The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 1
Was that … a good day in Gilead? Forgive the incredulity, but after the stinging slap of the first season followed by the prolonged torment of the second, a win might be the one thing The Handmaid’s Tale audience weren’t prepared to see.
We’ve seen everything else. Rapes, beatings, executions, mutilations, hangings, torture. Not this episode, though. No eyes were gouged out or appendages cut off. Radioactive waste didn’t blister anybody’s skin and no children were drowned in a municipal swimming pool. Yes, the soles of June’s feet were whipped, but nobody made us watch while it happened.
The sole act of violence we were made to watch, in voyeuristic slow-motion, was against a symbol of Gilead. The destruction of the Waterford home, that stately prison, was filmed like erotica. The camera delighted in the devastation. Smoke, sparks, and flames lay elegant waste to the site of June’s suffering.
And look who burned it down: the none-too-serene Serena. The sight of her hypnotized by the symbolically blazing marriage bed was a dreamlike image, a surrealist premonition of Gilead’s eventual fall. Both she and June were mesmerised by the fire. Where you’d expect to see panic, instead there was calm and a sense of release. That final aerial shot of the smoldering ruin was a lit cigarette after sex. Deep satisfaction.
The season three premiere started with a prayer and ended with a smile. In between, Gilead lost a once-powerful household, Emily and Nicole made to safety (“Everyone loves Canada!”), and June was posted to a new Commander who not only won’t subject her to the ceremony, but may even help to tear this whole thing (that he helped to build) down. All told, that closing track might just have been right about having a good day.
It’s all relative of course. Even if the worst isn’t happening in front of our eyes, giddy and feel-good The Handmaid’s Tale is not. In an episode like this one, free of pre-Gilead flashbacks, the tone remains almost unbearably mournful. Whatever solace it might be to June that Hannah/Agnes is thriving in her new home, it’s corroded by the pain of their separation, a conflict conveyed with characteristic skill by Elisabeth Moss in the “what’s she like?” exchange with Mrs Mackenzie (Transparent‘s Amy Landecker).
There was more good news in Baby Nicole surviving that perilous river crossing, but to pay for it, we first had to be teased with her possible death. There’s no such thing as uncomplicated joy in this show. Even Emily’s standing ovation in the hospital was watched a heavy heart in the knowledge that it’s far from the welcome received by her real-world counterparts crossing borders to flee persecution. A heavy heart is The Handmaid’s Tale‘s accompaniment of choice – while other TV dramas demand to be paired with a glass of wine or bowl of sugary snacks, this one demands pain.
Though painful, this premiere was as elegantly constructed as ever, Mike Barker’s direction made up of stylishly balanced, symmetrical frames and symbolism. One shot in particular made a pivotal character statement: Serena’s face in close-up, dead centre of the frame, eyes forward, as she set the fire. It’s June’s signature shot, perhaps filmed using the same signature lens. After two seasons of this show’s expressive cinematography, it’s as indissociable from June as the colour red. So what does it mean to give it to Serena?
Confrontation. Rebellion. Fight. It aligns Serena with the resistance instead of the establishment. Her attempt at peaceful protest having been met with cruel punishment in the loss of her finger last season, this time she escalated to violence. Commander Waterford had promised his wife that he’d protect their house, but didn’t reckon on her being the threat. Daddy didn’t understand it, he always said she was good as gold.
Serena’s revolt is a complicated one to enjoy. While any blow against Gilead is heartening, her loss of faith in the regime she helped to design comes far too late for absolution. She will always have been Gilead’s agent, and an active participant in its brutality and rape.
June’s kindness – reassuring Serena about Nicole’s safety in the only language she’ll understand, that of God and faith – should encourage our own compassion, but you could hardly be blamed if that particular wellspring runs dry. While there’s value in this show encouraging us to understand how a mind like Serena’s thinks, asking us to forgive her feels premature.
Forgiveness, if necessary, can come later. Now’s the time for flaming fire and vengeance. Burn, motherfucker, burn.