'The Handmaid's Tale' shifts its focus to the rage and limitations of its heroine
The Handmaid's Tale premiered on Hulu in the spring of 2017, early in the administration that eventually nominated three of the five Supreme Court justices who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade. At the time, its story of a woman who had been kidnapped and separated from her daughter and her husband and held captive by a couple who raped her repeatedly in the hopes that she would produce a baby — one they would also take from her — got attention for being a frightening and foreboding vision of what worst-case scenarios for the loss of liberty might look like.
But it also got attention, more and more over the following years, for its limitations. Most glaringly, its central character, June (Elisabeth Moss) is a white woman, and most of the other women held in Gilead as handmaids looked to be white as well. "This could happen here" was a warning that was foolish to those who knew that in the United States and elsewhere, enslaved women and indigenous women, among others, have long known about captivity, about forced separation from their children, about the loss of autonomy, and about the violence of rape in the context of purported "ownership" of or state-sanctioned dominion over other human beings. The show's failure to reckon with race when talking about the subjugation of women and especially the forceful control of their fertility rang profoundly false, and referring to the show when lamenting the loss of bodily autonomy came to stand, at times, for a limited view of what that meant.
At the same time, from a story perspective, the show struggled with problems of stasis. For three-plus seasons, it focused on June's three primary objectives: to escape; to get revenge on her captors, the Waterfords; and to reunite with Hannah, the daughter Gilead took from her and her husband and placed with "parents" who were, in fact, captors. And for a long time, it seemed that June would endlessly approach progress on those fronts and then either be thwarted or change her mind, to the point of tedium.
During its fourth season, the series made perhaps its most important shift in perspective when June left Gilead. She escaped through Chicago and was accepted into Canada as a refugee. She was reunited with her husband Luke, and with her friend Moira (Samara Wiley), and with her daughter Nicole (the baby she had while she was a prisoner, whom she'd smuggled out successfully earlier in the story). In one of the best and simplest scenes of the series, June gave testimony at the trial of the Waterfords, who had been arrested and charged in Canada. With her freedom secured, one of June's objectives was achieved.
Then, at the end of season four, she managed a more shocking reversal. Through a combination of fierce determination and knowing the right people, she got Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) out in the woods at night unprotected, where she and a group of other former handmaids beat him to death. Revenge had been achieved, at least against Fred, while Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) remained in a Canadian prison.
We return for season five just after June and her group kill Fred. She has sent his finger to Serena, both as a taunt and as an offer of proof. And the obvious question presents itself: What will be June's punishment for doing this? The answer to that question, which the new season offers early, is not entirely satisfying, but it does allow the narrowing of June's objectives to a single one that remains: getting Hannah out of Gilead. She is otherwise prepared to walk away from the larger struggle in which she's engaged.
The problem with that turns out to be that to some women of Gilead (past and present), June is a leader of their critical resistance movement. And while she has freed herself and gotten her revenge, other women begin to look to her and wonder whether her fight has anything in it for anyone else. Because the other women, of course, want revenge as much as she did, and they helped her to get it. Now, they expect her to do the same, and they are dismayed that she has little taste for it. "He was your monster," says another woman — a Black woman named Danielle (Natasha Mumba) — who participated in Fred's killing. "And we tore him apart for you. Now it's my turn." Are you a leader if you stop when you achieve your own individual freedom? Do you inspire? What does a woman lucky enough to achieve her own ends owe to those who were her compatriots? "She was here for you," says Vicki (Amanda Zhou), pulling out a gun and pointing it at June. "Are you here for her? Are you here for any of us?" In this scene, June goes from a character considered solely in her capacity as a traumatized person to one who is also seen through the lenses of what she owes to others, and of whether she has ever been truly interested in resistance at all.
At the same time, the series begins to study not only Serena's complicity but her active participation in the abusive Gilead system. Strahovski does some fine work this season as a woman who is constantly trying to maneuver herself into a favorable position for her own comfort and security. The show has always acknowledged, but is now confronting more fully, that one of the key threats to vulnerable women in any society that oppresses them is, in fact, less vulnerable women who calculate that participation in injustice will work out better for them than resistance. Patriarchy, under this argument, would get nowhere without the women who embrace it for its advantages.
In some past episodes, Serena has functioned as a different kind of victim, one certainly better off than June but one also suffering from violence (like the chopping off of her finger for the sin of questioning authority). But she is now a figure almost entirely of menace. Fred has been replaced by Serena as the primary representation of Gilead's brutality. What's more, Serena wants June executed — she wants it so specifically that she wants Canada to change its entire legal approach to capital punishment just for this purpose. So Serena shares June's desire to kill her enemies; she just hopes that as a genteel pregnant woman who does yoga and sees herself as a person of special importance, she can convince the state to do it for her rather than chasing someone through the woods to deliver a beating with her own hands.
The fifth season also continues its exploration of June's rage, of her complete — complete — lack of interest in forgiveness, apologies or healing. Even when her husband wants her to move on, even when her best friend wants her to move on, June is consumed not just by the desire to get Hannah back, but by her earned ire. During the seasons when she was a prisoner, The Handmaid's Tale used June's anger as her fuel, the thing that kept her able to function, and in fact the thing that kept her from despair. ("Nolite te bastardes carborundorum," she carved into the wood of her room early in her time at the Waterfords'. It's not actually Latin, but it makes the point.) This anger was an engine, a means to an end.
But now that June is out of Gilead, her anger has not dissipated. If anything, it has grown. She killed Fred happily, she rejoiced in it, where she once had to be ordered by Aunt Lydia to participate in the ritualistic killing of a man with the state's blessing as a punishment for lawbreaking. It is less that she cannot heal and more that she feels past the very idea. She feels impatient with people who believe healing is possible and affronted by those who consider it her obligation. She thrums at times with literal bloodlust.
Stories about survivors of trauma often focus on a portrayal of them as weeping, lost, and seeking only peace. At this point, the most daring thing about The Handmaid's Tale may be its willingness to explore trauma as a driver of rage that demands retribution and can lead to tunnel vision and the loss of all other purpose in life, not a wound that responds reliably to love or leads inevitably to growth.
None of this negates the complaints about the show that have been shared for several years now. The show is still about June, and about Serena, more than anything else. It cannot be engineered into something it is not. But its examination of these two women embraces a more complicated dynamic than it once did. It has become a more thoughtful study of complicity, both on Serena's level of active violence and participation and on June's level of engaging in resistance that is individual rather than collective. And it has become an unusual story, for television, of a trauma survivor whose eyes still darken with precisely the same coiled fury, even after the immediate danger has passed.
And there is something else, too. In Canada, as the authorities secure their hold on her, Serena seems isolated; it seems that she has been separated from her base of support. But then she walks out of the jail on a supervised trip, and although she remains in custody, she discovers something. The sidewalk is lined with well-wishers, people right there in Canada who are drawn to the Gilead lifestyle, who are looking to support it and spread it where it has not yet taken hold. No oppressive system is as simple as its most obvious villains, after all. It is its tentacles and its tendency to grow that make it frightening.
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