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The Handmaid’s Tale season 1, episode 6: “A Woman’s Place” digs into Serena Joy’s past

Plus: Are the show’s too-triumphant endings its fatal flaw? Or just a miscalculation?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Serena Joy oversees a dinner party.

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 sixth episode, “A Woman’s Place.”

After last week’s mild misstep, this episode is basically fine

Todd: "A Woman's Place" is the first Handmaid's Tale episode that, so far as I can tell, has basically nothing to do with the book the series is based on, outside of the core premise and plot elements. And it's basically fine!

That sounds like I’m damning the hour with faint praise, but it's a bigger deal than you'd expect. The problem with any TV adaptation of a more finite story is figuring out how to open up the world to find more stories in it.

“A Woman’s Place” doesn’t totally work — the flashbacks to Serena Joy's past feel a little too thin, and the episode continues The Handmaid’s Tale’s weird string of final scenes that don’t quite jell (though this one falters for more understandable TV reasons of "we need to move the plot forward by any means possible," in contrast to the past couple). But the majority of it offers a chilling look at what's happening in the world at large while Gilead is violating human rights all over the place.

The episode gets at one of those questions I had when reading Margaret Atwood’s novel: Would the world community, no matter how strained by the fertility crisis, really let the US collapse into a religious theocracy without seeming to have much to say about it? Granted, the book drastically limits our perspective to Offred’s point of view, but a TV series necessarily has to touch on this stuff, because its perspective can't remain that contained forever.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Scenes from a Gilead Dinner Party.

And the answer is pretty grim, even if I don't 100 percent buy that it would never occur to Offred: The world community is happy to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Gilead because it seems to have solved the fertility crisis. Human rights are the first thing to go.

I have conflicted feelings about the last 10 minutes of this episode, especially, but I'm encouraged by the way that The Handmaid’s Tale has been slowly evolving and mutating over the past few weeks into a TV show, instead of an adaptation of the book.

First season stumbles are inevitable, but "A Woman's Place," even with my quibbles, did a lot to make me think the series is pointed in vaguely the right direction for the long term.

Constance: I agree that “A Woman’s Place” is basically fine, and the way The Handmaid’s Tale is developing the world outside of Gilead — and more broadly, outside of Offred's head — is really thoughtful and well done.

But the episode also helped me pinpoint what seems more and more like the show's fatal flaw: The series excels at creating a sense of claustrophobic oppression — all those stark and screaming reds against the white backgrounds, the characters crammed into the corners of the frame, that shot of the Wives segregated into a silent little corner during the dinner party, it all works beautifully — but lately, it has also wanted to end each episode in a cathartic release of tension, and it doesn’t seem to know how. When it tries, the results tend to feel cheap and false, despite Elisabeth Moss's superhuman powers.

The most egregious example was probably that "we're Handmaids, bitches" power walk in episode four, but this episode featured Offred's tearful speech to the Mexican ambassador about the horror of her life, climaxing in, "What are you going to trade us for, fucking chocolate? We're human beings!"

That's an unfortunate line both politically (the chocolate trade is largely based in slave labor, so human beings actually do get traded for chocolate today), and artistically, because it gives Offred an easy heroic moment that the story has not quite earned and that we all know will change nothing.

It makes sense that The Handmaid's Tale wants to find some moments of optimism and catharsis, because it would be unbearably bleak if there were none, but the show needs to figure out how to earn them if it wants to keep putting one at the end of each episode.

Otherwise, it would do better to stick to brutal gut punches like the final scene of the third episode, "Late," which land in exactly the register the show has perfected.

Are the moments of catharsis hurting the show? Or just miscalculations?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Offred takes the stairs.

Todd: I would argue that the catharsis of this episode is meant to be thwarted catharsis, but it's far too early in the series for Offred to have what amounts to a big speech, so it all feels muddled. Regardless, it’s weird that the show's attempts to end each episode in a moment of catharsis are what's hurting it in this midpoint of season one, because the show has so much other stuff going on that succeeds in breaking the tension.

It has a wonderful sense of gallows humor, for instance, and the soap opera plotting is really great. There's also the constant, tricky intrigue of Offred trying to navigate all these corners of her new world. All of it is more than enough to remind you that you're watching a television show, to cut through the claustrophobia just enough to keep you from finding it unbearable. (I'm also open to the thought that Reed Morano's direction of the first three episodes was so intimate and intense that they felt more overbearing than they actually were.)

