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Sunday, 18 August 2019

REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale delivers powerful episode.

The Handmaid’s Tale delivered one of its greatest ever instalments last week, and — with only a few weeks to go before the season’s end — it pulls another cracker out of the bag with ‘Liars’. I have to admit, with all of the odd narrative choices made this season, I’m rather shocked how quickly the show has managed to recover. ‘Liars’ is much more in sync with the Handmaid’s of old — albeit a slightly more heightened version — and after all he stalling tactics that were employed earlier in the season, it’s great to see the story moving forward once more. 


Mind you, considering how brilliant the episode truly is, it gets off to a rather shaky start, when June (Elisabeth Moss) just happens to be walking by as Eleanor (Julie Dretzin) points a gun at Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) — in the middle of the night, no less. Convenient much? Also, conveniences aside, it’s contrived conflict — especially when you consider that we don’t see the events which lead to such an altercation. After everything that happened last week, Lawrence has officially become an ally for June in her mission to get the kids out of the hell-hole in which they live, so this was clearly meant to toy with our feelings — and June’s — as our protagonist is faced with the possibility of losing all of her leverage once more. Of course, it doesn’t happen, as June successfully talks Eleanor around — which leaves Lawrence further indebted to her. Odd opening, for sure.

Following the show’s signature title card, however, things improve exponentially. With Beth (Kristen Gutsokie)on board, June meets with a group of Marthas to discuss her plan — and it’s an intense moment. Our protagonist fights her corner, and delivers a compelling argument, and in all honesty, she annihilates the competition. This is the June that we all know and love. 

In typical Handmaid’s fashion, just as everything looks like it’s going to work out, an obstacle is thrown in June’s way — and the disappearance of Lawrence is a pretty big obstacle, to say the least. If I’m being honest, my heart sank upon realising that Lawrence and Eleanor had upped sticks and left. All I could think about was how brilliant June’s alliance with her commander was realised during last week’s instalment, and how all of that great storytelling had been squandered for the sake of giving June another obstacle — one which would ultimately set her back a few paces, which is a rather annoying habit on the writers’ part this season. However, Lawrence’s brief departure proved a necessary plot device, as it was through his attempt to leave Gilead that he came to learn of the new roadblocks which prevent him from getting out — which means that he’ll be unable to get a truck containing 52 children out of Gilead, after all. Before you ask, yes I fully realise that this is also an obstacle, but it’s a realistic one — not a contrived narrative decision like Lawrence departing at the eleventh hour would’ve been — and I can roll with that. If June’s plan was straightforward, it simply wouldn’t be believable. 

A visit to Jezebels allows June a new way to get the children out, as — after speaking to Billy the barman — she acquires knowledge of an aeroplane departing Gilead in a few weeks. With the future looking bright once more, June heads off — but Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) spots her and invites her back to his suite. Again, another wonderful obstacle for June to overcome. The writing really has improved over the last couple of episodes. 

The subsequent scenes in Winslow’s room are incredibly harrowing, as he attempts to rape June. Our titular handmaid talks us through how she’s grown accustomed to dealing with situations like this one — and how detaching oneself is the key — but when Winslow starts to undress her, something snaps and June fights back. The power dynamic suddenly shifts and it’s incredibly obvious that Winslow cannot deal with being put in his place, and therefore he lashes out, and goes out of his way to get back on top.

However, June reaches for the nearby pen and stabs him to death — before finishing the job with a statue from the table opposite of her. The subtext in the scene is superb — especially when you consider that June was a writer prior to Gilead. I guess the pen really is mightier than the sword. A sublimely executed scene, and one that will forever change our protagonist. This is the first time she’s taken a life of her own accord. Sure, she’s inadvertently gotten people killed before, but this time she’s in control of a situation and made an executive decision to take someone’s life. Shocking as it was, it’s the right move for the character — especially considering the show has spent the entire season trying to demonstrate the effect that living in Gilead has had on June’s mental state. This world has changed her and made her a darker, more ruthless person. Survival is the primary goal here — and nothing will stop our protagonist from surviving. 


What makes this episode even better is that June’s arc is juxtaposed nicely with the Waterfords’ trip to Canada, where they’re travelling to meet with Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) — whom they’re hoping can help them get Nichole back. This sub-narrative provides some wonderful material for Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) as — whilst on the road — they’re given plenty of opportunity to reflect on the decisions which led them to where they are now. It’s truly great how the power dynamic between these two characters has evolved so much. When Fred had Serena’s finger removed, he thought it was him exerting his authority and putting her in her place, but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect.

Serena’s held all the cards the whole way through the season: she burned down their family home so that she would no longer have to stay with Fred. She refused to get back with him — and her resistance to do so ultimately gained her more power in the long run. Now, she orchestrates a plan to get Nichole back all by herself because Fred’s clearly stalling. The pair’s conversation in the woods gives Serena the chance to finally quiz him on why he felt the need to take away her — and, in general, women’s — rights when he helped build Gilead. It’s truly a full circle moment — and one that made their subsequent arrest all the more delicious. Watching Fred being loaded into the back of a truck against his will is one of the most satisfying moments Handmaid’s has ever delivered, for sure.

The biggest question, of course, is: did Serena have a part to play in Fred’s arrest? Her actions’ throughout the episode certainly seem to suggest so, but could they perhaps have been red herrings? Or did she finally do the right thing?

The episode finished out with an extremely powerful montage as scenes of June dressing her in her signature red garments are juxtaposed with Winslow’s body being disposed of at Jezebels by the Marthas. Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ plays over the top, and the lyrics couldn’t be more relevant. “I just know that something good is gonna happen.” So do I, Kate, so do I. It’s been a tough ride getting here, but ‘Liars’ is an exceptional offering, and it proves that The Handmaid’s Tale is still as good as it ever was. With two episodes of the season left, it can only get better, right? 

By Stephen Patterson

The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4

1 comment:

Welladriansays said...

It was another brilliant episode - and Cloubusting which was an early song to have a video attached to it - complete with Donald Sutherland - has been erased from my memory, I now only see the handmaids tale when I hear it (I saw that episode a couple of weeks ago)

YouTube has the last Kate Bush song they used - this woman's work, which also had some pretty indelible scenes to go with it.

The finale was incredible too.

https://youtu.be/M-RtqAPYLD8

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