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The Handmaid’s Tale gets a burst of adrenaline and visual style

But the series is still a little too enamored of making certain corners of its world seem sexy, to its detriment.

June is going to get some kids out.
June has a plan to get a bunch of kids out of Gilead.

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 “Liars,” the 11th episode of the third season.

Emily: I was prepared with a list of criticisms of “Liars” (another episode I liked more than I didn’t, but an episode with ... problems, to be charitable), but then the credits rolled, and I realized the episode was directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, director of one of my favorite movies of the decade and one of my favorite TV episodes of the decade, and the sort of visual stylist whom the show would be wise to employ full time if it were looking for a new Reed Morano. Anyway, I realized this is a five-outta-five-star masterpiece.

Okay, that’s hyperbole, but as “Liars” wrapped up — with an extended sequence where both June and the Jezebel Marthas cleaned up the body of Commander Winslow, whom June stabbed to death — I was finally vibing with what this season was trying to do. Maybe the show just needed to shut up and get out of the way of its own slow-mounting sense of dread. When Lawrence handed June a gun and said “they” (presumably the forces of Gilead) would be coming for the duo, well, cool. It’s not what the show was at its best, but there’s something there.

There were a lot of weird leaps on the way there. The whole “June goes to Jezebel’s” plot was the worst thing in the episode, and, yeah, I get that it was there just to finally let June stab one of the commanders, but also, the show couldn’t have come up with literally any other scenario in which this could happen?

I still don’t know if the series was trying to suggest Winslow also harbored an attraction to men back in his introductory episode, but I’m a little disappointed we’ll never find out. “He’s a violent misogynist” is certainly a turn that makes sense with his character, but it also feels like the show writing out a storyline that never quite took off as brutally as possible.

And yet ... there’s so much that works in this episode, particularly over in Fred-and-Serena town, where what might have been the best scene of the season (that nighttime conversation in the woods) took place. A friend was telling me a few weeks ago that she wished the show had gone full anthology after season one, and while I don’t know if that would have worked, this scene gave me a sense of what that might have looked like — imagine if season two had been about Emily and this season about Serena, with June still popping up now and again. It could have been something.

Alas, this is what we have. But I’m still into whatever “Liars” is up to, even if much of it doesn’t make sense. Are you picking up what this episode is putting down, Constance? Or am I once again just weak in the knees for a strong visual stylist?

What the show gets wrong about Jezebel’s

Commander Lawrence makes an iffy call.
Commander Lawrence tries not to go there.

Constance: As is so often the case with Handmaid’s Tale, I find myself torn! I appreciate you flagging how much more style this episode has than previous episodes, Emily — that shot of Serena zipping down the highway with the top of the car down and music blaring is just a gorgeous, gorgeous moment, and it works as well as it does in part because of how perfectly timed the buildup is. The cut from Serena thinking about the possibility of driving to the car blaring along down the road is just abrupt enough to make the shock of the moment land.

But at the same time … ugh, Jezebel’s, again.

The Handmaid’s Tale has always run into the problem of finding Jezebel’s a little bit sexy and thinking that the audience should too. Textually, the point of Jezebel’s is that it’s another means by which the patriarchy oppresses women through their bodies, even in a society that is ostensibly organized around sexual chastity. It’s not supposed to seem appealing, at least not for the audience. And Margaret Atwood’s novel pointedly makes Jezebel’s feel cheap and tawdry, with the women all wearing worn clothes with the sequins falling off and caking their faces in dried-out makeup.

But the TV show has always shot Jezebel’s to be flattering, glamorous, and even aspirational. In season one, we got June’s magically heat-styled Veronica Lake hair and her gorgeous beaded flapper dress. In this episode, the camera can’t resist a lingering pan over June’s legs when she struts down the hall in her high heels, like, “Look how sexy and empowering!” It all feels like we’re meant to be enjoying ourselves at Jezebel’s, instead of being grossed out by it, which only means that everything feels much, much grosser than it otherwise would have.

And then we get finally the inevitable moment where June gets to cathartically murder one of the many men who has raped her or tried to rape her in this show. But because The Handmaid’s Tale is pathologically afraid of giving June consequences, she just happens to do it in a place where it will be difficult to trace his murder to her, and she just happens to be discovered by a Martha who is loyal to her and will cover up everything. So instead of getting to see how Gilead intentionally breaks down its victims and then punishes them for it (interesting!), or see June intentionally plan a murder and cover-up that cannot be traced to her (also interesting!), we’re just watching her luck into everything.

It all feels like we’re being asked to wallow in the titillating danger of yet another threat of sexual assault against our sexy and empowering heroine, and then the triumph of her killing her attacker without having to worry too much about the aftermath. It feels cheap.

Having said all that, I did genuinely enjoy the catharsis of watching our good buddy Fred Waterford get taken across the Canadian border in handcuffs — especially after an episode full of reminders that Gilead’s Commanders would be considered war criminals under international law. He’s so taken aback by the idea that consequences might ever reach him! He genuinely can’t believe that some people consider him the villain of this story!

But I’m not entirely sure what’s happening with Serena during Fred’s arrest. What do you think, Emily? Was she in on the plan the whole time? Did she intentionally serve Fred up to the American government as part of a trade so she could get Nichole back? Or will she be arrested too? And if she’s arrested, would she be considered a war criminal too?

