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The Handmaid’s Tale has completely lost sight of its protagonist

June behaves badly in an episode that suggests the show has no idea what it’s doing.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Serena Joy hangs out with some other wives.
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 Emily VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “Under His Eye,” the seventh episode of the third season.

Emily: We’re halfway through season three, and whether this season can be marked a success or not will largely come down to the following question: Has June lost sight of how she abuses her privilege and comes off to people around her? Or has the show lost sight of that?

There’s ample evidence for both readings in “Under His Eye,” the shortest episode of the season so far and one packed with a bunch of interesting moments that I’m not convinced add up to a greater whole. The deeper we get into this season, the clearer it becomes that the show isn’t entirely sure what it’s doing with June, or, worse, it thinks it knows exactly what it’s doing, and that just isn’t translating to the audience.

Is this episode’s June storyline setting up a heel turn for the character? (No, probably not.)

The Handmaid’s Tale
Aunt Lydia would like a word with the writers.
Hulu

It’s sort of remarkable just how thoroughly June has become the least interesting character on her own show (give or take a Nick). Even Fred has better storylines going on. If the show were following Serena or Emily or Lydia or Moira, it would be wildly different, but it would at least be more coherent. Instead, every episode takes great pains to establish a bunch of stuff, and then June burns it all down.

To be fair to Handmaid’s Tale: This is exactly the sort of character development you put your protagonist through when they’ve stopped seeing things clearly and believe the righteousness of their quest makes everything they do righteous by default.

I think it’s hard to look at the final sequence — in which June and her fellow Handmaids execute the Martha who helped June find Hannah’s school (as always, the Handmaids do Gilead’s dirty work) — and not see the show doing a little of this, as June tries to avoid culpability in killing the Martha whom she has already doomed, then finds herself having to pick up the rope and take part in this ritual of slaughter.

But also ... like ... does the show know this is what it’s doing?

The most obvious comparison here is to Moira and Emily in snowy Canada (actually, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is just perpetually snowy everywhere — it’s always winter and never revolution). The two run down their list of sins at a coffee shop, and Moira admits she’s not mad that she killed a Commander back in season one, even though he posed no threat to her in the moment. Emily, similarly, doesn’t feel guilty about the things she did to strike back against Gilead’s oppressive regime.

But both Moira and Emily are talking about taking direction against their oppressors; June, on the other hand, is endangering the lives of people who are trying to help, not hurt her. And, in another move that really makes me hope the show knows what it’s doing here, both the Martha who dies and the Handmaid June threatens are women of color, which stands out on a show whose depiction of race has long been its most self-evidently troubling element. There’s a world where this storyline ends up being a savage take on the self-satisfied piety of white feminism. But this show hasn’t given me a ton of evidence in the past to suggest I actually live in that world.

I think the show knows the difference between what June does and what Moira and Emily did. It has to, right? But at the same time, if we get to a few episodes from now, and June is gunning down every other Handmaid around to the tune of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” as the rest of the cast applauds for her, and showrunner Bruce Miller looks directly into the camera and gives a thumbs-up — well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Constance: Sometimes I think about how much credit I extended Handmaid’s Tale on questions like this one when the show first arrived, and then I just feel foolish and gross and jerked around.

In our very first Handmaid’s Tale recap of the first three episodes, I took a beat to notice that this version of Gilead contained people of color, unlike Atwood’s, in which people of color are sent to labor camps very early on. But at the time, I thought the show was going somewhere with that idea.

I thought the presence of black Handmaids showed that in the depths of a fertility crisis, Gilead’s desire for fertile women trumped its racism. I thought that despite the presence of those black Handmaids, obviously Gilead had to still be a fundamentally racist society, and probably it had turned all the fertile women of color into Handmaids and sent everyone else off to labor camps, and that this idea would be further explored in later episodes. I thought that June was most likely specifically targeted by Gilead because she was married to a black man, not just because she was married to someone who had been married before, and that this would develop into a commentary on how the sexual taboos of the evangelical right have evolved in the time since Atwood wrote her book. I thought that a show so clearly invested in thinking about systems of power and oppression couldn’t possibly ignore the way those systems interact with race in America, because what would even be the point if it did?

Obviously, the show absolutely planned to ignore the way systems of oppression interact with race in America. Obviously, the show absolutely believed it made sense that Gilead would be wildly misogynistic enough to enact its sexual purity laws, but would also be totally cool with having black Commanders, and would turn out to be basically colorblind, as though misogyny and racism are two totally separate systems that never go together or intersect at all.

All of which is to say that absolutely none of what I thought the show was interested in exploring vis-à-vis race and intersectionality ever actually emerged, and as such, I just do not have it in me to think that the story is going anywhere interesting with what’s happening with June right now.

I don’t think Handmaid’s Tale believes that June is privileged because of her whiteness or her position as protagonist. I don’t think it believes she is privileged at all. I think it believes that June is special and a hero, and as such, no rules apply to her, except for when those rules can be used to make her suffer in tragic and spectacular but not particularly permanent ways. And I think that’s why her storyline feels so boring and pointless.

