With narrative deviations aplenty and an unusual amount of stalling tactics employed to ensure the story doesn’t reach its crescendo too soon, it’s safe to say that the current series of The Handmaid’s Tale has left viewers somewhat divided. However, if you’re one of the many frustrated by the glacial plot progression and have managed to stick with it anyway, your loyalty is rewarded in tonight’s episode, ‘Witness’, which not only picks up the pace, but returns the show to high standard of writing that we’re all used to.
Let’s face it: the biggest criticism that Series 3 has consistently faced is in regards to its pacing — or perhaps more appropriately — its lack of it. Our protagonist, June (Elisabeth Moss) has behaved rather oddly over the past couple of episodes, but last week’s instalment made an attempt to explain her irrational behaviour and, as a result of her eventually coming to her senses, her goal was re-instated — or rather, it was redefined. Finally, she has something to fight for again, and this time, she’s intent on getting the children of Gilead out of Gilead. Easier said than done, right? Of course, and much of what’s so great about this episode is the initial reactions from those who learn of June’s plan. Most label her crazy — and considering everything that transpired in the previous episode — it’s easy to see why they think June’s lost her mind, but the reality is is that this is the first time in several weeks that our protagonist’s sanity is very much intact.
Orchestrating a plan proves incredibly problematic for June — which it would do. It’s this type of conflict Handmaid’s thrives on: one’s desire to do something, but a series of natural obstacles arise along the way — and thus they’re forced to try and overcome them. In this case, finding the information about where the kids are posted is a struggle, but June overcomes this issue with the help of Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), who points her in the right direction as to where she should look. There’s a really great dynamic between these two characters, and here’s hoping it’s something that’s explored in more detail moving forward.
After locating the necessary information, June encounters another obstacle — and this one isn’t so easily overturned. Eleanor reveals that Joseph (Bradley Whitford) is a war criminal, which means he can’t leave Gilead without being apprehended for his crimes. Without Lawrence’s compliance, how will she manage to get the kids out? If Lawrence can’t come with them, why would he risk his life — and that of his beloved wife’s — to help the children? Conflict galore. It’s delicious.
Working out the logistics of the plan would’ve been enjoyable enough of a plot for this episode, but there’s so much more going on in ‘Witness’ and, as a result, the show feels more reminiscent of its earlier self.
Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) bring Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) to their neck of the woods and they’re greeted by all of the handmaids in a scene filled with more glorious imagery and aerial shots. I thought it very telling that both Winslow and Waterford were perturbed to hear that Commander Lawrence is respectful of June — almost as if they were thinking that such an action is a sin.
Later, Fred concocts a plan to find out what goes on in Lawrence’s household. With Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Serena and Winslow in tow, he arrives at Lawrence’s house on the night of the ceremony to bear witness.
It’s an awful situation, and the scenes in which June and Lawrence are forced into taking part in the ceremony — against both their wills — make for incredibly harrowing viewing. However, because June has a long-term goal in mind, she knows that she must comply and do what’s expected of her, otherwise she could risk being reposted — or probably punished, knowing Gilead — which would mean losing Lawrence and the little bit of power she currently has.
As a result, she takes control of the situation and helps Eleanor understand why this is necessary, as an emotional Lawrence eventually agrees to take part. All of these characters are riddled with conflict during this scene — all of them are being forced into doing something that they don’t want to do, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. You can’t help but feel for all of them, which is a testament to how superbly written this episode is. Again, the internal conflict is exceptional here.
Afterwards, Lawrence is worried about the effect the ceremony had on his wife’s health. Because of this, he ultimately agrees to help June with her plan — under the condition that she gets Eleanor out too. However, June ends up gives him a solution to the war criminal thing: if he helps her save a bunch of kids, chances are he’ll be hailed as a hero — thus, in theory, everybody wins.
Once again, the writing is sublime. You’ve got to hand it to the writers — this has been brilliantly set up, and all of the problems — and the eventual solutions — all feel natural.
Now that is more like it. This is more The Handmaid’s Tale that we all know and love. No plot contrivances or deviations. No stalling tactics or lack of action. The pace picked up, and everything naturally fell into place. With only three more episodes to go this season, the show is finally back on track, and I couldn’t be more delighted about it. In fact, I think I can speak for everyone when I say, “Praise be!”.
P.S. The scene following the ceremony in which June tells Commander Waterford at least it wasn’t him might just be the best scene of the entire series.
By Stephen Patterson
The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.