Thursday, July 12, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - June Makes a Choice as She Once Again Fights for Her Freedom in 'The Word'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.13 "The Word"

Serena Joy and the other wives strive to make change. Emily learns more about her new Commander. Offred faces a difficult decision.

What does it take for someone to have empathy for another human being? The Handmaid’s Tale has always presented a bleak future where the rights of so many individuals were stripped away in favor of a totalitarian regime. The use of flashbacks has detailed the fall of a world that the audience can recognize. It showed that more people should have spoken up sooner and fought back in order to avoid the creation of Gilead. Not enough people were afraid that their rights would be stripped away. And then, they found themselves trapped in this new world where they were given their basic descriptors and nothing more. Women were expected to be wives and mothers. For those who couldn’t get pregnant, they were given handmaids - so long as they were married to an influential commander. It was the way forward as outlined by the Bible. But no one chose to be a handmaid. They were just forced into those roles because they had already proven themselves capable of getting pregnant and delivering a baby to term. As soon as they stopped fulfilling that role, they would be tossed aside as women who didn’t deserve to live in this community. They weren’t deserving of a husband because they could no longer give unto him children. That is the greatest commodity of Gilead. The children are so important. Everything done is in service of that. Gilead can be very forgiving for those who prove themselves still capable of producing children. It’s still absolutely horrifying and traumatizing though. It’s such a brutal experience that the audience has witnessed for two seasons now. The show runs the risk of the audience becoming numb to the pain and suffering of these women. This season really didn’t introduce any compelling new players who could step up and be just as impressive to watch as June, Serena, Emily, Moira, etc. It relied on the cast that already existed in some new and surprising ways. This was such a standout season for Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski. The dynamic between June and Serena once again fuels so much of the story in this finale. But again, the question must be asked. What does it take to be empathetic to the suffering of someone else? Is it still meaningful if it takes personal adversity in order to open one’s eyes to the cruel realities of the world? That’s what the finale is primarily asking of the audience. Do these characters empathize with each other? Should the audience feel empathy or sympathy to any of them as well? The answer to that last one is so complicated because the finale doesn’t make it easy for the audience to know what to think. It’s difficult to understand what’s going through June’s mind in her final action.

Overall, this season was about escape and freedom. June was given the opportunity to leave Gilead three times. Each time she returned to Gilead either by force or choice. Emily and Janine were sent away to the Colonies. Luke and Moira were living their lives in Little America. Even the Waterfords managed to make it up to Canada for political negotiations. It was such an empowering moment when Luke and Moira were able to completely destroy those talks between the two countries. And yet, that action then led to the most despicable and brutal rape against June so far. That was so traumatic and fueled her desire to leave for a second time. In the early episodes of the season, June was being helped by a network of spies within the country. Despite laying low for months, she was still ultimately captured by the guardians. She was returned to the Waterford house. During that first escape attempt, she made her peace with saying goodbye to Hannah and her friends who were still trapped in Gilead. She had to worry about her own freedom and safety if she was ever going to have a chance to fight back in this world. The second escape attempt came right after she reunited with Hannah. She was given the freedom of what her life was like before Gilead’s creation. She was able to share such a happy and personal moment with her daughter. And yet, she still couldn’t escape the country because of a garage door that was frozen shut. That was so absolutely agonizing and difficult to watch. She had to make peace with returning home to Gilead as the heroic handmaid who delivered a baby by herself in an abandoned house. There was always the fear that she would be forced back into service at the Waterford house. But she still had to make that decision because it was what was right for both her and her newborn baby. At the time though, she was still fighting for her baby. She was her happiest when she was with Holly. The show contorted itself into explaining why she was still in the same house despite Serena Joy wanting absolutely nothing to do with her following the birth of her daughter. That was awkward but also understandable because the season was building to a big conflict between the characters.

