Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Handmaid’s Tale Struggles With The Setting

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The Handmaid’s Tale delivered its final episode of the first season, “Night”. It was rather action-packed – for this show‘s standards, anyway – so let‘s look at how it said goodbye.


We open with a flashback to the Handmaid training centre, back when June first came in. She talks about how they all felt terror all the time. We see her get a tracking chip on her ear. June then says they aren’t so terrified anymore. That wearing uniforms made them into an army.

June is coming home with the package she received in the previous episode. She desperately looks for a place to hide it, and decides for “behind the bathtub”. She comes out of the room, and is immediately slapped by Mrs. Waterford so hard she hits the doorframe and falls to the ground. Mrs. Waterford shouts at her for a moment and then makes her got to the bathroom and take a pregnancy test.

We get scenes of Mrs. Waterford praying in front of the test as it develops, intershot with June kneeling at the bathtub, still reeling from the slap. Finally Mrs. Waterford comes in, telling her that God has answered their prayers, because she is pregnant. June looks at her like she’s crazy and say, “do you really think I prayed for this?”

We cut to Moira, who is running across a snowy plain to a house. She gets scared when she hears people next doors, but runs in a garage and checks the car there, finding out she is in Ontario. She falls down to the ground, laughing and hyperventilating.

Mrs. Waterford speaks to her husband, warning him to keep his hands of June, that she doesn’t want her to hang herself. Waterford responds by blaming it on his wife, who brought temptation into the house. She then tells him June is pregnant.

Rita is being very nice to June again, offering her whatever food she wants. Nick comes in then, and seeing the cut on June’s face, asks what happens. She tells him, and at his wondering she is still in the house, explains she is pregnant. Nick comes and caresses her belly and holds her hand. She warns him it’s too dangerous, but he opposes that it isn’t.

Mrs. Waterford comes in and takes June for a ride without Nick. They come to a house and Mrs. Waterford leaves June in the car as she goes in. She comes out with June’s daughter.

They sit and chat on the stairs for a while as June is locked in the car, screaming and pounding the window. When rs. Waterford gets back in, June first begs her to let her see her daughter and then she curses her. Mrs. Waterford warns her not to get upset, that it’s not good for the child.

Waterford sits at the trial of Janine’s old commander. He confesses to lust. Waterford tries to dismiss the case easily, but there’s one much more conservative person there who protests. He also reveals that the commander’s wife came to ask for the harshest punishment for him, because she fears for his eternal soul. So we see the commander’s hand getting amputated.

Moira goes through immigration in Canada, and is constantly surprised by ow nice everyone is to her and how much freedom she has.

June tries to go and see Nick after that glimpse of her daughter, and when he’s not at home, she goes to Waterford instead. She asks him to protect her daughter from his wife. He congratulates her on her pregnancy and asks if the child is his. She says of course, but he doesn’t believe her.

June unwraps the package from the resistance and finds out it’s full of letters of handmaids to the outside world. She reads them all, and wakes up in the bathroom with them strewn around her.

She goes to another salvaging. This time it turns out to be stoning, and they are supposed to stone Janine, for endangering her child. Aunt Lydia seems honestly upset about it, but still orders them to do it. “Ofglen” protests, but one of the soldiers hits her with his rifle. But when Aunt Lydia blows the whistle, no one reacts. June then steps forwards and when Aunt Lydia prevents the soldier from punishing her, saying the handmaids are her responsibility, she drops the stone with a very formalist apology. All the other handmaids follow her example. Aunt Lydia sends them home, and warns them there would be consequences.

The handmaids go back, the view of them clearly shot as the view of an army, with June at its head as its leader.

Moira meets Luke in Canada, and they embrace,

June sits at home, waiting for the punishment. A black van comes, and Nick tells her to trust him and go with them. She does, telling Rita about the package in the bathroom on the way. Mr. and Mrs. Waterford both protest her arrest, but it’s no use. June sits in the van as she states she has no way of knowing what awaits her.

The end.


To start with the good again, the whole scene with Janine’s supposed stoning was done brilliantly. It had tension, it had confrontations and a few different axes, it was visually stunning. It was a strong personal drama. They even managed to convince me for a very short moment June might actually throw the stone, which I’d have never expected of this show. Good job on that.

The thing, though, is the setting. This show has a consistent problem with staying faithful to the setting of the brutal totalitarianism it’s supposed to depict. Every once in a while, June will do something that would quite simply get her killed. And I’m not talking about standing up to Aunt Lydia. That was an intentional act of resistance. I mean things like, in this episode, her opening the pack of resistance letters in the middle of the bathroom and then scattering them about and lying in the middle of them.

