Gotta Hear Both Sides!
I promise I’ll talk about this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale and its climactic trip to Funkytown, but, first, a brief detour. For the past year or two, every time a new TV series debuts, I play a game with myself. It’s called, “Subtract One Murder.” The game is simple: imagine what the show would be like if you subtracted one murder from its story. If the show has tons of murders in it, then it’s likely that this is not a big deal. That show is good, or it’s bad, but subtracting one murder from, say, American Gods, isn’t going to make it any less of, well, whatever the holy living hell American Gods is. And shows with no murders at all are exempt. But when a show has just one or maybe two murders, then the game becomes interesting.
Murder is, in many cases, a stock device. It provides immediate, recognizable stakes, and they arrive pret-a-porter. There is plenty of great art about murder, obviously, but there is also plenty of lousy art that leans on it as a crutch. The game asks, at its core, does this show need a murder in order to be dramatically compelling?
Showtime’s The Affair, for instance, is not a particularly great show. Now, some of this is because its insights about marriage and fidelity wildly vacillate between fresh and hokey, and some of it is because its constantly dividing structure means the show is very uneven, but a lot of it is because, for some reason I can’t fathom, it’s also a murder mystery. If you subtract the murder from The Affair, my guess is that practically nobody would miss it and that the show, on a whole, would be substantially better.
Likewise, Big Little Lies. It’s already a substantially better show than The Affair, and in order to remove the central murder from this show, one would have to significantly rework the concept, but I think it’s maybe selling the show short to say that we need a murder mystery in order to be captivated, surprised, and aghast at these characters and their world. Martin Scorsese said that The Age of Innocence—a romantic drama in which nobody is killed or even physically harmed—was his most violent film. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Big Little Lies similarly removing its murder while retaining its essential, gripping violence.
A variation of this game is called “Subtract One Affair.” An affair, like a murder, can be a stock device. It complicates relationships in predictable ways, and, even as there are plenty of great works of art that investigate infidelity, there are just as many lousy ones that use it to artificially inject drama. Last year I wrote an essay praising the delightfully bloated Billions for daring to create a Premium Cable drama series without a single act of adultery from any of the four leads. While it was willing to indulge basically every other excess of twenty-first century TV, it was able to imagine a world where the complex exploration of marital fidelity was inherently more dramatic than an illicit rendezvous in a hotel room.
If you subtracted one murder from The Handmaid’s Tale, a show that features hanging bodies as set decorations, it wouldn’t make much difference, but I do wonder what it’s doing with its affair.
[A disclaimer, before I go on: As I mentioned when we started, I’ve intentionally remained the lone writer for this column who has not read Margaret Atwood’s novel. I realize that the affair we learn about this episode is a part of the source text, but I’m primarily concerned here with how it’s presented as part of the television series and what it does as a series of beats paced out in the context of this particular episode.]
In the series of flashbacks that anchor the aptly titled “Faithful,” we learn that June began her relationship with Luke (the eventual father of her child) while he was still married to someone else. We see their meet-cute at a hot dog truck—no more artisanal food truck culture in Gilead!—we see them edge the boundaries of acceptable flirtation at one of a series of chaste lunches, we see their first sexual encounter in a hotel room, we see June ask him to leave his wife, and we see him agree. The show takes pains not to judge our players even as it shows them doing something many would identify as wrong, and it sets up these scenes as a fragmented depiction of real, actual love emerging from a place of betrayal and infidelity.
For this episode, it’s meant, in one way, to be a counter-narrative to the Commander’s insistence that love is not real. (I would have gladly paid Hulu an extra $1.99 per month if they’d had Joseph Fiennes say, “Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark to sell greeting cards.”) Love is real, the show says, and here’s a messy, beautiful illustration of that fact. Or, rather, love is more than sex or vanity or biological impulse. It is, at the very least, a way of making meaning, a way of asserting one’s ability to choose a life for themselves.
