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The Handmaid’s Tale season 1, episode 9: “The Bridge” stares into the face of death — and beyond

The season’s endgame is pushing everyone as close to the edge as they can stand.

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Every week, 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 Caroline Framke discuss “The Bridge,” the penultimate episode of season one.

Todd VanDerWerff: The second half of this first season of The Handmaid's Tale has done something interesting and probably necessary: It’s gotten us out of Offred’s head to explore the perspectives of other characters. We’ve had flashbacks to the lives of Serena Joy, Luke, and Nick in the past three episodes, and now this ninth installment crosscuts between various perspectives and completely ditches Offred’s narration in favor of forward narrative momentum.

It’s also a significantly grimmer episode than some of the more recent ones (which is a feat when it comes to this show). Janine, unable to handle the transition between households, jumps off a bridge and almost takes her baby with her, while Offred tries like hell to be a spy for the resistance and finds herself mostly failing.

Caroline, I’ve found these experiments in point of view a bit all over the place, even as I understand why the show needs them. But I thought “The Bridge” was pretty terrific. Tell me how I’m wrong.

Caroline Framke: I think “The Bridge” was a necessary episode — a bridge, if you will, between the first season and whatever the second is going to be. At first I was skeptical that the show could believably stretch the story beyond the confines of the book; that’s certainly not the case anymore. The show’s been careful to keep us grounded in June’s mind while giving the people in her orbit time to reveal their own stories. In doing so, we’ve gotten a much more complete picture of how Gilead came to be and why it has any staying power at all — and “The Bridge” is a powerful example of its cost.

Honestly, the only point I’d fight you on so far is your assertion that this episode is any grimmer than the others. Yes, it drives just about everyone to their respective brinks, and Janine’s suicide attempt is wrenching. But one side effect of this show being as relentlessly dark as it is is that even as I watched Janine and June’s back-to-back rapes, I was mostly just exhausted.

On the one hand, The Handmaid’s Tale’s commitment to keeping the Handmaids’ circumstances bleak feels true to the material; my exhaustion at watching scenes like that can feel like an eerie mirror of the exhaustion evident in June’s face during said scenes. On the other hand, there’s very little this show could do at this point that could jolt me into horror like the first few episodes did. When June got out of the car to see Janine standing on the bridge railing — her Handmaid robe streaking the blank white sky with scarlet — it didn’t feel shocking. It felt inevitable.

Todd: The thing I find most gut-wrenching about this episode (and this series, really) is that it’s turned something I usually find irritating about TV — for the most part, the characters don’t die, even when they are in mortal peril — into something genuinely horrifying.

I wanted Janine’s choice to kill herself, because she saw no potential escape from her nightmare, to mean something, but Gilead robs her of that moment, takes away her agency even when it comes to life and death.

And, of course, we know that Gilead does its best to keep the Handmaids from killing themselves, and we know why as well. But the fact that the state does everything it can to keep Janine alive as a slave, even when she plunges off a bridge into a river, feels like another level of horror to me.

The deeper it gets into the season, the less Handmaid’s Tale is being read as a very specific indictment of our current era and the more it’s being read as an indictment of all eras. One of the show’s key arguments is that it didn’t take much to turn the US into Gilead, which is to say that it could happen both here and, really, anywhere.

And “The Bridge” is, in some ways, the show’s lowest ebb for many of the characters. Moira has lost all taste for the fight. June can’t manage to get out of a bedroom to get a package. Nick is watching his life spiral (though he gets to enjoy some sweet pasta). Even Serena Joy has to know that her husband is having an affair. Only the Commander skates by, blithely indifferent, though he continues to act as if he’s horribly put-upon.

Really, Serena struck me most in this episode. That scene where she commiserates with the house Martha about the death of the latter’s son in the war is pitch perfect, especially how Serena cuts her off before she can say anything that might suggest her son wasn’t fighting for the forces of Gilead. The Handmaids Tale has generally gotten better at these little telling moments throughout the season, and director Kate Dennis has an eye for how to shoot these flashes of forced intimacy to underline the lack of real intimacy.

