Each week, a couple of members of the Vox Tradition crew collect to speak out the most recent episode of The Handmaid’s Story, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at giant Todd VanDerWerff and workers author Constance Grady talk about “The Phrase,” the finale of the second season.
Todd VanDerWerff: Why does June keep in Gilead?
The obvious reply — or, fairly, the most proximate reply — is that she’s staying to attempt to discover and rescue Hannah, which is a kind of comprehensible motivation, however doesn’t get you previous the, “How does June survive 5 minutes?” downside. It’s also possible to see the present planting the seeds of her extra actively becoming a member of the anti-Gilead resistance in these remaining 15 minutes, together with her assembly each a Twilight Barking of Marthas and Bradley Whitford cosplaying as O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-4. You might even argue she’s — sigh — staying for Nick.
And the season even ready us for this, structurally, with June’s three escapes ending in three subtly totally different ways in which slowly confirmed us her constructing to a spot the place she would select to remain in Gilead, fairly than making a run for it. (Particularly, she regularly regains her company throughout the three makes an attempt, being captured after the primary, selecting to be captured within the identify of saving Holly within the second, and at last selecting to remain of her personal volition within the final.)
I feel all of those are defensible explanations, and so they’re all of the type of factor season three may make nice tales out of. (Okay, not the Nick factor.) However none of them get previous the truth that the one motive June isn’t killed or despatched to the Colonies after seeming to kidnap a child (that child being the entire motive for Gilead’s existence, thoughts) is as a result of she’s the protagonist. And that’s a harmful place to go away your present in on a cliffhanger — asking the viewers to have religion that you’ve got an answer to this past, “Nicely, if she’s not alive, then there’s no story, proper?”
I hate to gripe about this, as a result of for probably the most half “The Phrase” does some attention-grabbing issues in closing off the story of the primary two seasons of the present. And if, in some future world, we notice that the collection started its pivot to being concerning the resistance, or about Emily’s adventures in Canada, or about Bradley Whitford’s cantankerous relationship with everyone, properly, possibly we’ll look on it extra kindly. However proper now, as a result of we are able to see so little — and since the cliffhanger mirrors season one’s just a bit bit — it’s onerous to not be a little annoyed.
However at the very least a few of that frustration stems from my niggling concern that the collection may simply drop June proper again into the Waterford family, when the second half of season two basically argued that entire association was utterly untenable. Certainly, at this level, the Waterford home is only a entire bunch of people that hate the Commander after which the Commander himself, who has all the energy, sure, however needs most desperately to be preferred. (You get three guesses as to which fashionable political determine that resembles.)
Anyway, I had been spoiled on this occurring — because of an ill-timed go to to the Handmaid’s Story’s writers’ room and one other critic who watched this episode earlier than me filling me in on the main points — so I ended up discovering it extra nuanced than the model in my head had been. As somebody who presumably had no concept what was coming, what did you suppose, Constance? And what did you concentrate on the whole lot within the episode that wasn’t its final minute?
Why The Handmaid’s Story shouldn’t be a superhero present
Constance: I had completely no warning concerning the ending, and, uh … I form of hate it.
Look, I’m a human being with a pulse. Am I down for a TV present the place Elisabeth Moss performs a feminist vigilante superhero who takes down a bunch of rapists? After all I’m. Do I would like that present to be The Handmaid’s Story? Emphatically not.
It’s the superhero angle that actually will get me, I feel. That remaining shot of June flicking up her purple Handmaid’s hood, stone-faced, after which disappearing into the mist: that’s a superhero transfer, little doubt about it. It belongs to the form of present you described above, Todd, the place June can simply kinda mosey round in a area, I assume, and survive with out us having to fret about her getting picked up by the Eye.
It’s a world the place that the hero goes to outlive for no higher motive than that they’re the primary character and so issues are simply going to work out that means, a world that could be a energy fantasy and a cathartic escape from actuality, a world that’s what you want your personal world might be, the place all trauma is only a badass origin story.
There’s nothing flawed with that form of story — I like quite a lot of tales like that! — but it surely’s not precisely constructed to work as a political allegory or an examination of rape tradition or of how totalitarianism impacts the human psyche, and people are the issues that Handmaid’s Story has beforehand proven itself to be actually, actually good at. At this level, I don’t see how a vigilante June plotline goes to lend itself to these concepts.
After all, there’s nonetheless Serena Pleasure to take care of. This week was constructed to convey residence to her that she shouldn’t be so particular as to be the only real and excellent exception from Gilead’s misogyny, which appears to have been her place firstly of the Gilead takeover, however which has turn out to be an concept that’s more and more tough for her to face behind. When she stands earlier than the Council and reads from the Bible, she expects that at greatest she’ll persuade them to permit ladies to learn once more, and at worst she’ll get a slap on the wrist. As a substitute, she will get her finger lower off.
