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The Handmaid's Tale Discussion: 'Night' shows a new day in Gilead

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Jun 7, 2019

Well, we're back in Gilead and everyone is still pretty miserable. The Handmaid's Tale is back after an uneven second season, and it seems like, finally, the revolution is coming from inside the house. After enduring a seemingly endless stream of horrors, Elisabeth Moss's June is once again ready to burn it all down. She chose to stay behind despite having an escape plan in the Season 2 finale, and she's dealing with the fallout of her choice in ways that she didn't even expect.

As June handles the consequences of her decisions, we are here to untangle all of the painful realities of Gilead. We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, and let's get into it.

Staying Behind

Alyssa: I’m going to be honest: I raged at the end of last season when June ended up staying behind. Everyone risked so much, and then she just sent Nichole on her way with Emily? WHAT? It screamed “We really, really need a third season” to me, and I feel like the show knew that. Everyone really makes it clear that she may not have made the right call, but the second they brought it back to Hannah/Agnes, I got it. There’s no way June could leave her behind.

Jessica: It was doubly frustrating because, at the time, I thought this served as some kind of commentary on June’s responsibility. She’s been a character who has consistently succeeded in upending the status quo of Gilead, and it felt like the show was placing an undue burden on her to somehow fix this hellhole when she deserved a happily-ever-after. But you’re right, June’s maternal instincts, especially when it comes to Hannah/Agnes, are just too strong to ignore and I think they serve as a much more interesting and complex motivator than just pure rage at the indignities she’s suffered. But did she really think she’d be able to just swipe Hannah from her home and make another escape? Those only come around once, maybe twice in her case, in a place like Gilead. And June’s more realistic than that. What’s her endgame here?

Alyssa: Despite all the time that she has to ponder her situation and what she can or cannot do about it, I’m not sure June is that good at playing the long game. The situation she’s stuck in is so horrible and so restrictive that it’s turned her into a very reactive character. She makes these decisions and she doesn’t always think about how they could turn out, just how they affect her immediate pain. I think her time at the McKenzie house is an example of that. There’s no way she really thought that she would get Hannah out, right?

I think she made an emotional decision to stay behind, and seeing Hannah’s face was her way of deciding whether or not she made the right call. I was so worried that Hannah was going to wake up and refuse to go with her, so I guess it was a small mercy that the girl slept through it. As miserable as this show is, there is no denying how good the performances are though. Elisabeth Moss played her weariness and resignation perfectly in this scene with the simple movement of falling to her knees to wait for the Eyes to come and get her. It broke me a bit, and then her conversation with Mrs. McKenzie hurt me even more.

Jessica: Yeah that back-and-forth between the two mothers was brutal, and also, such a testament to how this show is able to completely convince me of both sides of the equation. I in no way support Gilead or its policies, but I also see how harmful this tug-of-war for Hannah is to the little girl. Still, any child who’s ripped screaming from her biological mother’s arms and placed in the care of strangers is going to have issues. The McKenzies have f*cked up Hannah more than June’s last show of resistance ever could.

For June, the goal isn’t Hannah’s immediate happiness — of course, she’s going to be resistant to this change, she’s a small child who’s essentially been gaslit into thinking this is her life now — but her future happiness. I thought it was so telling when June asked Mrs. McKenzie what Hannah was like and the woman said “happy” and “fine,” as if those are personality traits. Then she followed it up by talking about her love of sewing and cooking as if those are the only skills she’ll ever be able to learn. June knows there’s a better life for Hannah outside Gilead’s walls. No mother could settle for what the McKenzies are giving her now.

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Credit: Hulu

Burn, Motherf***er, Burn

Alyssa: Speaking of realizing the realities of Gilead, Serena Joy is Not Well. After letting June escape with Nichole and losing a finger after having the GALL to think that girls should be able to read, Serena is definitely the most disillusioned that we’ve seen her at this point. I feel like she’s every Trump voter who is now realizing that the system they’ve committed to isn’t designed to help them. She worked so hard to preserve the system that Gilead created because it benefited her. She could get the child she so desperately wants and enjoy her system of power without really considering all of the other women that it hurt so badly. But now she’s lost everything: she’s realized that her husband is a monster, she’s complicit in a system rigged against her, and she lost the baby that she would do anything to keep. She’s done so many terrible things, but I can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness for her.

Jessica: I’m always conflicted when it comes to Serena Joy. On the one hand, she has an insufferable husband who refers to himself as her master even though he’s a simpering fool and she’s the brains of the equation. Waterford’s ego has been severely damaged since Season 2 — hell, since Season 1 — and his whining tantrums wishing for things to return to “normal” are getting progressively worse. So yeah, in that respect, I feel for Serena Joy. What woman hasn’t dealt with an emotional oversized manchild and just wanted to burn sh*t down for cathartic release?

Still, even though my heart rejoices at Serena’s recent rebellion, logically I know it’s only happening because she’s lost something. It’s hard to root for the woman, even when she’s setting a match to her old life, when I know, if things had been different, she would’ve been right there with her husband, enforcing the law and hurting women to earn herself more power. Unlike June, who I feel has empathy and shared camaraderie with the women of Gilead that spurs her to help where and when she can, Serena Joy is doing most of this to spite her husband and express her own selfish rage. Still, she’s getting some kind of job done, so I guess that’s better than nothing?