So I agree with you, while also not finding this particular problem to be especially concerning. It strikes me as very similar to the way that Mad Men spent most of its first season dropping in random references to the way things were different in the '60s, just to remind you it was set in the '60s. And the show mostly stopped doing that in season two, when it realized it didn't need to. My guess is that The Handmaid’s Tale will rein itself in a little in this regard, because, hey, it's basically just a problem of degree, not even of intent.

Constance: This is where I remember that I dropped Mad Men in disgust four episodes in because I could not take all the "Hey! It's the '60s!" moments, and then did not return to the show until season four, so I am perhaps given to dropping shows over issues they end up fixing. (In my defense, I was in college and I had things to do.)

And there truly is a lot of good stuff here: Serena Joy's flashbacks are thin, but it's fascinating to watch her in the present grabbing at the opportunity to take charge so publicly. And that look of grudging respect on Offred's face as Serena Joy starts in on her showbiz razzle-dazzle at the banquet is a lovely grace note.

The Nick plot line also worked a little better for me this week, mostly. (Although, speaking of unearned moments: "Nice to meet you, June" was not earned.) Anytime The Handmaid’s Tale tries to convince me to care about who Nick is as a person I am bored, but anytime it tries to convince me to care about how he's affecting Offred — as a site for her small rebellions, as a place where she can perform vulnerability in a way she can't anywhere else — I am fascinated.

Serena Joy is becoming a hugely compelling character

Todd: Yeah, I feel a bit churlish complaining about an episode I liked much more than last week's on the whole, because I wasn't wild about how it wrapped up. It's just that the moments that go one step too far feel so out of place, because everything else is so hypnotically handled.

You're right about Serena Joy. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is walking a very delicate line with her — she's part of the monstrousness of this society, but she's also hurt by it. Yvonne Strahovski is playing her as the show's Don Draper (to return to Mad Men), where you can tell that this life wounds her, but she would never admit it to herself.

The moment when she and Fred go to see a movie and he's discussing how Gilead will rise by taking out the White House and Capitol, like he's reciting the grocery list for the week, is just this perfect little bit of acting from her, where she's at once anticipatory and a little nauseous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
This is a great episode for Yvonne Strahovski.

I'm just as fascinated by the Mexican ambassador, and I love the early scene in “A Woman’s Place” where Offred mistakes her assistant for her. One of the things this show can do very well is flip around how we think about situations in other countries by setting them "here" (not really here, but you know what I mean). This episode helps to illustrate every time the international community has turned a blind eye to some atrocity because it's more profitable and/or expedient.

The only thing that makes Offred's speech work for me is that the ambassador already knows all of this — she's not stupid — but doesn't really see how she can do anything. And maybe she's right!

Constance: I also love that the Mexican ambassador is in a pantsuit for the whole episode: It's so subtly jarring to see a woman wearing pants, with her hair down, while the Wives and Handmaids flit silently around her in their enveloping and identical gowns — especially since this episode is particularly concerned with the caste uniforms.

Offred keeps wisecracking over hers ("Red's my color," and "I wore it just for you"), and there's that lovely flashback to Serena Joy throwing out all of her old power suits and turning to her new wardrobe with a look of shuttered resignation on her face: Her side won, and she's excited, and she sincerely believes in "traditional values," but also, dear lord, those clothes are boring.

The destruction of the fashion industry is a silly and frivolous concern among all of the atrocities of Gilead, but it does mean that women have been deprived of an aesthetic outlet and means of performing power, and “A Woman’s Place” takes a moment to quietly mourn that loss.

Todd: That’s maybe why I’m left more reassured by the episode than you are. Even the most confident TV shows need to figure out how to actually be TV shows, and The Handmaid’s Tale has a steeper learning curve than most.

It’s making mistakes, sure, but it’s also making lots of lovely little choices around the edges of its story. (I found myself thinking that the shot of Serena Joy’s book sitting in the trash would have been an amazing closer.) The world and the character detail and the performances and the look of the thing are so compelling that I’ll forgive some storytelling hiccups.

That said, we’ve reached the middle of the season, and it feel like it’s about time for the show to start wrapping things up, if only a little bit. There are an impressive number of balls in the air; here’s hoping The Handmaid’s Tale knows where all of them are going to land.

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