Created by Bruce Miller. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella
My thoughts on episodes 1-5 can be found here.
As the show continues, there’s been a persistent wondering about the role of race in a show set in a dystopian America. My favorite take so far is from Vulture, but The Verge and Cosmo have also noted the issue, and of course the rest of the Internet has done as the Internet does and weighed in in fits and starts. The short version is that while The Handmaid’s Tale does rainbow casting, it also elides any hint of the racism that one expects from a prestige drama about the United States. Gilead appears to have implemented many terrible choices, but they also appear to have ended racism in Boston. One is as likely to end racism in Boston (or any American city) as one is to discover a china teapot between Earth and Mars, to borrow from Bertrand Russell. In creating an alternate future the showrunners have forgotten a driving narrative of the past. (The kindest thing that one could say about Margaret Atwood’s take on race in the novel is that she sidesteps it. In the original text, the “Sons of Ham” are evicted/possibly exterminated from Gilead. To me this is a far more likely outcome for African-Americans, historically speaking, than the show’s version of racial difference which doesn’t seem to mean anything to anyone. Think of the Holocaust, or of Indian relocation in this country. Those are historical precedents for Atwood’s vision; it’s not complimentary to anyone, but neither is history.)
The discussion of race in The Handmaid’s Tale is symptomatic of the show at this point now that we’ve reached the end of its first season. Things are happening which make sense within the universe of the show, but the universe of the show itself has stopped making sense to those of us outside it. I haven’t seen nearly as many people (any, really), discussing an issue which I think is every bit as central to the show: I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale gets white evangelicals, either. As the world of Gilead has been fleshed out further, the people in charge seem less and less religious. I’ve been surprised by how much drinking goes on in this series and how much profanity is spoken by important people; the kind of white evangelical Protestants who we’re thinking of here, who really are militant enough and believe hard enough in a theocratic government, are the same kind of people who call for temperance and for clean language. They don’t talk like evangelicals or act like evangelicals; they are just people who mouth the kind of pious nothings that are unconvincing. The series has spent a lot of time going out of its way to make Waterford something of a renegade commander, which is fine in itself, but they also have done a really bad job of expressing his religious motivation. Gilead is ruled by the smallest Bible verses and doctrinal tidbits. Why don’t we ever find it in the leaders of the nation? Why do they sound like they don’t know what they only have the vaguest idea of what “Protestantism” is? The charitable impression is that these people have given up on religion for power itself, and I guess that’s the case, but how deeply boring that is. If I want oppressive patriarchies, I can watch the news. This one was supposed to have a unique flavor, and in the end they’re just the same as every other white men with unlimited power.
When the show has tried to lurch in that direction, it’s been reasonably successful. The A-plot of “A Woman’s Place” is the first real step away from the novel that the show takes, a story about trading handmaids to Mexico. It’s essentially a way for us to find out that Luke is still alive, and it’s a long (and arduous) way to Tipperary. The B-plot, where we discover Serena’s role in rousing women to the cause of Gilead before the “terrorist attacks” which led to the nation’s foundation, is significantly more interesting. The show makes it seem like while her husband was part of a clandestine ultra-right-wing terrorist cell, she was doing the work in the Kulturkampf that laid the groundwork for his campaign. We know what happens to Serena after her husband and his cohort took over; she was utterly marginalized. It’s hard to feel for her, since she calls for the kind of backseat role for women that we’ve heard before from people like Phyllis Schlafly. Yet Serena is the realest evangelical we’ve come across. Even if she doesn’t sound terribly religious, at least what she’s talking about sounds like it might have come straight from some tome in a Christian bookstore. “Do not mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness” is exactly what semi-woke women’s Bible studies in churches across America would say; in a very fine twist, “A Woman’s Place” shows that meekness is, in fact, weakness. What has the meekness ever done to return any real power to the wives, let alone the Marthas and handmaids? Much of Serena’s back half of the season is spent in trying desperately to seize some control back from her husband. On the subject of June, she is marginally successful; only a positive pregnancy test stops her from doing something drastic to the woman who has been stepping out with her husband on multiple occasions. Her arguments against her husband are forgettable as the rest of the last three episodes of the season. Only in the season finale, when June makes her stand and leads the handmaids in open rebellion against the stoning of Janine, do meekness and weakness fade together; it’s an event that Serena plays no part in.
The weakest acting link of the series so far, by a country mile, is Joseph Fiennes, who is reading all of his lines with all the enthusiasm with which we might read a transcript of our parents’ bedroom talk. Once more, I’d like to give the show the benefit of the doubt here; in terms of sex and exerting control during whatever extended run of foreplay he considers dressing June up like a flapper to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Waterford were a little virginy. But at the same time, it seems very strange to me that he navigates the waterways of Gilead, from its conferences with other bigwigs to the hotel where the Jezebels are posted, with such ease while sounding like he doesn’t know how to navigate a woman he totally controls. Waterford is not dangerous, nor is he even creepy; he’s just TV creepy. When he touches June’s hair and tells her how beautiful she is, it’s not even unsettling. There’s nothing about him that we haven’t seen before on a television show or in a movie, and so we are immune to whatever might make him scary or threatening or skeevy. Heck, you can get more of a kick watching the local news than you can watching The Handmaid’s Tale on this front. (Max Minghella has to do as much acting for Fiennes in this five episode stretch as Fiennes does for himself; Waterford’s words and deeds inevitably lead to a reaction shot for Nick to look stern or worried or disapproving in, but not too much.)
In the season finale, the series has a chance to create an incredible lingering image involving a child one more time. The Handmaid’s Tale has more than a little “show the audience a kitten and strangle it” in its attempts to involve us emotionally, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the first half of the season, Janine sitting with her newborn, knowing that she will have to give up the child she carried for nine months, is the most moving sequence. It’s not perfect, as I’ve discussed before; it’s marred by Janine’s unexpected, jarring lullaby. Once again, the show has an opportunity to devastate us with the image of a child. June ended the first episode with a promise to collect her child again, and here in episode 10 we see the girl in the present for the first time. In an unexpected power move, Serena has brought June out to literally see, but not to interact with, the daughter she hasn’t seen in many, many months. June is inconsolable, which makes sense, and we feel for her as she bangs on the windows of the van and cries out as loud as she can that she has to see her daughter. Meanwhile, Serena is sitting on the porch of a house far away from where the Waterfords live, smiling with Hannah and generally basking in this moment. When she returns to the van to a sobbing, nearly incoherent June, Serena explains her terms. You know where your child is, she says. You know she’s alive and well. If my child comes through, then yours will too. June’s response is a string of profanity which touches on just about all the words that’ll get you sent to detention in high school, and it ruins the scene as it tries to convince us we should be angry…once we already are! The Handmaid’s Tale seems doomed to this kind of storytelling, which is a shame. Either the show doesn’t have the conviction or confidence in itself to trust that it can create a powerful emotional bludgeon, or it doesn’t trust us to emotionally comprehend what’s going on. Neither option is flattering for the program, and both of them severely limit the ceiling of the show. A movie, a novel, an episode of television must have some level of self-restraint; it must have the competence to bring our emotions to the surface while never preaching at us what we should be feeling, and overcompensating so much that there’s no room left for the viewer to feel much at all.