Anyone could have come in at any point, and she would have very likely been executed for this, or at the very least mutilated. The fact that she does something like this breaks the suspension of disbelief. When the protagonist doesn’t act like she’s in constant danger, I won’t believe she’s in constant danger. It’s that simple.

There were other inconsistencies, like the soldier hitting “Ofglen”. In the setting they have presented us with until now, he would have been punished for that. Certainly if he did it with an Aunt’s permission. Instead, she should have been given a shock by one of the Aunts, and if she persisted, taken away. Never hit by a soldier. The regime is supposed to keep certain kind of pretenses. But this was much less destructive for my immersion than the way June acted.

Another scene that was excellently done, on the other hand, was when June was taking the pregnancy test. Once again, the show managed to make Mrs. Waterford sympathetic in some little way without detracting from her monstrosity in the slightest. I think every woman who ever unsuccessfully tried to have a child could relate to her perfectly as she knelt in front of that little lip of paper and prayed. And yet the intercuts with June in her injured state made perfectly certain we didn’t forget in what way is that woman trying to achieve her desire to have a child.

Making June explicitly pregnant made the scene of her departure from the house stand in a very different context from the book. There, the Waterfords are chiefly worried about themselves, afraid what she’ll say about him and that he’ll be arrested. Here. Mrs. Waterford is worried because she might lose the baby. It’s not a bad change, exactly, but some of the lines adapted from the book made no sense in this new context. For example, Mrs. Waterford suddenly curses June for being ungrateful, saying “after everything we’ve done for you.” What is she referring to? She didn’t know what June did (in the book, it’s implied she reported Waterford) and she did nothing for her.

The situation of June’s departure was different, too, in that Nick never explicitly mentions Mayday. That makes me wonder if the story will go in a different direction next season. I’m quite certain, especially after the exposure to Hannah we were given this episode, that June is not going to leave Gilead without her daughter. So is Nick, instead of using his resistance connections, using his secret service connection? He might have some pull as an Eye. Is he going to get her spirited away because she carries his child and he has that privilege, as a trusted spy? That could certainly lead to an interesting story, and it has potential for next season, while giving June a way to stay in Gilead.

The other option, of course, is that she’ll join underground resistance, but I find that much less interesting, giving the kind of story this is. Though I still regret we didn’t meet Moira go through that. I’m glad she got some space this episode. Her scene with Luke was genuinely touching, as was her wide-eyed wonder. But it didn’t make up for previous lack of it.

This episode also returned to the previous problem of Womb Syndrome. The focus on children is still overdone in comparison to the book. In “Night”, it held true both related to Hannah and related to the unborn child June is carrying. At least he herself wasn’t shown happily beaming in pregnancy. But particularly Nick’s sudden increased care for her the moment he found out was irritating. I do understand he could afford to be more open because he knew the Waterfords wouldn’t do anything to harm her now, but it seemed like his actual interest in her was deepened.

June’s hysteria upon seeing Hannah, too, seemed a little over the top, which brings me to another point. Not only did they insist on making June a hero, they insisted on making her a particular kind of hero. She is a Gryffindor. Which is the kind of hero least suited to survive in a regime like that, bringing me back to my original point. When she sees her daughter, she pounds on the window instead of trying to find out where she is and how could she get here on her own. It is an understandable reaction in certain character disposition. But I don’t think it’s the right character disposition for this kind of story.

And one other complaint: did we really need to see the amputation? I mean, what exactly did that bring to the story? We’re back at needless violence again. I also have some doubts about it from a worldbuilding perspective – I do not think the regime would have the same punishment for unfaithful men as it does for women who read, the symbolism of that doesn’t work – but that’s debatable, I admit.

The regime made another blunder here when wanting the handmaids to stone Janine, anyway. That goes directly opposite to the principle Salvagings work on. They would never be asked to do away with one of their own. Certainly not one for whom they had legitimate reasons of compassion. It’s a way for the handmaids to vent their own frustration with men, chiefly. Besides, Janine’s an obviously fertile woman. She would never be allowed to be a handmaid again, but I¨m afraid the regime would do something much more sinister to her than simply kill her, even in such a brutal fashion.

This wasn’t a bad episode exactly, even though they tried to fit quite a lot in. It had a few truly brilliant moments. It wasn’t even a bad season finale, and I’m glad they kept the ending mostly book-like. But it could have been more, I think, with more attention to details of the setting. But then, the same could be said for the entire season.

All images courtesy of Hulu.

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