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The Handmaid’s Tale flirts with going full tilt into misery with “Seeds”

This might be the hardest-to-watch episode of the show ever. That’s not really a compliment in this case.

Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid’s Tale 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 “Seeds,” the fifth episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: One of the narratives that have been circling around The Handmaid’s Tale since roughly the middle of its first season is whether expanding Margaret Atwood’s book into a full television series inevitably turns her prescient warning about how easy it is to slide into totalitarianism and oppression into a luxuriation in her dark vision.

The discussion reminds me a bit of a friend who refused to watch Mad Men because she felt its depiction of misogyny, no matter how thoughtful or critical, ultimately just added up to a normalization and endorsement of that misogyny. I disagreed, but the argument stuck with me nevertheless. Does spending more time in a TV world inevitably “normalize” it in some ways?

The simple answer is yes, because we ultimately grow inured to any TV show we watch enough episodes of. A fuller answer is more complicated. So far, to me, The Handmaid’s Tale has been smart about staying on the right side of the line when it comes to tilting over into full misery. It’s grim and sad and horrific, but always purposefully so, and even when it has a bum storyline or a bad episode, you can usually see what it was going for. I’ve been struck in season two by how little the series seems to have been affected by the conversation around it — particularly the one about how “timely” it is — and how much it has simply kept doing its own thing. This is to its credit.

But doing its own thing inevitably means spending more and more time in a world where women are brutally subjugated and turned into breeding stock, where teenage girls are married off to adult men, where survival sometimes means a complete psychological break with yourself. And when it comes to an episode like “Seeds,” I can appreciate it on a philosophical level, but boyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, it’s a tough watch. (The full extent of my feelings on this could only be conveyed by several hundred more Y’s in “boy.”)

So far in season two, the show is doing a very good job of keeping one eye on the idea that a world like this isn’t inherently hopeless. Indeed, I’d argue this season is better at providing moments of very slight uplift than season one, with all of its musical montages of Handmaids striding together in slow motion. There are still deathbed lesbian weddings performed by rabbis to remind both the characters and viewers of what’s worth clinging to in life. But it’s also not hard to wonder what the hell this series looks like in season four or, god forbid, season eight.

Obviously, we shouldn’t hold that against the show right now! For all we know, it will pull off a completely brilliant arc and land exactly where it should, in a way that makes viewers feel fully satisfied. Yet the degree of difficulty is so sharp, and it only gets more so with every episode, that I spend storylines like “June is slowly retreating inward, even as it seems like she might be losing the baby,” wondering if the climb has simply gotten too steep.

Ultimately, “Seeds” is about as concise a trip through June’s psychological breakdown as could be imagined. I was going to quibble about this but then realized that wallowing in that breakdown for four or five episodes would be more realistic but also exactly the sort of normalization I was warning against above. This is probably the best of a bunch of not-great options.

When “Seeds” ultimately reconfigures the season as a story about June trying to save her unborn child from the world it’s about to be born into, it justifies a lot of the miserableness on the way there. But, again, boyyyy...

Anyway, Nick’s married now. How do we feel about that? (Picture me anxiously tugging on my collar.)

Where do you find pleasure in a show like The Handmaid’s Tale?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Gilead never met an occasion it couldn’t add an elaborate ritual to.

Constance Grady: You know what, I’ll give this child bride plot line props for being one of the few Nick plot lines that doesn’t attempt to position him as a stalwart romantic hero. That’s always been a poor fit for the character — both because the structure of this show doesn’t lend itself well to romantic heroes and because Max Minghella isn’t a terribly compelling love interest — but the more Nick has to get his hands dirty in the grossness of everyday life in Gilead, the more interesting he is to me.

The Nick problem has, for me, always been part of the larger issue with this show that you bring up, Todd; namely, are we condemning the misogyny of Gilead or wallowing in it? Nick scenes always make me feel like we’re wallowing in it. In moments that are shot from his point of view, June has a tendency to become a beautiful object on whose body cruelties are enacted, and her suffering becomes elegant and erotic. (I’m mostly thinking of last season’s “Jezebels” here, but you can see similar framing in Nick and June’s reunion in the warehouse at the beginning of this season, in which June becomes hysterical while Nick is quietly reasonable.)

