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What’s forbidden is both sweet and savage on The Handmaid’s Tale

Illustration for article titled What’s forbidden is both sweet and savage on iThe Handmaid’s Tale/i
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Linger on the width of a man’s shoulders. Run a finger over forbidden words, carved into a wall. Place a gentle hand on a distressed woman’s shoulders. Shame a companion into shutting up. Make someone smell the lillies. Get behind the wheel. There may be a world of difference between splitting a man’s head open and willingly spreading your legs, between grabbing the pruning shears and saying your own true name, but in Gilead, they’re all just a little bit the same. Letting your hair down, reading a magazine, sticking out your tongue, orgasm, murder: in a world without choice, there’s no rule as to what constitutes rebellion.

The great strength of “Faithful,” yet another stunningly well-made and deeply affecting episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, is the line it draws between these tastes of the forbidden, each of these rebellions, big and small. It would work even if the story in Gilead’s present weren’t juxtaposed with a piece of June/Offred’s backstory, namely the beginning of her relationship with Luke. By diving into both, it manages to a) begin to explain why June‘s marriage wasn’t considered valid (her husband was previously married), b) offer a striking reminder of what consensual sex looks like, and c) offer one simple detail that makes the episode’s climax that much more affecting. This is a woman who likes to be on top, and that makes her final act that much more defiant, even triumphant. All that, and it still remains deeply fucked up.


It’s a treat (though that seems a deeply silly word for this show) to become enveloped in a series so willing to place layer upon layer of meaning in each of its scenes. As Offred climbs those stairs, it calls back to the first time she climbed them with Serena Joy, marching toward another ritual rape that’s still somehow different. It calls back to the end of the previous episode, in which she finds a way to use a previous Handmaid’s suicide to wrest some tiny piece of control from her life—if Nick is an Eye, then what does this interaction do to the balance of power? Similarly, when Emily gets behind the wheel of that car, it’s not just the scene itself we’re seeing. It’s also the moment Moira boards a train and June/Offred gives her blessing. It’s also the moment Emily screams. It’s also the moment the Handmaids watch as June, bloodied and beaten, sits up in her bed. It’s those, and others, and for such a brief moment, that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

The text is rich with these links, making each act of rebellion all the more powerful, but the strongest connective tissue can be found in the performances themselves. If each of these reviews is 50% praise for Moss, Bledel, and company, I’ll run out of adjectives fast, but in this case, the repetition is necessary. Mike Barker’s assured direction plays no small role, of course, but it’s Moss’s face that does much of the heavy lifting here, particularly in Emily’s brutal, chaotic, and bizarrely comical assault on the guards at the market. It’s the exact expression we see in Moira’s escape. The look on her face as she prepares to climb Nick’s steps a second time is so, so similar to the one we see when she manipulates the Commander into lifting her house arrest. She’s aided in this by the other women who play the Handmaids, particularly Madeline Brewer (as Janine) and Bledel, who continues to do terrific work.

There’s another through-line that’s deeply felt in “Faithful,” and that’s the presence of the Eyes. They’re mentioned frequently, and every episode has made reference to them, but each has also included shots that make it feel as though the camera is peering in on the action from some hidden vantage point. Those shots are more present here than in any previous installment, and that’s true of the flashback sequences as well. During Luke and June’s first lunch, we often see one of them from just behind the head of the other—fitting for a date that’s illicit, secretive, and rule-breaking in its way. They’re not Under His Eye, but they’re certainly hiding something. It’s a nice touch that once again underlines the difference between then and now.

Still, perhaps the most significant accomplishment of this episode is the strangest one: they actually make that final sex scene kind of hot, and it’s due less to the flesh and heavy breathing than it is to knowing that to June/Offred, this isn’t that far off the mark from grabbing those pruning shears or sitting in the driver’s seat. This is, in a way, an act of war, a defiant reclamation of the body and of choice, a slap in the face to those that robbed another woman of her body and her choice. If that’s not kind of hot, what is?


Stray observations

  • As always, you can find a few of the most arresting shots from this episode on Twitter.
  • Mike Barker also directed “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” as well as several great episodes of Outlander (including this one, which feels super relevant).
  • Once again, they worked in one of the most famous quotes from the book. They also incorporated one of my favorite poems by Atwood (or anyone else).
  • That brief shot of Nick’s gun. Ugh.
  • Am I alone in interpreting Emily’s interaction with the wife (billed as Grace in closed-captioning) as surprisingly compassionate? She’s trying to spare Emily the pain of a sexual encounter after FGM, correct?
  • A-: that first love scene between June and Luke had so much lens flare it was just a little ridiculous. Yes, it’s very lush and romantic, but a little goes a long way.
  • Book stuff: we got a good hint at Serena Joy’s personal history with that hasty prayer after June/Offred’s enforced sex with Nick. Also, our first explicit mention of rules about reading.

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