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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Handmaid's Tale can't outjog the past

Samira Wiley
Samira Wiley
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
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There are works of art that ask you to read between the lines, to intuit and evaluate and search your mind and thoughts and assumptions, to ask that you experience it without hand-holding. Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not such a work of art. The performances are often subtle, because these actors are, almost uniformly, very good at their jobs. But Miller and company paint with a broad, brutal brush. So we see June and Moira running, both figuratively and literally—two kinds of running, in June’s case—but unable to outpace the past. It’s not holding your hand so much as grabbing it and moving it over to an answer key that explains everything that’s happening. Put plainly, it’s not subtle stuff. It is, however, damned effective. Mostly.


There’s a great deal to admire about “Baggage,” namely the performances (as always) and few sequences that hit with the power of a felling axe. The Handmaid’s Tale may not be subtle, but it understands when to get out of the way for a big moment: a garage full of street signs, a cornerstone of someone’s life taped beneath the bed, a kid with some fire trucks, directions out of the elevator, a name.

It’s the name that hits hardest, thanks in no small part to a vulnerable, spare performance from Samira Wiley. Moira’s story here is as deeply upsetting as you’d expect, a glimpse at life in Little America for someone whose trauma followed her across the border. Wiley’s performance is powerful, and that one word, Ruby, is a blow to the gut. But what’s frustrating about the Moira half of “Baggage” is that her story is so static.

Emotionally, it makes sense. We see her going about her day, running, attempting to goad Luke into eating, walking a new arrival through the same process she went through, going to a bar, heading home, and through it all, her experiences can’t be avoided. She runs past a memorial, just as June does. She goes for coffee and Nick wants to talk about the military action at the border (“It’s seven-thirty,” she sighs, just like anyone else who cannot possibly deal with the monstrous news first thing in the morning). She goes to work and a new arrival needs to tell her what happened to him, needs to tell her about bodies on a wall, about “gender traitors” and a guy he dated in college. She goes to a club, brings a woman to orgasm in a bathroom, but can’t bear to be touched in return.

“Baggage” tells Moira’s story by showing us, again and again, how inescapable her trauma is. But that one word, Ruby, achieves that on its own. Moira is a compelling character, and Wiley a gifted actor. One hopes that as the season progresses, they’ll both get more to do.

Moira runs and gets nowhere—though as she tells the escaped Guardian (Vas Saranga), it gets easier. And progress is possible, it seems, as their silent roommate pipes up at the end of the episode, a change in a day that seems to be otherwise filled with sameness. June, on the other hand, runs and gets somewhere, both literally and metaphorically, confronting her own feelings about her mother Holly (the great Cherry Jones), and coming to terms with leaving the country, and Hannah, behind. Elisabeth Moss is great, as always, and it’s messy, complicated stuff. But though June makes progress on her own, she ends up, one presumes, right back where she started in the literal sense. On the brink of escape from Gilead, Gilead comes roaring back, with bright lights and gunshots and terror.


June’s thwarted escape should come as no great surprise. If June makes it to Canada, what does the series become? But there’s something about the nearness of it that feels especially cruel and manipulative. It sometimes seems as though The Handmaid’s Tale has the dial set to Maximum Bad, looking for every opportunity to make the horrors of this world that much more horrifying. It’s not enough for June to get caught as she flees. She has to make it into the plane, and the plane has to make it to the runway, and the runway has to be almost ended, before she’s yanked back in.

As affecting as those final moments are, they’re frustrating all the same, coming off as far more ‘written’ than some of the show’s other nightmares (and definitely more than that “Ruby.”) That they come moments after June has made peace, or something like it, with her complicated feelings about her mother (seen in a photo in the Colonies) and her sense that she’s abandoning Hannah, makes them all the more frustrating. She’s back at square one—trapped in a world her mother warned her was coming, unable to save her daughter despite knowing she’s somewhere nearby, and likely forced to “give” her baby away, as the Econowife (Joanna Douglas) puts it.


Yet despite the qualms listed above, this is an hour that mostly works. It’s literal, it’s broad, it’s not the least bit subtle, but running is a useful metaphor here. Moira and June are going in circles around a trap, working hard but getting next to nowhere. No matter how fast you go, no matter how hard you try, no matter how brave, or stupid, or both you may be, there are some things you just can’t outrun.

Stray observations

  • How is June’s response to her mother’s question about her job not “editing is a lot more than looking for typos”? Because damn, editing is a lot more than looking for typos.
  • Cherry Jones is one of our greatest living actors. I hope this isn’t her only appearance, because if so, it’s a bit of a waste. I was fortunate enough to see her in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt on Broadway and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. She’s good here, but she can really tear the place down, given the chance.
  • Music corner: Santigold is damn good running music (the song is “GO!” featuring Karen O.)
  • The eye in the glass on the door to the living quarters was a nice touch.
  • “He got this new Mark Bittman book so he’s feeling ambitious”: a line designed to make everyone nod
  • “My mom used to say the same thing!” “Smart lady.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!