Thursday, June 15, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - June Finally Releases Her Rage and Faces the Consequences in 'Night'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 1.10 "Night"

Serena Joy confronts Offred and the Commander. Offred struggles with a complicated, life-changing revelation. The Handmaids face a brutal decision.

The Handmaid's Tale did so many things well in its first season. It brought an emotional honesty to its characters and subject matter in a way that was so striking and affecting. It has a strong grasp on the central themes and just how far it can push these characters and the world around them. However, it hasn't really been a subtle show. It can go over-the-top with these moments to showcase the oppression and depravity of this world. It's rah-rah approach to feminism can ring untrue if not handled appropriately. There were some instances when it didn't. But it's also surprising that the show could be so blunt and big about its story while still allowing things to be complicated. As far as narrative structure goes, this season was pretty conventional. The opening episodes were strong because of the intense focus on June. The middle episodes sagged a little bit because they functioned to expand the world and the supporting ensemble. And then, things came back to a devastating conclusion with a return to June and her struggles. Characters came back to life after previously believed to be dead. Tragic character arcs did end in the inevitable tragedy. But the show used all of this to its benefit. It used these conventions to still tell a captivating story. One that was made more complex by the actors and the phenomenal direction.

This finale really becomes dramatic when Serena Joy attacks June for the affair she's been having with the Commander. It's a brutal display of violence. One that shows just how vicious Serena Joy is capable of being. She so desperately wants a child. And yet, her husband is enjoying this new world too much and destroying their marriage in the process. Serena Joy helped with Gilead's creation. She helped write the laws that stripped so many things away from women. She did it for the singular goal of having a child. She's acting out so viciously towards June because she doesn't want her story to end in tragedy like the previous Offred. But it's also crippling and startling to watch this brutal moment as well. It's unexpected with a slap to the face into the doorway. She forces a pregnancy test onto June and waits until the results come in. It's a tough moment of agony. Both characters are waiting separately and praying for different things. Serena Joy wants a child so all of this will ultimately be worth it. Meanwhile, June waits the violence to stop. In the end, Serena Joy gets what she wants. June is pregnant. It's not a particularly surprising revelation. It allows the show to keep June in her posting for the future. But it does lead to one of the best sequences of the series so far.

So much of the show is about the repressed anger that the Handmaids are feeling at all times. This is a world where they can't speak out. They have to act a certain way or face severe punishment. The rules of this world were beaten into them at the Red Centers. Even in June's most private moments, she's afraid that someone will overhear her thoughts or see an impure reaction. But the finale lets all of these emotions come out in stunning fashion. Serena Joy takes June to see her daughter, Hannah. But it's not a celebration. It's a cruel display of power. Serena Joy knows where Hannah is. She can sit down and have a conversation with her while June is trapped inside the car unable to escape and be with her daughter once more. That's what she wants more than anything else in the world. Once Serena Joy returns, June unleashes every single emotion she's feeling in a rant that is so profane and cruel and deserving. This was a move to put June in her place. It breaks her open in a way that is incredibly raw and powerful. Elisabeth Moss has been so good on this show because she always plays so many different emotions at once no matter what the situation is. But here, she takes things to a new level completely. It's stunning to watch despite the tragedy and oppression of it all.

That effective sequence is then followed by another that shows the solidarity the Handmaids are capable of having when they want to. June believes that the Handmaids could be a powerful army because they all understand and feel the exact same way regarding their situations. Yes, some have it better than others. But they all remember the freedom of the previous world. They all see this as rape. And they can't do anything about it. They have to serve this community and the only release they get is carrying out the punishment should a man ever commit a serious crime against a woman. It seems like a massive miscalculation by Aunt Lydia and the commanders in asking the Handmaids to stone Janine to death for endangering the life of a child. It's startling to see Janine so alive after her plunge off the bridge. It confirms that the show has a major problem in killing characters and keeping them dead. If it keeps reversing those moments, it could become formulaic and predictable. But this sequence is still so powerful because the Handmaids stand united against this barbaric form of punishment. It's funny when one of them says they hate stonings. But things take an immediate turn when the criminal is revealed to be Janine. She is one of them. They can't throw the stones. It's June who starts the refusal to follow Aunt Lydia's orders. The phrase "I'm sorry Aunt Lydia" becomes the rallying cry for the Handmaids. It's them showing support for each other. Their walking away in slow motion could be cheesy and unearned. But it also comes immediately after a definitive action that shows how powerful these characters can be when they stand together against this sick and twisted world. That's very empowering and special.