That’s what prompts Serena to launch child Holly/Nicole to June on the finish of the episode — however do you suppose it additionally signifies an irreparable rupture in her marriage with Fred, Todd? Additionally, did this week make it canon that Bradley Whitford is the one who’s selecting all of this present’s needle drops?
Todd: I completely consider that this episode confirms Bradley Whitford is The Handmaid’s Story’s music supervisor, and I prefer it sufficient to only retroactively erase all of my complaining concerning the music cues up to now. (Emily sitting, terrified, within the again seat of his automobile, listening to a blaring “Strolling on Damaged Glass” was all of us, actually — each uncertain why this apparent tune alternative was occurring and reassured that even in a dystopia, the Sirius/XM ’80s on eight station continues to exist.)
I’m much less positive concerning the Waterford marriage. Serena Pleasure was season two’s most significant and attention-grabbing character, an usually good examination of a lady immediately compelled to reckon together with her personal complicity. Opposite to the criticism I’ve seen of the present turning her into somebody “sympathetic,” I’ve been fascinated by how usually the collection has portrayed her as certainly one of our fashionable proto-fascists proper alongside suggesting she has emotions. It’s just like the collection is saying, “Sure, all folks have emotions, however a few of them are additionally making an attempt to dissolve democracy.”
This is without doubt one of the causes the connection that grew between June and Serena made sense. They might be allies in some circumstances, however ones few and much between and all the time pointed towards the sheer indisputable fact that each of them had been in the identical oppression boat. And the present was all the time clear that solely certainly one of them was instrumental in constructing that oppression boat. Nevertheless it’s additionally an enormous a part of the rationale the dissolution of the Waterford marriage has largely labored, although it’s largely performed out within the background of the season. That struggle the 2 had on the deserted home in “Holly” is the type of factor that will immediate a go to to couple’s counseling, however lol at Gilead having couple’s counseling.
So I feel what I’m saying is I purchase all the particular person items of what Serena Pleasure does — from giving up the child to June to studying from the Bible to being livid with Fred — whereas additionally not being fully positive they belong in the identical episode of tv. They may have used room to breathe, I feel, and so they’re as an alternative clumsily jostling in opposition to one another right here.
The identical goes for the whole lot from Emily stabbing, then pushing Aunt Lydia down some stairs (?!) to June’s remaining alternative — I purchase all of them in isolation; I don’t fairly purchase them as a part of the identical piece of tv. It feels for all of the world just like the present realized this was its finale someplace in the course of post-production and rapidly cobbled one thing collectively.
That’s not true, clearly, however it will be a superb rationalization for why that remaining shot exists. I agree with you that it’s just about the rationale the entire “June stays” cliffhanger performs out in a much more… confrontational style than I feel the present might have meant, to the diploma that it actually does reframe the story as certainly one of an avenging angel or one thing related. With out it, the cliffhanger performs as extra of a thriller, or a reminder of how a lot June loves Hannah and doesn’t need her to be on their lonesome in Gilead with out both guardian, or no matter. With it, it performs because the present abruptly shifting genres fully.
I differ from you barely in that I feel it’s most likely crucial for the present to pivot to being concerning the resistance if it’s going to run past this season. However, such as you, I don’t know that I would like June to only immediately be a significant a part of mentioned resistance. One of many issues about June that makes her tough to translate to tv is that she’s finally a point-of-view character, whose actions hardly ever influence the story a lot. She will nudge what occurs across the edges, however that’s about it. (She has this in frequent with, of all fictional characters, Harry Potter.)
So if June is becoming a member of the resistance as a part of the present’s elevated curiosity in world-building — nice, positive, fantastic. Let’s see that world via her eyes and construct it up slowly however absolutely. But when she’s immediately, like, Elizabeth Jennings from The Individuals, it’s not gonna work. It feels bizarre to have this little religion within the present after its largely made good decisions over these two seasons, however this can be a bizarre one.
That mentioned: I do need to speak about world-building a bit. From these maps on the Commander’s desk to the sudden realization that the Marthas have a whisper community, “The Phrase” did a strong job of increasing the quantity of data we’ve got about Gilead, simply as a lot of this second season has completed. However that, too, is perhaps a betrayal of the supply materials, which takes place in an info blackout, of types. What do you suppose?
The place all of this is perhaps heading in season 3
Constance: I will be protecting of Atwood’s novel, however deepening the world-building is the form of adaptation change that doesn’t hassle me: I don’t see how it will be sustainable for a serialized TV present to proceed with out constructing out that cloistered world a little bit bit. Within the guide, all we all know of Gilead is what Offred can see of it from between the wings of her bonnet, however there’s no means a TV present might run on these little snippets of data.
