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What happened to The Handmaid’s Tale’s all-encompassing sense of dread?

It’s becoming harder to ignore just how protected June is by her plot armor.

The Handmaid’s Tale
June doesn’t look like she’s wearing plot armor, but she totally is.

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 Emily VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “God Bless the Child,” the fourth episode of the third season.

Constance Grady: This episode is a quiet one. The three episodes that opened the season had all kinds of fire and bloodshed and psychosexual power dynamics, but “God Bless the Child” returns to the kind of whispery domestic drama that The Handmaid’s Tale cut its teeth on throughout its first two seasons. The difference is that before, the show’s quieter episodes tended to be suffused with vicious and unrelenting dread. Now the dread is gone. That’s both a relief and a loss.

After spending the previous three episodes grappling with the problem of Commander Lawrence, “God Bless the Child” sees June turn to the relative stability of the Waterfords. There’s an almost palpable relief to the way she approaches them:

After two seasons of surviving in that house, June knows exactly how to work Fred and Serena Joy, and it’s a pleasure to watch her bring that knowledge to bear. She talks Fred into giving Serena more power; she talks Serena into using that power to bring about change. Look at the way she spreads out her legs as she smokes her illicit cigarette, taking up space instead of making herself small. June’s in charge, and she knows it.

What constantly concerns me with The Handmaid’s Tale, though, is that as June accumulates more power, the dystopia of Gilead starts to feel less real and hence less interesting to me. In most totalitarian societies, you don’t get to break down your caste divisions and sass people with the power to maim and torture you! You don’t misbehave without consequences!

I worry that if June is protected by plot armor for too long, the show will start to feel more and more silly and escapist and cathartic, like a fantasy, and less like an examination of power and how it oppresses.

Do you have that worry, Emily? How do you feel about watching June take control of a room?

How The Handmaid’s Tale keeps June’s plot armor in check — barely

The Handmaid’s Tale
Emily is slowly getting used to her new, less dystopian life.

Emily VanDerWerff: It’s just on the side of not being too much for me, with the acknowledgment that the more The Handmaid’s Tale plays in this territory, the more I get worried about it conceptually.

For instance, it’s the right call for the show to have Serena Joy slowly awaken to her complicity in all this, but it undercuts some of what was so gutting about the show early on. If she’s on June’s side, then the story becomes a little bit less rich. And yet that’s what happens to all TV shows the longer they run — they become familiar to us. So maybe this was inevitable?

The early reviews of season three tended to take the line that The Handmaid’s Tale was abject misery porn that tried to turn suffering into entertainment. But if I have a main criticism of the season so far, it would be roughly the opposite — the show’s desire to depict some degree of potential revolutionary escape for June and the other characters has led to a situation where it feels less connected to reality, not more. This is not to say the only thing that made the show work was its timeliness (though its timeliness certainly won it a bunch of Emmys). But it is to say that if Gilead doesn’t feel tethered to our reality, the show runs the risk of becoming full-blown fantasy.

Still, “God Bless the Child” contains enough standout sequences to undercut the growing sense that June has been awarded a healthy “protagonist bonus” on all her dice rolls. (This is a Dungeons & Dragons reference; reader, please oblige me.) For instance, after the bulk of this episode saw her being almost performatively smug about her ability to play the Waterfords against one another, she was brutally reminded that the daughter she smuggled out of Gilead is likely to provoke an international incident that could ensnare her husband and maybe her best friend, too.

Similarly, The Handmaid’s Tale is (smartly, I think) using Emily as a way to depict a kind of alternate reality where June really did escape Gilead at the end of season two. At the time, though I was frustrated by June’s choice to stay in Gilead, I thought she had to stay, because that’s where the story was, but the skill with which the show depicts these tiny slices of Emily’s life as she tries to reintegrate into modern society suggests to me that there’s a ton of story to tell outside of Gilead, too.

Maybe I’d feel differently if The Handmaid’s Tale devoted 65 percent of every episode to someone trying to recover from their time in Gilead, instead of only 35 percent. But I thought the Emily scenes in “God Bless the Child” were very moving.

And finally, I think all of this works because June no longer really cares if she lives or dies, an energy that often unsettles people just enough to let the show get away with some really brazen things. June’s sole goal now is to get Hannah out of Gilead — and if she can burn everything down in the process, well, who hasn’t tried to start a few fires?

June has locked herself away deep inside her brain, but every so often, we see the burden of everything that’s happened to her leak through just a bit, like when she sees Luke on that screen and realizes things can get so much worse.

