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The Handmaid’s Tale reaches a tipping point in the powerful “After”

The final image of this episode is as haunting as any the show has come up with — for entirely unexpected reasons.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaids’ funeral attire is about what you’d expect.
Hulu

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “After,” the seventh episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: In a 13-episode season, the seventh episode is the pivot point, the one that flips the whole thing on its ear. Mad Men famously used the seventh episode (or thereabouts) to tell these weird little disconnected tales that threw each season’s theme into relief. Perhaps the show’s most famous episode — season four’s “The Suitcase” — was a seventh episode, for instance.

(I should note here that the seventh episode is also the one that has to air before May 31 to officially clear the “half plus one” Emmy eligibility threshold for a 13-episode series, and here we are on May 30. So congrats to The Handmaid’s Tale on presumably winning a bunch more Emmys.)

“After” doesn’t really do anything as radical as “The Suitcase” did, but it does pause the season’s action to reshuffle its deck and reconfigure its various alliances. A lot of it is devoted to mourning and to getting various characters back where they need to be for the second half of the season. It’s more a collection of sequences or vignettes than a full story, but I liked most of those sequences quite a bit. It’s also the first episode of the season to feature the entire regular cast, and in a way that suggests the rest of the season will feature the various supporting players in an increased capacity.

But let’s start with the thing I didn’t buy, which was June finally telling Emily her name (because Emily is back in the Boston area after the explosion last week killed enough Handmaids that Gilead is pulling back Handmaids it sent to the Colonies) — and then telling another Handmaid, which leads to a quiet rebellion of names spreading throughout the supermarket.

This feels like a case of the show pushing an emotional button too heavily, in the way it often did in season one. Where June telling Emily her name was a hugely gratifying moment for both characters, the rest of the scene felt like a feel-good moment thrown haphazardly into an episode that really didn’t need one. (I use the term “feel-good moment” extraordinarily loosely.)

The Handmaid’s Tale
Aunt Lydia prepares to bury some of her own.
Hulu

There’s a recurrent motif throughout “After” of women seizing power within the world of Gilead (or, in the case of Moira, via the power that comes from finally answering a question you’ve been dreading hearing the answer to), one that comes to a head when Serena Joy essentially starts drafting new orders for Gilead while the Commander is indisposed and then asks June to edit them.

Both women are breaking the law of Gilead, and it’s a little thrilling to see them as illicit collaborators. But they’re also creating tools to further their own oppression, which dovetails with some of what this season has been talking about with the idea that Gilead can’t exist solely because men wanted it to. What do you make of this episode-ending development (the one the season hinges on, structurally)? And did you have other favorite moments in this scattered episode?

“After” offers a terrific examination of complicity in awful power structures

Constance Grady: What kept striking me in that final scene was that this was really the world that Serena Joy wanted: a violent and oppressive theocracy, but one where she gets to hold the reins. She never wanted to be bored out of her mind knitting in her house; she just wanted that for other women. What she wants is for all ungodly behavior to be legislated into oblivion, but with someone sensible making sure that the legislation is enforced reasonably, someone cool in a crisis, someone who understands people — namely, Serena. That final scene is her getting to have her cake and eat it too.

For June, the scene plays like an echo of the first time the Commander brought her into his study last season and asked her to play Scrabble with him: the look of veiled delight on her face as she allows herself to consider written words, to have access once again to mental stimulation. June’s official status in Gilead is linked entirely to her body, but Serena and Fred keep trying to make use of her mind for their own purposes as well, and every time they do it, June starts spinning out six-dimensional chess moves to turn this opportunity to her advantage.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Serena Joy and June form an alliance in the Commander’s absence.
Hulu

Mostly, though, I’m just glad that “After” closed on the transgressive joy of picking up the pen, and not on that whispered exchange of names. I think you’re right, Todd, that the moment feels like a return to the emotional imbalance of season one.

Last season, the show would routinely try to make the claustrophobic horror of Gilead bearable by ending the episode on a feel-good cathartic break in tension, but it usually ended up unable to reconcile the tones it was reaching for — and that version of Handmaid’s Tale would absolutely end an episode on Emily watching in teary-eyed joy as the other Handmaids exchanged names, and then it would hit play on, I don’t know, “Copacabana.” (“Her name was Lola!”)

But one of the advantages of the more baroque horror Handmaid’s Tale has established in its second season is that it doesn’t have to end every episode on an attempt at an up-note to make the show watchable. Instead, it can end on a moment of emotional ambiguity, like June clicking open that pen to help draft the orders that Gilead will use to hurt a lot of people.

Meanwhile, this week’s flashbacks center on Moira, her time as a surrogate mother, and her dead girlfriend that we have never, ever seen before. Samira Wiley’s performance is still stunning — the moment when she finds a photo of Odette’s dead body and breaks down is incredibly hard to watch — but these flashbacks really highlighted how underwritten she is compared to other characters on the show.

There’s never before been any discussion of the child she had that convinced Gilead she would be a good Handmaid, and if there’s been any mention of Odette before this episode, I have to admit I missed it. So when Moira asked to be let into the records to look for any sign of her girlfriend, I spent a solid five minutes trying to figure out if she was working an elaborate con: It’s a moment that feels like it came out of nowhere.

