The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 10
Of all the overhead shots in The Handmaid’s Tale – those stylishly precise choreographed frames snaked through by columns of red cloaks on their way to god knows what fresh horror – the one at the end of this episode might have been the most beautiful.
It was certainly the best punchline. The Handmaid’s Tale gave us only Beth and June’s stunned faces as they took in what they saw on the kitchen counter. In this show, it could have been anything – torture devices, Gilead-issue straitjackets, another dead Martha’s corpse – but what did it turn out to be? Muffins. A lot of muffins.
Muffins, as Beth told June, mean yes. Every overflowing basket on every spare inch of worktop was a Martha from the network saying yes. Yes to bravery. Yes to danger. Yes to whatever the repercussions. “I asked if anyone would help get children out,” said Beth. “I thought they’d all say no.” Vivaldi and a Jaws quote later, and season 3 was back on track and heading somewhere solid. Hope is here.
This being The Handmaid’s Tale of course, we had to wade through an hour of dread to reach it. In a twisted way, the dread was what brought about the hope. The devastation wrought by Fred’s evil “mechanisms to ensure virility” plan left Commander Lawrence so self-loathing that it forced his hand. “I’ll get you a truck,” he told June, utterly broken. She’s getting the kids out. The stolen children of Gilead.
The Lawrence household Ceremony itself was mercifully elided, but the stomach-twisting scenes preceding it were some of the show’s most unsettling yet – no mean feat. June was forced to coach the couple in the act of rape, reassuring and helping them to cope. From the moment the realisation of what was about to happen crept across June’s face (Elisabeth Moss’ miraculous face, again) to the moment June took what little power she could back from Fred with the line “At least it wasn’t you,” it was the equivalent of a Jewish-refugees-under-the-floorboards-in-Nazi-Germany scene. Dreadful, tense, and intensely alert to every risk, it was excellent work from everybody – almost a given now in a drama as well cast as this.
Speaking of excellent casting – “Witness” didn’t just give us momentum, it also gave an answer to The Handmaid’s Tale season 3’s most pressing question: just what is the deal with the Lawrences? Eleanor – much more lucid than she presents – summed up their dilemma succinctly. They’re sympathetic to the resistance but trapped. Joseph can’t leave Gilead because he’s a war criminal. If he crossed the border, he’d be jailed for life or killed, and he’d deserve it.
If it weren’t an extremely poor taste expression to use about a regime that regularly stones people to death, you could say that June’s plan kills two birds with one… chunk of mineral. She wants to get the children out, and the Lawrences need something valuable to trade with Canada for their immunity from prosecution. As the saga of Baby Nichole has shown, what could be more valuable than children?
That was one plan. Another this episode came from Serena, who appeared to have regained consciousness after her dizzy spell dancing the DC tango. (Literally. Wasn’t that a strange interlude). Seeing Fred for what he is – a cruel, vain, cowardly ego-worm – Serena laid out her mutilated hand as a reminder, gave him the contraband phone and told him to defect. If Gilead wasn’t going to help her get Nichole back, she’d do it her way.
The cruelty of what happened in the Lawrence home, and Fred’s selfish motivations for bringing it about, seem to have been Serena’s catalyst too. Talk about a plan backfiring. Fred’s stock has risen in Gilead since the Nichole business, just as Joseph’s autonomy has diminished. If June’s scheme works though, how will the ultra-strict High Commander Winslow respond to Fred losing not one but the entire district’s children.
It’s been one step forward, two steps back for some time now on The Handmaid’s Tale. Movement, is what this episode gave us. And powerful drama, and ballsy staging (just when you thought The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t get any more Kubrick, they send June limping back home to Beethoven’s 9th). The result is more momentum than we’ve seen in weeks. “Witness” felt like the crouch before a huge leap forward.
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