Created by Bruce Miller. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel
As a novel, one of the many things which makes The Handmaid’s Tale special is that it does not make up details about the activities of the Republic of Gilead; in other words, everything that happens in Gilead has happened before in real life. The executions, the theocratic police state, even the things that women wear can be traced back to some corollary in history. As a television program, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to buy in to that legacy of our world after Gutenberg, a world in which women are second-class citizens and we have the newspaper clippings to prove it without doubts. If the show is to succeed on a high level in the way that the novel does, it will be because it, uh, “leans in” to historical precedent. Already the talk about The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is “timely” or “cautionary” as if systemic violence and oppression of women hadn’t been a fact since Adam and Eve, when, in the first story of the Abrahamic faiths, a man blames a woman for bringing sin into the world. All That Heaven Allows, Raging Bull, and Fargo are three totally different movies from totally different decades with settings which are no longer relevant to the 21st Century. But they are great films – by my calculations, each is one of the best fifty American films ever – as the first recognizes that we will always have to manage private lives against social mores, the second considers toxic self-destructive hypermasculinity, and the third understands our fascination with criminality and where it stems from. If The Handmaid’s Tale turns into a good show, which it might do, it won’t be because it is timely but because it seizes that emphasis on legitimized hatred of women and runs with it.
So far, so good. Through the first half of the first season, The Handmaid’s Tale has worked in fits and starts, and its most interesting pieces are more interested in women and violence than they are anything else. The pilot is slow, although it can be forgiven for its slowness because it has so much to tell us. Certain elements stands out – nothing can quite prepare us for the strangeness of the Ceremony, not even if we’ve read the novel, and I imagine if we saw the movie we may have been suspicious of the TV show – but much of the pacing is merely ponderous. There’s a lot of explanation, a lot of “Under His eye” going on that feels awkward because everything else of importance has been explained already. I spent most of the first episode wondering who the DP was instead of trying to get into the story. Colin Watkinson seems to believe that the sun was given to us for the purpose of lens flare, or perhaps he’s simply trying to give everyone who’s watching the largest collective migraine in the history of television. When the sun hasn’t washed everything out, interiors frequently rely on the tired “looks cool” trope of orange and blue contrast. The Handmaid’s Tale is an unconventional show because of the story it’s telling; why is it running with the most hackneyed visual elements of 21st Century filmmaking?
The second, third, and fourth episodes all walk a thin line, which is probably done best in “Late,” the middle one. They grow increasingly more interesting from a plot perspective as Gilead becomes more natural to the viewers and less energy has to be exerted along the lines of “this is why x has to happen this way.” Unfortunately, that means they also lose much of the horror element which was fairly successful in the pilot. A woman and her little girl run from a car come off the road as a gunshot reverberates, signifying the death of the girl’s father. A disheveled June is brought, shaking, into a low room much too big for its purpose where many women in red sit alertly at their desks. Cattle prods are used here and there. June doesn’t know if she can trust Ofglen, her handmaid shopping partner who is meant to be more panopticon than buddy, and so she watches her words carefully. The Ceremony itself is rape by another name, by far the hardest part of the episode to watch. In the show’s present, the horror is achieved by having people act more or less normal in abnormal circumstances; in the show’s past, the horror is achieved by letting us in on the window of the future and knowing the inevitability of events beforehand. For the remainder of this first season, I expect that whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale falls off its tightrope will have everything to do with how good the flashbacks are, not the actual in the moment plots themselves. It is a highly unusual corner to paint oneself into, and one that leaves so little room for error in execution.
“Late” works because it sees violence against women in the show’s past as well as the show’s present and it rubs our noses in it. In the show’s past, the violence is done to June and Moira and, by extension, nameless women in the world surrounding them. In the show’s present, the violence is done to Janine and Ofglen, whose name is revealed to be Emily at the end of the hour. To me, one of the scariest things that’s happened in the entire series so far is watching every woman’s bank account get frozen for the simple fact that they have “F” on the form somewhere. The idea of handmaids and Ceremonies are distant from us (yes, I get that they’re not, but this wouldn’t a be a TV show if they weren’t a little distant). Something seems a little more plausible and simple and eerie about watching your debit card get declined at a cafe because you’re a woman. June and Moira don’t suffer anything worse than some sexist insults from the cashier when June’s card is rejected (and we’ll talk about that later), but The Handmaid’s Tale makes that worse than the cattle prod jolt June takes in the show’s present. Almost as bad is the failure of imagination that takes place later, as only Moira seems to fully grasp just how terrifying it is that women can no longer spend money without a man’s help or permission. June seems to think things will reach a more even keel eventually; Moira is smarter than that. (“They can’t just do this,” June says, one of those things which people only say once the opposite has been proven.)
