Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team will 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 the fifth episode, “Faithful.”
Is the TV Handmaid’s Tale adding too much hopefulness to Margaret Atwood’s book?
Todd VanDerWerff: So many of our favorite TV shows are built atop the architecture of soap operas, which is to say that they're fundamentally about relationships that grow and change and die off. Sure, The Handmaid's Tale is a compelling political story, and an even more involving socio-cultural one. But it's also, somewhere at its core, a story about a loveless marriage and an outsider who enters that dynamic and changes everything and then still another outsider whom that first outsider falls for.
"Falls for" is a strong word for what really seems like Offred desperately clinging to whatever lifelines she can find, after she learns that one of those lifelines just happens to look like Nick. But "Faithful" is all about these increasingly tangled relationships and especially, I think, about Serena Joy's complicity in this new world order and the tiny rebellions she uses to display her individuality.
This is probably the episode of The Handmaid’s Tale where I most felt like the show was marking time a little bit (all those shots of a thing that might happen, only for it not to happen), which feels weird to say about an episode where a Handmaid ran over someone with a car, but that's perhaps because the relationship between Offred and Nick didn't feel as inevitable to me as I think it was supposed to.
We've gotten a few scenes between the two up to this point, but I'm not sure the chemistry between the actors carried us to a point where I was hoping they would get to spend more time together, much less fall into bed. It all felt a little perfunctory, like this was the point in the story where Offred was supposed to fall for Nick, so she did.
This is not to say "Faithful" was bad or anything, just that that one central element felt unearned to me. There's still a lot to talk about here, from Ofglen ... sorry, Ofstevens's car ride to the surprising (to me, at least) use of nudity.
Constance Grady: I have to agree that the relationship between Offred and Nick isn't quite hitting its marks. I think the TV show is asking that storyline to play a role that's quite different from the one it plays in Margaret Atwood’s book: There, Offred falls a little in love with Nick, but the reader is never asked to do the same.
Atwood's Nick is not around to provide a romantic thrill, and his sex scenes aren't sexy; he's supposed to be a distraction and a danger and a possible escape. The TV show seems to want him to be all of those things and romantic, too, but the structure of the world it's established isn't quite allowing that to happen, because Gilead is so claustrophobic and oppressive for Offred that it's hard to imagine the idea of love or lust being all that powerful or meaningful for her.
Which isn't to say that there can't be love stories on this show. Even though the tragically doomed and thwarted romance between the Martha and Alexis Bledel's character (who I think I'll just be calling Emily) got barely any screen time, it was still incredibly compelling and deeply felt. But the Offred/Nick storyline is just not constructed to do the work it's being asked to do here.
In general, I've been noticing a tendency on the show’s part to want to be more optimistic and romantic and swooning than Atwood was when it comes to Offred's inner life, and I'm not entirely certain that it works. Last week's "We're handmaids, bitches" ending was a rare false note, and this week, it was joined by Offred's starry-eyed summation of Emily's car chase: "There was a part of her that, in the end, they couldn't reach. She looked invincible." That's not something that Atwood's Offred would ever think, and if she did think it, she would be shown to be wrong almost immediately.
Atwood, like George Orwell in 1984, believes that the state has the power to crush the individual. There is nothing inside her characters that Gilead cannot destroy, given enough time. That's the tragedy of that sad little "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carving in Offred's closet: The bastards did grind Offred's predecessor down. They reached the part of her that was holding out. They made her kill herself. That is what Gilead does, because that is what oppressive dictatorships do. There is no love story or romantic joy ride or illicit graffiti that Gilead cannot, in the end, corrupt.
And that makes the stakes of Atwood's book incredibly high, because Offred was in deep existential danger, not just of death or torture but of losing her grasp on her identity. As the book opens, Gilead has reshaped her mind significantly, and it is only going to keep doing so. You're rooting for her to escape not before she's killed, but before she's ontologically dismantled.
If the TV show posits that Offred has some invincible inner core that Gilead can't reach, that lowers the stakes significantly. Then she's just marking time, more or less, and dealing with an ineffectual not-that-scary government. To me, it makes the whole story a lot less horrifying and a lot less compelling. How are the stakes landing for you, Todd?
Or is the show contrasting who Offred thinks she is with who she actually is?
Todd: I'm actually reading some of this a bit differently from you, I think. In particular, I thought of Offred's summation of Emily's act of rebellion as a sort of self-chastisement. This is true for Emily, she thinks. It's not true for me. Notice how she hesitates after Emily reveals her given name. Offred has already been warped by Gilead more than she thinks she has.
This is to say that I think the series has bought into the irony of Offred's vivid inner life, contrasted with how meek she behaves in reality. She thinks a bigger game than she dares act, and when the chips are down, she steps back from the brink and acquiesces. She talks back, here and there, but never in a way that risks true punishment.
I have a theory that all good TV protagonists are deluded on some level, and I think this might be Offred's central delusion — she thinks she's a revolutionary, but she's really a cog in the system. Even if she somehow escapes the Commander's house, she'll always be stuck there.
To be fair, some of this read might come from the fact that these past two episodes have been directed by Mike Barker, who is more fond of going wide than Reed Morano (who directed the show’s first three hours). Some of Barker's compositions are breathtaking — that shot of Serena Joy trying not to watch as Nick and Offred had sex, the diagonal lines of his attic apartment giving shape to everything — but wide shots have a tendency to distance us from the characters. After Morano's claustrophobic intimacy with Offred, we're now suddenly being asked to consider her outside of her own inner monologue.
