This review contains spoilers.
Whenever a novel with a confrontational message is adapted for the screen, the worry is that message will be diluted. Prose can afford to do its worst to make a point, but TV has reasons to rein things in – broadcasting standards, for one, not to mention an audience with more decent viewing options at their fingertips than there are days in the year. A book sold is a book sold, no matter if the buyer shelves it midway through. TV has to keep selling itself week-on-week. Push viewers too far and you risk them switching off, hence the impulse to soften.
Happily—which almost certainly isn’t the right word—The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t have any qualms about pushing us too far. Nor does it display any interest in cushioning its blows. Quite the opposite. Episode three picks up Ofglen’s story following her shock disappearance last week and tells an even more sickening tale than in the novel. It also leaves us with an even more sickening image.
That image is Alexis Bledel’s character waking up in a surgical ward to discover she’s been the victim of genital mutilation. Her crime? Being a ‘gender traitor’, or as Offred daringly puts it during her interrogation about her former shopping partner – gay. Simply using the word earns Offred a beating. It’s one of the unending list of things forbidden in the Republic of Gilead, where gay people don’t exist. Just as they don’t in modern-day Saudi Arabia, or Chechnya, or any of the many countries around the world where homosexuality is still, horrifically, punishable by death.
Protesting such inhuman real-world regimes is clearly one project of The Handmaid’s Tale. Prodding us to draw connections between our present and pre-Gilead America is another. That was achieved in episode three with extensive flashbacks to the point at which things changed. In a startlingly short space of time, June and the women around her went from living liberated lives to ones of thoroughgoing bondage.
How did it happen? They were asleep, June explains. She and everyone else were too comfortable in their freedoms to fight to protect them when it might have made a difference. They took it for granted, and it was taken away. First gradually, then all at once.
As June and Moira, Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley give such naturalistic performances they make the transition from their old to their new world convincing. The everydayness of those early scenes—going for a run, getting coffee, being put on hold with the bank—helped to sell the shift as everyday life started to warp into an unrecognisable new shape. Their characters reacted to the changes around them just as we might – first with incredulity, then anger, then fear.
By the time of the protest march at which the “new kind of army” summarily opened fire on the crowd, you understood why people might submit to a regime like Gilead’s. Simply put, they weren’t given a choice. Faced with that kind of danger and aggression, what else would you do but try to survive? The Handmaid’s Tale is well aware, of course, that for many around the world, that question isn’t even hypothetical. Nor are scenes of brutality towards protestors fictional.
The rest of Late, in which Offred’s household went giddy in the belief she was pregnant, was a satire on the holy reverence in which motherhood is held. Un-pregnant, Offred is nothing to the Commander and his wife but another status symbol, of no more importance than a Pedigree dog. Pregnant, she’s a priceless treasure whose path deserves to be strewn with rose petals.
When the Handmaids conceive, their stock rises stratospherically. As poor, mad Janine told Offred, having produced a baby, and a good one at that, she can do whatever she likes. Janine’s sanity long having been a casualty of Gilead’s system, “whatever she likes” means eating treats and not being executed for biting her mistress’ hand. She thinks she’s free, but really she’s half-child, half-pet. Before we got our civil rights, you could say the same for women across the centuries. Well, the lucky, wealthy ones at least.
Half-child, half-pet is by and large how the Handmaids are treated by their ‘families’. Even when she’s delighted with Offred, Serena Joy’s smiling insistence that she join “the clean-plate club” was infantilizing. That side of things isn’t so much of a stretch from the real world either – after all, everybody has an opinion on what a pregnant woman should eat and how she should behave.
Late provided our closest look yet at Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, whose mania about having a child made her seem almost as unhinged as Janine. The value placed on motherhood in Gilead is Atwood’s exaggerated mirror to our own obsession with the same. Offred’s polite bemusement at the indulgence with which she was treated was a great punchline to the stewed apples and cinnamon scene. Elisabeth Moss’s naturalism continues to sell this stylised, distant world as real. Her wry reactions and inner monologue make her the perfect tour guide for a modern audience.
There was no appearance from the Commander in episode three so that Scrabble rematch will have to wait. We did, however, learn a little more about his driver, Nick (Max Minghella), who appears to be a decent enough guy conflicted about his role and sharing no shortage of sexual chemistry with Offred.
The image this episode leaves burned onto your retinas though, was the final one. Having spent the entirety of Late gagged and silent, Ofglen ended it with a deafening, anguished scream. To suit the needs of a fundamentalist patriarchy, she’d been butchered. That didn’t happen in the book. There, Ofglen hanged herself before the black van could take her away, which almost seems a happy ending in comparison
Margaret Atwood famously said that nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t happened for real, somewhere, at some time. The TV show has taken that idea and added even more horrific truths. So much for adaptations diluting confrontational messages. That’s decidedly not this show’s game.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Birth Day, here.