Eight out of ten episodes into The Handmaid’s Tale, we should be starting to ramp up to the conflict of the season finale – but this week’s episode just felt like more of the same. When I first heard that they were making the book into a miniseries, I was concerned about how they’d manage to stretch a single novel into ten full episodes, and the show is starting to drag. If I’m honest, it’s been slow for the past few weeks.
And even though this week’s episode held an especially vital plot point, it wasn’t enough to pick up the pacing. The episodes are long to begin with – 50 minutes to an hour – and the kind of world-building that led us to "Jezebels" was interesting enough, but not strong enough to carry the plotline, especially when the past few episodes have also been slow.
The episode opens with June revealing she’s gone back to Nick. “I could say these are acts of rebellion, a f**k you to the patriarchy, but those are excuses. I’m here because it feels good, and because I don’t want to be alone,” she tells the audience.
In the rest of the episode, Waterford (creepily) comes into June’s room and (creepily) shaves her legs (yikes) and has her put on makeup, heels, and a revealing dress. He takes her into Boston proper – or, what used to be Boston – to the flip side of Gilead’s society. It’s like the divide in Victorian London – strict social norms with a seedy underbelly. It’s also the other side of the patriarchy’s garbage coin – relentlessly enforced feminine presentation, a world filled with simpering escorts. The Commander is incredibly patronizing, which is also nothing new.
But here’s the kicker: across the hotel bar, June sees her. Moira. She hastily excuses herself, searching for her friend in the women’s room. The moment the two of them hug each other was the strongest, emotionally, of the entire season so far. I wish it’d been given even more weight, plot-wise. I didn’t realize until now that Moira and June’s relationship has the most weight and depth of anyone’s in the entire show – and maybe that’s why the episodes without her have felt so lacking. There’s solidarity, shared experience, but most of all, love.
The reunion is short-lived, though; Moira (now a Jezebel) is ushered back out to the men, and June goes to find the commander. He takes her up to a private room and rapes her, again – not out of ceremony, this time, but out of greed. She sneaks out while he’s asleep to go find Moira, passing by more women in more rooms. It looks like the same hotel from a few episodes ago, but Serena Joy’s world is very different from the Commander’s.
She and Moira only talk briefly, Moira telling June how she ended up here instead of escaping. She mentions an underground, but it’s quickly forgotten. The Handmaid’s Tale has a tendency to lose its momentum by dropping its threads; I’m sure it’ll pick them up again, but by the time it does, we’ll be a little frustrated and have forgotten the original context. Every mention of a resistance gets me a little excited, but it never seems to come to fruition – Emily was taken back in episode five, but since then, we haven’t followed the “Mayday” thread. It feels a bit disjointed, and since we’re not binging the show, it’s easier to forget details from previous weeks.
Finally, at the end of the episode, there’s a particularly un-compelling chat between Nick and June. He tells her that they should break it off, and she pushes back, but it feels a little petty after Moira’s reveal earlier on. Serena Joy gives June a music box – “a girl trapped in a box,” as June refers to it – but there’s a certain small freedom in the gift of a box with a key. There’s the capacity for secrets.
The B plot was especially weak this episode; we continue the trend of dipping into other people’s backstories instead of June’s by going back into Nick’s. Honestly, it doesn’t work: not only does it not have bearing on the A plot (like June and Nick’s relationship put into contrast with June and Luke’s early romance), but I honestly don’t care enough about Nick to get inside his head like this. He’s a minor character, and the flashbacks don’t illuminate much. We see a little bit about the early Gilead movement, the group that calls itself “The Sons of Jacob,” and we see the last handmaid having hanged herself, but the information isn’t anything new. There’s a mention of the fact that Nick might actually be spying on Waterford himself, but it doesn’t pack much of a punch.
We’re in the home stretch, now; I hope that The Handmaid’s Tale can gather its threads in time.