But because Nick is positioned as someone who is pure of heart — at least relative to the Commander — June’s objectification feels accidental rather than intentional, and as though the show wants us to find it pleasurable rather than gross. And ironically, that makes me feel so much grosser about watching the show than I feel about the straightforwardly creepy Commander scenes.

But if Nick has his very own teen Wife now, his complicity in Gilead becomes inescapable. And Nick the guy who can’t help participating in this horrific system is a lot more interesting, and a lot less easy to romanticize, than Nick the hero who is caught up in Gilead through no fault of his own.

But while Nick is busy this week dying inside over his new marriage, Serena Joy is continuing her own quiet breakdown. She’s pointedly jealous over the special dispensation that allows Aunt Lydia to write — reading and writing are forbidden to women in Gilead under the laws Serena helped create — and she’s too distracted to enjoy the petty power games she plays with the other Wives. (That one Wife snidely complimenting Serena on her small and intimate baby shower is such a classic WASP stab in the back.) She’s continuing to treat June as her disappointing daughter, and she seems to be taking Nick’s child bride under her wing as well, but it looks as though Serena is spiraling. When do you think that storyline will come home to roost?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Yvonne Strahovski is terrific on this show.

Todd: If there’s one thing I find “pleasurable” in Handmaid’s Tale (at least in the traditional sense of that word), it’s the performance of Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy. She’s taken a character who could be a one-note monster and found a lot of other shades in her. I love how cutting and funny she can be, and there’s an almost predatory quality to the camerawork in this episode, as it seeks her out in more crowded spaces and shows her trying to carve out a space in a society she created specifically to exclude her. The camera is Serena, in some ways — always seeking her next advantage, frustrated when it doesn’t come easily.

And there’s a lot of Serena Joy in this episode! If there’s one thing I think is pretty skillfully constructed about “Seeds,” it’s the way it finds parallels throughout — between the wedding of Nick to Eden and the wedding of Fiona to Kit, clearly, but also in more subtle ways, like how June spirals obviously but Serena spirals so quietly even she’s not aware of it. But I am intrigued by how the Commander and Serena Joy are fighting a sort of proxy war with each other by punishing Nick and June, until the latter two seem as likely to dissolve as anything else.

If I have a wish for season two, it might be to dig more into the Waterford marriage and figure out how it works. Serena Joy is an incredibly controlling person, who wages that control by giving people what she thinks they either want or need, while the Commander seems completely oblivious to everything, even as you know he has to know some of what’s going on. (The very brief slices of his life among the Gilead upper crust we’ve gotten this season suggest more exploration of his role among them to come, which is probably a good idea.)

But if there’s a problem with all of this, it’s in the direction of Mike Barker, who shoots a lot of this like a polite comedy of manners. There’s plenty of good reasons to do this — you want to see, for instance, how June reacts as Nick sits quietly with his new wife — but it also creates that distancing effect you spoke about. This episode is just as horrific as the one that precedes it, but it presents that horror in a far more muted fashion, probably to its detriment.

Also: Emily and Janine had a whole plot line? And it was pretty good? And was this the first episode of the show ever to go without flashbacks? What did you think of that decision?

Constance: I think you might be right that this was the first episode of the show without flashbacks — if not the first, it’s one of very few — and it’s a choice that I think is interesting in concept but that I barely noticed as I watched the episode. Now that Offred has succeeded in burying June, her memories of her past life are inaccessible, and in theory, keeping the audience trapped in the endless, unbearable present with the characters could have added to the claustrophobic tension this show can do so well. But as you point out, Todd, this episode has a polite staidness to its movements that keeps it from feeling as closed-in and smothering as it might have otherwise.

Emily and Janine’s time in the Colonies continues to be harrowing and monotonous, and harrowing in its monotony: The endless scenes of the Unwomen digging through radioactive dirt for no apparent purpose all blur together after a while in a way that feels deliberate but also dull.

There is some good stuff here: The way Janine is beginning to blossom as a kind of holy fool archetype feels like a good use of a character that this show has occasionally struggled to write for, and Alexis Bledel continues to find new notes to play in Emily’s exhausted rage. But more and more, the Colonies plot line feels like marking time while we wait for something explosive to happen.

Which I’m okay with. Season two has been great so far at creating the sense that it’s building to some kind of big and brutal change to the status quo, in a way that season one — which was hampered by its need to stick to the beats of Atwood’s novel — couldn’t quite manage. Whatever season two has waiting for us, I’m excited to see it arrive.