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The Handmaid’s Tale ends a terrible story arc with an episode that’s kind of okay

A bottle episode traps June in a hospital with some old friends and some new ghosts.

The Handmaid’s Tale
June confronts a horrible action.

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 “Heroic,” the ninth episode of the third season.

Emily: I’m gonna say something right off the bat so we can all get emotionally used to it by the time we dig into the meat of the review, okay? [whispers] I kinda liked this episode.

Actually, let me start walking that back immediately. What might be more accurate is “I didn’t dislike this episode,” because for sure “Heroic” has significant problems, and the miniature story arc it wraps up had even more problems. But after watching “Heroic,” I can see what The Handmaid’s Tale was going for, and it at least makes me think not every person involved in the show has taken leave of their senses. They knew that June was beyond messed up. They just chose a really terrible way to tell that story and to find their way back from the brink.

That’s a really long way of saying this story arc might have tanked season three for me, but I’m not sure it’s tanked the show. We’ll see if there’s room for redemption down the line.

Conceptually speaking, what “Heroic” and the two previous episodes accomplished — breaking June down until she was unwittingly serving Gilead, and having her not realize what had happened to her until it was too late — is something I think could have worked like gangbusters. The actual execution was hit or miss, from some pretty terrible, easily avoidable issues (two women of color die to advance June’s story?) to The Handmaid’s Tale’s ongoing struggle to give anybody other than June something to do.

So much of whatever season three is trying to convey is buried in its subtext, to the degree that when June flicked her eyes toward the camera like she was Fleabag early in this episode, I found myself genuinely hoping she would do some Explaining of the Theme, like it was season one all over again.

This story arc didn’t work at all. But maybe this episode worked anyway.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Natalie is on her death bed — and it’s at least partially thanks to June.

In idly thinking about it while watching this episode, I realized that a super-easy fix for this story might have been to make Janine the Handmaid who has finally had enough of June’s bullshit and who dies for June’s sins. It still would have left the story with a ton of issues, but it at least could have offered up consequences that have weight, that aren’t just there to ultimately help June learn and grow and change.

And due to the season’s weird structural choices — where these last three episodes are a story that can lift pretty cleanly out of the plot as a whole, seemingly bringing us right back to a place where June wants to hurt Gilead again — it’s all but inevitable that we’ll forget Natalie (the dying Handmaid the other characters refer to as Ofmatthew) as soon as the show moves on to the next thing. Janine would have been harder to forget.

But if you can set all of that aside — and it’s a lot to set aside, I will admit — “Heroic” works pretty well on its own terms. It’s a bottle episode! It does some really interesting things with sound design (blending the beeps of Natalie’s heart monitor with the echoing sounds of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” often enough that when the episode’s closing credits played out solely over the slowly diminishing beeps, I was actually impressed by the show’s understatement for once). The editing — all those unsettling cuts across time that meant single scenes technically took place across days — was genuinely terrific.

And I can keep going. Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd are great scene partners! I finally care about Hannah on more than a conceptual level now that we know she’s probably soon to be having kids herself and that’s motivating at least some of June’s frantic scramble. The stuff with Gil Bellows’s unnamed doctor is interesting in a vacuum, if we want to think about how ordinary people have reacted to Gilead’s rise.

The problem is that you really have to want the vacuum for this episode to work, and despite how hard it tries to leave the rest of The Handmaid’s Tale behind, “Heroic” can’t make me forget about it entirely. It’s a solid episode in theory and something less than that as a way to wrap up this arc. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t like it either.

Constance, have you recovered from my heresies yet?

Constance: You know what, Emily, I’m kind of there with you.

I know! I’ve been so harsh on this show the past few episodes! But look, what am I going to do, watch Elisabeth Moss laying down her best impression of the lady from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and not feel things? I’m not a monster.

I’ve said a few times now that the thing that made me go all in on The Handmaid’s Tale in season one was the sense of claustrophobia it was able to create, the feeling of being trapped within this oppressive world and then within your own body, too, the feeling that there was no escape because everything that you were could be used against you. It was cramped and uncomfortable and got as close as anything could to matching the experience of reading Margaret Atwood, whom I find so viscerally disturbing that sometimes reading her work makes me want to peel the skin off my hands and feet. (I know, an overshare, I’m sorry, but that’s what she does!)