So in short, the stuff in Gilead this season is a little removed from what drew me to this show initially, but I’m also cutting it a lot of slack because I’m at least intrigued by where it might be going. That leeway could end up biting me in the ass, but hey, it might end up being richly rewarding too.

Constance, how do you feel about The Handmaid’s Tale’s tendency to bring in huge guest stars like Cherry Jones under the promise that it might do something with them at some point in the indefinite future?

Constance: As someone who wrote a full article way back before season two premiered about how June’s mother was the last major theme from the book that the show hadn’t explored and surely she would play a major role in season two, I feel that I am being trolled, and I respect the show for it.

Cherry Jones is underused in “God Bless the Child” in flashbacks to Hannah’s christening, and those flashbacks are interesting for how they play into the long-running sort of sub-theme of June’s religious faith. She’s not a true believer in Gilead’s cult, and she seems to have mostly lived a secular life before Gilead took over, but occasionally we hear her pray in voiceover. And now, her decision to get Hannah christened suggests that she responded to the slow onset of doom she could see approaching in the same way that nearly everyone else did: by saying, “Hey, maybe there’s something to this God stuff.”

Only June went to the Catholics instead of a cult, like the Gileadeans did, and when the doom seemed like just a plummeting birth rate and not full-blown dystopia, she wasn’t too committed to it. She thought of the christening as an “insurance policy,” she says.

From the few clues the show has given us, it seems as though June’s time suffering in Gilead has made her religious faith stronger: She’s thinking of it less as an insurance policy now, and more as a walking stick, something that she can use to make it through the world. Which … is kind of a fascinating choice, given that she’s living under a totalitarian theocracy!

Emily, you’re someone who has spent much more time than I have thinking about religion in pop culture. How is the subplot of June’s religion playing out for you?

Looking at The Handmaid’s Tale through an ex-vangelical lens

The Handmaid’s Tale
Holly doesn’t seem so into Catholicism, but hey, she sure likes her granddaughter.

Emily: I think a lot of the problems with this show become less weighty when you read it through what I might call an “ex-vangelical lens.” (I’m borrowing the term from the scholar Chrissy Stroop, who uses it to describe people who have left the evangelical church they were raised in, and who often become sharply critical of it as adults.)

One reason The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t always know what to do with Cherry Jones is that Holly is a character defined as some gloss on a second-wave feminist, but June makes a lot more sense as someone who had some form of faith as a kid, lost it, and then regained it in bits and pieces in the face of adversity. Like, not to make this all about me, but I’ve never been more devoted to my religious life than I have been since coming out, and the possibility of God has never felt more present to me. But the evangelical church would have no room for me. And so, here we are.

If you look at The Handmaid’s Tale as a series of critiques of evangelical power structures, if you read it specifically through that lens, then almost all of its flaws are diminished. Even its incredibly clunky treatment of race within Gilead makes more sense when understood via the lens of a Midwestern evangelical church that believes all people are God’s children, so long as they’re willing to flatten themselves into a performance of white, American evangelicals.

This tendency toward ex-vangelicism is probably why The Handmaid’s Tale still has its hooks in me, but it’s not the kind of lens we use to discuss pop culture all that often. For me, it was impossible to watch the ceremony blessing all the new children of Gilead and not think of a thousand evangelical church services I’ve sat through. The show’s contrast of that service with the Catholic one was subtle but on point.

And I think it makes sense that June’s faith has deepened in the wake of Gilead. Some folks react to this sort of heavily mandated faith with an utter rejection, a drift toward atheism, or both. Others try to look past the rigid rules of their old social order to find another that makes more sense to them. June, forced every week to attend these services she doesn’t much care for, definitely strikes me as the latter.

If there’s one area where “God Bless the Child” struggles a bit, it’s in the episode’s portrayal of just how baby-obsessed so many of The Handmaid’s Tale’s characters are. I’m finally settling into the sadness Serena feels at the loss of Nichole, but Janine’s increasingly brazen attempts to wend her way back into the house where her daughter, Angela, lives feels like an excuse to give a talented actress something to do.

It’s a little weird to see the show playing in this tone of muted horror after three episodes of more straightforward action beats, but it’s nice to see these colors are still in its palette. Here in early season three, the TV show that The Handmaid’s Tale most reminds me of is Lost, which also entered its third season with a vague sense that it should be heading toward an end date, a network that very much wanted to keep it alive, and a bunch of spinning plates it didn’t always know what to do with. Here’s hoping The Handmaid’s Tale finds its way out of these woods as spectacularly and memorably as Lost did.

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