Alyssa: Yeah, I agree. It’s hard to empathize with Serena when June reminds her that because of the system she helped establish, Hannah was hunted down and ripped screaming from her arms. And what woman wouldn’t recoil at Waterford proclaiming that he’s been “made the master of an incredible woman.” That being said, there’s no way she can go back to the way things were at this point. The new society that she has worked so hard to protect no longer protects her, and I think that realization is the very last straw for her.

The Handmaid’s Tale has never been a particularly subtle show, but Serena lighting the bed on fire was a pretty powerful image. So many atrocities have been committed in that bed and countless others just like it in Gilead, and there’s only so long that you can carry that knowledge with you before it becomes too much. Serena is completely broken at this point, and I’m really curious to see what happens next with her. Burning down the Waterford house sends everyone in different directions, in particular splitting up June and Nick. Their relationship is complicated, to say the least, but they’ve always had each other’s backs. He was clearly frustrated that June didn’t leave with their daughter, but what did you think about their “take care” moment?

Jessica: It felt completely in character for both, but completely unsatisfying as a fan of their relationship. Look, I don’t care for Luke — which we can get into later — so I’m all for June moving on, especially when you’re moving on to someone as handsome as Max Minghella. Those eyebrows! (Just because this is a post-apocalyptic world where women are human incubators doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate something pretty, right?)

But you’re right, their relationship has always been complex and Nick’s been very careful about how he treats June when they’re in public, potentially dangerous situations. I saw it as a reflection of his lingering resentment towards her for staying and this overwhelming fear he has for her safety that he just can’t process right now. And June, while I think she does care for Nick, knows she needs to worry about herself first in a place like Gilead. Nick’s gonna be fine — he’s a straight man. If anything, I respond to their relationship even more because, by necessity, we see a woman put herself first for once. I am curious though as to how the show is going to split our time between the two and, more importantly, between the Waterfords and June. It feels like a totally new world in a way on The Handmaid’s Tale with this group being separated, and I kind of love it?

Alyssa: I agree. I like Luke for the most part, but consider me Team Nick (ugh, this feels weird on a show like this, but whatever, I agree, we deserve something pretty). I certainly don’t think this is the end for them, but I think putting June in a new situation opens up a lot of new possibilities. If they’re going to justify a third season, it’s time for something new.

Hard Fought Freedom

Alyssa: Also thrown into a new situation is Emily. As a longtime Gilmore Girls fan, I can say with confidence that Alexis Bledel has never been better than she is on The Handmaid’s Tale, and her desperation to get across the border was a real testament to her overall performance. Emily has had a harder time than possibly anyone else on the show, and to have freedom be so close but still so hard to grab was agonizing to watch. But she made it! I cried!

Jessica: God, her escape was an emotional rollercoaster but I’m so glad both her and the baby survived their trip across the border. I’m excited to see where Emily goes this season. I admit, she hasn’t always been the most interesting character for me, but her story really picked up in the last half of season two and I think, given everything she’s gone through, she’s the perfect vehicle to explore a new side of the show, which is, what happens once you’re free of Gilead? We’ve seen Moira struggle with this in the past, but Emily has been through hell and back in a way no other woman has, so the show has a real chance to do right by trauma survivors with her journey. And I hope she continues to be a presence in Nichole’s life. It’s what June would want.

Alyssa: I think she will be. She’s clearly attached to Nichole, as she showed in the hospital. One thing I want to talk about was Emily’s reception in Canada. While the border patrol agents and the doctors at the hospital were very gentle and understanding with her, the moment where everyone in the hospital clapped for her felt… strange. I feel like that was their way of showing their support, but to what end?

This is clearly a very traumatized woman who has escaped from an oppressive regime, and they… clap. I’m not sure what they were trying to convey, but it felt so hollow to me. There’s no way they could know what she’s been through, and instead of giving her some space to recover and adjust, she’s put on the spot and made the center of attention. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be given recognition for her courage, but this moment felt off. What did you think?

Jessica: It was weird as hell. And, considering the current happenings in our society, it just felt gross. Like, once again, here’s a woman displaying her suffering to strangers so they can appreciate it and understand her story. I don’t know, I think welcoming her like some kind of superhero just felt wrong. I understand the sentiment behind it — Emily and all the women of Gilead deserve a damn medal for what they’ve been through, or at least a very comprehensive spa package and a good book to dig into. You know, the self-care basics. What they don’t need is this glaring neon sign that says, “Hey, you’ve been through some sh*t but you made it. Congrats.” Like, send her a Hallmark card or something, but give her some damn space first.

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Credit: Hulu

What’s Next

Alyssa: I definitely think that they’re setting up Emily to have a great arc in Canada. In a show that is often accused of being misery porn, I really think The Handmaid’s Tale needs to give these women a win this season. Emily survived Gilead and the colonies and back again, so please, writers, let her rest. For June, I want the opposite: I want the flame that’s been burning inside her for the past two seasons to become a full-on wildfire. Please, I’m begging, burn this horrible system down.

Jessica: Same. I need to see June make some tangible headway in her fight against Gilead. I know she’s going to go through it the season — she has every season — but I think this show has always benefitted from its oddly perfect-timing and women everywhere need a win right about now. If we can’t get it in the real world, I hope we at least get it in Gilead.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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