Were there any of those smaller moments that stood out to you?

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Caroline: Dennis’s work in “The Bridge” is probably my favorite Handmaid’s Tale direction since Reed Morano’s in the first three episodes. That scene on the bridge has some beautiful long shots of Janine, a lone red figure standing on the edge of the world surrounded by an icy stillness. The scenes at Jezebel’s are fittingly claustrophobic, pressing in on June’s face and clipping corners when Moira walks in, sucking the air out of both the room and June’s panicking lungs.

When I watch shows with the intent of writing about them later, my notes tend to be the scraps of dialogue, passing images, the twinges on people’s faces that might recontextualize a scene beyond its words. This makes The Handmaid’s Tale — which loves dropping symbols and tight-as-hell close-ups whenever possible — a particularly good fit for my style of note taking.

So here are just a few of the moments I thought worked best in “The Bridge”:

  • Aunt Lydia (welcome back, Ann Dowd!) being as warm as she’s ever going to get in this episode — by which I mean she’s still downright chilling — when Janine whimpers that her new house is “really far.” Lydia simpering back, “From what, dear?” is the cruelest kind of faux affection, a deliberate erasure of the fact that Janine only just had to give her daughter away.
  • June getting the nerve to say that she wants to help with Mayday, then starting with shock when her Handmaid contact almost immediately gives her an assignment. Some of the best parts of the book are the moments when Offred expresses the wish that she could be a stronger person, the kind who can anchor a revolution; Elisabeth Moss is (once again) brilliant as June absorbs the enormity of what’s being asked of her and briefly stutters in fear.
  • Samira Wiley’s performance as a defeated Moira (called “Ruby” at Jezebel’s), her eyes flickering as she struggles to keep her fucking shit together.

And speaking of Moira: When are we getting her flashbacks, please? Her grand (and bloody) escape at the end of this episode signals that she’s going to be a bigger part of the season finale, but man, if there’s one person I wish got more depth as the show expanded, it’s her.

Todd: My assumption is we’ll pivot back to June’s POV for the finale, but yeah, if there’s a consistent complaint that I hope the producers and writers hear as we head into season two, it’s that viewers would love to get a glimpse into the backstory of the other Handmaids. I thought for sure we’d get a look into Janine's past in this episode, but nope.

I get this, to a point. If you want to explain the rise of Gilead, doing so through the perspectives of Serena Joy and Nick makes more sense than doing so through the perspective of, say, Emily. But it also flirts with the idea of protagonist bias — the idea that the protagonist is the most special character just because the show says she is. (Also: Just putting it out there, but if season two doesn't give us more Aunt Lydia, I will be very sad.)

That said, I really am ready to get back into June’s head. How is she feeling about all of this? When she gets that package from the butcher at episode’s end, what does she think it does? The show built an intimacy with her, and it’s been fascinating to see it stripped away. But I hope the finale lets us back in.

Caroline: Would you believe that I didn’t realize there was no June voiceover until you pointed it out to me? Because I didn’t! But now I miss it, and will be very happy to have it back.

I do think that if the show is trying to sustain the story beyond the book’s narrow focus, shading out the people who built and keep Gilead afloat is pretty crucial. It’s far scarier to not just experience someone like Serena Joy but understand her. The most frightening thing about The Handmaid’s Tale has always been its plausibility. Understanding how it came to pass, and how ordinary people made extraordinary decisions in the name of a cause, is a vital component of making its horror seem that much more possible.

But now that the season is almost over, I can officially say I’d happily trade Luke’s standalone episode and Nick’s flashbacks for more insight into Moira, or Emily, or Janine. As June forges deeper into the Resistance, giving us more insight into the lives of her fellow Handmaids and the driving forces that keep them going despite every skin-crawling terror thrown their way should absolutely be a priority.

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