There’s no denying that The Handmaid’s Tale has been stagnating as of late — and the culprit behind this glacial story progression is undoubtedly the bloated episode count. While there’s a lot of truth to the old saying “the more, the merrier”, it’s pretty much been proven that this ideology rarely works in television. 13 episodes per season is a simply too much — especially for a show which already surpassed its source material two seasons ago. Due to the writers not having enough content to fill the extra space, we’ve been witness to some contrived and convoluted sub-narratives over the last few episodes, which have proven detrimental to the overall enjoyment factor.
After a few uneven weeks, however, tonight’s episode, ‘Heroic’, demonstrated that The Handmaid’s Tale is
finally ready to move forward once more — which is rather ironic considering that this instalment is quite possibly the slowest episode of the series to date.
However, while not a lot happens on the surface, there’s a lot going on internally — especially where our protagonist, June (Elisabeth Moss), is concerned. The character has become a shell of her former self over the last couple of episodes, but ‘Heroic’ finally lets us in on the secret as to why this is so. It’s not simply a case of bad characterisation — although it did very much seem like it at one point — but rather her erratic behaviour can be attributed to the fact that she’s dealing with the realisation that she’ll never see Hannah again— something that comes to light during her discussion with
Ofmatthew’s (Ashleigh LaThrop) doctor, who’s played by Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows.
My biggest criticism of the last two Handmaid’s instalments is how June seems to have lost sight of her goal — a fact I feel was proven through her questionable behaviour — but the aforementioned explanation makes an attempt to explain why this is so, and although it isn’t perfect, I’m okay to accept it and move on, because in June realising the error of her ways, she inadvertently discovers a new goal. All in all, it was the lack of a motivation for our protagonist that ultimately resulted in the show stalling, so by giving her another, things can finally begin to move again. Praise be.
Discovering her new purpose was far from an easy task for June, however, as — with Ofmatthew on life support — she was forced by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to keep vigil by her walking partner’s bed until the baby was born. Day and night — and everything in between — June spent in that hospital.
In the same spot on the same floor doing the same thing all day, and it all understandably became overwhelming for her. Yes, in being what many would call a ‘bottle’ episode, ‘Heroic’ does a great job of demonstrating the process of one losing oneself via a number of different clever techniques — both narratively and visually. The show’s signature cinematography lent itself nicely to this character arc, as the crisp whites of the hospital painted an unsettling — and incredibly lonely — picture, as our protagonist knelt on that hard floor.
Due to the excellent camera work and well-written internal monologues, June’s breakdown is dramatized incredibly well — although it’s very tough to watch. Bleak is a word that’s often associated with The Handmaid’s Tale, but dare I say it, it feels more appropriate now in describing the show than it ever has done before. Moss, as always, is sublime.
I was rather pleased to see the show’s signature voiceover employed heavily during this one. I mean, considering June has no-one to talk to, it’s a rather clever device to demonstrate how our protagonist is feeling and all that, but even more than that, the voiceover has barely featured much as of late, and considering June’s got less friends now than she’s ever had before, you’d think it would be used a bit more frequently. Oddly enough, I’m not really a fan of voiceover in general, but I think Handmaid’s thrives on its use of it.
Following the birth of Ofmatthew’s baby — and the culmination of June’s ordeal — June makes an executive decision to return to the hospital to wait with Ofmatthew until she passes away. It’s a heart-warming gesture, and it’s one that the June of old would’ve made in a split second, so her choice is perhaps indicative that she’s is back to her former self. What’s more, it’s a great way for the character to make amends for all of the trauma she caused Ofmatthew during her last few days.
By the end of this instalment, June is ready to rebel once more — and she’s reclaimed her goal, but adapted it slightly: this time, she’s going to get the children out of Gilead.
‘Heroic’ isn’t a return to form per se, but it’s a stellar improvement on the last two episodes and, given how great this show once was — and still has the potential to be going forward — I’m okay with that.
By Stephen Patterson
The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.