Bringing Emily to Canada is a plot alternative that I can see going both means. My hope is that now that Emily and Moira and Luke are all in Canada, the present will start to determine methods to combine their storylines into the central story of Gilead. We started to see strides in that route in episode 9, however the Waterfords can’t go on diplomatic missions to Canada each week, in order that they’ll need to work out another form of long-term answer. And Moira, particularly, has felt like an afterthought this season, which is only a profound waste of Samira Wiley.
However Emily’s turn out to be such a unstable character that she’d be a little bit of a chaos monster wherever she is, whether or not that’s in Gilead to homicide random officers after which kick their corpses (in contrast to such as you, I beloved Emily stabbing Aunt Lydia within the again after which shoving her down the steps. It was simply so cathartic! If June should turn out to be a superhero, at the very least give me this), or in Canada to, presumably, lastly really feel the complete influence of her PTSD and have a nervous breakdown. And that’s one thing that I’m excited to see.
Talking of cathartic moments: Fred had what passes for a tough week for him, what with June slapping him and telling him to go fuck himself earlier than she runs off with Nicole, and Serena refusing to look him within the eye after he has her dragged off to be maimed. Fred tends to be at his most harmful and unstable when he feels powerless, so do you suppose that he’ll spiral out violently subsequent season? Or will the kidnapping of his little one following his spouse’s public riot imply that he’ll lose a lot standing among the many Commanders as to be successfully neutered?
Todd: The factor about Fred is which you can flatter him into quite a lot of issues by treating him like a robust man of nice ethical character. Even when he is aware of that’s not true, he’s pleased to only be handled like he thinks he deserves. And but it’s clear that his energy is already beginning to slip, at the very least inside his personal home, so who is aware of how for much longer he’ll sustain the facade. (Hopefully lengthy sufficient to have a look at extra maps. I like maps.)
That’s the factor about this finale: If it’s establishing a model of the present that’s shifting into a brand new route fully (maybe towards an outline of the “Center Gilead” interval teased within the guide’s epilogue), then it’s a fairly good one. If it’s only a option to hit the reset button, then it establishes a harmful sample for a present that has most likely exhausted its establishment.
I entered this season questioning whether or not the present can be Mad Males — which used its second season to vastly broaden its world and supporting forged to gird itself for a long term — or Homeland (which received caught in plot machinations designed to maintain its premise going). And, uh, after this finale, I nonetheless don’t know! I like each Mad Males and Homeland, so I’d be okay with Handmaid’s turning into both. However I like one a complete lot extra.
It’s bizarre to have a look at season three of a present I’ve actually beloved for 23 episodes as a proving floor, however that’s the place I’m at. If the present spins wildly uncontrolled, properly, I actually beloved these first two seasons. And if it doesn’t, all the higher.
I’ll have a chunk publishing a little bit later containing my ideas on season two as a complete, so let me know what you suppose, Constance. I feel you agree with me that the present has written itself into a spot the place it may well now not be enterprise as typical — however do you agree the journey there was largely full of robust tv?
Constance: By and huge, sure, I feel this journey has been largely fairly robust, and actually season two has been by some measures stronger than season one. For me, nothing in season two of this present reached the heights of the stark, searing bleakness of the primary three episodes of season one — however total, this season is so much smoother and extra constant. It discovered a sustainable aesthetic and it doubled down on it, in order that from week to week Handmaid’s Story has been as harrowing and as shifting as the rest on tv. (And in addition, at instances, clumsy and hokey.)
It’s completely clear that the present needed to make some main modifications to the established order to maintain going; there was no means we might stand up to one other season of June periodically making an attempt to flee after which getting dragged again to the Waterford home. However these previous few episodes have type of felt just like the present making an attempt on new garments because it figures out the way it needs season three to really feel: Might Handmaid’s Story work as a wilderness survival story, with wolves and rifles? What about as a camped-up piece of gothic horror? How a couple of superhero present? And I’ve but to be satisfied that any of these modes is an effective match for this present, particularly in comparison with the creeping, austerely sinister home horror it established this season.
So I’m skeptical of the way in which ahead, however I’m additionally trying ahead to seeing precisely how issues play out in season three. I need to see Serena hold spiraling and turn out to be increasingly disillusioned with Gilead; I need to see Fred proceed to lose energy and standing and get backed right into a nook; I would like see Nick … okay, no, to be sincere, I don’t care what occurs to Nick now that Eden’s lifeless, sorry. (Do you know that there are energetic Nick/June shippers on Tumblr who reblog shippy Nick/June gifs? I want them pleasure with their innocent pastime, however I need to admit that I’m deeply puzzled by their existence.)
However most of all, I’m trying ahead to seeing what Elisabeth Moss does with June subsequent season. Elisabeth Moss can all the time discover such unbelievable notes and shadings in her efficiency that this present can be price watching even when the whole lot else had been horrible. I need to see what she does with season three.
Even when she’s taking part in a fucking superhero.