How did Moira’s plot line work for you this week, Todd? And do you think Serena Joy will be willing to give up any of the power she’s finally gotten her hands on?

Does the Moira flashback work?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Emily’s back in the Boston area.
Hulu

Todd: I liked the Moira flashback, but I think almost entirely because of Wiley’s performance. I honestly expected that she had been a surrogate or something before it was revealed — since, after all, Gilead had to be aware of her fertility for some reason — but you’d think she would have mentioned Odette more forcefully at some point prior. (She does bring her up a couple of times in season one, but the references are fleeting.)

I also have to pull back the curtain a bit and admit that I wrote my first response immediately after watching the episode, late at night, and when my wife asked how the episode was, I said, “I’ll know if I loved it or thought it was the weakest of the season in the morning.” And while I’m not quite to loving it after a good night’s sleep, I’m closer than I was. I agree that “After” takes a few swings that don’t connect, but that’s because it’s taking so many swings. I’m always in favor of ambition, even if not every piece of it pays off.

I’m also completely with you on the boldness of ending the episode not on a physical explosion but on the much more incendiary idea of June picking up that pen and getting to work. (The pen is mightier than something, I’ve heard.) The thing that has made this season so horrific and ultimately so good — and the reason I think it might eventually find a way to deal with the show’s most recurring and obvious elephant in the room (its refusal to forthrightly talk about race) — is its interest in complicity, in the idea that simply by being alive at certain points in history, we end up complicit in things we categorically do not support.

This is not to say that resistance is futile, that pushing back against bad political choices is impossible. But it is to say that in the exercise of what is most invigorating to your core self, you stand every chance of hurting the community. June gets to exercise her mind and perhaps some small measure of control by picking up that pen, but, as you note, a lot of people are going to be hurt by what she does.

It’s a far less comforting notion than season one’s unearned uplift, but it’s a more invigorating and complex one. Before the season began, I was wondering if its directorial shift to more wide shots and less intimate close-ups was serving to shift the show’s original focus — the trauma of any one woman is the trauma of us all, in cinematic terms — to something tougher to grapple with, which is the idea that oppression is systemic and many of us suffer from it and perpetuate it simultaneously.

(Weirdly, this is also what Westworld is talking about this season, which suggests maybe we’re all thinking about this in our own reality, but I can’t imagine why we would ever possibly want to talk about how to avoid becoming complicit in corrupt power structures at this particular point in time.)

I think it’s telling that one of the most significant “close-ups” (technically an insert, but whatever) in Kari Skogland’s direction is of that pen, which becomes both salvation and a scourge.

This may be why the moment in the grocery store is so dang jarring! I love your idea of the episode ending on that moment to the tune of “Copacabana,” because it’s only a slight exaggeration of what season one would have done, in hopes of keeping us hopeful about the future of these women. What’s so clear-eyed about season two is that no matter what happens in regard to Gilead, whether it falls or sustains itself for a million years, June is always going to carry a part of it within her, a thorn hammered into her side by the bluntest of hammers.

I think I also have come around on “After” because of the way it knits all of these stories together via the device of the explosion. Obviously, nobody we “know” died in the conflagration, but the episode zeroes in on the uncertainty that follows the event with such clarity that it’s not hard to feel for a bunch of extras. And Gilead’s response to the event — which amounts to “kill a bunch of people” — only underlines how fragile its grasp on power is, at least until Serena Joy and June get to work. This storytelling choice could have felt like a cheat, but for me, it didn’t. How did you feel about the explosion being used to knit the story tighter together?

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

Constance: Any time Gilead’s omnipotence becomes shaky, this show gets more interesting. In an overarching way, this is a show about living in a totalitarian state and how that oppression shapes your psyche, but it can’t sustain that level of tension for multiple seasons; it has to show the totalitarian government changing and failing and mutating over time in order to keep the show dynamic. Letting us see the cracks in Gilead’s control makes everyone in Gilead more compelling, and on that level, I’m all for the explosion as a story device.

I’m also interested in how the explosion makes it clear that to the upper echelons of Gilead, to those in power, the violence of everyday life in the world they’ve created is invisible. When Aunt Lydia tearfully tells the Handmaids at the funeral that she wants to give them a world without violence, she means it. When Serena Joy tells June that she wants things to get back to normal around there, she means it too.

For Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy, the violence that June and the rest of the Handmaids experience every day — the rapes, the beatings, the maimings, the proddings with Tasers — is incidental. It’s not really violence. It’s discipline, a necessary part of creating order.

But the explosion means that the order of Gilead can’t sustain itself indefinitely. And that means that the violence on which Gilead is founded can’t continue to render itself invisible to those in power forever.

I’d be very interested to see what unrest in Gilead’s upper ranks might look like. Could we ever see some noblesse oblige-inflicted abolitionist movement for Handmaids? Or would it all be like that Wife who ended up in the Colonies, self-righteously telling Emily that she never supported the university purges? It’s exciting that these are questions the show wants us to be asking, and I hope it isn’t raising them without the intention of exploring them.

Correction: The original version of this post stated that Odette had not been mentioned on the show before. She was mentioned briefly twice in the first season.