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The Handmaid’s Tale is as horrific as it’s ever been in “Other Women”

The show once again brutally narrows its focus, metaphorically and literally.

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The Handmaid’s Tale
Aunt Lydia is back, and Ann Dowd’s going to get lots more scenes with everybody else.
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 writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss “Other Women,” the fourth episode of the second season.

Caroline Framke: It feels like we say this every week, but for my money, this is one of the most disturbing episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale yet.

“Other Women” plunges June back into the cold grip of the Waterford household after she got tantalizingly close to escaping over the Canadian border. At first, she’s shackled in the Red Center basement as a punishment for stepping out of line and furious about it, having experienced a taste of freedom. At first, she resists Aunt Lydia’s wheedling requests for her to slip back into the scarlet robes of a Handmaid.

At first, she thinks resisting might be possible.

June’s slow, steady descent toward accepting that she just might live at rock bottom the rest of her days is, in Handmaid’s tradition, hard to watch. Being back in the Waterford house as everyone insists with a placid smile that they’re just so happy to have her back after she was “kidnapped” is as disorienting as it is infuriating. And June, knowing her pregnancy makes her as untouchable as she can be in Gilead, lets everyone know exactly how mad she is — until Aunt Lydia finally finds a way to break her.

But I’d like to back up a bit and talk about the thematic structure of this episode, which leans on, as its title promises, “Other Women.” In particular, it leans on the idea of other women acting as collaborators in their own oppression. Serena Joy comes roaring back into the mix with her barely restrained frustration that her Handmaid seems to be a defective, defiant model. The other Wives come over for a baby shower and coo over June’s swollen stomach as if June isn’t there. All the while, Aunt Lydia prowls around the edges, threatening retribution should June step out of line again.

And in a pointed move, the flashbacks in “Other Women” detail the ripple effects that June and Luke’s infidelity had on their lives and beyond, from Luke’s stung ex-wife confronting them to June’s eventual imprisonment as a Handmaid. (Adulterers don’t get to be Econowives.)

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about how all these other women come crashing together. At times, it’s stark and effective; at others, the blunt proclamations just feel overwrought. I understand why the show feels the need to examine women’s roles in Gilead, and why it has so far backed off from doing the same with the men. That Luke episode in season one was a near disaster; same goes for most attempts to make Nick even vaguely interesting.

But when all the transgressions are presented together in the same episode like this, part of me can’t help but wrinkle my nose and think, “Okay, but what about the men, though?” Many of these women deserve condemnation, but what about the sexist systems that thrust them into these mindsets in the first place? I’m just not convinced this show quite knows the answer at this point, despite this season’s obvious interest in untangling the bigger picture behind how Gilead came to be.

The USA-to-Gilead timeline is a little fuzzy around the edges

The Handmaid’s Tale
The show doesn’t really dwell on how everything went down.
Hulu

Todd VanDerWerff: One of the things I sometimes struggle with in this show is the timeline of how the US becomes Gilead, which is ... fuzzy.

Yes, I get that governments can fall very quickly, and I get that they’re often replaced by horribly warped versions of themselves in the aftermath. And the idea of “attacks on Washington” leading to Gilead works well enough for a quick and dirty bit of world building in the novel.

But when you literalize that and put it on TV, everything gets fuzzier still. There were very few flashbacks this week, but in one, where Hannah was a tiny baby, I kept wondering just how far away Gilead was, and whether June and Luke could see its rise coming (even obliquely), and whether people in other corners of this world were learning the seemingly 700 intricate rituals that all Gilead residents seem to know on cue. This is not a major flaw, and it’s endemic enough to the premise that I’m usually willing to overlook it, but it’s definitely something that the show has to distract you from as much as it possibly can.

This makes it all the more intriguing that season two is hurtling straight at that weak point, forcing you to look at it as much as it dares. As a TV writer nerd, I kind of love this, because it’s something that either makes or breaks a show. Sometimes you end up with season three of Breaking Bad, which does everything it can to blow up its original premise and somehow still keeps ticking, and sometimes you end up with season two of Homeland, where the show eventually blinks. But either way, you’ve got somethin’.

All of this is to say that I think this season is going somewhere with its collision of these ideas of women turning against each other, rather than the extremely overt patriarchal system that keeps them all pinned in place. Look at that quick cutaway during the baby shower to the men who run Gilead, smirking and shooting and just generally being supremely smug and satisfied with themselves. I don’t think the show needs to say this because, well, all of the other characters (and us) know it.

That makes Serena Joy pivotal to whatever the show is doing, and Yvonne Strahovski reenters the story with a curdled fury this week that takes many forms. The scenes between Elisabeth Moss and Strahovski were among my favorites of season one, and by moving Lydia into the Waterford home (which, to be honest, might turn out to be a really shrewd storytelling choice), we’ll ideally get even more of these stratified nightmares.

In some ways, the central conflict of the show is June versus Offred, something the back half of “Other Women” makes very clear. To me, the episode suggested some new (if incredibly dark) avenues for this conflict to take, which is why I’m on board. But did either of you feel differently?

Caroline: I agree, even if only for that chilling final sequence.

After Aunt Lydia forces June to look at the Wall and face the consequences of her decisions — the hanging body of the kindly Muslim man who housed her, at least Aunt Lydia says — June officially decides it’s time to shut down. She tries her damnedest to empty herself of her personality to embrace being Offred, the polite breeding sow who never questions her station.

