Aunt Lydia, grieving for the loss of women she thinks are children, women she tortures but thinks she nurtures, calls out words that she believes to be names. She weeps, because she believes. She makes it a ritual, the calling of those false names, because she knows rituals have power—to comfort, to manipulate, to unify.
Serena Joy helped to create a system that subjugates her, and it rankles. When she’s put in a position where that system not only diminishes but fails her, she changes it. She writes a warrant and signs a name, and she does it to protect her baby and her household, but she also takes pleasure in it. She does it behind her husband’s name—his, unlike hers, holds power.
June gets the chance to do something she obviously longed to do, and tells Emily her name. Her real name, her own name. She tells Brianna, Brianna tells Alma, Dolores says her name, Janine, Deirdre, Marilyn. They whisper, and Eden watches. Those names hold power.
And up in Little Canada, a woman reads the names of the handmaids killed in the bombing, and when she tells the crowd that Lillie Frank was responsible for the bombing, a tremor runs through the room. It’s a name, and a face that has power, complex power.
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These moments almost work. Some of them, Serena Joy’s first appeal to Nick in particular, mostly work. But as The Handmaid’s Tale stops to recalibrate itself before heading into the home stretch, it stumbles a little, weaving its many threads together in a way that’s somewhat satisfying, impeccably acted, and beautifully filmed, but frustratingly lightweight. Yes, it’s all linked, and thematically tidy. But, to use an equally frustrating and superficial phrase, there’s just not that much there, there.
But “After” has two sequences—well, one sequence, and one subplot—that fall outside all of that tidiness. One, the final scene of the episode, in which Serena enlists June in her low-level coup, is among the best and most narratively exciting scenes of the season, and a fascinating point on which to pivot into this season’s back half. The other is Moira, poor Moira, and a retconned storyline that probably should never have been.
Let’s start there. First, Samira Wiley continues to be an incredible asset to The Handmaid’s Tale. Even when her storylines have been underdeveloped, she fills them to the brim with honest, often shattering emotion and thoughtful choices. Her Odette storyline is no exception, but it’s difficult to swallow entirely. I can buy that fear for June’s life, coupled with Luke’s resigned, weary reaction to news of the bombing, would finally spur Moira to hunt down information about the presumed death, or possible life, of her fiancée. Grief and fear are different for everyone who experiences them, so sure, maybe since the rise of Gilead, she hasn’t so much as spoken this woman’s name, or hinted at her existence, or remembered her, or had to wave off a conversation she wasn’t prepared to have. So stipulated, if begrudgingly.
But we’ve spent quite a lot of time in Moira’s past, because it is also June’s past. A surrogate pregnancy we didn’t know about is one thing. A fiancée, particularly a fiancée she had at the time of the Gilead takeover, is something else. It seems as though the Handmaid’s writing team was attempting a storytelling convention that will be familiar to many, in which a particularly traumatic chapter of one’s past is blocked, but begins to come through in flashes of memory, leading to a revelation that this whole time, there was another aspect to the story. Think of Hawkeye Pierce and the chicken in M.A.S.H., or in a much more famously twisty way, the revelation at the end of The Sixth Sense. There are many others. But that only works if you believe that these memories have been cordoned off in the mind of the person who lived them. Why would June block Odette from her memories? She wouldn’t, and she didn’t, because I’d bet you all the ingredients for a lemon chicken and some green beans with garlic that she was created for this episode.
If she wasn’t, they did a poor job threading that needle. The same can’t be said of Wiley, who invests her scenes with those binders of the dead with so much loss, so much fear, and with so little—but just enough—hope that they’re difficult to watch. Her discovery of Odette’s fate is a shattering moment in a series that’s just full of ‘em. She’s a remarkable actor, and she deserves better from this show. It’s not that Moira shouldn’t have a detailed backstory and people to grieve. It’s that the creation of that backstory now underlines how poorly developed her character was in the first place, and at this point, the show would be better off letting those retconned revelations come about slowly, even organically, rather than depositing two seasons’ worth of grief into an already overstuffed episode.
