The Handmaid’s Tale has reverted to slow-boil melodrama

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The Handmaid’s Tale veered into bonus potboiler territory last week when June (Elisabeth Moss) beat ghastly Commander Winslow to a pulp with her Biro of Death. But hopes of tension levels ratcheting further are alas dashed as the season’s penultimate episode reverts to slow-boil melodrama. After the storm, the snooze.

We are treated to a story of two tortured souls. In Gilead, Eleanor Lawrence, (Julie Dretzen), long afflicted by unspecified emotional issues, ends it all. June is by divine decree required to be involved in absolutely everything happening in Gilead and so is, of course, an accessory to her demise.

Firstly, she cruelly berates Eleanor after the hysterical Mrs Lawrence almost blurts out the plan to fly the 52 kids out of Gilead. Secondly, and far more seriously, June declines to intervene upon discovering her sometime ally and friend dying of an overdose.

The Handmaid’s Tale is murky as to June’s motives for not stepping in. Is this an act of mercy? Of retribution? Nihilistic laziness? Frustratingly, the series isn’t prepared to paint its heroine even a mildly unflattering light. The tears she sheds at the ensuing funeral reinforce the message that June is humane after all and probably justified in helping send Eleanor on her way. It is ever so slightly a cop-out.

Up north in Canada, Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) are ruthlessly punished for their abhorrent treatment of June and the other Handmaids. For their sins, they are held in what looks to be an upmarket spa, with cosy decor and trendy mood lightning. Because she’s been extra naughty, Serena is also allowed alone time with her infant “daughter” Nichole – in fact born to June after her ritual rape by Fred (to which Serena is an eye-witness).

It’s unclear if we are expected to feel sorry for the Waterfords, locked away in their five-star pamper palace. We are however obviously meant to empathise with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). He does the lord’s work deflecting suspicions from his household regarding the death of Winslow (the working theory is that, just like Fred, he’s been snatched).

And he has problems beyond the private tragedy of his wife’s suicide. Hard-liners within Gilead want to shut the borders. Obviously, it’s difficult as viewers to put ourselves in the position of citizens of a state where ruling demagogues want to seal off the outside world. But let’s just go with it, shall we? The upshot is that, unless June and the gang move quickly, their plan to fly the kids to Canada will come unstuck.

Whether they succeed will be revealed in next week’s season closer. The Handmaid’s Tale has in the past struggled slightly in its finales. Reaching for catharsis it has sometimes end up with a fistful of damp squibs. And yet, after the dreary place-holder that was episode 12, the only way, surely, is up.

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