This is probably a good thing, on some level. Barker's episodes have done wonders for the Commander and Serena Joy, and episode four was quite good (outside of that closing moment). But Barker’s more zoomed-out approach also leaves us with scenes like the final one of “Faithful,” where we're suddenly asked to read a whole bunch of emotion that didn't previously exist into the relationship between Offred and Nick, which leaves a jarring note.
Constance: I like your reading a lot, and I hope that's where the show ends up leading itself. I'm finding myself a little discouraged by this week's "invincible" theme in combination with last week's ending, which seemed to be attempting to find something empowering and subversive in the act of being a Handmaid and didn't provide enough distance to make that attitude read as ironic.
But enough about weird murky narrative framing questions! How great was that extended, incredibly creepy wide shot of June and Luke at their "innocent" lunch, with the children in their Handmaid-red coats frolicking in the background?
The show has done a terrific job of seeding little hints of the Gilead that is to come into all of the flashbacks: You can never fully relax into their warmth, because you are always forced to remember exactly what's about to happen to these people.
“Faithful” underlines Gilead’s horrible ideas about love
Todd: Yes, the flashback story this time was my favorite one yet (or, at least, my favorite one set before the rise of Gilead), perhaps because it focused on the evolution of June and Luke's flirtation turned suggestion turned real relationship, rather than jumping all around. Her love with Luke was supposed to be contrasted with her more desperate hook-up with Nick, but when she suggested that she felt like she was cheating on Luke, I thought, "Wait, what?"
That said, I love the way that the flashback plays around with the idea of transgression, with Luke being married when he and June first meet. It's another little bit from the book that works slightly better for me on the show, where we get to feel the weight of the character leaving his unseen wife because he loves June that much.
And yet as the Commander says, to him, every love story is a tragedy. If he has his way, June and Luke's affair will be rewritten entirely to be about the fact that Luke cheated on his wife. Indeed, it already might have been for Luke’s ex-wife and her friends. Unless we're in the midst of it, it's awfully tempting to find transgression fascinating.
Constance: The scene where the Commander talks about June and Luke's affair really was fascinating: For the first time, he became clear to me as someone who probably sincerely believes that Offred is a sinful slutty adulteress for sleeping with a married man, and who also sincerely believes that repeatedly ritually raping a woman he owns in front of his wife just makes him an upstanding husband. What a creepy little piece of doublethink he's constantly performing.
It's clearly not one that Serena Joy is able to entirely embrace, but she's got her own: one that allows her to think of Offred as simultaneously a seductive tramp, an empty vessel without a mind, and as her surrogate daughter.
That might be part of why Nick falls so flat in this episode. “Faithful” spends most of its time with these characters who are constantly playing three-dimensional chess against themselves in an attempt to believe five or six contradictory things at the same time, and then it leaves us with poor, dull Nick and his blank cipher of a psyche. It's a bit of a letdown.
Todd: I guess we're left with the thought that he's an Eye, which is potentially interesting, especially in the wake of Emily's warnings and actions.
(Sidebar: Is there any way she's still alive? I sort of feel like it would cheapen her actions if she were, but the show has also so brilliantly established that fertility is everything that it could probably get away with her reappearance. Maybe cheapening her action is the point in that scenario — when the state is as vast and overbearing as Gilead, any rebellion taken against it is harshly punishable but also eventually subsumed into a Weird Thing that Happened One Time.)
But, to return to Nick, it definitely feels like we've gotten his story all out of order. He was the brooding guy on the sidelines, and now that he's becoming a bigger player, he's suddenly in the vague realm of "love interest." Even another episode or two might have made this shift play out slightly better.
That said, I want to take a brief moment to talk about the nudity for both characters, which was the one thing that worked about that scene for me, because seeing nudity in a sexual context on this show was so strange. When I talked with Elisabeth Moss about the show shortly after its debut, she pointed out that one of the things Gilead manages to criminalize without even really trying is pleasure derived from sex. As such, seeing a rather conventional sex scene felt downright rebellious, playing into the episode's overall theme. There's a version of this scene that works, one that heightens Offred's desperation and gives us something to cling to with Nick's motivations. We just didn't get it.
So maybe this scene falling flat really all comes down to cast chemistry. Elisabeth Moss and O-T Fagbenle have it; she and Max Minghella don't as much. That's fine, as it goes. But I hope there's a plan to either dimensionalize this relationship or dimensionalize Nick before too long.
Constance: God I hope Emily is still alive. I've never seen Alexis Bledel be as interesting as she is on this show and I want it to keep happening. It doesn't necessarily have to feel like a cop-out; Gilead can punish her pretty badly and still leave her as a functional childbearing vessel if they need to.
“Faithful” did some interesting things with the idea of how pleasure functions with sex in Gilead. Besides the nudity in Offred and Nick's scene — which, you're right, was very striking — there's that moment where the Commander touches Offred's thighs during the Ceremony, and everyone is appalled by how dangerous and taboo his actions are.
This marks the second episode in a row in which the Commander has casually broken a basic rule of the Ceremony. The rules don't really seem to apply for him, and the scene suggests that he's going to continue pushing steadily through boundaries for as long as he pleases.