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The Handmaid’s Tale puts the pieces in place for its finale

This mostly satisfying installment makes us wonder why it took the show so long to get going this season.

Fred goes to jail on The Handmaid’s Tale
Commander Waterford finds himself in a tough spot.
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 “Sacrifice,” the 12th episode of the third season.

Emily VanDerWerff: All throughout The Handmaid’s Tale’s third season, I’ve been wrestling with why I so greatly miss the show’s flashbacks, when it probably doesn’t strictly need them to tell its story anymore. Finally, a throwaway moment in “Sacrifice,” the season’s penultimate episode, underlined what the show has lost without them.

An imprisoned Fred, his power ripped away from him, sneers to Luke that when the birthrates started to tumble and America’s values started to erode, Luke did nothing, whereas Fred actually did something. Luke’s reply to that is “Maybe.” “Maybe”???

He means it as a snarky way to pivot to something else — in this case mocking Fred for the fact that he’s in prison and it’s all Serena’s doing — but it made me realize that some of the inherent tension that made the first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale so strong was carried in those flashbacks, which have largely been left out of season three. (There were none in this episode, for instance.) And, honestly, it might be the news of the past few months that’s making me think about this.

One of the things I think the show has always been a little underrated for is the way it takes seriously the white evangelical project and its inevitable result: a society built around a rigid, authoritarian interpretation of the Bible that believes, in theory, that it has eliminated inequality by engraving inequality into stone. The problems of the world, from climate change to mass shootings, stem not from what we might assume (carbon emissions, guns, etc.) but rather from the sinful, fallen nature of man. We have drifted from God’s intended life for us, and are being punished for it.

This context is so vital to understanding Gilead — and to understanding why, on some twisted level, Fred and his fellow Commanders think they’re saving the world. They’re deluded, yes, and the deeper we get into the series, the more we’re seeing how the trappings of power have seduced them as power always seduces those who hold it. But without the flashbacks, Gilead feels ever more disconnected from our own world, which lets the show slide ever more toward a kind of weird power fantasy, where June gets to dismantle the patriarchy just because she wants to.

This episode continued the season’s late-building momentum — but has it been too little, too late?

Serena betrays Fred.
Fred and Serena share a tender moment — right before he realizes what’s happened.
Hulu

I’m also saying this about an episode I mostly liked. Whatever the issues are with season three, its final episodes have really built a sense of momentum, and even if I don’t particularly care for all of the characters telling June what a hero she is, it’s worth it for the way director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (she’s back!) orients her camera to present a watchful, wary Commander Lawrence at episode’s end, before obscuring June from our view via careful framing. It’s worth it for seeing Fred behind bars, or for Samira Wiley’s restrained hostility in the scene between Moira and Serena.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that The Handmaid’s Tale has reinvented itself at long last, after several unfortunate false starts, and I get why there are a few more fans every week who contact me to say the show is really working for them.

But I deeply miss the sense of Gilead being something looming on the horizon, the natural outgrowth of the belief that what is wrong with America could be solved with more prayer and more faithfulness. I’m more okay with The Handmaid’s Tale — the action playset! But I miss when the show was about something other than its own attempts to justify its continued existence.

Constance Grady: That’s a great point, Emily. The contrast between the flashbacks to our own time and the show proper in Gilead were always so grounded and strong, and while the show has intermittently attempted to use Canada to establish the same kind of tension — with some success — nothing has ever been quite as eerie as the moments in which The Handmaid’s Tale will show us our world with just one small detail fundamentally off.

In the reinvented Handmaid’s Tale we currently find ourselves watching, the big twist of “Sacrifice” is that it confirms that Serena did actually betray Fred. While she’s being held in a (frankly palatial) detention center, her American friend keeps assuring her that she’ll be out as soon as Fred is processed. I … am not sure about how I feel about that fate for her.

The problem that The Handmaid’s Tale keeps running into with Serena is that it isn’t always able to treat her as a character whose point of view we can understand and sympathize with and as a monstrous person who is complicit in the destruction of America and the torture and rape of thousands of women. When this show is really enjoying spending time in Serena’s head, it sometimes frames her as such a sympathetic figure that, out here in the audience, it can feel as though we are being asked to forgive her for her many crimes, to think of her as someone who maybe wasn’t as involved in the construction of Gilead as Fred was.

And because we’ve already seen that Serena was arguably more instrumental to building Gilead than Fred was (in flashbacks, it’s Serena’s charisma and intellectual heft that sell the ideals of Gilead to the rest of the country, while Fred is just the business guy), those moments can feel like the show is trying to trick us. Like it’s trying to tell us that because Serena has suffered — and she has! — we should forgive her for her many sins.

Mostly, I think The Handmaid’s Tale has been able to avoid falling into the trap of asking us to forgive Serena more often than it hasn’t. I am mostly able to accept that Serena is an interesting character and a monstrous person at the same time. But I worry that if we see her set free in Canada, it will start to feel as though freedom is something she deserves more than Fred does, as though she is somehow more innocent than he is.

With that said, I also think it would be genuinely fascinating to watch Serena trying to live in a secular society after spending so much time in Gilead. So far, we’ve witnessed the Gilead-to-Canada transition with the trauma-ridden Moira and Emily, but Serena is a true believer. She would enjoy getting to read and write again, but she would also be appalled by what she would perceive as sin from the rest of the country. That is potentially extremely interesting!

