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'The Handmaid's Tale' Won't Let Us Forget How We Got Here

In a flashback, "Late" depicts the most terrifying scene from the novel in stunning fashion.

by Genevieve Valentine
Apr 28 2017, 4:35am

George Kraychyk/Hulu

"Now I'm awake to the world. I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen."

It's hard to watch this episode and not think about every "We all let Trump happen" tweet.

The most terrifying scene in Atwood's novel gets pride of place here, with increasingly agitated handheld camerawork following June—not Offred, yet—as her money gets cut off right before every woman in her office is dismissed. It's a perfect staging of her stomach-dropping realization that she waited a day too long to get out. (Later, June and Moira flee a protest as soldiers open fire; later... well, by then it's too late.)

The world of The Handmaid's Tale is chillingly prescient, but that stomach-dropping horror is also a distinctly white fear—a straight fear, the fear of someone whose complacency is shaken for the first time. Enter Moira, a black lesbian, for whom this is just the other shoe dropping. ("They can't do this," June protests. Moira, flat: "They can.") Moira's the one who points out they've already been ignoring red flags and living on borrowed time. June dismisses her; it was just to prevent another attack, she says. But even as she says it she can't look at Moira. She's horrified, realizing.

"We all" did not let Trump happen. Many were vocal about why he was so dangerous—particularly people of color, the LGBT community, and everyone who you were getting tired of seeing at protests before states started passing legislation to make protest illegal. And "we all" were not asleep before; those same people were up in arms about voters' rights, transparency, and abuse of power before such things became suddenly endangered. But the people who actually let Trump happen were so used to ignoring those other people that it didn't matter to them when it should have, and now the people who will suffer anyway are also asked to share the blame.

The horror of The Handmaid's Tale isn't that misogynists are using religion as an excuse to codify hatred—we have that now. The horror is what happens that morning at June's work. It's the fact that the soldiers have already bought in to the new world order. It's when the men at June's work don't say a word in the women's defense. It's Luke's response to their outrage, a well-meaning "you know I'll take care of you" that visibly makes June's stomach drop. It's the last good night's sleep she ever has.

The episode title is almost more pointedly about this meaning of "late" than it is about Offred's brief, mistaken pregnancy. But that phantom fetus is a fairly potent question. Suddenly Rita's kind, even friendly; suddenly Serena Joy is telling Offred they're in this together. Suddenly someone's asking Offred what she wants. Elisabeth Moss absorbs it with an incredulity that swings from dry humor to quiet despair, as this hypothetical fetus is granted a level of consideration—of humanity—Offred hasn't gotten, and won't get. (We have that now.)

George Kraychyk/Hulu

But this is an episode about dropping the act. So Offred doesn't play along and pretend there's a pregnancy. Instead, Offred tells Serena Joy exactly how Ofwarren is doing. "I'm afraid she might be losing touch," she says, practically a dare to see if there's any empathy left in Serena Joy.

And there is a twisted flicker of fellow-feeling here. Sure, that madness happens to those "weaker girls," but Serena Joy comes strikingly close to admitting the horror of it all. "What you do—what we do together is so terrible..." she says, and almost forgets to finish it on an up note, because the relief of cutting the crap is so visible for both of them that she can barely drag herself back to the party line.

Maybe that moment, soured by the first glimpse of the black van, is what drives Offred to stand her ground rather than just play along with something that, in the scheme of things, would cost her nothing. Maybe it's Moira, casting a shadow of resistance across time and space as Offred's abject fear slowly calcifies into a refusal to give in. It's a bold, even foolhardy move for her, given how hard she's trying to play the long game. This isn't the treason charge Offred fears—she could easily "Yes, Aunt Lydia" her way out of it. But even under penalty of pain, she doesn't. She says "gay," not "gender traitor." She says Ofglen was her friend. When she's very nearly out of the woods, she answers chastising Scripture with righteous Scripture; she's not taking the blame for this one.

For all the good it does her. Though it's unclear whether she was pregnant and lost it after the interrogation, or just a few days late, whatever benefits that pregnancy may have gotten her are gone as soon as her period comes. (Those who suffer anyway are asked to take the blame.) She's locked in.

Of course, not all the horror of The Handmaid's Tale is portent. Sometimes it's just horror. Serena Joy spits that things for Offred could always be worse; we cut to Ofglen.

Before We Go:

  • That beat in the courtroom in which the accused women stand with gags on while sentence is laid out is one of those scenes you know will be chilling but aren't really prepared for. (Alexis Bledel does more acting in this episode than she's done in the rest of her cumulative body of work. What an affecting bout of silent misery.)
  • Something about the interrogation deliberately calls to mind the first episode, where June's forced to shame Janine to give up the last public vestige of solidarity. But she's had time to bear the unbearable; she's seen Janine slowly losing her mind. Sometimes refusal to collude is all you have.

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