Having said all that, I find myself still invested in Moira and Emily and their slowly blossoming friendship of PTSD. It’s oddly compelling to watch them realize that a) the only thing they have in common is their trauma, and b) that might still be enough to form a bond between them.

How is that half of the story treating you, not-Alexis Bledel Emily? Are you joining me in making friendship bracelets that say “Moira and Emily BFFs 4eva”?

Yes, there are still things that work on this show. But let’s complain about June some more.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Why is this happening???
Hulu

Emily: What’s really frustrating me about the June corner of the show is that I genuinely think everything else this season is working. The Canada stuff is often great, the Serena and Fred stuff is at least interesting, and the handful of glimpses we’ve gotten into the other characters’ lives have kept me invested.

This is a long way of saying that, yes, I’m super into the burgeoning relationship between Moira and Emily. In general, the Emily stuff has been the best storyline of the season, and it’s found a way to also integrate Moira (who felt a little on an island in season two) into the larger ensemble in a way that makes her feel vital to the show overall again. I can feel this series gearing up to send Emily back to Gilead, and I won’t have it. (Fortunately, that I can feel it doing this means it probably won’t.)

To turn to your other point, though, I don’t think you should classify your earlier feelings as naive at all. What I’m coming to realize as we work our way through this fascinating but probably fatally flawed season is that, where there was a lot of room within Gilead to tell further stories past the action of the Handmaid’s Tale novel, there wasn’t a lot of room left within June. She’s a protagonist defined almost entirely by her circumstance. (Weirdly, I have this same criticism of the Harry Potter movies. Ask me about adapting novels with single strong central point-of-view characters for the screen sometime!)

Thus, the show has gone all in on “she wants to get Hannah back,” which absolutely makes sense as a goal but which the series has invested next to no emotional effort into building out this season. It even did a better job of turning Hannah into an actual character in season two! That a show that gained so much attention for its timeliness is whiffing a “mother trying to get back a child who has seemingly disappeared forever” story at this moment in history is very odd! The show is trying to say something about motherhood, while never clarifying it in a way other than, “You would do anything for your child.” And sure! But also: Sell me on it.

So, again, this might be something intrinsic to June. The book defined its other characters more loosely, so the show has more room to figure them out in a way that would work on TV. June, the show just seems to throw up its hands about it — she’s a resistance fighter! No, she’s gotta suffer! No, she’s our window into the world of Gilead! And because she’s played by such a great actor (seriously, look at what Elisabeth Moss is doing in that nonsense scene where she talks to the other Handmaid about being pregnant — she’s so good!) and the show’s signature star, it has to keep feeding her material when a more interesting story is elsewhere. It’s probably a trap the show can’t escape.

But I say “probably” because other shows have been in that trap and nimbly found their way out of it. (Two notable examples of shows escaping traps that seemed inescapable: Homeland, which exhausted its premise, then reinvented itself into a different but related show; Friday Night Lights, which found a way to feel like the same show while shifting its thematic goalposts.) Again: I think there’s plenty of room with the material from this episode to offer up an interesting critique of June’s increasingly desperate actions, to find a way to talk about what happens when revolution just ends up hurting those it’s meant to help.

Also again: I have next to no faith we’ll get there (though I hear an upcoming episode is a bottle episode, and bottle episodes are great for “you, protagonist, are kinda shitty” moments).

Anyway, there’s a whole “Serena and Fred go dancing” plot line here that is pretty goofy, but at least it’s also a break from (waves hands around) everything else in Gilead. What do you make of Serena and Fred’s story this season? And, while we’re at it, what do you think of Mrs. Lawrence? I’m still totally into the Lawrences, and I refuse to feel shame about it.

Constance: The Lawrences are fine! They are not bothering me, and so I am not bothering about them. I think and feel literally zero about them.

But that “Serena and Fred go dancing” storyline is so lazy. Remember how, at one point in this show, it was a big deal that husbands and Wives don’t have sex if the Wives are infertile, because non-procreative sex is verboten, so it was a big social taboo for them to touch or look at each other in any kind of vaguely suggestive way? And now they’re just wandering around tangoing like it’s not obviously a sex metaphor, and everyone around them is applauding like, “Oh, how sweet, we fully approve.”

That kind of narrative dissonance is part of why I don’t have the faith you do that the issues with this show are confined to June and her arc. I think it’s endemic to the way that Handmaid’s Tale thinks about Gilead: None of its oppressions or restrictions actually matter, and if the rules get in the way of a striking image or a storytelling shortcut, they will magically disappear. They exist only long enough to create the idea of trauma, and then they dissolve.

I think that’s part of why the Moira and Emily storyline feels so much stronger than the rest of the show does. Because they are no longer in Gilead, the show can’t just signify their trauma with endless, empty images of pain and oppression. It actually has to do some work and show us how their experiences in Gilead continue to shape the way Moira and Emily approach the world now, which is the kind of psychologically interesting attention to detail that would work wonders on June’s storyline — but is currently noticeable for its absence.

Emily: Stay tuned, folks! Next week, we might find out if this is all going anywhere. (It’s almost certainly not.)