The Handmaid’s Tale seems to flounder when it takes its eyes off its female leads. When the series shifted gears and explored Serena Joy’s history, it was a fascinating look at how women can be complicit in the brutalization of other women. But when it followed Luke after he was separated from his wife and child, his grueling escape to Canada was less interesting than watching Offred sit around in her closet. Now Jezebels feels like a further step backward.
The Commander is by no means done in trying to make a mistress out of Offred, and this time around, he ups his game by taking her on a macabre mockery of a date to what is basically a brothel for Gilead’s elite. There are few things as crazy as repressed religious crazy, especially when it’s fueled by more than the usual amount of secrecy and hypocrisy, and The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t fully capture just what this would really look like. The book did a better job showing it in all of its deeply depressing, faded glory, but the series diminishes it by depicting it as a high end whorehouse and even chooses to focus on Nick’s past and his reaction to Offred being violated even further.
It feels downright offensive, since this is also the episode when Moira and Offred are emotionally, tenderly reunited. The Handmaid’s Tale, of course, chooses not to flashback to any moments in Moira’s story and show her essentially being forced to become a prostitute, a decision which only delays her deportation to those oft-mentioned, dreaded Colonies rather than providing a sort of escape.
Nick’s story could’ve added greater depth by showing him coming to terms with what his actions have wrought, exploring the kind of toxic masculinity perpetrated by the kind of “nice guy” who is willing to sacrifice and work hard for his family, but is forced to see his hard work chipped away, thus leaving him open to the kind of false strength that depends on breaking the souls and bodies of those he believes he has the right to play benevolent king over.
Before Gilead, Nick was down on his luck and unable to hold down a job, thus preventing him from making a better life for himself or his family. There are few things that violate the central tenet of manhood more, which makes him emotionally and financially vulnerable to a movement that offers to not only give him answers and a greater purpose that gives his life meaning, but uplift him to greater heights. When such rewards are offered, people have shown an immense capacity to look the other way. Nick isn’t different in this respect, and the beginning stages of his recruitment into what is basically a cult is done well. But it skips the middle and picks up at the end, where he is a high-ranking Eye who doesn’t seem to be that different from who he was previously. People don’t just decide to become informants who regularly send people to their deaths; there’s a journey involved. How can we sympathize with Nick when his is absent? Sure, we see he’s clearly troubled after he comes upon the body of the Handmaid before Offred after she commits suicide, but isn’t that’s the reaction anyone would have? Do the repercussions of this amount to nothing more than him breaking up with Offred?
The nature of the complete inability of The Handmaid’s Tale to truly explore Nick’s mindset is troubling in other ways, and also deeply revealing of other cracks in the show’s foundation. This show’s primary focus is on its women, but the Commander feels far more fleshed out than Nick even after so much time devoted to the latter. Sure, Luke gets his due, but his flaws don’t prevent him from being firmly on the side of good. But Nick and the other men in the flashback at the job center come off as the worst kind of stereotype: dangerous working class brutes ready to take their anger out any nearby target. The fact that the show seems unable to add any kind of real depth to any character who not only isn’t white, but also well-off, is deeply disturbing, especially in light of the fact that it chose to ignore the racial politics of its source material, when, as others have pointed out, women of color tend to bear the brunt of reproductive injustice.
It’s a strange reversal, since most shows start off shaky and build to a surer footing as time goes on. But The Handmaid’s Tale seems shakier the more it explores other avenues. It’s disappointing at one of the worst times a series can be, being that there’s only two episodes left in the current season. Will the show get its groove back? It just might, since it has the good sense to put Offred back into her closet and safe haven, vowing to fight her way out of the box Gilead insists has forced her into.