After two stellar instalments, The Handmaid’s Tale delivers a penultimate episode that for all intents and purposes should’ve been spectacular. Instead, it’s just rather confusing and — to some degree — makes no sense.
‘Sacrifice’ sees June’s (Elisabeth Moss) moral descent — which has been a huge narrative thread of the third season — continue, as she reaches a new low in order to ensure that her plan to save the children is carried out successfully. She becomes worried when Eleanor (Julie Dretzin) puts the rescue mission in danger by almost blabbing about it to Mrs Putnam (Ever Carradine) and Mrs Winslow (Elizabeth Reaser). I’m not really sure I believe that Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) would’ve told his wife about the plan, considering she’s proven to have been unreliable when in the company of other people in the past. It just seems a little contrived, and it’s clearly nothing more than a plot device to ensure the story could take such a dark turn.
After June lays into her over her actions, Eleanor is frustrated with herself — and incredibly apologetic — and as a result, she takes herself up to her room. However, June soon cops on to the fact that Eleanor’s long absence can only mean one thing and — when she arrives upstairs — she realises that Lawrence’s wife has overdosed on medication. She desperately tries to wake her, and after failing to do so, heads towards the door to get Lawrence. However, June ultimately stops and thinks about how to proceed — weighing up her options in her head — before choosing to do nothing, and thus lets the woman die.
Considering all that June’s been through over the course of the past three seasons, it would be unrealistic for her to not to have changed. I mean, Gilead has hardened her — something which this season, in particular, has explored in great detail. We saw her murder Commander Winslow (Christpher Meloni) in the previous episode, for example. Yes, in this dystopian setting, survival is the only goal. As a result, it’s only natural that June would first and foremost put herself — and her goal — above the needs of everyone else. Taking all of that into account, this should have been a huge moment for the character — and for the show — but it just fell flat. Why? Because we’re led to believe that she has to make a choice between the life of a woman she’s grown to call a friend, and the plan to save the children from Gilead. In other words, if she successfully wants to carry out her plan, then she has no other alternative but to let Eleanor die. Sorry, but that’s simply not the case at all.
Firstly, Eleanor might have proven herself to be something of a liability, but was allowing for her to die really the only way to ensure she didn’t let slip about the plan? Of course not. I mean, she spent most of the season in her room as it is, so why couldn’t June and Lawrence just ensure that she didn’t leave the house — or meet with any visitors — until the plan was a go?
But even if you ignore the multitude of other options that June could’ve explored, there’s a rather huge problem with the choice that she makes — and it’s this problem that makes her decision so baffling from a creative point of view.
So, it was established rather early on in the season that June needs Lawrence in order to carry out her plan, right? He’s the guy with friends in high places, he’s the guy with all the trucks etc. It took June a long time to persuade him to help her and how did she finally manage to so? Eleanor. Yes, Eleanor is the key to the whole thing. She’s only reason Lawrence agreed to help June — so that he could get his ailing wife out of Gilead. If she’s out of the picture, then Lawrence has no reason to help our protagonist. Like, at all. So, with that in mind, you could be justified in arguing that Eleanor was as vital to June’s mission as Lawrence was — which is why June’s decision to let Eleanor die simply makes no sense.
However, for convenience’s sake, Lawrence doesn’t back out of the plan. He later makes a comment about how the people higher up couldn’t argue with a grieving man and thus he was able to ensure the border was kept open for June’s getaway mission. I’m not really sure what the point in such a quote was, but I got the impression the writers were trying to make us believe that this was June’s intention, but there’s no way June would’ve known how the council would’ve reacted. Especially given that this is Gilead we’re talking about, where all the men in power are as cold-blooded as they come.
The final scene with June — a look of intent on her face — standing by Lawrence’s side at Eleanor’s funeral — dressed in the funeral version of her usual garb and headgear — was clearly meant to signify our protagonists fall from grace, but — much like Daenerys Targaryen’s moral descent in Game Of Thrones— dressing in dark colours cannot make up for the dodgy narrative that was supposed to naturally lead to this moment.
The best moment in the episode was undoubtedly the reveal that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) had turned on Fred (Joseph Fiennes) — and although we never saw her thought process or the moment in which she made such a decision, this narrative works because we know that nothing is more important to the Waterford mistress than Nicole, and thus she’d be willing to do anything to see the child — including turn on her own husband. I must say, it was oddly satisfying to see Serena take Fred down after everything he’d done to her in the previous season.
Mind you, this storyline isn’t without its faults either — as I found it hard to believe that the Canadian government would’ve allowed Serena visitation rights to Nicole so soon. I get that she was granted an immunity deal in return for turning on Fred, but allowing her a visit with the child this early on felt a little too convenient considering she was still in Gilead in the episode prior to this. Having said that, Moira (Samira Wiley) telling Serena that she was the real gender-traitor was an extremely powerful — and well-scripted — moment, for sure.
With the finale looming, and June set to put her plan into action, here’s hoping that The Handmaid’s Tale can once again return to form because it’s been a rather up-and-down season for what’s usually a flawless series. Mind you, Handmaid’s has yet to disappoint when it comes to finales, so let’s hope that it will once again follow suit.
By Stephen Patterson
The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4