The Handmaid’s Tale the TV show couldn’t live in that space forever, because it would be unbearable. So it has spent a lot of its time since the back half of season one looking for an alternative. For my money, its best replacement was the sense of creeping baroque domestic horror it found for a while in mid-season two, but it seems to have decidedly abandoned that tone now.

In fact, in season three, The Handmaid’s Tale has really faltered at finding any sense of dread whatsoever. Whenever it seems to have landed on an image that can really conjure that feeling of overwhelming oppression — the face veils, Aunt Lydia pushing June’s head down on the Waterfords’ TV set — it immediately walks the image back and saps all the power out of it.

But a bottle episode! A bottle episode gives you no escape from the dread. You have to just steep in it the whole way through.

That’s what made this episode so effective for me. It felt as though we were fully back in June’s head, feeling her legs go numb and bruised from kneeling so long, listening to the beeping and hearing “Heaven Is a Place On Earth” intertwine gratingly with the sound. It was like being trapped in Gilead with her, which is the one feeling that The Handmaid’s Tale has always evoked better than any other show I’ve ever watched, and the main thing it hasn’t appeared to be very interested in doing for quite some time now.

Of course, this being The Handmaid’s Tale, there are still giant gaping problems here. You’re absolutely right, Emily, that it would have been more effective to kill off Janine, even if it would have meant missing her fresh new space pirate look, because The Handmaid’s Tale never spent any time trying to turn Natalie into a real character. And the show’s persistent issues with race, which we outlined last week, just make that failure even more glaring.

Can this show ever let go of June as a hero?

The Handmaid’s Tale
June’s ready to head out.

But in the end, my biggest problem with “Heroic” is the ending, which is sort of funny given that it’s such a season one throwback of an episode. Back then, I used to spend every recap complaining about how most of the episode was really stressful and oppressive and great to watch, and then in the last five minutes or so, the show would drag out some over-earnest pop song and try to build a catharsis out of nowhere, and it always felt kind of cheap. And what do you know, here it is, my old nemesis, back once again, with June monologuing to Natalie about how she will save the children, all the children. (It occurs to me that one way of thinking about the problems with season three is that to a certain extent, the cheap catharsis has taken over the show.)

I know that The Handmaid’s Tale wants June to be a hero. I understand that within the space of the world this show has built, there’s basically no way forward unless June is a hero. I get that there is no workable TV solution at this point that doesn’t involve June becoming the nice white lady equivalent to Harriet Tubman, spiriting children out of Gilead.

However, “Heroic” really drove home to me how strongly I just am not interested in watching June be a hero.

That’s because the episode evoked both Atwood’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and both of those texts are about being trapped with no escape. They are about what happens when you cannot fight your way out of the oppressive system in which you are stuck. In those stories, the world does not rearrange itself for you because you are exceptionally smart and sassy and strong and you cry beautifully. You don’t have a pure and essential self left at your core that it can’t touch. Those are stories where the bastards grind you down and grind you down and get into every part of you and there is nothing you can do to stop them, and that story is so, so much more compelling to me than a story where all of June’s trauma is nothing but a badass origin story for her eventual heroic destiny.

But obviously, that heroic destiny story is the story that this TV show wants to tell. And every time I think I’ve accepted that fact, an episode like this one pops up and reminds me of what a waste it is.

I don’t know, Emily, am I being too hard on our trajectory here? Are you excited to watch June save the children of Gilead?

Emily: As you know, I have gone around and around and around on this question all season long. The only way forward for The Handmaid’s Tale, if it’s going to run even one season more, is to turn June into a more active figure. But what drew me to the show in the first place was how beautifully it captured the brutal realism of living in a world where you can’t be an active figure — a reality that “Heroic” captures again here and there, as you so ably point out.

I genuinely thought the first few episodes of season three had found an interesting way to thread this needle: June was going to join the resistance with the express intent of getting Hannah out of Gilead, but she was going to burn herself up in the process. This is something we see all the time in oppressive regimes — the people who fight them tend to die horribly, and they tend to die young, and they tend to just die.

