, Serena Joy both a figure of evil and a product of the world in which she lives. June is both June and Offred, and the two are the same, and they battle each other and protect each other and they both climb into that van. There is no right way to tell this story. There’s known and unknown, said and unsaid. Into the darkness within; or else the light.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: A-
- A surprising amount of very dark humor in this one: the click of the knitting needles, the look of shock on Waterford’s face as he realizes the committee is actually listening to a wife’s opinion, “no you shut up,” the frustrated sigh of the aunt who couldn’t get the nightmare equipment to work, “Would you like a 1-2-3 dear?” Oh, and one more, but it deserves its own bullet.
- “Oh man, I hate stonings.”
- If nothing else, this sets up a very Samira Wiley-heavy season two, and that can only be a good thing. I think her scene in the refugee center with the bag might be my favorite thing she’s ever done, and her scene with O-T Fagbenle was incredible, too.
- Ann Dowd and Elisabeth Moss should act together forever, please and thank you.
- Lots of shots of Moss from the waist up, as though a bulging stomach was just out of sight. Many of those shots were also on steps, from a perilous height. Smart, scary stuff.
- That slap into the doorframe was nuts. But not as nuts as the little amputation tutorial.
- Incredible performances all around, but as is fitting, the MVP here is Moss. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s so packed with obscenities, I’d bet money on seeing a lot of that scene in the car come awards season.
- Had some screenshot problems last week, so to make up for it, you can expect standout shots from this week’s episode at noon—and I’ll make it a compilation of the best shots from the season.
- Thanks for reading this season, for commenting, and for reaching out on Twitter. See you when those van doors open next year!
- Late addition: I edited that last paragraph for clarity, based on some notes in the comments section. Basically, my point is that this show treats the story and the characters with complexity, and that’s a great strength. (See also: Luke as loving husband/dad and also part of the problem; June/Offred getting the hell into the particicution in the pilot; etc.)