Tuesday, June 13, 2017

REVIEW: Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' - 'Faithful,' 'A Woman's Place,' 'The Other Side,' 'Jezebels' and 'The Bridge'

Reviews from the first season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale:

1.05: "Faithful"
1.06 "A Woman's Place"
1.07 "The Other Side"
1.08 "Jezebels"
1.09 "The Bridge"

105: "Faithful"
Serena Joy makes Offred a surprising proposition. Offred remembers the unconventional beginnings of her relationship with her husband. Written by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Mike Barker

June is involved in four different sex scenes throughout "Faithful." They are all very distinct and have different emotions and feelings attached to them. With June and Luke, it's the beginning of their romance together. But it's still illicit because he's technically married. With June and the Commander, it's still impersonal but he is acting on his growing personal connection with her in a way that absolutely terrifies her. She even confronts him and he turns from a compassionate Scrabble opponent to a man who strongly encourages this new way of life. With June and Nick the first time, it's mechanic and forbidden. Serena Joy is watching and making sure no one else knows this is happening. June's mind goes elsewhere as well - ultimately fixating on his gun. With June and Nick the second time, it's much more passionate and a display of rebellion. Even knowing that he is working for the Eyes, June still pursues this relationship. It's a way for her to take the power back in her life just like Emily did with her driving stunt. For Emily, it was to prove to this system that it could never break her spirit despite how much they take away of her body. That was her way of rebelling and it had immediate consequences. For June, her rebellion is simply being able to be on top during sex again. That was her taking control of her life even though it still comes with so much risk and potential for immediate destruction. A-

106: "A Woman's Place"
A Mexican Ambassador visiting Gilead questions Offred about her life as a Handmaid. Serena Joy reflects on her marriage and the role she once played in Gilead's inception. Written by Wendy Straker Hauser and directed by Floria Sigismondi

"A Woman's Place" is a fascinating exploration of complicity in this world - especially for the female characters. It's easy to condemn the men for this way of thinking because they lack the compassion to truly understand what it's like to be a woman. But the woman in charge who decide to go along with Gilead may be even worse. They are victimized by the system as well. Serena Joy has to give up a career that she loved in order to build this family life with her husband in the hopes of creating a better world. She loses the passion in her life. But it's a choice for the greater good. That's her sacrifice. So, she's both sympathetic and condemned in this hour. Things are a little less subtle with the Mexican ambassador. The reveal that the ambassador is a woman presents her as a potential ally early on. But even June telling her what life in Gilead is really like isn't enough to sway her from being complicit in this world as well. She is willing to treat handmaids exactly the same as long as it prevents the death of her country. That's the price she is willing to pay. June is complicit in this story as well. She tries acting out by speaking the truth only to get no where. Except it does lead to the revelation that her husband is alive. That's not particularly surprising. Plus, it comes across as a cheap twist at the end of the episode. But it's still an intriguing tease for the future - especially considering what June's relationship with Nick has become. B+

107: "The Other Side"
Remembering her family's treacherous escape attempt, a shocking revelation from life before Gilead provides a new perspective on Offred's life. Written by Lynn Renee Maxcy and directed by Floria Sigismondi

This show has succeeded so far because of its intense focus on June. She's the lead character and the action primarily revolves around her and how every single choice she makes - both big and small - could turn disastrous. Of course, the action has cut away to other characters as well. Emily and Serena Joy have carried their own stories away from June. But there's something different about this episode. It doesn't have the same dramatic weight as the previous ones. Perhaps that has to do with Luke being a man and the audience's awareness that no matter what happens to him in this episode he'll survive. The stakes aren't as high. It's instead just an hour that reveals what he's been up to. It continues to show him as a nice and well-meaning man who is slow to truly understand the horrors of this new world. That's the purpose of this hour too. To make it clear to Luke that the world has changed and reuniting with June and Hannah will be more difficult than he thought. He can no longer just drag his feet. It's building to that final moment where he gets the note from June. That's very effective and emotional. It works as a final beat. But does it mean the series will be spending more time in this location? Will Luke be an ongoing supporting character fighting to reunite his family while more horrors are done to June? It's unclear. Right now, it's informative while being unclear what its future will be. B

108: "Jezebels"
The Commander surprises Offred with a secret adventure in Gilead. Nick's troubled past leads to his recruited by the Sons of Jacob. Written by Kira Snyder and directed by Kate Dennis

This is a frustrated episode. It's odd because it spends so much time and attention on Nick. It's all probably necessary for whatever plot developments are to come in the final two episodes of the season. Nick is spying on Commander Waterford instead of the other people in the house. But centering a lot of the action around how it affects him just doesn't ring true or effective. It is another take on male toxicity. Nick's reaction to the world is different than the Commander's and Luke's. They all play a role in the oppression though. Nick is perpetually sorry about what happens to June. He's angry when he sees the Commander take her up to rape her outside of the sacred ceremonies. But he fails to do anything about it. That passiveness is a key part of his story. But it lacks the nuance to be that interesting. Or perhaps it's because Max Minghella has emerged as a weak link amongst this terrific cast. Maybe that's why I care less about his struggles. And yet, the story that has nothing to do with Nick is terrific. Yes, the show brings another character back from the dead in a surprise reveal. And yes, it was expected too. But that moment where June and Moira see each other from across the room is absolutely breathtaking and phenomenal to watch. Their interactions seem brief. But they pack a powerful punch. It just sucks that everything has to then go back to Nick and how he's not the fun escape June needs in this moment as the rapes by the Commander are getting more personal and intense. She instead has to seek comfort from telling her own story to someone who may hear it someday. B

109: "The Bridge"
Offred embarks on a dangerous mission for the resistance. Janine moves to a new posting. Serena Joy suspects the Commander's infidelity. Written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Kate Dennis

"The Bridge" is so affecting and so emotionally devastating. It gets its power by the inevitability of the situations the characters find themselves in. Janine's story ends in tragedy because she can't let go of her daughter. Serena Joy learns about her husband's affair. June starts working for Mayday. Moira figures out how to fight back once more. None of these moments are particularly surprising given the structure of the season. And yet, they work because of that. They are horrifying to the characters. And thus, the moments land incredibly well. To the audience, it was inevitable that something like Janine jumping off the bridge would happen. But to the characters, it's such a shock because they didn't want to believe that anything serious was going on. June could see it and she tried to help. But she was too quiet and too passive. She saves the baby but not her friend. That's absolutely devastating. Plus, the audience gets a shock as well with the reveal that Janine is in the hospital still alive. The intense encounter on the bridge also comes immediately after June's brutal fight with Moira. That moment is so effective because it's two friends disagreeing over this major thing that could change their lives. It has the rich history of their past informing their decisions. Everything in this world is a risk for them. They are a part of this system that is constantly pushing them down. But they still need to find the energy and passion to get back up. Moira has changed. But it's so powerful to see her take a stand once more - which also leaves her in a precarious situation heading into the finale. She kills a driver and steals his vehicle. It's similar to Emily's stunt earlier in the season. It's both joyous and horrifying because the consequences could be so great. It's exciting but absolutely terrifying - which is a blend that this show nails in this moment. A-