Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 3.03 – “Useful”. When clever writing devices are far more useful than flashbacks…
Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way I can move on with the rest of my day.
Flashbacks can be a real purposeful way to inform a character on many levels, and they can also be very incisive when used judiciously. Though, when over-used, they sometimes feel like a crutch or safe choice to tell backstory that one can’t easily fit within the framework of a television show. In other cases, flashbacks are time filler that try to make a characters history seem far more important than it really is. See: LOST “Stranger In A Strange Land”.
Now I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale has reached the terrific lows of telling the backstory to Jack’s tatoos yet, but we are coming up on three seasons for THT and it’s fitting that there are no flashbacks in this episode.
Instead, the writers have chosen clever ways to give us a better understanding of our main players even though we have come to know them in such a detailed manner. Case in point: Serena visiting her mother at the beach house.
Could THT gone the easy route to help define Serena’s character through a more conventional means of flashbacks with her truly awful mother? Absolutely. But, instead, we are witness to how Serena’s mother degrades her, and blames her for the fractured relationship Serena shares with Fred. This is important because this treatment comes AFTER Serena is essentially the architect of Gilead, which, apparently, is her mother’s wet dream.
If her mother treats Serena like this NOW, how frakking cruel must she have been BEFORE Serena ushered in the modern world?!
This is why using a device like this is clever because it gives us enough information to infer what Serena’s life is like now, but it also re-contextualizes her life before Gilead came into existence. In other words, how does Serena Joy come to be?
This episode gives you the EXACT formula – 2 ounces of overbearing mother, 3 tablespoons of superficial narcissism, a heaping spoonful of public shaming, add a dash of patriarchal superiority, and you get a truly effed Serena from her childhood all the way to present day.
Serena may have created the world her mother so desperately wanted, but it’s still NOT enough for her mother. Whether it is blaming Serena for her failed relationship as I mentioned before, or calling Serena out for her self pity over losing a child she “gave away”, you can see Serena reaching out for some kind of maternal guidance and she’s been swatted away as if she were a beggar in the street.
It’s sad, it’s terrifying, and, honestly, the emotional math adds up.
No, I haven’t created the philosophical framework upon which this country exists, but I DO have A LOT of experience with toxic parental relationships, and I can say, with total authority, that Serena’s behavior is textbook. She’s been emotionally beaten, intellectually battered, and she wants to get away – so she goes to the one place in her mind she and/or anyone would feel safe, her parent’s place.
It’s easy to forget all terrible stuff your parents do to you when you’re looking for support. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll give me the kind of comfort I need. Perhaps they’ll FINALLY see my side of the world, or god forbid they take one single second out of their day to show just a smidgen of empathy for their progeny. But, like how it always works with this kind of toxicity, that never happens for Serena. She gets rebuffed and told it’s her fault.
As I watched this episode, I kept thinking back to LOST (sorry for the second reference) and the conversation Sawyer has with Jack about Jack’s dad. “See, kids are like dogs, you knock ’em around enough, the’ll start to think they did something to deserve it.” How many times was Serena knocked around? How many times has she gone through this cycle of pain? Perhaps that cycle IS the comfort she’s looking for?
What has she had to prove her entire life to her mother? All the questions come flooding to my mind and it’s exquisite television precisely because I didn’t get a flashback. My mind, and my own experience with toxic relationships, gives me enough information to fill in the gaps of Serena’s noxious childhood like I was a scientist at Jurassic Park making dino DNA. I don’t need flashbacks for that. I have my own memory.
Another, admittedly more flashy, device used to help inform the current state of Serena’s marriage is the bait-and-switch editing with Fred “apologizing” to Serena. Let me just reiterate this for the sake of posterity, Fred sucks. On every level. Instead of being an actual husband, he rehearses his lines of apology to a sex-slave at Jezebels. It’s a larger indictment on how far Fred has fallen as a member of the Gilead society, but, more importantly, how is relationship with Serena is now unsalvageable.
That’s right ladies and gents, now I see why they kept Fred alive.
Serena is going to kill Fred.
Not because she needs justice, or that he has done her dirty so many times. But because not only is Serena’s relationship with Fred unsalvageable, but she as a character is also unsalvageable. Serena has just been too awful to too many people during this reign of Gilead. Not to mention that she is one of the main architects of this world. She may undergo some changes here and there for the sake of her arc of partial redemption (see: Jamie Lannister from Game Of Thrones), but she has also done too many terrible things to be redeemed (see: Jamie Lannister from Game Of Thrones).
What gives me the sense that she is going to kill Fred is the gorgeous scene when Serena removes her leather finger so carefully crafted by her Martha at the beach. After all the beatings she’s taken from Gilead, Fred, her mother, and most importantly, herself, it looks as they she’s going to give up and just walk calmly into the sea never to be found again. But we don’t get that. In fact, I see it is as the opposite.
Serena takes off the leather fixture as an act of letting go of her past self. Letting go of all the crap that came along with creating Gilead (whose tyrannical rules resulted in her losing that finger) and going into the ocean only to come out baptized as a new version of herself. The superficial crap her mother cared about? Gone. Relationship with Fred? Gone. Caring about the societal structure she helped forge? Way frakking gone.
Serena cares about one thing, and one thing only now, her daughter she let go. This is important because of the irony that’s inferred from her time at the house. Serena felt bad about herself for how her life turned up, went to her mother for comfort only to be spurned, but has become galvanized about getting her daughter back specifically because of her toxic relationship wither mother. Maybe because she got guilted into it? Maybe she wants to make sure she never becomes like her mother? Who know? That’s only for Serena to know right now.
To that end, I think Serena will stop at NOTHING to get Nichole back – even if that means killing Fred. Fred has to have comeuppance for every ounce of terrorism he’s inflicted on the world and I cannot think of a better person to fulfill that comeuppance than Serena.
Speaking of terrorism, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned June at all. That’s because I’m all set with her right now.
Yes, there is a cool device also being used in her relationship with Commander Lawrence here too. Specifically June’s inclusion in the meeting between Lawrence and all the Gilead higher-ups at his house. It’s a simple play on knowledge — June knows Lawrence isn’t fully committed Gilead, Lawrence knows June is a rabble rouser, but he also knows his true intents, and the rest of the delegation knows only what the other two WANT them to know. But all of them have to act accordingly to keep up the appearance of power, trust, and usefulness.
The power dynamic between Lawrence and June is fascinating. But, again, not because of June – but rather because of Lawrence. His character holds all the cards in this very dangerous game of poker and tension rests solely on Bradley Whitford’s capable shoulders. Which is both good and bad. This kind of tension can only go so far because June is doing nothing to warrant her position in the resistance, and she isn’t offering Lawrence anything. She might as well lay down and expose her belly like a defeated dog.
It’s all up to Lawrence, and while that’s good for now, I don’t think I can be invested in a relationship where he makes June get the works of Darwin just for the sake of show during their meeting. Nevermind the fact that he finally admits to June that it was, indeed, all just for show, and he’s allowing the Marthas to operate because he wants them to “blow off steam.” I like not knowing his intent, and Lawrence putting June in a position where she has to pick five Marthas to live, but that style of tension is only going to last so long before even Lawrence is going to have to pick as side.
Mary & Blake Certified: B-
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