Emily: I really like the Fred and Serena plot in this episode, after wondering all season if the show had any idea what to do with them. Their increasing ambivalence about what Gilead has meant for them (while still believing in the cause on a societal level), the ambiguity over whether Serena betrayed Fred, that long conversation in the woods about who they might have been, had the US not fallen — they all added up to the best episode for these two in a long, long while.

When I look at that last scene, I don’t see Serena being hauled off for arrest so much as she’s being detained to make sure she doesn’t interfere with her husband’s arrest. My guess is that she cut a deal, but I almost hope she didn’t. There would be something sneaky and powerful about the idea of whatever international force is taking Fred prisoner assuming that Serena wasn’t as complicit in his crimes because of her gender. Then again, I sometimes worry the show thinks Serena isn’t as complicit as she is, so maybe the baby deal is a better road for everybody.

To tread a bit into spoiler territory (for the book, not the show), the epilogue of the novel makes clear that Fred eventually dies in some sort of “purge.” Now, this isn’t that, but it’s also tremendously hard to imagine how Fred is going to somehow escape becoming an international prisoner. Maybe season four will randomly turn into a legal drama, with all the characters from across the show’s run called to testify against him. Maybe he’ll be executed in the season finale. Maybe he’ll be set free because of incredibly unconvincing reasons. But this is the first real hint we’ve gotten that the series actually is trying to extrapolate the material in that epilogue into an entire show.

Similarly, June’s plan to get 52 kids out of Gilead feels like it’s in keeping with the epilogue’s ominous mention of “extradition treaties” between Canada and Gilead. In the world of the show so far, these don’t exist. But if more and more kids start to slip away from Gilead and if the border between the countries starts to become more porous, well ... it’s not hard to imagine a world where Canada signs such a treaty to avoid an escalation into war.

End book spoilers.

The “save the kids” plot is interesting, but the road there could have been much smoother

Fred and Serena, before he went to jail.
Fred and Serena, in happier times.

Emily: I’m still not sure about this “let’s rescue the kids” plot, which feels like it’s invented a situation where June gets to be a hero without thinking through some of the consequences — unless these kids are all teenagers, they’re going to have few memories that aren’t of Gilead and their “adoptive” parents — but I like the propulsion it’s given the show. When June goes to Jezebel’s, I have a lot of problems with the presentation, but she at least has a reason to do so.

And all this makes me feel a little bad we didn’t get a season where this was her driving mission all along, where the Martha Network was already planning this operation and June slowly rose through its ranks thanks to her ability to make the plot divert all consequences away from her. That would have given the whole season the feeling of forward momentum these last two episodes have had, and it’s making me dislike the “June gets a bunch of people killed” plot cul de sac even more.

Constance, how do you feel about this plot line? And why does the show need June to go rogue to do it? Why is it so intent on having her be the hero, instead of just a hero?

Constance: I think the idea at the center of this plot line — and part of the reason I’ve been so resistant to it all along — is that June is ontologically, essentially special in some way. There is something at her core that makes her indomitable and unbreakable. She is too special to be broken by Gilead, and too special to be confined to the structures of someone else’s resistance. So she has to be at the center of her own resistance movement, because that is where her specialness can really shine.

And I get why you would want to tell a story about the protagonist being really special. That’s a pleasurable idea. It allows the audience to put itself in the protagonist’s shoes and imagine being special enough that the rest of the world rearranges itself around us. It’s the superhero fantasy, and superhero fantasies are always fun.

But the thing is, once you take a story about surviving under the patriarchy — which Handmaid’s Tale ostensibly is — and turn it into a story about a singularly special heroine transcending the patriarchy through sheer force of her specialness, then that story stops being subversive.

The patriarchy has always had room for stories about singularly special women who transcend all the boundaries. There are stories about women who follow all the rules so well — who are the right amount of thin and curvy and smart and nonthreatening and sexually appealing and chaste and accomplished and vulnerable and white and blonde, the Serena Joys and Ivanka Trumps of the world — that they are crowned the Best Woman and get to be held up above other women as an example.

And there are stories about women who manage to break the rules and do traditionally masculine things, but do so in such a plucky and appealing and attractive way that they get to be held up as special exceptions to the rules the rest of us must follow. (See, for instance, the politicized viral star “ICE Bae.”)

The fact that women succeed in those stories doesn’t mean they’re taking down the patriarchy. These are stories about the patriarchy letting women succeed because of their specialness. They’re stories about how it is not the system that needs to change, but all the rest of us, because surely if we were special enough, we too could succeed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is ostensibly supposed to critique that kind of storytelling. The whole point of Serena Joy’s arc is to show us that although Serena believed she would be special enough to escape Gilead’s horrors, because she is so very good at following Gilead’s rules for women, in the end, she wasn’t. Her husband beat her and cut off her finger, and instead of wielding power in shadowy back rooms, she ended up stuck in her sitting room sewing and smoking and gardening. That’s why it’s believable, here at the end of season three, that Serena might have decided to abandon her belief in her specialness and betray Fred.

But with June’s arc, The Handmaid’s Tale is just circling back around and embracing the story of the Special Woman Who Transcends the Patriarchy. June is going to be the hero of this story through the sheer force of her own essential specialness, and I can’t help but find that turn both disappointing and incredibly boring.