Turning June not into a martyr but into a faceless victim of Gilead whenever the end of the series came struck me as a potentially interesting way for The Handmaid’s Tale to have its cake and eat it too and perhaps even find a way to exist beyond June, should Elisabeth Moss ever want to go tend to her burgeoning movie career. The show would no longer be quite the show I signed on for in season one, but it would at least be one I wanted to keep watching.

However, what’s happened since the sixth episode (not my favorite, but one that undeniably advanced season three’s stories and themes) has stranded the series in a narrative cul de sac. It was probably necessary to have June grapple with the emotional and psychological cost of trying to tear down Gilead before she actually started doing so — the old “what separates terrorism from freedom fighting” question — but this was precisely the wrong way to do it.

Having now watched two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale in which several episodes could have lifted cleanly out of the season without affecting much — and let me just say that I preferred season two’s approach of “Let’s take a trip to some other corner of the world for a full episode” to this season’s “Let’s do a mini-arc about June getting people killed” — I am wondering if The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a 10-episode show instead of a 13-episode one. There’s a certain bagginess to this season that is a big part of its problems.

In the end, “Heroic” gets the show to a place it needed to go, but the journey is so all over the map that the impact the episode could have had is substantially muted from what would have happened if The Handmaid’s Tale had been even 10 percent more willing to call June on her bullshit.

One thing “Heroic” does do pretty well, I think, is underline season three’s building themes about the evangelical obsession with children to the exclusion of almost everything else. Regardless of how The Handmaid’s Tale treated Natalie (it did her dirty!), the image of the state keeping her alive so that the fetus in her womb will stay alive is one of the more chilling ones this season. To prioritize the rights of the unborn above all else is to prioritize the rights of a being that doesn’t actually possess any of the irritations, inconveniences, or insistence on inherent self-worth that occurs with actual human beings. To fetishize children as pure, innocent beings who can receive your unvarnished wisdom does the same.

A good friend of mine, the freelance writer Amy Whipple, was tweeting over the weekend about how The Handmaid’s Tale season three, read in some lights, could be seen as a savage critique of the adoption industry. And I think that’s mostly true. One reason I think the show has struggled a bit to capture the national fascination lately is that the questions it’s dealing with aren’t as front-of-mind in our conversation right now. But they are front-of-mind if you’re really tapped into whatever white evangelical America is up to.

Maybe that’s why The Handmaid’s Tale still holds such allure for me. Even when it’s falling apart, it’s one of the few shows on TV that takes evangelicalism seriously.

Before we wrap this up, though, I do want to ask how you felt about this episode’s use of Serena. She’s the one character who might actually be able to get June to see how horrible she’s been, but she also has zero moral ground to stand on. So when June lashes out at her with a scalpel, the moment lacks some of the punch it maybe should. How are you feeling about that relationship — ostensibly so core to the show — right now?

Constance: I actually liked the way “Heroic” used Serena, precisely because Serena is both a terrible person and someone who is intimately bonded to June. We get a visceral reminder of exactly how terrible Serena is early in the episode, when June is watching the Wives pray and remarks in her voiceover that they smell like Serena holding her down for the Ceremony. With that line fresh in my memory, there was a strong part of me that thought, “Get her, girl,” when June lunged for Serena with the scalpel.

But because Serena and June know each other so well at this point, Serena is basically the only person in Gilead who is capable of looking at June and saying, “You’re not well,” and meaning it, and that gave their scene added heft for me. It was a relief just to see someone acknowledge that June was in pain, even if that person has, as you point out, zero moral ground to stand on in the face of June’s attack. And the fact that Serena is terrible gave the scene added strength, because it added to the sense that June is completely trapped. She’s so trapped that the only reprieve comes from this monstrous person who has done terrible things to her.

If there’s a strand of The Handmaid’s Tale that has a prayer of maintaining my interest as we move ever closer to June fulfilling her destiny and becoming a hero, it’s the twisted, toxic intimacy between June and Serena. (Also Moira and Emily, BFFs forever, but who are we kidding, the show is giving them hardly any screen time at this point.) So as season three comes to a close, and the show apparently shuts the door on ever being the kind of story that I thought it could be way back when, I’m hoping that at least the June and Serena relationship keeps working.

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