In the show’s present, we take something of a break from our protagonist (and I’m a little worried about the show going forward if the best episode aired so far removes us from the main character) and think harder about Emily, who has been arrested as a gender traitor, and Janine, who has given birth and is losing her mind thinking about how she’s going to lose the baby she’s had. The best moment of the entire series was almost in “Birth Day,” which connects Janine giving birth to June having done so in the past. There’s a great creepy moment where June’s newborn is kidnapped by a deranged woman who, presumably, is infertile but is willing to kill for a little person of her own. Janine gives birth with some “help” from her boss, who mimics the process and then finally fakes giving birth in a two-person chair, where she sits above Janine and huffs and puffs while Janine has a baby. The wife can hold the baby, name the baby (“Angela,” because of course), and call the baby hers. But Janine, while she’s nursing the child later on, is sitting alone in her room, in a comfortable bed, with the little girl she’s carried for nine months and now has a chance to connect with after having her ripped out of her hands immediately. The sense of loss is unbearable, and the cruelty is so “just personal” that it hurts. The moment is ruined when Janine sings to the baby, as if in the middle of a heartfelt prayer an organ started blasting a hymn. I wish that the folks making the episode had been just a little more confident in what they had there; with silence, the scene is ineffable and wrenching and it makes the scene in “Late” a little more believable. Janine reveals to June, first of all, that she’s calling the baby “Charlotte.” She believes firmly that her commander is going to run away with her and the baby, and that they will live together as a family. June doesn’t have the heart to do much more than push back a little, enough to tell herself later that she tried to do something to stop Janine from making a fatal decision. Janine has always been flighty and injudicious – she loses an eye in the first episode for sassing the aunts – but it’s clear that she wouldn’t be guilty of anything more than caprice in our world. It’s only in Gilead that she has to pay for her silliness with her body and her mind.
Even with half a season left, I get the strong feeling that Emily’s circumcision is going to be the takeaway moment of the entire season. I don’t know that it’s necessarily shocking, although the reveal is a strong one; in the pilot, Moira’s secondary reaction to Janine’s lost eye was that you don’t have to have both eyes to have a baby, which Janine of course proves with flying colors. (Given the cruelty of Gilead, and how everything sexual will come down more heavily on the woman than the man, I’m a little surprised that it doesn’t happen to all the handmaids before they’re pressed into service.) Emily’s arrest, her very efficient trial, and her ride to the gallows with her lover, a Martha (barren women who do housework), where the two of them are gagged and they can do little more than hold hands, was simply moving. It fits the Gilead which has been shown already, as one of the takeaway moments in the first episode was the hanging wall that June and Emily pass. It’s also one of our first onscreen deaths. There’s no onscreen catharsis as there was in the pilot, where June gets to grieve Moira by kicking the life out of a rapist. This is merely heartbreaking, watching a lover raised by her neck into the sky for the mere fact of loving. Mutilation is a next step, like finding out that after you’ve been savagely beaten it has somehow left you blind for life; as a contextualized punishment it gains its power to hurt her and to hurt us.
Although I’m not sure that I think her scenes have paid off in the same way that others do in the first few episodes (and this is especially true in “Faithful,” which I found unsuccessful mostly on the basis of an uninteresting flashback), Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the show. She is so important that I’m inclined to think that The Handmaid’s Tale might not work without her; in the same way that replacing Jon Hamm in Mad Men or Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad or Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie would be unthinkable, I cannot imagine what the show would be like without Moss as its center. Even though June does some things over the course of the first five episodes that we think of as being fairly dumb (such as the reason she comes up with for copping to knowledge of Emily’s homosexuality), she is durable. She is not the strongest or smartest person in Gilead, but she is one of those people who will last. She says as much at the end of the first episode, and because it’s Elisabeth Moss, those words don’t come out as corny or pat but as a serious statement of intent. What matters most about June is honesty. Some of her inner monologue is corny beyond her ability to save (the end of “Nolites Te Bastardes Carborundorum” sounds like it escaped from a meme), but Moss sells it because we trust her as an honest person, one who lies to people who deserve lies but who has a tendency to be open with us, the viewers, whom she trusts.