Everyone's a Spy in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
With one episode left in the season, "The Bridge" has to find a way for the Handmaids to fight back.
Despite the cautionary tale that screams off of every frame, The Handmaid's Tale is most interested in intimacy. At first it was Offred's psychology, the immediacy of her sensory experiences, and the rhythms that confined her—but as the world got more complex, so did the the relationships. Unexpected intimacies can shake someone's whole life; the isolation that defines Gilead makes everyone into a spy. (Serena Joy and Rita drinking in the kitchen, trying to connect almost despite themselves, feels like a portent. Any honesty feels like a portent.)
A lot of narrative energy comes from people who care for one another, in whatever ways that's allowed to manifest. Janine, Offred, and Aunt Lydia's exchange is unorthodox—even forbidden (some gasps go up)—but in a world as small as this one, intimacy is unavoidable. Of course, with the power of knowing someone you hate comes the horror of being known: You're a spy, but so is everyone else. "The Bridge" is made of these little intimacies—how terrifying they can be, and the cracks they make in the armor.
This hits home early, as Alma initially gives Offred the cold shoulder about Mayday, and Elisabeth Moss's face practically slides off her skull as Offred struggles to absorb the blow. Fear of being cut out of the inner circle—the kind of disconnect that brought Ofglen low—staggers her. The only other time she has looked so shell-shocked was after two weeks in her room: Solitude is more terrifying to Offred than almost anything that's happened so far—until the Jezebels, anyway.
Joseph Fiennes has committed to being as slimy as possible, but honestly, Moss's luminous disgust is the real center of his character. Smarming if she liked it, prompting her thanks when she's not grateful enough; he's less a person than a pillar of loathing. This is the wretchedness of intimacy: being watched, being understood, even in your private moments. The relief that he doesn't guess Offred's espionage is only barely mitigated by this demonstration that he knows all about her.
Since an ostensible theme of this episode is finding a way to fight back, and since Offred's decided to work for Mayday, someone else has to give in. That falls, understandably, to Moira. But it also means a scene where Offred snaps at Moira to get her shit together, which is... awkward. This show is probably not in a position to have Offred lecturing Moira about when to fight. Aside from the flashbacks where Moira knows what they're up against long before anyone else, Moira was recently tortured, and her current situation is hellish—she's a prisoner of the hotel, without even her own name to show for it. We can tell Offred's afraid for Moira and using anger to galvanize her, but I still think it's an awfully tidy way to get Moira back in play.
More successful are the intimacies we can see that Offred can't (the ones where we're her spy). We see Serena Joy's patience fizzling out. We see Nick's unhappiness making him dangerously restless. We see Janine's visceral, startling refusal to submit to any more indignities. These keep the world outside Offred alive in her absence, and makes us feel complicit for understanding it. When Offred's called to the bridge, we don't know whether Lydia or Serena Joy thought of her, but we'd believe it from either. Offred's intimacy with Janine is important enough.
But The Handmaid's Tale has provided this intimacy at some cost to us, too. It's the sort of intimacy where you see Janine standing on the bridge and think: Yes. Do it. There's no mercy waiting for you. There's no safety in ever coming down.
Offred understands; part of her intimacy with us is that we can tell just how much she's tempted to go over the wall and be free of everyone. (After all, this is also fighting back—it's denying Gilead any more use of your body.) But in the end, Janine goes over alone, and it stings to know she's survived. It stings, in a different way, to see Aunt Lydia keeping watch over her with an intimacy we expect, but aren't quite meant to understand.
The episode ends with obligatory hints of action: Offred finally getting her hands on her contraband (courtesy of Moira), Moira breaking out. But this episode's power is in a kitchen, a hotel foyer, a bridge; if Gilead can be conquered, the connections between people will be what does the job.
Before We Go:
- Nine episodes in, there's still a lot of power in those two red rows.
- Director Kate Dennis also gives us several beats of motion as people approach something dreadful or emerge from something idyllic. The Guardian stepping into frame behind the Commanders' wives was a perfectly timed reveal—the darkly comic counterpoint to Offred and the Commander heading back down that dour hallway for reasons unknown. And Serena Joy edging around the table, longing for any human proximity she can get, is more poignant than it has any right to be.
- David's wife was possibly the creepiest person we've run into; a hypocrite's easier to fathom than a zealot.
- "He never had to deal with them." Mmm, complicity!
- The foyer of the hotel room in Jezebels is another bit of claustrophobic geography, the wallpaper's filigree loops, the ceiling like the lid on Serena Joy's jewelry box.
- The sound design has backed away from the shuddering closeness of the early episodes, and (aside from the pop closers you cannot make me like) the series has never relied overmuch on scoring, but in this episode, Janine, Offred, and Serena Joy are connected by bursts of low-slung strings as the worst happens.
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