And so, June is given a third opportunity to escape from Gilead. And in the end, she decides not to go. That is such a frustrating decision that doesn’t seem to make any kind of rational sense. Throughout this finale, it’s important and vital for the various groups of women to unite and actually have strength through numbers. Emily can only cope with the reality of her first ceremony with Commander Lawrence and her son’s upcoming birthday with the hopeful comments from June and Janine. Serena Joy can only get the council of commanders to listen to her about allowing women to read the Bible when she is also supported by a group of fellow wives. And in the end, June is only able to make this improbable escape attempt because the Marthas have been talking and uniting. They know exactly how to sneak around every inch of this neighborhood. In fact, this sequence shows that June should probably rely on Rita even more because she is amazing and so supportive. June doesn’t even confide in her that she and Nick are in love with each other and are the biological parents of the new baby until this episode. There is so much that should unite the two of them in this household. Up until now, they’ve only shared snarky remarks with one another. But now, they feel the importance of growing even closer as friends because of what just happened with Eden. That was absolutely awful. It also proves that there is more that they can do to help others. Neither of them had many kind things to say about Eden. They never treated her as someone who needed their help in order to survive in this crazy world. They just saw her as the second generation of Gilead who believed in absolutely everything that the country stood for. She wanted to be a happy wife and mother. But at the end of the day, she was still just a child. She was betrayed by someone close in her life. Her father was the one who turned her into the guardians. That’s so completely destructive to June once she hears it. It’s in that moment where June and Rita understand that they need to escape this world because women are not going to be safe in any aspect of this life. They are doing everything in order to ensure that Holly doesn’t grow up in this world. It’s more than Rita simply allowing June and Nick into the nursery as well. She is able to organize this railroad out very quickly. That’s very impressive and proves her value and empathy in this world. She puts in all of this work. It proves to be a potential way out for June, Holly and Emily. And then, June decides to hand her baby over to Emily and return to the world of Gilead. In that moment, it feels like a decision she makes because she doesn't want to abandon Hannah in this place. She has empathy for all women in this country. But it also seems so foolish for her to return because she's bound to suffer some severe consequences because she kidnaps a child.

At first, it may seem like this twist only occurs to keep the status quo exactly the same. The show wants to have the thrill and excitement of that hopeful run to freedom. It wants to make it seem possible that the characters can escape from the horror of Gilead. But it also fundamentally doesn't want to change as a series. It wants to stay in the moment of the brutality. It wants to live in a world where these horrible and oppressive things keep happening to women whom the audience actually cares about. Throughout this season, there were some truly fascinating hints about what life after Gilead would be like. The people up in Little America aren't exactly safe. They are refugees in Canada but living in an area that the commanders have been wanting to invade for awhile now. That conflict never ultimately went anywhere. It just confirmed to the audience that we should be afraid for what may happen to Luke and Moira while they are living there. They remain close in order to get whatever news they can about June and Hannah. They were grateful for the small snippets of information from Nick. But the show also introduced Moira's PTSD from her time as a handmaid and prostitute then did nothing with it. There is so much power that comes from changing the status quo and seeing how the characters evolve in new circumstances. There is at least some aspect of that here because Emily does make it out of Gilead. She started this season condemned to die in the Colonies. She was resigned to her fate as a dead woman walking even when she was forced back to Gilead. All she could do was stomp on the privates of her dead commander. She was absolutely terrified of Commander Lawrence. But in the end, he proved himself to be an ally. Of course, that was only revealed when he was driving her to this rendezvous to escape. Up until that moment, he had no understanding that he was absolutely terrifying to Emily as she had no idea how to interpret anything that he was doing. She just thought that he would oppress and abuse her in new ways that aren't a normal part of Gilead. Instead, she gets the celebration of freedom and being able to fight back in this country. Sure, it's absolutely haunting in the moment after she attacks Aunt Lydia where it dawns on her that this will likely sentence her to a quick death. There isn't even confirmation that the injuries will be lethal or life-altering for Aunt Lydia. That makes the audience believe that she will recover and maintain her position in the narrative as well. A show simply wouldn't be ambiguous if it was killing off one of its Emmy-winning stars. So, it's very likely that she survives. But there's also the hope that freedom will actually mean something for Emily even though it also seems inevitable that she will team up with Luke and Moira while also trying to care for the baby.