In the final moments of this episode, we see her stroll right past a confused Nick, slip out the front gate for her walk, and gaze placidly straight into the camera to the tune of Cat Power’s “Hate” (which, to give credit where it’s due, is one of the show’s best and least ostentatious song cues to date). “We’ve been sent good weather ... we’ve been sent good weather,” her voiceover intones, over and over again. The infuriated June that’s always been roiling inside has finally snuffed herself out to become Offred.

This, to me, is one of the most truly horrifying moments The Handmaid’s Tale has ever offered. Yes, the show’s gone bigger and even bloodier, but this scene conveys the extent of just how crushed June’s spirit is with such startling clarity that it’s impossible not to look into her eyes and shudder at their blankness. Compared to the overtly traumatic scene in which Aunt Lydia bellows at a gasping June in front of the Wall, this moment is the model of restraint — and so much more effective for it.

The series is slowly shifting its filmmaking style back to its status quo

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Waterfords are just happy no one was hurt.
Hulu

Constance Grady: I think what makes that final sequence work as well as it does is Elisabeth Moss’s performance in the episode’s first half. She’s always excelled at keeping a hard edge of rebellion hidden behind her eyes, but this week there was an almost feral quality to the way she smiled, and the way she spat out, “You know my fucking name,” at Aunt Lydia.

And the camerawork backed up Moss beautifully: There are lots of shots of her tilting her head up and baring her teeth, hollow-eyed, while her face is framed so that she looks as though she’s being caged. (Look at the placement of the banister railings around her face as she leans against it.) In her opening voiceover, June compares herself to a rat in a cage, and there’s a lot of nice, subtle work happening this week to carry that metaphor through the episode — which makes it all the more upsetting when that ferocious, feral energy drains away and we’re left with placid, passive Offred.

I’ll admit that the mechanics that lead us to that killer final moment give me pause. We’ve seen all kinds of torments visited upon June already, and we can assume there was more in the five years between the creation of Gilead and our introduction to June at the Waterford house. June went through extensive psychological conditioning at the Red Center already, but this is what it takes to push her over the edge?

I think the disconnect that’s tripping me up here comes from the show beginning to really develop its new, non-Atwoodian tone as it moves further and further away from the book. It’s getting more lyrical than it used to be, less stark and a little more baroque in its horror. Where the first season was all white backgrounds with the Handmaid reds screaming against them, the new Handmaid’s Tale is working with a bluer palette: all those lush floral tableaux like the ones at this week’s baby shower, with something twisted and traumatic lurking underneath.

The Handmaid’s Tale of last season would never have given us a scene like the one where Serena Joy creeps into June’s bedroom to whisper creepily to her belly, and it wouldn’t have given us that chilling “we’ve been sent good weather” ending either. Something that baroque isn’t in Atwood’s register, and it wasn’t in the show’s then, either. As a viewer, it’s taking me a beat to adjust the way I watch this show to accommodate the change.

But I think this new aesthetic mode is a strong direction for the show: It feels both horrifying and sustainable in a way that the starker trauma of last season wasn’t quite. I’m getting very interested to see where season two goes next.

Todd: I’m glad you brought up the camerawork, Constance, because I noticed that director Kari Skogland (who also directed last week’s “Baggage”) substantially backed off the wide shots that characterized the season’s first three episodes. Indeed, the episode slowly zeroes back in on the wide-angle close-ups that so defined the series in its early going, as June cracks under the strain of being once again in captivity.

This is probably a smart call in the short term. Season one started out aesthetically telling a story about one woman’s suffering that was meant as a kind of synecdoche of all women’s suffering. And as that season wore on, it lost that intimacy somewhat, as we were drawn into the perspectives of the show’s other women characters, but the camerawork was always rooting us, first and foremost, in the perspectives of those women. (It’s one of the reasons the episode focused on Nick didn’t really work — by constantly butting his own story up against the more claustrophobic filmmaking, his suffering massively lacked in comparison.)

The first few episodes of season two were less interested in the suffering of any women in particular and more interested in the hidden wires connecting everyone in Gilead, and even those who had escaped it. Pulling back into more frequent wide shots (like one in episode two that panned across the expanse of the Colonies before landing on the familiar close-up on Emily’s face) underlined how all of this was connected without suggesting the women were complicit in their own suffering. Season two has been far more interested in the ways that simply being alive makes you complicit in somebody’s oppression somewhere, and the wide shots were instrumental to that.

So it’s fascinating to watch the show slide back into its signature shot: the close-up on June. And yet there’s something different here. That final shot features June looking down at the camera in close-up, which should traditionally place her in a position of dominance or power over the viewer. Yet this is her moment of ultimate defeat, when she finally gives up her freedom in the name of raw survival.

There’s some compelling thematic interplay at work here — June has been beaten into submission, yes, and I don’t want to suggest she is making a “choice” here. But her own mind has framed it as such for her, and giving in is presented as a twisted victory. It’s one of the most horrific moments in the whole series for that reason.

I know there are plenty of people who watch this show who miss the stark terror of the first three episodes and the visual palette set up by Reed Morano. I sympathize at times. But the ways Handmaid’s Tale has varied that palette in season two are perhaps even more interesting to me, and I’m waiting to see where the show goes next.

Constance: It’s interesting that we’re just four episodes into this season, and we’ve already seen June at her apparent victory — covered in blood as she cuts off her ear tag and intoning “I’m free” in voiceover, at the end of the premiere — and now at her apparent nadir. It’s effective at setting up the June versus Offred conflict, but it does make me wonder how the rest of the season will find room to keep moving between those two poles without retreading the same ground again and again.

But the tone this episode hits makes me think that the show has found a sustainable aesthetic mode in which to figure out the rest of its issues. As long as it keeps landing the horror, I’ll stick around for the ride.

The first four episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two are currently available to stream on Hulu.