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, staff writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss the eighth episode, “Jezebels.”
Constance Grady: There's a lot going on in this episode, some of it great (we get to see Moira in the present!), some of it disturbing (yes, hello, I will never be able to erase the memory of that man licking the stump of a woman's arm), and some of it downright dull (really, we're still pretending people care about Nick and his flashbacks?), but the thing that's sticking with me most is Offred's hair.
Generally when we see Offred with her hair loose in the present, it's straggling down her back in a limp mass, all split ends and frizz, because that is what happens to hair as fine and straight as Offred’s when it isn't cared for, and Handmaids aren't allowed to care for their hair. They are supposed to be above vanities like grooming: They're supposed to be clean, but they aren't supposed to care about how they look. But at the beginning of "Jezebels," as Offred climbs out of bed with Nick, her hair cascades across her back in a perfect Veronica Lake wave, the kind that no one's hair achieves naturally, the kind you get with a curling iron.
It's because later in the episode, the Commander is going to dress up Offred in a glamorous flapper dress, and the show wants her hair to be glamorous to match, but it also doesn't want to show the labor that goes into glamour onscreen. For just this week, The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a world in which Offred's hair is naturally heat-styled; in which her ear piercings don't close up after being unused for five years; in which, when she cries as the Commander starts to undress her, her face is perfectly set and lovely, with a single perfect tear highlighting her high cheekbones and not so much as a wobbling chin to undermine her beauty.
It's a world in which women's beauty is both effortless and constant, up to and including the moments in which those women are raped. The rapes in this episode are eroticized to a level that The Handmaid’s Tale has previously avoided with some skill, and I don't love this new aesthetic.
It's a very, very odd choice for the show, especially since its source material is so interested in the labor and resources women pour into their grooming. In Atwood's novel, there's a sad little subplot in which Offred, desperate for moisturizer for her parched skin, steals pats of butter from the kitchen to use on her hands and finds herself smelling faintly of vegetable oil. (Later, moisturizer is one of the things she asks the Commander to get her in exchange for their games of Scrabble.) And in the novel, Jezebel's — a brothel that exists in what used to be a hotel, into which the Commander smuggles Offred for the night — isn't glamorous at all: It's tawdry. All the clothes are threadbare, with missing sequins and broken straps, and the makeup is old and has a tendency to clump.
But on the show, Jezebel's has a faint tinge of aspiration. It's luxurious, the clothes are beautiful, and the makeup is perfectly applied. It's disturbing, of course, but it’s presented as though it should also be faintly titillating, and I can't quite figure out why.
Caroline Framke: I had the same confusion. It’s not that everything in the TV show has to be true to the book; we’ve seen many times over these eight episodes how diverging from Atwood’s original text has served Hulu’s adaptation well, especially as it expands the world of Gilead and beyond. But the shift in tone for the brothel itself really is jarring enough to make me look at it more skeptically in terms of what the series is trying to say here. It was obvious from the second the Commander pulled out a beautiful beaded dress for June that this particular part wasn’t going to mimic the book, which instead had June shrug on a hasty smear of lurid red lipstick and fraying Vegas showgirl castoffs.
I can see an argument for slicking up the place insomuch as the TV show’s version of Gilead is basically pristine, give or take a bloody wall. Everything is so painstakingly in its right place, so built on ceremony and prestige, that I could believe the Commanders the show depicts would want even their secret brothels to follow suit.
But like you said: Giving Jezebel’s more of a luxury sheen makes the whole trip feel like a fantasy in the way that the men who frequent the place no doubt see it, as an establishment where women dressed like sexy Handmaids (coming to a terrible novelty Halloween costume shop near you, probably!) lead men to dark corners to act out their latent desires. And if there was one moment that really got to me, it was the one where June asked the Commander who everyone was and he assumed she meant the men; who else matters, after all?
The show is also shading out the Commander in a way I’m not sure I can quite track, though I’m interested enough to give it the benefit of the doubt, for now. (This is, not for nothing, in part thanks to Joseph Fiennes’s impressive performance, which has so far let the Commander walk a knife’s edge between passive smarm and active villainy.) Waterford likes to keep his Handmaids agile, likes to flirt with them enough to believe they “understand” him, that they’re having fun making reckless trips to brothels instead of fearing for their lives with their hearts beating in their throats.
Despite everything he says about Handmaids being women acting out their “biological destinies,” Waterford treats them like actual mistresses. So I’m guessing — based on the reveal that Nick was installed as an Eye in the house to keep an eye on Waterford in particular — that Waterford is in for a fall sooner rather than later.
