The Handmaid’s Tale has been so surprisingly deferential to artful versus political use of symbolism that I am more than ready to forgive it for introducing a literal wolf at the door, but entre nous? My dudes, there is a literal wolf at the literal door. I’m not turning away from these people based on one wildly heavy-handed metaphor in a season filled with gloriously delicate ones, but color me jolted.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is standing right where we left her, alone in an abandoned mansion in the woods, and full-term pregnant. Again, the series has more than earned the benefit of the doubt on artistic choices, but all the same, in TV there are few tropes that are more irresistible than gravity, and in the top three would be “women must go into labor at very, very dramatic moments; it simply can’t be a random Tuesday morning.”
Meanwhile, I think I was wrong about what Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) was really saying when he whispered, “You deserve this,” and sent Offred to that house to visit with Hannah. Once those Guardians took Nick (Max Minghella) away it seemed obvious they’d been set up. But I guess not, because he seems genuinely confused that he can’t find them in that creepy abandoned house.
Serena (Yvonne Strahowski) is not confused. She storms through the house, bellowing for Offred and hurling invective at her husband for his epic stupidity in allowing her to see her daughter. Fred seems befuddled that she’d disappear versus… be grateful to him. Sometimes men are cruel. A lot of the time they are actually just stupid, even if the outcome might be the same either way.
In a lot of ways, this is really one of this show’s weaker episodes, despite (maybe because of) the hugely dramatic moment it captures. It’s much more obvious than average. It’s a playground-bully-level heartstring-puller. Once the Waterfords come bombing into that house and we see they are both genuinely confused, one really must have an answer to the question, “What the hell happened to Nick, and on whose orders, and where is he?” And there is not an answer or the suggestion that one is forthcoming. It’s honestly not that well-handled. Yet this is where a show gets to falter a little because it has such a good credit score that nothing terrible goes down if it delays payment once in a while. The characters are humming engines, the visual sensibility is strong enough to handle the odd literal wolf or one too many aerial shots of the billowing scarlet cloak against the snowy-white snow. The deft and high-alacrity use of symbolism and metaphor makes room for an excruciating amount of Offred trying to force her way out of a locked garage while a baby tries to force its way out of Offred. (And yes, that is Radio Free Oprah playing Springsteen over the car radio.)
I will say this: If you’ve ever had a baby or been with someone who was having a baby you probably know that all the “support” in the world doesn’t keep that experience from being a solo flight. In flashback, while she’s in labor with Hannah, June turns to Luke (O-T Fagbenle), who’s tried to say something supportive, and says, “Seriously, though: go fuck yourself.” And what works here is the stark fact that whatever else Gilead has done to her, June’s actually prepared to give birth in an abandoned house in the woods. Her inner pioneer homesteader comes out—what choice does she have?—and in a cascade of flashbacks we see her in the hospital as Hannah is being born, the Handmaids “training” in the Red Center, Janine (Madeline Brewer) delivering Charlotte. The oscillating scenes, in addition to echoing the slightly out-of-body (and also the most in your body you’ll ever be) experience of delivering a baby (it can be a little like astral projection at certain phases), save us from Atwoodian Interiority Syndrome. (Seriously, there is a reason why in most films and TV shows don’t show an entire, uninterrupted, up-close-and-personal childbirth sequence. It goes on for hours, it’s desperately uncomfortable to watch, and for all it’s just about the most dramatic thing in the world, it’s a kind of drama you really can’t capture well on screen.) The sequence is handled about as well as you can handle it within the confines of this narrative. And it gives us a few more minutes with June’s mother, Holly (the pitch-perfect Cherry Jones).
The other really remarkable scene is the Waterford meltdown, in which a lot of interesting things are said. (Fred to Serena: “Yeah, maybe they’ll hang us side by side. Just my fucking luck.”) Offred watches from an attic window, holding a loaded rifle.
Basically, at a lot of levels this episode is technically not the strongest, but the high points are pretty high, the moment needed to happen, we are, but are not, alone… and there are wolves at the door.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.