Madeline Brewer
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)

In January, Bruce Miller gave an interview about The Handmaid’s Tale to The Hollywood Reporter. In it, writer Josh Wigler asked him about how long he imagines the series could run.

“I roughed it out to about 10 seasons when I was first working on it,” Miller said.

He goes on to mention the possibility of Nuremberg trials after the fall of Gilead, before going on to dismiss the possibility that they’ve left Atwood’s novel behind:

People talk about how we’re beyond the book, but we’re not really. The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what’s happened in those intervening 200 years. It’s maybe handled in an outline, but it’s still there in Margaret’s novel. We’re not going beyond the novel; we’re just covering territory she covered quickly, a bit more slowly.

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If this is slowly, then Bruce Miller and I have very different ideas about pacing.

Granted, in the scope of 10 seasons (10 seasons!), the Offices of Waterford and Osbourne, Government Forgers probably seems like a drop in the bucket. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little bewildered as The Handmaid’s Tale races through storylines one could see lasting a few episodes, if not a season. Sometimes, that’s a virtue—another series might have stretched Marisa Tomei’s guest spot over weeks, but something about the compact nature of that story heightened its impact, and June’s life on the lam seems in hindsight to be perfectly timed.

But Miller and company sped through the fallout of the June vs. Offred standoff in a real hurry, dodged into, and quickly back out of, the apparent truce between Serena and June after the latter’s miscarriage scare, had Moira process a season and a half worth of grief in one half of one episode, and gave us a terrifying hour of bombing fallout that created a level of panic that seems to have totally dissipated. Last week, they put a pen in June’s hand, and she clicked it in a shot that reflected the arming of the Rachel and Leah Center bomb. This week is... the last day in the office. That’s fast.

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That’s not to say the episode’s opening scene, soundtracked by The Commodores’ “Easy,” isn’t effective. The relaxed postures, the half-eaten roll on the desk, the glow of a laptop screen and the easy, if still somewhat awkward, banter is jarring in the best way. It’s foreign, like time-travel, and one of the most effective instances of The Handmaid’s Tale making sure it feels rooted in our present (see also: the signs at Fenway, the brunch conversation, Emily’s ice cream nostalgia). Take away the creepy uniforms and it would be an altogether familiar sight: two co-workers who maybe don’t like each other much, but who work really well together, getting shit done and idly chatting. Just another day at the office.

Moss and Strahovski have both been great this season, but this scene in particular struck me, because their physicality does so much of the work. That’s hammered home when Serena mentions Fred’s return, and again when the women of the household line up to greet him, stiff, cowed, prepared for an invasion. All great stuff, well-executed. But wow, what a jump (and of how much time, one can only guess). One moment, a pen clicked into action. The next, that pen replaced in its tray. In the middle, a bunch of stories we’ll presumably never see—how this relationship thawed and June’s reaction to it, how Serena got from assuming all of June’s acts are manipulative to seeking her advice on matters of law-breaking and baby-saving, what they enacted and the changes they wrought, any conflicting feelings either woman felt about their work within this system (one betraying what she helped to create, the other bolstering the system that has brutalized her).

Presumably it’s in service of speeding us toward the finale, which likely involves birth, or the fallout from that birth. But all these tantalizing stories are left by the wayside, and while Strahovski, Moss, and credited writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera drop hints here and there, it’s hard not to regret the loss of those stories, particularly when the tradeoff is a faster reappearance of the least interesting, most poorly sketched member of the Waterford household. The Handmaid’s Tale has made Nick’s role in this series far more interesting in the last few weeks, including this one, as the bizarre balance of power in his “marriage” continues to wobble—Eden is undeniably the victim here, a child in a brutal world convinced that her forced marriage is a service to god, but she’s also a danger to Nick and to June, because she believes this life to be good and right. But Fred remains dull even in his tyranny and impotent rage.

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It’s hard to say where that rage comes from this week, because Fred has choices. Ostensibly it’s Serena’s choice to go behind his back and send for an esteemed neonatal specialist who happens to be a woman, forging his signature to make such a request possible (another story that could have taken much more time, particularly since the few moments we spend with the doctor are so affecting). But it comes after Fred creepily creeps up to June’s room, presumably for a tryst (Janine’s casual mention of blow-jobs serves its purpose there), only to find Serena’s “nice working with you” gifts on June’s bedside table. It’s only after that scene that he seemingly discovers the extensive, but unspecified, work they did together, and his choice to make June watch Serena’s beating seems designed to drive a wedge between them. It’s a punishment for both of them, and seems rooted in possession, not disobedience. And again, the women are compelling, but Fred’s rage is not.

One storyline that neither races past nor outstays its welcome is Janine’s reunion with Charlotte (now known as Angela Putnam). Madeline Brewer is so good, and Kari Skogland’s final shot so lovely, that it’s easy to forgive the relative tidiness of this—a baby, near death, is full of life after time with a loving mother. The issue isn’t implausibility—it’s perfectly plausible—but rather that it seems so obvious, from the earliest moments, that this is the episode’s eventual end. Still, it’s a lovely moment, even if it’s unlikely to change much in Gilead. Aunt Lydia will likely see it as a gift from god. Naomi is unlikely to allow any further contact with Janine, nor to suddenly start caring about the baby toward which she’s displayed little to no affection or compassion. And Janine has her own, blow-job-free posting to return to.

But for a moment, the snow falls, Janine sings, and a baby coos. It’s a long, lovely, rich moment, and the perfect place for The Handmaid’s Tale to slow down and take its time. I just wish they’d do the same elsewhere.

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Stray observations

  • Musical corner: I greatly prefer Janine idly singing a pop song to the needle drops. This is something Harlots does really well—they find organic ways to incorporate music and then transforms those musical moments into soundtrack moments. Good stuff.
  • Brewer’s delivery of “May the Force be with you” was just perfect. She might be the week’s MVP.
  • It seems like June’s complicity and her sudden comfort within the system will be a big focus from here on out.
  • June’s “someone once said” is a Margaret Atwood quote.

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