What do you think about this new plot development, Emily? Do you think it’s going in a dramatically fruitful direction?

What’s the deal with Serena?

Serena and Nichole cuddle.
Serena gets a few moments with Nichole.
Hulu

Emily: I rather feel that the show is making Serena out to be more villainous with this recent plot turn. It’s clear that Tuello (the always welcome Sam Jaeger) believes he can get her to change her mind about Gilead by having her read a few newspaper op-eds, but it also seems more clear to me than ever before that there’s no way his efforts will work.

I could be wrong about this, but somewhere inside of this season, The Handmaid’s Tale has begun to craft an argument that the only way to combat the rise of totalitarianism is to fight back with blood and fire (and to airlift 52 children to Canada). Tuello gets things right when it comes to taking down Fred, but he has a massive blind spot when it comes to Serena, believing that she is secretly on the side of justice and righteousness and will come to realize the error of her ways.

I used to believe this too. In season two, as Serena became more and more isolated from everyone other than the people in her household, it seemed like she was spiraling and Tuello might offer an escape route when she first met him in Canada. But the longer The Handmaid’s Tale show runs, the more times Serena chooses a Gilead where she has marginally more power, instead of choosing to live in a more egalitarian society. Serena’s problem has always been that she thinks the laws of Gilead shouldn’t also apply to her. So long as she can get somebody to let her do what she wants, she couldn’t care less what happens to everybody else.

My one concern here is that Serena is so focused on Nichole that the show runs the risk of reducing all of her motivations to “she really wants a baby and can’t have one,” which would be sexist and unfairly dismissive of a complex character’s motivations. But even setting that concern aside, the different emotions that played across Yvonne Strahovski’s face as Serena held Nichole again were almost worth the story’s more troubling elements. (It’s worth noting that if the close-up is going to be this show’s bread and butter, well, Ergüven is really good at close-ups. There were half a dozen I took particular note of in this episode, when they’ve faded into the background for most of this season.)

All of this is why I secretly hope that if the season three finale is really, really good, it might clarify a bunch of what The Handmaid’s Tale has been going for. It won’t be able to save the season as a whole — there have been way too many narrative dead ends for that — but it might put the show on firmer footing going forward. The more we check in with the characters who aren’t June, the more it seems as if the show has had some sort of plan for them all along.

I also find myself at least somewhat excited to see the finale, as June works to free dozens of kids, and we’re not sure if she and Lawrence can trust each other in the wake of his wife’s death. Meanwhile, the Canada storyline is heating up similarly well. I think there’s a world where, going into season four, we’re much more enthused about this season without the arc of episodes seven through nine, which diverted the story’s momentum in a way that hurt everything. (Even the idea of June as a hero — which I wouldn’t have liked in any case — was hurt by those episodes.)

How are you feeling about the way these threads are coalescing? And what about the death of poor Mrs. Lawrence, who ended up being a character the show used as a “make the story more tense” card a bit too often but who also ended up being weirdly tragic in the end? At times, it was almost like a Brontë novel had infected the world of Margaret Atwood, and I kinda liked it.

Constance: Poor Mrs. Lawrence sometimes feels to me like a symbol of all the things that I don’t like about where The Handmaid’s Tale has gone, only I honestly don’t mind her in terms of what she brings to the table as a person. It’s just that she is, as you say, Emily, so clearly a character out of a Brontë novel: She’s a gothic symbol, a madwoman in the attic.

And gothic symbols are great for personal, character-based stories about the psychosexual darkness that lurks within us all (what horrible things are lurking in the darkness of the Lawrence house? And are they hiding within all of us, too? Could be interesting to think that one out!), but they’re not so useful for political stories about systems of oppression (what motivated Joseph to help create Gilead beyond the apparent desire to steal a bunch of art? How was Eleanor complicit in that creation? Still not sure! And it’s not clear if the show cares at all about answering that question! Which is not so much compelling as extremely frustrating, to be honest).

At this point, I should really just accept that The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly way more interested in being the former kind of show, the kind that tells personal stories, rather than the latter, but every time I think about it, I just get mad about the wasted opportunities all over again.

And now Mrs. Lawrence has found her ultimate fate as the season three equivalent of season two’s Eve, the blameless nice white lady who is destroyed by Gilead through no fault of her own, thus illustrating its fundamental corrosiveness. Each time The Handmaid’s Tale has pulled this move, I’ve found myself thinking that killing off those characters was the least interesting choice it could have made, and I am inclined to believe there are diminishing returns to this particular formula. If the show dips into this well again in season four, I don’t see it playing well.

I do agree with you, Emily, that the setup to the big finale plane heist is working well. Every episode introduces a new complication to what was already an extremely risky plan and ratchets up the tension nicely, and at this point, Joseph is such a wild card that as we head into the heist proper, I can honestly picture him doing absolutely anything to either help or hinder June in her quest to save 52 kids from Gilead.

My hope is that the finale will be strong enough to make the themes and emotional undercurrent of season three work as well in retrospect as the pure plot mechanics are working right now.