If that’s a storyline that almost works in spite of some less than thrilling writing, then the many small storylines that make up the bombing’s aftermath are stories that should work, but get fumbled in the execution. Aunt Lydia’s funeral scene doesn’t play as the horror it should because of a manipulative soundtrack choice, but thanks to Ann Dowd’s prodigious skill, it’s almost where it should be. (Ane Crabtree’s costume design does a lot of heavy lifting there, too—sure, you can grieve, but let’s make sure anyone who tries to look at your face knows your role anyway.)
The payoff to that scene, the whispered names in the grocery store, works—brilliantly—until it doesn’t. When Janine and Emily are spirited into those dark vans early in the episode, viewers will likely guess where they’re headed, but it doesn’t make Janine’s giddy run toward June any less surprising. The timid, tender, sad reunion between June and Emily would be affecting even without June immediately sharing her name, but that exchange between Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth Moss is a season highlight. It’s a rejection of the false names in that funeral scene, and a reflection of the conversation the handmaids have on their van ride back. June wants Emily to know her name, because it’s her name, and Emily’s choice to share her own was a turning point for June. It’s a thank you, but it also means that when she dies, someone will know her name, and it’s also another small rebellion in a world where they have little else.
And then it spreads, in a scene that’s lovely in theory and lackluster, to say the least, in execution. It marks the second time this season that the show has reverted to the oddly triumphant, slow-hero-walk moments of much of season one, and while it’s a comfort that this one doesn’t end the episode, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Take away the music, it’s better, but not much. Trim some time off the end and that improves it, too. But the real kicker is the sense of choked-up wonder the show seems to want us to feel, and while one might accept that these women would share their names in a week in which whole households have been strung up in their front yards or shot in the street, it’s more difficult to accept that they’d do so openly, and without any sort of fear.
One of the threads of “After,” however, is just about perfect, and that’s the uneasy, uncomfortable alliance of Serena and June. Last week, they both played at friendship, each attempting to manipulate the other and each, in a way, believing some of that fiction could be true. It could never have worked, if only because it would end with June giving birth to a baby that would be snatched from her. But here, one of the show’s repeated refrains takes new life:
“As long as my baby is safe, your baby is safe.”
The three scenes Moss and Yvonne Strahovski share in “After” vibrate on multiple frequencies. There’s the tension of that knitting needle standoff. There’s the fiction that June is carrying Serena and Fred’s baby, neatly contrasted with Moira’s voluntary and compensated surrogacy. There’s the related fiction that June was kidnapped, which both gamely pretend is reality. There’s the threat of death, and what it means for their lives and the life of the baby. And in that last scene, there’s the acknowledgment that these are two capable, educated women, and that Fred is not an intellectual equal to either of them.
That pen, which with its little clicker resembles Lillie’s (Ofglen’s) bomb, is one of the most complex choices the show has ever made. June’s choice to enter into this alliance positions her to potentially undermine Gilead from within its own typeface, but also makes her (covertly) a part of the system which has mandated rape, execution, torture, death-by-labor, and an unending list of other atrocities. When she joins Serena in reshaping that world, she’s both the woman who refused to stone Janine to death and the one who ate soup while her friends were burned. That she doesn’t totally have a choice in the matter makes it more complicated, not less.
Where they’re going with this, I don’t know, but one assumes they’ll be faced with the wrath of the Commander who lives with them, and eventually with that of others. What June will do with that pen, and how she and Serena will use and manipulate each other and the world around them, I can’t begin to imagine.
- Soundtrack corner: How do we feel about “Venus”?
- The little yelp of fear Bledel gives when she’s thrown into the van is the most that Emily has ever sounded like Rory Gilmore.
- Some things I’m unclear on: Odette was murdered when? What does all of this do to Nick’s position as an Eye? How much does Rita know about what’s happening in the house, and when are they going to give Amanda Brugel something significant to do? Why did the Eyes kill so many people—is this paranoia, or are they just killing people all over the place to put fear in other would-be bombers, or were they actually convinced that all those people were involved with the resistance? Were they? It’s all foggy.