That's the biggest change heading into the third season. Emily leaves Gilead. She escapes with June's daughter. June decides to stay behind. It's a decision she makes possibly because she knows that there is still important work to do. The music cue of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" would infer to the audience that she has plans of destroying all of Gilead. And yet, the show has to rely on that musical selection in order to communicate what's going on in the head of the main character. That's awkward and lackluster. The show has asked a lot of Elisabeth Moss this season. She has communicated so many incredibly personal details about June in ways that are so much more nuanced and painful than anything that could have been written on the page. But this still seems like a foolish decision for her. It's still so emotional watching June comfort Serena Joy after she is punished for reading from the Bible. She tried to fight back in this world in the way that June asked of her. She lost a finger because of it. That moment proves that there are severe consequences to the actions the characters take in this world. The show has to be committed to following through on those consequences though. There were no ramifications for either June or Nick once they returned from their mysterious adventure in the abandoned house. The Waterfords were able to make all of that go away. That continues to show the influence that Commander Waterford has. He even offers June the opportunity to stay in this house and watch her daughter grow up. He does that even though she's speaking out against him and slapping him in the face. Is that really a dynamic he wants in his household or to encourage for much longer? He enjoys exerting his control and power. He's the one who turns Serena Joy over to be punished. But he's bound to be livid and vengeful the moment he reunites with June after learning that his daughter has been taken out of the country. There's just no way for this status quo in the Waterford house to be maintained. Serena Joy is a part of the decision making process as well with June's escape. She allows June to leave because she has the clarity that this world simply won't be good for the next generation of women. She is still a very conservative and traditional women. But she also wants her daughter to have the same opportunities that she did even though she believes in many of the laws of Gilead. Her speaking out about that had consequences. That's apparently enough for her to send June and Nicole away without the expectation of ever seeing them again.

And yet, June is going to return to Serena Joy. So what is her reaction going to be? Part of what fueled her decision was knowing that her daughter would be cared for by someone who was just as invested and loving as she was. She knew that June would protect her daughter. She didn't know that June would just be passing the baby off onto someone else. As such, that could return Serena Joy to the spiteful women who resents June and only sees her as the destructive women who takes joy in causing this family so much pain. She gave them a daughter and then cruelly took her away from them. Again, there is the potential for all of this to work out in the future if the show is aware of the best way to handle the situation. It is going to be very emotional and intense. But it also feels like a decision made for storytelling purposes instead of character based ones. That's very annoying. It leaves June as a character who has stuff happen to her instead of being the one who makes things happen. She has always been the focal point of the show. She is still very compelling in this finale as well. She is still driving the story forward. She is pushing back against the Waterfords in order to get them to truly reflect on how the situation with Eden went down and how it can't be allowed to be repeated in this family. They need to protect Nicole no matter what. And yet, June is somehow willing to continue living without either of her daughters. That seems odd. Her desire to reunite and protect her daughters has fueled so much for her across the series. And now, she's choosing to abandon one in the hopes of freeing the other. She absolutely trusts Emily to protect Holly. But she doesn't know that Emily believes herself to be a murderer. June still has compassion and empathy for her because she understands that this world broke her. But that may not make her a great parent. Moreover, June tells Emily to call her daughter Nicole as a way to honor Serena Joy. That shows that June does have sympathy for the women who was complicit and participated in raping her. That's so absolutely twisted. But it's also a rushed plot point that doesn't seem fully earned. It will mostly be used as evidence in the future that June still wants Serena Joy to be a part of her daughter's life should they ever somehow reunite with one another. But again, that may take a beat before it occurs depending on what June does next.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Word" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Mike Barker.
  • At times in the past, the show has been a little too obnoxious and on-the-nose with its musical cues. That quality still exists to an extent with the use of "Burning Down the House" over the closing credits. And yet, this finale also features Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass" and Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park" during some very emotional moments with Emily. Those are absolutely brutal and so effective because of the music attached to them.
  • Of course, there is also the possibility of June just not returning to the Waterford house at all. It could be seen as the safe environment because she knows what to expect there. But again, she is going to face significant punishment for her role in the kidnapping of a child. So, it may be safer for her to hide in Gilead and establish a larger role in the resistance. She will certainly have allies amongst the Marthas and Commander Lawrence.
  • However, will the Marthas and Commander Lawrence be willing to continue helping June after learning that she didn't take them up on their offer to leave the country? They could see it as an absolute betrayal. They gave her the possibility to escape. They know that she's tried this before. As such, they will have to ask what's going on in her head as well. How she answers will determine the effectiveness of this twist.
  • Would Serena Joy's proposal to the council of commanders been more effective if she didn't pull out the Bible and start reading? Before that moment, she was the strong leader of the wives who could speak passionately about a change that needed to be made. But instead, she decided to tempt fate by openly betraying the law in the hopes that people will actually listen to the words. That proves that she has no idea just how horrible and cruel this world can actually be.
  • Overall though, this was still an effective season. I still fully expect it to be a frontrunner to repeat at the Emmys for Best Drama Series. Yes, there were moments were things were awkwardly paced. The show struggled to find the right balance of checking in on all of the stories. It's lame how things with Luke and Moira were mostly dropped after the Waterfords left Canada. But I'm still curious to see how the show will continue to develop in Season 3 with the hope that it will put in the work to actually make some significant changes to its foundation as well.