The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 12
“Sacrifice” is an episode about pragmatism. Both Serena and June made the hard-headed choice to offer someone else up for, as they see it, the greater good. June gave up Eleanor’s life for 52 kids; Serena exchanged Fred’s freedom for just one. Whether their respective gambles will pay off is for the finale to tell.
A great deal rests on the look Commander Lawrence gave June in this episode’s closing moments – was that suspicion behind his eyes, or simply grief? If suspicion, then June’s plan is in trouble. Joseph’s cooperation is vital to getting the kids on that plane. By removing one threat, June may have inadvertently risked the whole game.
After all, it’s been established through numerous scenes acted with real tenderness by Julie Dretzin and Bradley Whitford that Eleanor was Joseph’s priority. In a role and performance led by ambiguity, Joseph’s love for his wife is our sole foothold on the character. Without her, we’re right back to not knowing who the man really is and what he’s really thinking.
What June’s really thinking is much more scrutable. By now we’ve spent so many hours listening to her voice and searching Elizabeth Moss’ face that the second she stopped dead in Eleanor’s bedroom before calling for help, we knew that this was her Walter White moment, and what would follow. Fred Waterford was right when he told Luke that the June Osborne he knew was gone.
Not that it needed saying out loud. Given that this whole season has been about how Gilead has changed – and unhinged – June, making her more ruthless and more dangerous (“You’re such a boss now.”), putting those words in Fred’s mouth was a script weakness. The same goes for Moira calling Serena the real gender traitor, as if the show hadn’t been making that point as subtext for years now. The Handmaid’s Tale may put its audience through the wringer, but it rarely patronises us. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that season three has been about June shedding the person she used to be and the toll Gilead takes on everybody’s psyches.
Lawrence’s quip last episode that the Commanders failed to take mental health into the equation when designing the new regime was on the money. Eleanor’s illness existed before the civil war, but since it, she unravelled. Emily, Moira, Joseph, even Serena … only a sociopath could live in Gilead and not suffer its effects.
Speaking of Fred, he and Serena weren’t quite in the orange jumpsuits June imagined. Mrs Waterford’s degradation won’t come from her surroundings, which are pretty upscale as detention centres go, but from her realisation that being with Nichole won’t magically solve every problem. It laid it on a bit thick, but it was impossible not to enjoy the lash of the whip Serena clearly felt when Nichole’s social worker referred to “stranger anxiety.”
On the subject of anxiety, throwing June’s plan into jeopardy would be on-brand for The Handmaid’s Tale, a show that has trained us to be wary of too much good news. The first half of “Sacrifice” was just that – success followed success followed success. As Commander Lawrence summarised with trademark glibness, “Fred and Serena are toast, and you just got away with murder. All in all not a bad morning.”
And it wasn’t a bad episode, just one that bridged a gap between the shocks of last week and those expected in next week’s finale instead of delivering any of its own. The Waterfords’ story inched along, and in Eleanor’s death, a piece was quietly removed from the board. The real action is still to come.
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