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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 3.02 – “Mary And Martha”. A study in why toeing the thin red line doesn’t get you anywhere…
The Handmaid’s Tale is so frakking good. Really. I can’t think of a program on television more artfully crafted and exquisitely directed. But sometimes THT tries sooooo hard to be the worst story this side of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.
Of course, these feats of story don’t have to be binary either. And with that in mind, I am happy(?) to introduce you to the most schizophrenic episode The Handmaid’s Tale episode yet – “Mary And Martha”.
So I think I’m going to break format here because there is absolutely no way I can make this a cogent article that flows properly given the subject matter. You can’t apply proper sense to material so wildly diametrically opposed in it’s very fabric. With this in mind, we’re going to go with the trusty format of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly…
The Good: Everything with Emily.
Emily’s story has surprised me in the most pleasant way I can imagine. Sure, I knew the story was going to expand on her character a little more because she took Nichole to Canada. But, my initial sense of her story was that it would serve almost as a post script or epilogue for a character that was used so efficiently throughout THT’s run. Yet, we are far from anything even resembling an epilogue here. In fact, we are presented with a truly affecting story of recovery, doubt, and even sadness.
Consider Emily’s trajectory in this episode alone: gets rescued by Canadian officials, goes into Canadian custody with her friends baby, gets checked out by doctors be told she has high cholesterol (!), and then she has to rekindle a small little thing like, oh, you know, the relationship with her estranged WIFE AND CHILD. Wow.
Alexis Bledel has been an unforeseen blessing to THT in the best way, and no scene exemplifies that more than when Emily is told by the doctor that she has high cholesterol. The look on Bledel’s face is a myriad of evolving emotions that rise and fall with each passing millisecond. Doubt, fear, disbelief, shock, anger, surprise, irritation, even humor are all on display within the span of a few seconds. I know she didn’t win it this year, but Bledel absolutely deserves her emmy for her portrayal of Emily, and in my estimation, this scene alone should confirm another award in her burgeoning display case.
Lot of shows try to be too talky. Words over every G-D scene trying to TELL us everything we need to know. But, thankfully, Emily is basically silent this entire episode, and that’s when you know the creator is fully confident in the story he’s trying to tell. Let the pictures, emotions, actors, and director do the heavy lifting, and allow the story to just “be”. In fact, as I type this, I can’t help but think back to one of my favorite scenes from the highly underrated film, Crimson Tide. Know when to speak, and when to let the moment play out.
What further cements Emily’s story as the best part of this episode is her reluctance to call her wife. Nevermind the fact that it’s powerful and the act of trying to fit back in the mold of normalcy after Gilead is almost inconceivable, the framework of the story is what is most striking. Emily has to make a choice, one that will inexorably change the trajectory of her character for the rest of the series. But when I say choice, I really mean “choice” in it’s most basic and pure form.
Choosing to go back to her wife is a route that would seem to be most obvious to Emily. Get back in the relationship, see her kid, be reunited and live happily after, right? Wrong. That’s not a choice. That’s a given. There’s no debate there. It’s all good, man.
But the problem with choice is that choice, in and of itself, is a reflection on both good and bad terms.
In other words, if something is all good, then it’s going to be chosen. If something is all bad, then it won’t be chosen. That’s a fundamental tenet of human existence. Fully Bad is bad. Fully Good is good. Until it’s not. Then we have to choose everything else in between.
Make no mistake, Emily is faced with a choice here – yes, be reunited with my wife and child. But, what happens if it doesn’t work? What happens if she’s moved on? What happens if my child doesn’t remember me? How does she even recollect her feelings about her wife after everything she has been through? Can the relationship even continue when it’s very foundations were built on a completely different pretext? How the hell can she even work up the courage to dial the number? The questions, and pros/cons to injecting herself back into her family’s life are endless – which, again, make it a valid choice.
So when Emily is confronted with the consistent question by her optometrist(?!) “better or worse?”, we can see her struggle to define what is better or worse in her life. Is she better or worse if she burdens her tortured existence with the person she loves most, and the person who always seemed to be out of her reach. It’s a silent struggle that finally coalesces into a phone call that quite literally stops the world surrounding Emily. The conversation, like Emily’s struggle, is silent. We don’t need to hear it. It belongs to Emily and her wife. For now, at least.
This is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale one of the best shows on television.
The Bad: Luke and Moira.
Ok, I really want to like Luke. But, I don’t. Honestly, I’m sick of him. I know he’s been put into a terrible situation having to care for a baby that’s not his blood while his wife, and ACTUAL blood are being taken care of by someone else down in Gilead. It’s hard for him to bond with June’s baby (the living embodiment of all the ravages done to her by Gilead — not to mention the little detail that she willingly created this baby with stupid arms Nick himself) and I don’t blame him.
