The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 9
How many times have we seen June reborn? Four, maybe five? There’ll be a whiteboard chart in a writers’ room somewhere, keeping track of every rock-bottom the character has hit, followed by every reset. What’s remarkable is how well this drama sells those moments, every, every time. However many there have been, they’re always exciting. It’s a feat.
That feat isn’t only down to Elisabeth Moss’ performance, though it is extraordinary (we’re up to, what, 30-plus hours of staring at her face and there are still surprises to be found in it? She’s a sorcerer). It’s the package – music, camerawork, design, all of it carefully manufacturing our response. This beautifully crafted drama has the expertise to conjure up any emotion required. Anger, triumph, pity, pride. It knows the recipe for them all.
Its skill at that manipulation, the Kubrickian perfection of its staging and camerawork, is sometimes called on to do the work that can’t be done by story. When plot and character fall short, the look and feel of The Handmaid’s Tale carry it along. As a result, you might leave an episode like fired up as intended, but with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.
“Heroic’s” destination was June’s rebirth in that rain shower-baptism outside the hospital, a moment that washed away her recent sins and restored her sense of purpose. This was June back in the ring, having remembered who was the real opponent. “It’s their turn to hurt,” she declared at Natalie’s bedside – a thrilling action movie line that could be slapped across posters, trailers and the sides of buses.
Character-wise though, June’s transformation from burgeoning villain back to hero felt too swift – a casualty of the show being just weeks from the finale perhaps. Like Serena’s almost immediate backslide from rebel to ruler earlier this season, it stopped an engaging possibility in its tracks.
Celebrating June’s sudden epiphany that she’s not the only one having a bad time in Gilead, and accepting her apology to Natalie for getting “lost” requires a good deal of generosity on our part. It’s a matter of motivation – having chosen for survival’s sake to buy into Gilead’s perverted morality, Natalie informed on June out of a sense of twisted moral duty; June informed on Natalie out of malice and spite. It’s hard to accept June’s redemption so soon after seeing that ghoulish smile as her walking partner’s unconscious body was dragged away in a bloody smear.
An unconscious body, but not – as assumed last week – dead. Ofmatthew survived not as a person, but as an incubator for precious cargo, which, as June’s narration told us, is how Gilead sees Handmaids anyway. (In keeping with Margaret Atwood’s rule that Gilead is not an invention, only a synthesis of real-world events.)
“Heroic” was an accomplished TV episode, even if its character moments didn’t all convince. The illusion of time passing, and June losing her grip on reality were cleverly and elegantly done: day became night became day, June was in a crowd of red dresses one second, then alone the next. Adam Taylor’s emotional score took us capably from dread to hope.
It was a technical achievement, a bottle episode that didn’t lack for tension or incident despite the limited location. Inventive shots – from inside the medical waste box, the signature overhead perspective – ensured those four white walls never became boring.
A bit of plot contrivance was required to help with that – Janine’s sudden appearance at the moment June was about to put that scalpel to Natalie’s throat wasn’t just forced, it turned Janine into a kind of angel. The episode was full of those, in fact – angels or, if you prefer, three visiting ghosts: Janine, the Doctor (Gil Bellows), and young Rose, all there to pull the starting cord on June’s conscience. “When did you get so selfish?” asked Janine. “How will you honor your daughters?” asked the Doc. ‘Are you really going to sit back and and let me, a freckle-faced, powerless child scared out of her wits, be married off to a grown man in some sick ceremony and raped like cattle until I breed?’ asked Rose (though just with her eyes).
Serena’s appearance was much more plausible, and even if it hadn’t been, we have to be grateful for any scene in which either of the Waterfords is attacked with a knife. Did you see the outfit, by the way? It was another two-piece business suit for Serena this week. Gone are the gentle flowing Madonna-and-child gowns, now is the age of Ivanka Trump tailoring.
“Heroic” ended with June singing a lullaby of sorts to Natalie, whose injuries had regressed her to a kind of babyhood. Motherhood isn’t restricted to genes and bloodlines, was the final message. Our protection and care shouldn’t only extend to our own children, but as June’s now realised, to any child who needs us.