On that note, I agree with you that Nick’s flashbacks can basically be summed up as “Ugh, whatever,” especially because Max Minghella, to be frank, doesn’t seem to have the range that The Handmaid’s Tale’s other actors do. But I still want to talk about them in a little more depth, because I can see a case where they add value to the show rather than trying our patience. Honestly, I think I would’ve been more interested in them if they were used in a more logical way than they were in this episode; they just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of it at all.
Constance: There's a nice touch in Nick's flashbacks in that the thing that gets the Sons of Jacob interested in him is that he's trying to provide for his family. That's their glorious and pure ideal in a nutshell — the virtuous patriarch working hard to protect the innocent women in his life — but it also means that Nick is a vulnerable mark, the kind of lost and powerless soul that cults traditionally target. I would, in theory, be interested in what happened to the family he was so desperate to protect (did they survive Gilead's purges?), but not if it's presented the way it was this week.
Making Nick's point of view so prevalent in an episode that is already committed to the idea of women as beautiful aesthetic objects adds more than a touch of male gaze to a show that originally defined itself through its female gaze. We keep cutting away from the Commander caressing a flinching Offred to Nick watching them in the background, glowering, with the result that the show feels more interested in Nick's possessiveness and jealousy than in Offred's feelings about her bodily autonomy.
Much more interesting is the return of Moira. Samira Wiley does a fantastic job at preserving Moira's take-no-shit black humor while adding a new layer of defeat to her: Gilead has just about broken this unbreakable woman. She has no hope of escaping her life now, and is just praying for a few good years at a brothel with all the booze and drugs she wants before she dies. It's one of the most tragic moments of the show so far.
Caroline: Absolutely agreed, and thank you for identifying the issue I couldn’t quite put my finger on. For an episode that’s all about how women are cast aside in favor of serving men, “Jezebels” kinda casts its women aside in favor of serving the men! Even June and Moira’s reunion is treated like yet another complication in the grander scheme of the Commander’s treacherous outing than the huge revelation it actually is.
So let’s indeed talk more about Moira, because she and Wiley deserve it. June seeing Moira from across a crowded room, in a transparent white shirt and Playboy bunny ears, is as exciting as it is devastating. Wiley and Elisabeth Moss act the hell out of their brief, tearful encounter, both their faces shaking with equal parts relief and horror. And when Moira tries to shrug away June’s concern by saying that at least being a Jezebel beats dying in the Colonies, I felt their shared grief like a slap to the face.
In the book, this moment is the last time June ever sees Moira — but since the series now has a second season in the works, it’ll be shocking if that’s the case here. So I can’t wait to see Moira’s part expand in the series, but I really hope the show figures out what it wants to say about her and her fellow concubines’ experience beyond, “It really sucks.”
Constance: What I'm hoping for beyond anything else is that whatever new material the show creates for Moira, it's as smart and as compelling as the expanded storyline it created for Alexis Bledel’s Emily/Ofglen/Ofsteven. What set the Emily storyline apart from the rest of the TV adaptation’s additions is that it made Gilead more specific and more violent in its brutality than we already knew it to be, while the other additions — like the flashbacks for Luke and Serena Joy and now Nick — have tended toward vague, generic dystopian and post-apocalyptic tropes. They've been less interested in how totalitarian governments control people in general and women in particular than in how onscreen violence and rape can be entertaining and sexy.
Caroline: I’ve heard from a few people that Emily’s anguished scream at the end of episode three was about all they could take of The Handmaid’s Tale; I don’t blame them, if only because her story is so stark and brutal in a way that was only suggested in the book. But I agree that the deviation in her story is at least rooted in what makes the book so searing even 30 years later, namely Gilead’s casual dismissal of anything that makes the Handmaids more than breeding sows, or even just a little more human.
That’s something “Jezebels” could have hit home if it wanted to, and even suggests in some asides. When the Commander shrugs off June’s questions about how a place like this could even exist by saying that “everyone’s human,” I wanted to scream for her, because of course he was only talking about the men who were there to thrust out their frustrations. When he stroked the red tag on June’s ear that signifies she’s a fertile Handmaid, I crawled out of my skin right along with her.
The episode ultimately stops short of getting more specific in favor of continuing to broaden the world of Gilead. That’s served The Handmaid’s Tale beautifully before, but here it mostly feels like a distraction from what could have been a particularly powerful experience for June, and for us, the “someones” hearing her tell this story.
The first eight episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are currently available to stream on Hulu. New episodes are released every Wednesday.