'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Pulling You in Whether You Like It or Not

Don't let the bastards grind you down.

May 3 2017, 4:00am

The wallpaper in the Waterford's dining room is patterned like a bird in a tree. The repeat is so close, however, that the branch beneath one bird crowds the sky of the next, a loose hexagon of leaves. A prison, over and over. The pattern on the bedroom walls is a hexagon of seafoam green and white. The ceiling of Serena Joy's parlor is a hexagon of greened-out turquoise. Everything is tidy and closed in. There's no way out.

The Handmaid's Tale is immersive. The details build an oppressive whole without us really noticing, shaping the way we interact with this world. Everything already feels like it's pressing on us; now, small things feel frantic, illicit, wrong. In the flashbacks, episode director Mike Barker makes sure we can't quite tell what the soldiers are burning—it's important, and it's vanishing, and that's it. The man casually chipping the station name off the platform feels like a bigger betrayal than the soldiers patrolling the streets. In its darkest moments, the score's threaded with the sound of a finger on the rim of a glass. When Offred holds the dictionary a moment too long, it feels vicious; we half-expect her to eat it.

It's also immersive because it's so eerily timely. In other years, I might have wondered about the murkiness of this timeline, the nightmarish telescope that makes a few years feel like a hundred. This year, I don't doubt it. Whoever carved "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" in the closet might as well have been there a hundred years ago, when things were still as unbearable as this. And for Offred, things really do get unbearable this episode—after two weeks locked in with the windows covered, she's losing her grip.

George Kraychyk/Hulu

Elisabeth Moss's outstanding performance practically burns through the frame, and her wordless agony makes several scenes almost impossibly miserable to watch. (The women discovering that Handmaids will be succumbing to rape feels as if it lasts 20 minutes; the Ceremony that's abandoned because the Commander can't get it up feels like it lasts 20 years.) She's spring-loaded with tension, and we're primed for her to blow up. It's frightening—startling, somehow—to watch her break down instead, as if we could ignore the crushing hopelessness of her position only so long as she could. The battle about whether to take Nick's offered hand or keep that glimmer of autonomy becomes impossibly heavy. That Scrabble game becomes a matter of life and death.

That Scrabble game also shows the ways Handmaid's Tale is stretching into the space allotted. We're settling in for the long haul; we have episodic themes, now. Now Moira scrawls a tiny insult on the bathroom wall as June warns her, "If they catch you writing, you'll lose a hand. It's not worth it." "Yeah, it is," Moira replies and explains (a bit on the nose, maybe) that it's not for her sake, but for the sake of the women who come after her. It's Moira's escape that inspires Offred to face the Commander. It's the Offred before her who provides the leverage she needs; she has so little to fight with, but if her life is an ultimatum now, then she'll use it.

Perhaps because everything else has been so finely calibrated, the episode's closing moments feel a little off; even in the stylized world of Offred's mind, lining up the Handmaids like willing soldiers and marching them toward the camera reads slightly on the nose, like it's staged mostly to soothe our feelings—an optimistic cap to a grueling episode, a promise that she has her fight back and things will be different now.

But the Handmaids' wordless offerings of food are a reminder that even though this world is designed to convince you there's no way out, their prisons still touch. Despite all attempts to isolate the Handmaids from the world and one another, a connection remains. Everything in this world is frantic and wrong, tidy and closed in, but whatever hope is left, that invisible space is where it lives.

Before We Go:

  • "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" is the novel's rallying cry. You will never convince me adding "bitches" at the end does anything for it.
  • In the first recap I mentioned the show had deviated from the book's white Christian future and wondered how it would address the change. Bruce Miller has since spoken about it. I understand good intentions but am still a little wary of the idea that right-wingers would drop white supremacy when the going got tough. They never have before.
  • We already know the Ceremony excerpt isn't very long; it could easily be memorized. The Scripture gets read out loud to remind everyone men can still read.
  • I would watch four movies of Samira Wiley as a begrudging undercover agent.
  • Given the audacity of that escape, I'm mildly surprised Offred still has all her body parts.
  • "Well, fainting isn't uncommon on Ceremony nights." There's a fascinating divide in so many interactions, where Offred can't even take cold comfort in being surrounded by true believers because people keep dropping the act and treating her like a person—not enough of a person to help but enough of a person to ask things of.
  • We're getting hints of a wider world now – just hints, because the show is rationing our information as a meta parallel to Offred. Currently, the UN has an embargo against Gilead, Canada has a working press, and Mexico's coming to visit.

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