Elisabeth Moss
Photo: Sophie Giraud (Hulu)
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Every episode of The Handmaid’s Tale looks great, but even by that standard, this is an episode that stands out. It is stunning. This is, visually speaking, an incredibly accomplished episode of television. The monuments are staggering. The ridiculous video in front of the statue is comically manipulative and grandiose. The new costumes, evocative; the details captured, deliberate and provoking.

It’s also infuriating.

Part of the reason I feel compelled to note that there are, as always, many things to admire about this episode is that it’s an incredibly frustrating experience to watch a show with so many talented people stumble in such a frustrating, baffling way. The great things are great, and they also make it somehow worse. A show like this one perhaps can’t help but stumble. It’s incredibly ambitious, and tackles some very delicate issues (and ignoring others). It’s not just the production values, either, or the great actors. There are some thoughtful, seriously effective moments of writing and direction: The request of the Swiss to speak to June alone, while June’s face is in focus but unseen but everyone but us; June’s brief conversations with Rita, which give both the relief of speaking at least somewhat candidly; that terrific scene between Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd, when June asks Aunt Lydia if she wants the handmaids all “silenced;” and perhaps most of all, the horrifying site of a pack of someone else’s children galloping into a room to say goodnight to their “new parents.” All great, the last two highlights for the season, if not the show in general.

But the cheaply manipulative elements, as well as the bewildering steps taken by some of its characters, make it very difficult to appreciate those things.

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We already know that Gilead will cut out the tongues of handmaids as punishment for speaking out or up (as when the second Ofglen/Lillie refuses to particicute Janine). We also now know for sure that the government is willing to use images of the handmaids as propaganda. And lastly, the mouth-covering garment is upsetting all on its own; the first appearance of that garment hits like a brick. So why, why on earth, would putting rings through mouths be a thing? It would not. It’s not the brutality, The Handmaid’s Tale has made the capacity for brutality in this regime abundantly clear, time and again. It’s just not actually in line with anything else we know of Gilead.

The covering of mouths gets the job done visually. The removal of tongues does the same, practically/brutally. And the men of this culture like to pretend that handmaids are meant to be sort of angelic and sexless, just there to be a vessel, but they dress them in all red and keep them in their homes at all times, where they are clearly fetishized. So unless there’s some dick in the upper echelon of Gilead who thinks that horrifying sight is super hot, why would they do this ? There is no reason. The society does this because The Handmaid’s Tale wants to shock us, and because the show’s writers either didn’t think the rest of that through, or decided it didn’t matter.

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The same is true of that shouting match that June and Serena Joy have at the feet of the decapitated Lincoln Memorial, right around the corner from hundreds, if not thousands, of handmaids and, one assumes, the guards and aunts keeping them in line. The sound in that scene is, again, top-notch. World-class production values. It rings like a bell. Cacophonous. Yvonne Strahovski and Moss sell the shit out of this scene, the latest irrevocable break between two on-again, off-again uncomfortable allies. When June shouts that Serena will never be free of her, it seems like an all-too rare acknowledgement of past and grievous wrongs (though, credit where it’s due, this episode does a fine job of acknowledging other past events). It seems, so briefly, like a reference to one of the other final and irrevocable breaks between the two women, when Serena helped facilitate a very violent rape, literally holding June down as she was raped. But no, it’s a warning that she, like the Terminator or the Energizer bunny, will just keep coming back until she’s dead or both her kids are free.

That’s fine. It’s fine. It’s also very, very loud, in a place where that’s very, very dangerous.

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The phrase “a little goes a long way” comes to mind with this show, with startling regularity. Those first three remarkable episodes made us so viscerally aware of potential horrors awaiting all these characters that the suggestion of danger is and always has been incredibly potent. The red masks hiding and muffling the mouth of the handmaids are horrifying enough. The knowledge that Serena has once again put her desire for a child over literally everything else in the entire world is enough. We don’t need the extra. It’s not just that it’s unneeded. It weakens everything else. The extra dilutes the potency of the rest.

There are plenty of great reasons to watch this show. My sincerest hope is that the powers that be stop trying to be the shocking, timely The Handmaid’s Tale and instead settle for being The Handmaid’s Tale, which was already both of those things.

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Stray observations

  • Margaret Atwood has famously said that every horror in The Handmaid’s Tale has a basis in history. I have tried to find an example of a culture putting rings through the mouths of women as a silencing tactic, and have failed. That said, I am no scholar of these things, and it’s not the easiest thing to Google. Anyone know of anything?
  • Hi, Chris Meloni and Elizabeth Reaser, welcome to the party.
  • What do we think happened in Nick’s chat with the Swiss?
  • Speaking of conversations that should probably be whispered, June was not shy when she was talking to that Swiss official, was she?
  • Why would the Waterfords include a volatile person vehemently opposed to their actions as the centerpoint of their propaganda campaign? I get that it’s maybe extra persuasive to have her for the smaller video, but it’s not like anyone can see her face in the second.
  • I don’t know much, but I do know The Handmaid’s Tale has seriously overestimated how much Fred matters to the show. What was that lion thing? Are we supposed to care about the reconciliation of those two monsters?

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