These sequences—with their valorization of choice and sexual freedom—are also, seemingly, meant to stand in contrast to both Offred’s compulsory coupling with Nick and her later, recreational visit to his boudoir. Offred’s voiceover tells us that sleeping with Nick is the first thing that’s felt like infidelity to Luke. The voiceover doesn’t go too much further into explicating this statement, but it’s safe to imagine that this might be because Offred is genuinely attracted to Nick, because something about the off-the-books nature of this affair reminds her of her past actions, because having this intimacy with another man—even if it’s just the intimacy of a shared secret—feels like a betrayal, or even because trusting another man feels like a betrayal itself. All or none of these could be true.
But there’s another implied contrast here, between the events of the flashbacks and the events in present-day Gilead. In their conversation about love—which is, not for nothing, maybe the best and most dynamic interaction we’ve yet seen between Moss and Fiennes—the Commander utters his famous line, “We wanted to make the world better…Better never means better for everyone.” This line demonstrates the cruelty and the myopia of Gilead, and, coming on the heels of Fiennes’ Gollum/Smeagol routine in this episode, reminds us that, even as we are tempted to empathize with this soft-spoken Scrabbler, he is also an evil fucker. The statement shows some self-awareness on the part of the Commander—he can realize that what he’s doing has destroyed lives—but that self-awareness makes him somehow worse.
This is an episode that’s tightly focused and contained on the subject of fidelity and infidelity. More than any of the other episodes so far, its flashbacks are not just back-filling narrative; they’re providing generative, interlinked juxtapositions. The formal logic of this episode is one in which we have to interpret the story told in flashbacks in terms of the story told in the present. So it’s not Advanced-Level Media Analysis to say that the show wants a little of the Commander’s statement to reflect on June and Luke’s affair. Luke’s decision to leave his marriage at June’s urging makes things better (for Luke and for June), but not better for everyone (his wife, Annie).
I want to explore this parallel, but it’s not the only one the show connects to the Commander’s catch phrase. The other scene that resonates most strongly with this exchange is Ofglen #2’s monologue to Offred. The new Ofglen (played by multiracial Canadian actress, Tattiawna Jones) warns Offred against jeopardizing what she sees as their not-actually-that-bad-if-you-think-about-it situation. She begins by drawing an unflattering portrait of Offred as a privileged white woman with a Nordstrom’s card (Offred corrects her by saying she prefers Anthropologie) and essentially suggesting that her desire for revolution, or what have you, is simply another manifestation of that privilege. Her argument is that, while being a Handmaid might represent oppression to Offred, it represents an escape from the life of drug addiction and quasi-prostitution and back alleys for her. We are not, of course, meant to extrapolate here that the show believes Gilead is actually totally fine don’t worry about it, and that Offred is giving an ungenerous read of the dystopia she inhabits, but, in the context of the Commander’s statement, it brings up an interesting question. Offred rightfully pledges to resist the misogynist order that has held her captive, but it’s a reminder that not everyone was “free” in the neoliberal America she enjoyed before Congress blew up.
So, The Handmaid’s Tale weaves what are essentially two critiques of Offred’s complicity or complacency. The first, and probably better, is the one in which her dawning revolutionary consciousness necessarily must grapple with the way Gilead’s DNA had to have been present in the social order from which she benefitted pre-Gilead. In order for Offred to resist the patriarchs of Gilead, she has to understand how she failed to resist the patriarchs that came before.
The other critique lands a little weirder. The show is not, obviously, interested in villainizing Offred or in any way meaningfully equating her infidelity with the sins of the Commanders. And, indeed, as I mention above, the acts themselves are presented in as positive a light as possible—we routinely forgive the male anti-heroes of the Golden Age for far more flagrant fouls—and this is an episode that repeatedly seeks to remind us of the Commander’s unique dastardliness. And yet, this move undoubtedly places Offred and the Commander on a spectrum. They may be at far opposite ends, and the show may battle to distance their acts aesthetically and narratively, but the point is that, even as all this is true, the show still introduces the comparison. Admittedly, The Handmaid’s Tale is only scratching the surface of this parallelism, but deep beneath that surface is a bubbling well of Gotta Hear Both Sides.