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But while the show is incredibly confident in it’s story with Emily, my gut tells me that it doesn’t know what to do with Luke, and/or Moira. It’s as if Bruce Miller knows that the audience is smart enough to suss out the moral conflict and obligation these characters are under — especially after Emily shows up with baby in tow — but doesn’t fully trust the audience either. As a result, we get the annoying scene with Luke poking and prodding Emily to drive home the fact that Luke sucks.
Moira is kind of a walking shoulder-shrug at this point. Yes, she has found peace in her new role in helping immigrants come into Canada, and she has sorta-kinda assumed the duty of helping guide Emily in her new life. But, there clearly isn’t much for Moira to do other than just “be there” for her friend, and be the moral compass for Luke.
The irony of Moira being a “moral compass” for anyone is not lost on me by the way – especially after what she’s done to survive and escape Gilead, in addition to how she’s come after her tryst with the random girl at the bar as “Ruby”. I suppose that’s an arch for her, but that arch appears to have been resolved. So, I’m not sure what we’re doing with Moira here other than being “concerned friend.”
The Ugly: Trouble-maker June.
::really big deep breath::
For all intents and pur………Nope. Not yet.
::another REALLY big deep breath::
For all intents and purposes, THT has gone ALL IN on “Trouble-Maker” June. We’re off trying to get bomb makers, joining Mayday, burying dead Marthas, and fighting the good fight. I KNEW this is the kind of show THT wanted to be and, to be honest, it’s a little frustrating.
On story level it’s frustrating because we keep going back to the same well. But what’s more is that the math doesn’t add up for me. Why would the Martha network accept June in any capacity, especially after they risked A LOT to get her out of the country with Nichole last season, and June reciprocated that risk with nothing but a pair freedom rockets and a ride back to town with Commander Lawrence? Yet, here they are, having a little bomb pow-wow with June and all is right with the rebellion again?
Sure, there are some genuinely tense moments here – when investigators come to check out Lawrence’s home, or the sequence with the blood on the wall, or Lawrence looking down on June as she buries the Martha in the backyard (more on this in a bit), but those are not BECAUSE of June’s story. Those instances are reactions to what June is doing. So, it’s not June that’s captivating (as it probably should be) but rather everything that’s happening AROUND June that is more in line with what the show ought to be.
Rather than be focused on the specific life experience of June, we are now privy to June making rash choices, trying to make bombs, and joining a team of Marthas that shouldn’t want her around to begin with. The larger problem at work here is that I JUST DON’T CARE. In an earlier review, I asked the question, “what happens when the main character of your show is no longer the most interesting part of the show?” The Handmaid’s Tale is not only going down that road, but it’s barreling down the highway in a red Caddy with two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine.
Dealing with a bunch of Marthas we don’t know, making bombs for a fight that’s waaaaay bigger than June, and trying to kill random Gileadites(?) that have no names or faces is a recipe for disaster. As such, the conflict HAS to shift to something much more personal, and it has to happen quick. If THT continues to toe the Thin Red Line of Rebellion, and personal stories like that of Emily in Canada, there’s going to be some big issues.
Bruce Miller has to ditch the June v. Gilead: Dawn of Justice DNA, and put June (ESPECIALLY JUNE) in a more personal framework. Because if he doesn’t give us a relatable reason to root for her, then no one should care about the repercussions of June’s choices, and if that happens, well, then it might as well be Katniss shooting fake promos for a war that wastes everyone’s time.
Apropos Of Nothing:
- Commander Lawrence is the supplementary good in this episode. I still don’t know where I stand with him and I LOVE that. Yes, he is helping June, but something is just off about how he interacts with her. Sure, he doesn’t like liars and he obviously has A LOT going on with his wife – but watching Lawrence stare at June as she’s burying that grave is masterful television. Is he approving? Is he plotting her demise? All this especially after her tells June that it’s “her funeral.” Oh man, shivers.
- Maybe it’s my unabashed love of Bradley Whitford (something for which I will NEVER apologize by the way), but Lawrence is the one wild-card in the show right now and he is the only aspect of the June storyline that makes it worth watching. I can’t wait to see how he shakes out.
- Aunt Lydia LIVES! Well, when you have America’s greatest treasure in Ann Dowd, I wouldn’t want to kill her off either. Just ask Damon Lindelof and The Leftovers! All kidding aside, Aunt Lydia probably should have died, and I worry about what’s going to happen with her. How much do you want to bet we get her entire back story now so it can humanize her?
- That’s the big question though – do we really want Aunt Lydia humanized? My gut tells me abso-frakking-lutley not.
Mary & Blake certified: C+
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