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 “Night,” “Mary and Martha,” and “Watch Out,” the first three episodes of the third season.
Constance Grady: The first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale sometimes felt as though they were trying to answer the question of how many ways a woman can be oppressed by the patriarchy, with each of its women characters posing another possible answer.
You can be complicit, like Serena Joy. You can take sadistic pleasure in oppressing those less powerful than you, like Aunt Lydia. Your sanity can fracture, like Jeanine’s. You can burn it all down, like Emily. You can just try to make it out alive, like June for the first season and a half or so. Or you can try to remake the system, as June does now. (As many, many other critics have already noted, Handmaid’s Tale never tried to deal with intersectionality in any of its answers.)
Handmaid’s Tale is still interested in the problem of how to be a woman under the patriarchy, but this season, it’s brought in another question: How many ways are there to be a man who hates women?
We’ve already seen the pious, religious hatred mixed with titillation that Fred and his fellow Commanders hold toward the women they oppress. It’s an archetype rooted in the Reagan-era “Moral Majority” religious morality that Margaret Atwood’s book was responding to, and it holds up reasonably well today.
But in season three, Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence is giving us a new variation on that theme, one much more rooted in the misogyny of 2019.
Commander Lawrence gives no indication of being a particularly religious man. It doesn’t seem to bother him that June can read. He keeps copies of Darwin in his library, and while the paintings in his house are looted from Boston’s museums — as are the paintings in every Commander’s house — he’s taken most of his art from the modernist wing. He’s cosmopolitan.
Commander Lawrence is also capable of respecting individual women. He helps Emily escape because he can see that she’s brilliant, and he’s protective and affectionate toward his wife.
But he still demonstrates a consistent and casual disdain toward women. He deliberately humiliates June in front of his Commander friends; he talks about children and fertile women as “resources” to be harvested; he is the brains behind Gilead’s economic policies. And while he justifies his actions by saying he’s trying to save the world, it’s clear that he could only do what he’s doing if he didn’t quite think of women en masse as real people.
Commander Lawrence is, essentially, a Reddit dude. He’s a guy who has convinced himself that his intelligence makes him superior to everyone else, and then isolates himself in his house so that he never has to hear any evidence to the contrary. And he justifies his hatred of women not with religious puritanism but with vague hand-waving about science and biology.
When Atwood talks about America, she sometimes says it has two selves: the intellectual liberal Enlightenment self of the American Revolution, and the puritanical religious self of the Pilgrims. Part of the thesis of The Handmaid’s Tale was that at a moment of crisis, with the population dropping to dangerous levels, America would revert back to its puritanical self, stripping away the trappings of the Enlightenment like a costume.
But what’s interesting to me about Lawrence is that his misogyny is very much rooted in a liberal intellectual Enlightenment worldview. He’s a creature of America’s other self — and yet he still helps build Gilead.
Is Lawrence working for you as we start off the third season, Emily? And how do you feel about our glimpse into the world of Marthas?
Emily VanDerWerff: I can honestly say that I never once realized what this show needed was Bradley Whitford playing Ben Linus from Lost. Commander Lawrence is the first character the show has introduced without an origin in the books who’s made me say, “Okay, yeah, this is definitely someone you can imagine turning up in the book but who feels more germane to the world of the show.”
This is what’s interesting about Handmaid’s season three to me so far: I mostly like it!
I spent so long dreading the show’s turn toward revolution, because while it was probably necessary to prolong the show’s life, it also felt so directly antithetical to the spirit of Atwood’s book. But then, the show has already primed us for this shift just a little bit. By this point in the series, most people both onscreen and off just call Offred “June.” In the book, she didn’t even have a name. So the series has been preparing me for this turn toward the more conventional and action-packed from its very first episode.
I wrote a little bit about why this turn toward fire and violence is working much better for me than I thought it would in a recent essay, but I think on some level, I can appreciate just how much the show needs to delve into the resistance to continue being a TV show. I loved the sheer degree of misery season two mired June and the audience in, because it felt true to the world of the show and its source material. But that’s a minority opinion, to put it charitably.
Now June has a purpose and a drive, and she knows she’s probably going to die achieving it. I don’t entirely buy the emotional arc here! (As a childless person, any time “but wouldn’t you do anything to save your children?” is employed as a character motivation, some little, sulky part of me is always like, “I dunno. Your kids don’t seem that great.”) But I do buy how it’s helped the show snap into focus.
This is why Commander Lawrence is such a good addition to the show. When Lost ran into similar “how do we keep this TV show going” problems, Ben Linus was an all-purpose “Ben does something unusual!” answer, one that worked for the bulk of that show’s tricky, troubled third season. Lost also did an amazing job at eventually giving Ben a backstory that justified everything he did, something I dearly hope Handmaid’s can manage with Lawrence. But for now, I’m totally fine with Whitford turning up in a scene to smile enigmatically, denigrate June with a snide aside, and then help the resistance fight back.
The last couple of episodes of season two — which gave us our first full glimpse at a map of this United States of Gilead — suggested we would be heading full tilt toward world-building on some level, and the deeper look into an elaborate resistance network of Marthas tracks with that. When the Marthas were abruptly helping June escape Gilead back in season two, it felt like it came out of nowhere, a twist designed to goose a season finale that ended up running in place. Now, with more space to explore how this might have happened, the show is doing a stronger job underlining how they might operate as a resistance network.
I’m thus in the weird place where I buy almost all the plotting in these three episodes but some of the emotional arcs feel a little sketchy to me. That’s usually the opposite of how I feel about this show, where the plotting can often have an “Eh, Gilead did it!” feel but the exceptional cast sells all the emotions. Here, I buy the plot reasons for June not being immediately executed for crimes against the state, while I’m not entirely sure I buy the bond she has with, say, Hannah’s new mom or Serena Joy in a way that would sell the underlying emotions, even as Elisabeth Moss, Amy Landecker(!), and Yvonne Strahovski do their damnedest.