Of course, it then immediately has consequences for June. It's a fascinating way to end the season. It leaves things ambiguous. That's not a quality the show has embraced a lot of this season. It once again proves how the structure was a little too conventional. It ends on a cliffhanger to build suspense and mystery for the next season. But ambiguity is powerful as well. June doesn't know what her fate will be. She found comfort in reading the notes she's smuggling throughout the country and standing united with her fellow Handmaids. But she's also aware that she's going to face some kind of punishment. She doesn't know if there will be any kind of leniency towards her because she's pregnant. This is a society that puts fertility above all else. So, that could prove to be an important motivating factor moving forward. However, only a few characters know the truth. It's only the people in the household. They all have conflicted feelings towards it. But June never uses it as a way to avoid punishment for her actions. She stands up to Aunt Lydia regardless of being pregnant. She's not emboldened because she believes no one can hunt her now. Instead, it's her standing up because she believes it's the right thing to do. That ultimately lands her in a van heading to an unknown destination. It may be to an even more brutal world. One where a part of her will be surgical removed. This world can still get so much more violent and oppressive for her. And yet, she gets into the van with some kind of clarity as well. She's survived this long and will continue to fight within the limits of the system. Her future is uncertain but it's clear the show is only getting started. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Night" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Kari Skogland.
  • Nick has a pretty interesting reaction to June's pregnancy. Their romance was a huge part of the show in the middle stretch of the season. It ended because he refused to take action. But him having a tender moment in the middle of the house where Serena Joy ultimately sees him and he sees her could be seen as an act of defiance. He could be ready to do more. Or he could retreat back to the familiar life that is painless to him in the long run.
  • Before June is taken from the house, she tells Rita about the package that is in her bathroom. That's a somewhat surprising move. She has to tell someone because the letters need to move on to their next destination. But June and Rita haven't had an open and honest conversation. There's the hope she'll read the letters and be moved. But Rita has been incredibly loyal to the family as well.
  • Moira is able to escape to freedom in Canada. She's escaping this horrifying world and is immediately welcomed to a place that treats her respectfully as a refugee. It has the system in place to make the transition as smooth as possible while supporting the people in the process. It's really inspiring. But it's also really moving to watch as Moira is taken aback by all the basic human decency on display.
  • And now, Moira and Luke have been reunited. It's such an emotional moment as well. Luke made sure she was a part of his family. All of the stories from the past proved that to be true. The fact they are together now is really inspiring and beautiful. It also likely means more time will be spent in Canada next season as they attempt to find June and Hannah.
  • It's disappointing that the last glimpse of Emily for the season was her brief joyride followed by being taken away again for further punishment. I hope the narrative will catch up with her again simply because Alexis Bledel's performance was so great. I missed her in these final episodes of the season.
  • The completely white world of the doctor's offices will always be deeply unsettling. It's just strange and not natural. It fits the circumstances as well because the doctors are removing body parts as forms of punishment. In this case, it's Warren who has his hand removed because of his relationship with Janine. His wife even asked for the harshest punishment possible.
  • This show deserves to be a major awards contender. The only reason I have doubts is because Hulu doesn't have a strong track record at the Emmys. But all it takes is one show for things to change. This drama could be that. Elisabeth Moss and the direction should be locks for nominations. But the supporting performances from a number of the actresses are equally as deserving.
  • That's it for the first season of The Handmaid's Tale. It was often a brutal and very difficult show to watch. But it also told its important story in a way that did resonant in some profound and emotional ways. I'm looking forward to seeing how the show can expand on these concepts - especially since the second season will be moving past the story of the novel.