The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 6
We might call it shock fatigue – the process by which an audience no longer recoils from what was once horrifying because they’ve become used to it. Perhaps a bone-exposed, decaying-flesh zombie on The Walking Dead made an impact in the beginning, but now? Now, the undead have to spurt gloop and have their maggoty intestines torn apart with industrial machinery before anybody flinches. Seasons in, it takes a double scoop of disgusting to get viewers’ attention.
“Household” gave us both scoops with the introduction of the Washington DC Handmaids. The ordinary rape, kidnap and mutilation signified by a red cloak presumably having sunk into shrug territory by now, the ante was upped with a little body-horror.
And a little revision. The presentation of Nick as a high-status general in Gilead’s army, sweeping Darth Vader-like through a column of salutes is a diversion from the story already told. We knew that Nick got in early with one of Gilead’s most powerful Commanders and and was used as an informer on corrupt Sons of Jacob members, but before this episode, it was never suggested that he was Gilead’s Hannibal, the guy who figuratively led its misogynistic elephants over the Alps. Nick’s long been a blank space, and The Handmaid’s Tale has chosen to fill it with a revisionist twist that felt unseeded and unconvincing.
You might say the latter about the mouths-sewn-shut revelation. Blunt symbolism acknowledged (this episode didn’t lack for that), is it not too impractical to be plausible? While it’s possible to accept that DC’s Commanders would sign off on a system that makes it hard to eat for one, let alone two, what really stretches credulity is that they’d vote in a measure that impedes their ready access to blowjobs.
That’s potentially not a problem for High Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni), whose manhandling of Fred during their game of pool suggested his sexual preferences lie elsewhere. You could make it big, he told Commander Waterford with a suggestive squeeze. One shouldn’t gloat, but Fred getting me-too’d is sort of delicious.
If Winslow is gay in Gilead, then that hypocritical bastard’s head is right in the lion’s mouth. To what extent will the privilege of rank protect him?
It’s not the privilege of rank that protects June, but the armor of plot. Elisabeth Moss’ central role in this drama gives her character a level of freedom it’s hard to square with what we know about Gilead. June being left alone to wander around the desecrated Lincoln Memorial provided a monumental backdrop for her confrontation with Serena, but stretched believability.
The Handmaid’s Tale has always been a visual spectacle. It’s a product of careful, skilled design that’s given us shorthand political imagery so powerful it was instantly absorbed into the language of real-world protest. In this episode, it felt as though the images were leading the story rather than serving it. The mouth rings, the Washington Monument-turned-crucifix, the angel wings, the destroyed Lincoln statue … arresting and symbolic images all. What the characters did between those images though, felt secondary.
Without the anchor of Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is struggling to retain narrative coherence. The Lawrence mystery, so engaging at the beginning of the season, has been sidelined for more from the Waterfords. Serena’s incipient rebellion – another fascinating development – was flicked off like a light switch. Nick’s been rewritten. Aunt Lydia’s blowing with the wind. And June’s now the lead in a Homeland-style political espionage thriller, doing deals and making alliances that vanish into air from one week to the next.
It’s still beautiful of course. And chilling, and making an urgent protest in bold, eye-catching language. Even if the story is losing structural integrity, the power of pictures can’t be overestimated. The Commanders might be hideously, harmfully wrong about almost everything, but they’re right about the correct image being able to sway opinion. Perhaps mouth-rings and blasted national monuments are just what’s needed.