This year, we’ve asked 10 writers to pick some of their favourite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Jenna Scherer on The Handmaid Tale‘s “Late.”
Ever since Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, every generation has found something of the time period they were living through in the novel’s women-quashing theocracy known as Gilead. It may be safe to say, however, that seldom has this particular dystopia felt more close at hand than in 2017. It’s the year the federal government fell under the control of a radically conservative regime, one that puts the desires of the white, straight, male and wealthy first, foremost – and at the conspicuous expense of absolutely everyone else. It’s also the year, coincidentally, that Bruce Miller’s long-anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale landed. Call it the direst kind of kismet.
Set in the near future, the show imagines an America that’s become an ultra-Christian autocracy in the wake of a sharp decrease in birth rates. Society is restructured along strict patriarchal lines: Women are forbidden to hold jobs, own property or even read. Some are wives; others are servants called “Marthas”; and then there are the handmaids, a slave class of fertile women who exist solely to conceive and bear children. They all revolve around commanders, high-ranking men with entire households of women – and a few men – dedicated to serving their needs. Our main character, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is a handmaid trying to survive the day-to-day nightmare of her life while hoping to find a way back to the daughter who was taken from her.
The Handmaid’s Tale is horrifically evocative from the beginning, as we get glimpses of Offred’s past interspersed with scenes from the composed agony of her present. But it’s “Late,” the show’s third episode, that offers a gut-wrenching view into what happens to those who don’t conform. It’s also when we learn just how near this near future is.
Written by Miller and directed by Reed Morano, “Late” shuttles between three stories: Offred and her commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), processing the possibility that the former might be pregnant; another handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), being put on trial because of her sexuality; and flashbacks in which we see firsthand how the United States curdled into theocratic tyranny. Woven together, these threads form a damning, comprehensive picture of how women are oppressed, from being infantilised and talked down to, to being brutalised or murdered.
The episode opens on a blindingly white hallway, through which two black-clad guards usher Ofglen, handcuffed and muzzled, into a cell. She doesn’t utter a word in the course of “Late” (a stark, effective contrast to the famously chatty Gilmore Girls role Bledel is best known for) and it makes for one of the most memorable performances of the year. In an episode full of haunting imagery, perhaps the one that lingers longest is of Oflgen’s traumatised eyes, which say everything she can’t physically or verbally express.
She is on trial for carrying on a secret affair with another woman – a Martha whose name we never learn – and the two are charged, in a cursory trial in which neither are allowed to speak, of “gender treachery.” Morano films what follows with unblinking horror, as Ofglen is forced to watch her lover hanged after the two share a mute goodbye, and then Ofglen is ushered away to receive “redemption” – which, we discover by the end of the episode, means genital mutilation. It’s here, back in another stark white room, that government agent “Aunt” Lydia (Ann Dowd) calls Ofglen by her true name, Emily, and tells her: “Things will be so much easier for you now. You won’t want what you cannot have.” Then Emily is left alone, finally unmuzzled but now cut off from herself in an even more profound way, to release the scream that’s been building inside her the whole time, as Jay Reatard’s “Waiting for Something” hammers into our ears.
Music is used to powerful effect throughout “Late,” including in a scene that makes the world of The Handmaid’s Tale feel close enough to bruise. In Offred’s pre-Gilead existence, back when she was June, she and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) participate in a protest that looks an awful lot like the Women’s March – though it was filmed months before anyone knew such a demonstration would take place IRL. A slowed-down, ghostly remix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” plays over quavering strings as heavily armed police open fire and lob bombs into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, filmed in sickening slow motion. This is after June and all the other women in her office lose their jobs, lose the right to their own money – and June and Moira’s initial reaction is to joke in disbelief. These scenes from the past are filmed with a shaky handheld camera, evoking a sense of chaos and dislocation.
Scenes of the present, by stark contrast, are still and elegant. Wide shots of Offred alone or doted upon in various sunlight-lanced rooms evoke classical paintings. The aesthetics of Gilead are calm and beautiful, all fine wood and soft cloth, which makes the quotidian violence that happens there all the more alarming. In Gilead, handmaids are viewed as both precious objects and shameful burdens. In the course of the episode, Offred is doted upon like a child when the household believes her to be pregnant; casually electrocuted by Aunt Lydia when she refuses to denounce Ofglen; and finally hurled to the floor by a bitter Serena after she discovers that her handmaid hasn’t borne fruit after all.
“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen,” Offred tells us early in the episode via voiceover. “When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” And on TV screens across America, viewers awash in the news of the real-world political climate – women’s reproductive writes eroded, immigrants turned away, the president unleashing an endless volley of racist, sexist tweets – shuddered in recognition.