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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 3.09 – “Heroic”. When there’s nothing like a great bottle episode to put an end to a horrible arc.
“When did you get to be so selfish? Everything is always about you now, your problems,”Janine says to a crazy looking June, “Your different, I don’t like it.”
Finally, someone has the chutzpah to say it. THANK YOU, Janine, my sweet little nugget. Bless your heart. You warm my soul with this acknowledgement.
After what has been a very…odd…past few episodes that can really only be described by this:
There seems to be a legitimate light at the end of the tunnel.
To say that I lost confidence in The Handmaid’s Tale over the past few episodes would probably be a little too harsh because it is still one of the most gorgeous looking and well produced programs in the marketplace currently, and there seems to be too many smart people who run this ship to let it go too far astray. But, it came pretty damn close when it culminated in Aunt Lydia having a bad date and June going full Regina George on Ofmatthew.
I was so upset by last episode that I couldn’t even write about it. In fact, I refused to write about it. Only gifs would do.
But like I said, there seems to be an end to the recent misery with this episode that ranks up there with one of the better bottle episodes I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, it probably ranks right up there with the infamous episode of Breaking Bad, “Fly“, and “The Waiting Room” for This Is Us.
So, what is a “bottle episode”? Well, let’s go to professor wikipedia for the answer:
a bottle episode is produced cheaply and restricted in scope to use as few non-regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible. Bottle episodes are usually shot on sets built for other episodes, frequently the main interior sets for a series, and consist largely of dialogue and scenes for which no special preparations are needed. They are commonly used when one script has fallen through and another has to be written at short notice, or because of budgetary constraints. Bottle episodes have also been used for dramatic effect, with the limited setting and cast allowing for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives.
Regardless of the reasoning for a bottle episode like this, I can fully say that it worked. It worked HARD.
Between June actually having to live with the consequences from breaking out her “burn book”, slowly going mad to the beeps and bops of Ofmatthews machine, finding resemblance to the American treasure that is Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” and even trying to off Serena — there seemed to be an actually believable amount of craziness happening.
The problem with a show like The Handmaid’s Tale is that it wants to have it’s cake and eat it too.
In other words, the stage has been set for a big rebellion by The Handmaid’s in some fashion and it’s coming real soon. Additionally, THT also needs June to be the face of that rebellion because she’s the main character and they have invested in her being the spark the lights the whole thing aflame.
The show has a major stakes issue right now.
What are stakes? The most commonly held definition is this: when a character has something to lose, or to gain in any given situation. Sometimes the stakes are really high (the world is gonna end!) or they’re really low (aw crap there’s only vanilla ice cream left and my wife wanted chocolate.) But every book, every chapter, every movie, every scene, there are stakes.
Stakes create tension, and if you heighten the tension there’s greater drama. If there’s greater drama, then our characters have to make choices which reveal their true nature.
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The CHOICES are what make great television because they reflect the stability of the character’s relationship to other characters and with us as viewers.
But it always comes back to stakes.
This is where the stakes become an issue for THT because June is the main character and the show needs her to be the face of the impending rebellion.
Here’s the issue: because she’s the main character, nothing can REALLY happen to her. She can’t die. She can’t get too severely maimed, and she can’t disappear either.
We call this plot armor.
Given the level of June’s plot armor, which shields her from anything too consequential happening, there aren’t any REAL stakes. Everyone around June gets hurt.
This usually comes in the form of people being shot (see: Ofmatthew), getting sent to the colonies (see: Emily), or people getting hanged (see: Hannah/Agnes’ martha or the muslim family that took her in in season 2). But, honestly, what has actually happened to June since the beginning of the show? What stakes are present given how much crap she has pulled since day one? She has nothing to lose.
THT has created stakes for June in some capacity throughout the past three seasons – whether it was giving birth, escaping the Waterfords (a few times), or losing her sanity. But it’s always been small potatoes in comparison to all the expendable characters around her. That’s where this episodes comes in.
“Heroic” continues in the vein of the small stakes category, but, in this case, it is extremely person and self imposed.
Ofmatthew’s recent arc on this show was pretty terrible any you way you split it. You can debate why it was rather lackluster – if it was the fact we didn’t know anything about her and therefore didn’t care, or Ofmatthew’s motivations flip flopped more than Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, or that it felt like Mean Girls 2: The Handmaid’s Edition) but that does not mean, however, it can’t affect June on a personal level.
June’s culpability in OfMatthew’s gruesome fate is undeniable, and the ONLY intriguing facet of Ofmatthew’s story is that June KNOWS how culpable she really is. I suppose there is an argument to be made here that June’s actions, and Ofmatthew’s subsequent death, are meant to represent how selfishness corrupts all things around it. Though I suspect I may be giving Bruce Miller and his staff a little more credit than they deserve.
Either way, June knows how her actions coalesced into Ofmatthew’s death and she has to pay for it. This is the ONLY way THT can subject June to any real stakes.
They may be low, and they may involve inconsequential characters like Ofmatthew, but when you see June having a hard time getting up after kneeling for an unspecified LONG period of time, or when she tries to straight up murder Serena with a scalpel, you know that things are not going well for our title character. Elisabeth Moss is an incredible actor, and watching her lose her sense of reality in this show is a gift to the art form. This kind of episode only works with a few actors, and luckily she’s one of them.
Is June imagining the children that walk into the hospital? Does she really hear the music? Was she really going to murder Ofmatthew by holding her airtube? These are all questions that are important, but not necessary and it’s Moss’ acting which allows us to peer into that window of insanity.
My only gripe with this episode: June is back to where she started at the beginning of the season. She wants to rebel. She wants to save all the children. But she has no idea how she’s going to do it, and she’s on her own. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this starting point, but what the frak were the last eight episodes about if we’re just going to go back to where she was in episode 3.01?
This kind of validates my theory that each season should only be about ten episodes long. But, we shall see what happens now that we’re finally in the third act of the season.
Apropos of nothing:
- Here’s the perfect fix for the entire Ofmatthew arc: they should not have killed Eden. Imagine if instead of killing her in season 2, they punished her by making her become a Handmaid (because she does have a perfectly good uterus) and instead of Ofmatthew being some random chick – it’s actually Eden. Food for thought.
Mary & Blake Certified: B+
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