Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“You treat it like a job,” says June (Elisabeth Moss) at the start of the episode, “to be gotten through as fast as possible.” She’s talking of the main role of the Handmaid in Gilead: to be systematically, ritualistically raped and impregnated by other people. June’s voice, calm, even and cold, only makes the horror of that “duty” more apparent, as she’s callously normalised to the whole thing. As she talks, we see Emily undergoing the ‘ceremony’ with her Commander, only for him to keel over and die. She doesn’t move to help him. “The chances are better if I lay on my back afterwards,” she says at his shocked wife – a darkly comic retort for the dehumanising treatment of her at their hands. Then, as soon as she gets a chance, she kicks his body on the floor.
It’s an unpleasant start to an episode that is, well, unpleasant. It establishes a theme for this chapter, which is the exploration of rituals being subverted, but it does so in a way that recalls the problems The Handmaid’s Tale has recently managed to avoid: the troubling blurred line that exists between provocative dystopian criticism and gratuitous entertainment.
Subversion and revolt have emerged as the driving force for this sophomore season, putting an end to the cycle of abuse that became repetitive and hard to justify in Season 2’s first quarter – the show has been at its best not in its submersion into Gilead’s cruelty, which was the focus of Season 1, but in its study of Serena going to Canada, in the thrill of seeing the Red Center blown up, in the nuanced exploration of the hierarchies that are built and maintained between the ranks of women within the regime.
Episode 10 thrives once more on entering new territory, as June goes into labour, and the whole of Gilead seems to spring into their preordained responsibilities – a clockwork demonstration of a machine in progress. The Commanders celebrate, the Wives gather round for prayer… but the baby doesn’t arrive. June’s realisation that this has been a false alarm is a satisfying, amusing blow to Serena’s pomp and ego – especially when she daintily refuses the spicy tea offered by Aunt Lydia to help hurry the baby along.
That means she’s in their household for a little while longer yet, and Serena has made no secret that she plans to ship out June as soon as she delivers the child. And so June disrupts things further by asking the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) to let her eventually move to the same district as her daughter, Hannah. Not to speak to her, she, promises, just to be near her. It’s a bold request, and one that leads (surprisingly) to a brief reunion, as the Commander stealthily sends her to meet Hannah for 10 minutes.
Watching mother and child reconnect is particularly poignant at a time when the US government is separating families at its border, and Hannah (Jordana Blake) is understandably (yet tragically) reticent and fearful of her mother’s reappearance after so many years. June’s calm behaviour is heartbreaking to see, as she tries to stay strong and instil in Hannah a knowledge that her parents will always love her, helping build her child’s strength up for the future that awaits her. It’s here that the episode finds its most powerful moment.
That calm, though, is absent when the payback for June’s taunting false alarm arrives from Serena and the Commander. A precursor to her visit to see Hannah, they agree between them to help encourage the baby out “naturally”, by doing the least natural thing: resorting once again to raping June. Unlike the quiet opening scene featuring Emily, this is a nasty scene that sees June crying out and struggling – and, while the writer Yahlin Chang and director Jeremy Podeswa might think there’s value in the notion of rituals being visibly subverted for ulterior motives, it’s a difficult sequence to justify or watch, and a story twist that could have retained its thematic intent without being displayed on screen. Are they trying to reinforce the brutal reality of what has become normalised in the minds of these characters, after the episode’s deliberately sedate, detached introductory scene? That reading seems too generous when a cutaway could have been used instead and achieved the same message – with only three more episodes to go, it’s frustrating to see The Handmaid’s Tale make an uncomfortable misstep in its balance of presentation and provocation, especially after a particularly strong (and consistent) run of episodes.
Those kind of jarring moments stick out notably in Hulu’s drama, because it so often is well executed. Take a look at Eden, for example, who starts having an affair this episode with a guard, kissing him in Nick’s eye-line to try and get a reaction out of her husband. His lack of anger only makes her knowledge that he loves June and not her harder to bear. But would she really go to the extreme of committing infidelity in a hyper-religious community where she has already signed up to its devout theology and sincerely believes in her moral obligations? That’s harder to buy into, and it smacks just a little of contrived writing – perhaps because we haven’t spent enough time with Eden to get a sense of her own inner conflicts.
Nick, however, may not live to see another episode. Assigned by the Commander to take June to Hannah, the hour ends after her visit, when Guardians turn up and either shoot Nick or take him prisoner, leaving June behind and alone. It’s a cliffhanger that teases an unknown next step for these final few episodes – here’s hoping that the show once again rediscovers its forward momentum, rather than relying on traditions that don’t need repeating.
Episode 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale is available on All 4 until 21st August 2018. New episodes are broadcast on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.