But also I don’t care because, as a freshly minted Emily, it gives me great joy to report that Emily is in Canada! (I saw the first episode at a screening full of normally stolid critics, who burst into applause when Emily found out she had made it across the border.) And she called her wife! Emilys of the world, unite!
Constance: Sometimes I just can’t believe how good Alexis Bledel is as Emily. I was watching the first episode on my couch, not in a screening room, but when she made it across the border, I was compelled to immediately open up a new browser tab so I could inform a friend of mine who has never watched an episode of the show that Alexis Bledel is really doing some fantastic work over here. (My friend was happy for her.)
Emily’s become such a weirdo gothic chaos monster that it’s beautifully jarring to see her sitting in street clothes in a doctor’s office, thinking about her cholesterol. There’s a gorgeous mundanity to the way that moment plays: Now that she’s out of the endless frozen nightmare scream of Gilead, she’s back to a world where people think long term enough to worry about their cholesterol. Super weird!
I’m all in on the Emily and Commander Lawrence stuff so far, but I’m with you, Emily (Emily VDW, not Alexis Bledel Emily, although I am also with her in my soul, always), in being a little iffy on the June and Serena Joy stuff. The Serena stuff especially feels undercooked to me, which I recognize is a weird thing to say about a set of episodes in which Serena literally burns down her house.
But there’s very little texture there. This is a show that traditionally excels at finding all the many tones and shades and variations of women’s rage, but in these first three episodes, Serena’s rage falls … just a little bit flat. She wanders around stone-faced, and sometimes she burns some shit down, and sometimes she wades into the ocean, and yes, I recognize that she’s in a state of shock from losing her baby/her finger/the foundations of her entire belief system, but Handmaid’s Tale has shown people facing horrible losses before now in more dynamic and compelling ways.
It’s as though Serena’s being kept in a holding pattern right now as the show figures out what to do to her when she’s not implacably bent on making June suffer. And I’m very interested in finding out what that is! But I don’t know how much fun I’ll have waiting.
Emily: Strahovski’s work as Serena was my favorite performance in all of TV for the 2017-’18 TV season, so I’m trusting that this is all going somewhere (and that even if it isn’t, she’ll figure out some way to make sense of it). And for a moment, I figured that her relatively abrupt exit from the show in the season premiere was a way for the actress to take maternity leave after the recent birth of her child. But nope, there she is again in episode three, and the show sure feels like it’s marking time with her.
That said, I think it’s really interesting how the show has essentially completed its shift to having three protagonists. June is in every episode, yes, and is the primary protagonist, but the premiere sets up that this season’s storytelling will be split among her, Emily, and Serena. It’s really not a bad way to structure the season — there are only so many times I can watch Moss suffer in a soft-focus close-up, and there are only so many ways the show can punish her in ways that feel tied to the story.
Still, I really appreciate how these three episodes take their time re-immersing us in the world of the show. Technically, The Handmaid’s Tale has been gone from our lives for less than a year. Season three only premiered about six weeks later than season two. But it feels like it’s been gone for far longer, perhaps because it stopped being such an omnipresent presence at awards shows (where it was consistently nominated for season two but rarely won).
Thus, there’s a little bit of a “prove you still should exist” feeling to these first few episodes, and I admire that they move a little more quickly than the typically deliberate pace of the show, but not that much more quickly. A lot of stuff happens in all three episodes, but the show always takes its time to make the emotional beats land. Even if I don’t buy Serena’s journey, boy, is the show working overtime to try to get me there.
But where I think these episodes are going to give hope to the many, many viewers who were a little mixed on season two is that they definitely seem as if they’re moving in a particular direction. You might not agree with the direction. You might not even understand the direction. But the show has momentum again, which is something it didn’t have through the long, lovely morass of season two.
And, again, I love a long, lovely morass. But eventually, you have to move forward. And Handmaid’s Tale is choosing to move forward with fire, which is good.
(Also, the song choices are still so bad, but I love them even more now, and I don’t know what to tell you. I must be stopped.)
Constance: The three-protagonist structure is absolutely a good look for this show, and my hope is that it maintains itself and we continue to check in with Emily on a regular basis, even though she is now in Canada reuniting with her wife Clea DuVall (Clea DuVall!). (Clea DuVall’s character’s name, incidentally, is Sylvia.)
Besides my deep and abiding love for Emily, putting her in Canada gives us another window onto poor underused Luke and Moira. The show’s point of view seems to be that their storyline is too stable and healthy and boring to justify looking in on them on a regular basis — although personally, I would have loved to see a subplot of Moira recovering from her PTSD — but now that Emily and Nichole are there to throw a wrench in things, maybe they’ll all have a little more to do.
Nichole is an especially interesting symbol for the Canada crew, because as far as Luke and Moira know, she is a living, breathing reminder that June is getting ritually raped on a regular basis. (Nichole, if we remember, is actually Nick’s daughter, because Fred is probably infertile, but no one besides Nick and June and Serena knows that, and Nick straight-up told Luke that June was pregnant with Fred’s baby last season.) But at the same time, Nichole is a baby who is completely innocent and can’t be blamed for what’s happening in Gilead. That’s a tricky emotional line to walk that could potentially lead to some very interesting stuff.
In fact, pretty much everything in these first few episodes feels like it could lead to some very interesting stuff. I found the second season finale so weird and jarring and destabilizing that my expectations for this season were low, but these first episodes have pushed them back up. I’m excited to be excited about The Handmaid’s Tale again.