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 discusses “Heroic,” the ninth episode of the third season. (Constance Grady has the week off.)
After a brief sojourn to “largely incomprehensible, often terrible” story land in its last three episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale is just sort of ... picking up from where episode six left off in episode 10, “Witness.” And I’m mostly okay with that?
My usual viewing partner Constance Grady (who is off this week) and I have discussed, over and over, whether June’s turn toward outright heroism is a strong choice for the character or a total abandonment of what she stood for in both the book and the first two seasons of the show. I still feel conflicted over that question. But with that said, now that she’s committed to this goal of getting a bunch of kids out of Gilead — kids who largely have never known anything but Gilead — I am kinda into it.
The last sequence of shots in “Witness” suggests, maybe for the first time all season, that the show has a plan and is headed somewhere. June looks toward the camera (which in that moment is representing the Lawrence house’s Martha) to say “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” before the show cuts to an overhead shot of a table positively covered in the muffins meant as a symbol of “yes, we will help you get the kids out” from other Marthas, and then it cuts back to June’s face briefly breaking into a smile rusty from disuse. It might not be the plan I’d prefer, but it’s definitely a plan.
There’s one other major thematic thread in “Witness,” which is, “Hey, what about the men?”
Asking how the rigid gender roles of Gilead hurt men too is potentially interesting. Just ... maybe don’t do it right now?
Bradley Whitford suddenly has more to do as Commander Lawrence than he has since he arrived on the show late in season two, and he’s (predictably) very good. The character, as Constance mentioned earlier in the season, almost plays like a parody of overbearing male feminism that silences women’s voices in its rush to speak on their behalf. (I later suggested that maybe Lawrence was The Handmaid’s Tale itself given human form, and honestly, nothing has dissuaded me from that idea.)
We know that Lawrence was one of the architects of Gilead, though we have little clue as to why he was so into the idea before souring on it (short of the notion that every new regime needs a Leon Trotsky). Maybe we’ll get a flashback before the season ends to fill in these gaps. But “Witness” paints him as a man who loves his wife very deeply, doesn’t much want to take part in the Ceremony, and is only fitfully committed to either the Gilead project or the resistance. Mostly he wants to be left alone.
On paper, I’m not sure Lawrence makes sense, but Whitford handles his contradictions so deftly that I don’t really mind. Plus director Daina Reid slowly diminishes him within the frame throughout this episode, while the other Commanders grow in stature, to appear dominant over him. It’s a nifty trick. But it’s also that’s one usually reserved for the women on this show.
“Witness” posits that the Ceremony is just as much of a burden for Lawrence as it is for June — to the degree that she has to coach him through it. (Knowing that Lawrence is crucial to any plan she has to get kids out of Gilead, June needs to sleep with him to keep him alive, lest he be executed for sexual deviance.) And I can surely believe that there are some Commanders in Gilead who have come to see the whole endeavor as a dark and pointless folly, one they would rather be done with.
But, like, are those the people I really want to be feeling sympathy toward at this point in The Handmaid’s Tale’s run? Theoretically, sure. The patriarchy harms men, too! But within the direct actual practice of onscreen Gilead, I’m having trouble working up a reason to care, no matter how great Whitford is.
And then “Witness” makes the frustrating choice to cut away from June and Lawrence’s Ceremony, as though it can’t quite bear to witness his trauma, even though we’ve had to endure so much of it from the women on the show.
It’s not like I want the show to depict more ritualistic, state-mandated rape. For the most part, opting not to show any of it has been a good choice for season three so far. But I’m not sure that returning to it with a focus on Lawrence — and then pointedly not showing it — serves “Witness” well.
If you want to show how Gilead hurts men, then you have to really show how it hurts men. The Handmaid’s Tale has spent so much time living in the trauma of women that, honestly, such a shift might even offer a very slight release of pressure. But “Witness” instead depicts just the lead-up to the Ceremony and its aftermath, skipping over the worst of Lawrence’s suffering, in a way that mostly makes said suffering seem vaguely noble.
But the episode as a whole ultimately led me to wonder something else: Could this whole season be saved if June dies in the finale? And would The Handmaid’s Tale ever do that?
Most of the show’s problems run through June. An episode where the character is her old self only makes that more clear.
Watching this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale and much of the upcoming final season of Orange Is the New Black across a span of 24 hours made one thing clear to me: The Handmaid’s Tale has failed to expand from a story about one woman’s struggles to a larger story about the struggles of a whole world. In contrast, Orange Is the New Black began as the story of Piper Chapman going to prison and then became such a wide-ranging show that it could stage whole episodes that barely featured Piper at all.
June increasingly doesn’t have a function within The Handmaid’s Tale, despite the show ostensibly being about her. Stories about Moira and Emily, who are dealing with the after-effects of trauma in Canada; stories about Luke and Nick, unable to do anything to save their loved ones; even stories about Fred and Serena, negotiating the social strata of Gilead society — they’ve all got more drama than June at this point.
Theoretically, the show could solve this problem by having June join the resistance more forcefully, but those who join the resistance rarely seem to stay alive for long. The Handmaid’s Tale has tried to shine a bright light on the idea that June will probably die in Gilead several times this season, but the longer she gets to do basically whatever she wants, the less power that idea holds. And yet the show probably isn’t going to kill off its central character and star.
But ... what if it is?
A lot of season three’s issues will clear up in an instant if it turns out the story is building to June rescuing a bunch of children and sacrificing her life in the process. The show would still have plenty of problems, particularly with racial representation, but a lot of the listlessness around June’s story would snap into place. The Handmaid’s Tale would instantly go from a show about June struggling to find a purpose to a show about June struggling to find a purpose because she knew that doing so would mean embracing her own death, and she was scared of that.
Such a move would be risky, to be sure. June is the one character on The Handmaid’s Tale whom all of the other characters have a connection to. She’s a conduit character, and often the shortest path between two wildly different storylines. If you want to bind Serena and Luke together in a story — as the show did in this season’s fifth and best episode, “Unknown Caller” — well, June is pretty much the only way to get there. If she dies, the show loses that ability.
“Witness” foreshadows so heavily that June might lose her life trying to get kids out of Gilead that I’m not sure The Handmaid’s Tale can avoid at least toying with her death, even if it views her as necessary to its own future. June’s choice to send these kids to Canada, to kidnap them all over again, should effectively mean that she’s signing her death warrant, and no matter the plot gymnastics the series could try to attempt, it will be very hard to avoid a bad end for the character.
Weirdly, killing off June could be the best way to save the character overall. Elisabeth Moss has been terrific in the last two episodes, largely because she’s playing a June who seems to somewhat realize her worst tendencies. The scene in which she lies to Janine about what happened to her son (June tells Janine that her son is living in California, though the record shows that the boy died in a car accident shortly after being taken from Janine) is a gorgeous bit of acting from both Moss and Madeline Brewer.
In another scene, June slowly realizes that much of The Handmaid’s Tale’s cast has dropped by the Lawrence home to make sure that she and Lawrence are completing the Ceremony. It’s filled with the pitch-black “Well, guess we have to make the best of a terrible situation” comedy that Moss plays so well with a handful of eye twitches.
Look: I know The Handmaid’s Tale will never kill off June. I’m not sure it’s possible, given how the series is structured. But it needs to find some way to lessen her importance to the story overall, so that it can leave her behind for a few episodes every now and then to focus on other things. I don’t think her death is necessary, but she also can’t keep thumbing her nose at a regime that promises consequences to everybody except her. Something, at some point, has to give.