In other words, when the show introduces this affair, in this episodic context, it’s difficult to avoid at least faintly painting June and the Commander with the same brush. Whether that’s the intention or not, it’s hard to say. It’s very possible that I’m nitpicking what was otherwise a strong hour. And there is, of course, no virtue in presenting our cast of characters as saints before the rise of this dystopia—particularly when the show contrasts Offred’s bonneted tunnel vision in the present with, perhaps, the selective, self-imposed tunnel vision of her past. But this Left critique of Offred is very different from whatever we’re supposed to do with the yoking of the Commander’s statement and June’s participation in an act of adultery. Is Offred supposed to feel chastened? Are we? And, if we are, isn’t there a [cough] puritanical cast to this parallel?
This was, in some ways, one of the show’s tightest hours—tightest thematic focus, most purposeful editing, most agonizingly affecting compositional choices. And yet, that focus and efficiency exposed some of the things the show doesn’t do particularly well. Overall, I think Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale has been extraordinarily good at staging the spectacle of its premise for us. Gilead has become a habitable world for us viewers, and that’s not nothing for what is, essentially, a sci-fi series. And the show has become great at articulating its central relationships through small, silent grace notes—Ofglen’s hand squeeze, the Commander’s roving hand, Nick’s shamefully averted eyes. But I struggle with some of the show’s choices around the margins. What does the show do when it’s trying to do something beyond establish itself with force? Or, rather, how do the writers of this show think about The Handmaid’s Tale?
Take that adultery, for instance. Should we subtract it? I don’t think it’s that simple, but its execution in this episode certainly made it feel more like a liability than a lyrical expansion of the show’s themes. Angelica Jade Bastién makes a convincing argument, for instance, that these flashbacks are so cursory, so paint-by-numbers in their unfolding of a conventional adultery narrative, that they end up actually supporting the Commander’s point about love being an illusion. I agree with her critique, and I actually think many of the flashbacks in the series suffer from this same curse of conventionality. Lots of the moments they reveal are powerful and singular—the maternity ward, the protest—but when they seek to reveal more hum-drum domestic details, or flesh out relationships in the lead-up to Gilead, they fall flat. The conversation between Luke, Moira, and June about feminism in an earlier episode, for instance, has a stagey quality to it, a colloquial awkwardness that’s missing from even the forced formality of Gilead. In these flashbacks, the writers are trying to provide for us the haunting, tactile memory of a lost world, but that world often feels more unreal—as in, fake, not uncanny—than the counterfactual world of Gilead.
I felt similarly off-kilter about the way the show presented Ofglen #2’s confession/threat. As I mentioned above, I’m all for complicating our understanding of Offred’s complicity or complacency in the land before time. But, for a lot of reasons, this exchange played a little too on the nose, or maybe a little too off the nose, I’m not sure which. For what it’s worth, Miller either cast an actress of color in this part because his understanding of race in America is based on a floor speech from the Republican National Convention, or it’s a heavy-handed inkling of the way the series might approach questions of racial inequality and social policy in the absence of the novel’s original depiction of racism and power. (Either way, it’s another weird instance of this show’s casting priorities serving to decouple otherwise complex and intertwined histories of oppression—as other critics have noted about earlier episodes.) And, in that way, this challenge feels a little too easy, a little too gotcha, a little too neat. “What’s worse than being a handmaid?” somebody in the writers’ room surely wondered aloud. It’s a gesture at complexity, and yet it’s so bald in its striving toward that goal, and so blunt in its execution, that it risks either offending the viewer or simply not registering at all.
June/Offred has never lived in a just world, and neither have we. That’s a necessary insight and not an easy one, so I hope the show stops looking for easy ways to remind us of it.
He sounds less threatening if you call him: “Commander Fred,”