Does The Handmaid’s Tale Want Us to Empathize with Ivanka Trump?
On Season 2's Conflicted Vision of Resistance
Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale concludes the way it begins, with the camera’s grip fastened on Offred’s—or, more appropriately, June’s—face, reaching for her in the murky darkness that has become the show’s most commonplace atmosphere. But where, in the first episode, June (Elisabeth Moss) wore a blank expression with a trace of optimistic resolve, she leaves us at the season’s end standing alone in the middle of an obscure street, a sly smile tucked into the shadow of her red hood. Aided in her escape from the Waterfords’ house by a network of Marthas, she has declined to join Emily (Alexis Bledel) in a van presumably summoned to whisk them away from Gilead. Instead, she hands off her baby to Emily, slamming shut the door before her friend can protest. As her only means of deliverance disappears in the night, she turns, slowly, but decisively returning to Gilead’s epicenter—or so we suppose.
It’s an ending that recalls the self-abnegation of comic book superheroes: Batman or Spiderman abjuring safety in pursuit of a more noble purpose. Seemingly, June has evolved into SuperHandmaid, preparing to—do what? Go rogue as a freedom fighter? Collect her lover Nick (Max Minghella) and rescue her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake)? Kill the loathsome Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)? We are abandoned to our speculations.
In any case, what an absurd conclusion to the season.
The narrative development is not itself nonsensical. There are reasons aplenty for June to prioritize saving her infant daughter above her own escape, particularly when her first child, Nick, and others she seeks to protect remain ensnared within Gilead’s fascist state. But we don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale so that we may fantasize about a larger than life hero bringing salvation to the oppressed. We watch in order to understand how generally unexceptional people—people like ourselves—learn to survive a waking nightmare by demanding the near-impossible from themselves. We watch because, in our lizard brains, we yearn for some forecast of what may befall us as our Supreme Court capitulates to a president with autocratic designs.
This last, baffling shot of June’s superheroic menace coincides with the showrunners’ prevailing confusion over how to represent the world of Gilead in a way that is both narratively coherent and shaped to remind viewers of our own political milieu. For a show that is so often extravagantly brutal, it often muddles its own arguments for resistance or becomes altogether gratuitous. In fact, just earlier this week, The Handmaid’s Tale introduced another gratuitous—and ludicrously wrong-headed—endeavor by launching a line of wines. (Blessed be the fruits of capitalism.) The wines were pulled almost immediately after a swift backlash. As this enterprise bloats into an amorphous conglomerate of creative production and corporate interest, plot threads that might otherwise prompt us to productive discourse instead fade into the mix.
Eden Spencer’s (Sydney Sweeney) storyline, for instance, offers potential that, in the cacophony of tragic happenings, ultimately signifies very little. A lily-white Gilead disciple, the 15-year-old is delivered to Nick as a child-bride, and at first her behavior indicates that she is saturated with the government’s fascist dogma. Eden’s addition to the Waterford household generates a complicating factor in June’s already-perilous relationship with Nick, and this seems to be the primary purpose of her character.
Through Eden, the show had a chance to depict maturing girlhood under Gilead’s eye—which, taken on its own, could have been compelling: the story of a teenager who is young enough to have been inculcated with state propaganda, but old enough to remember the liberties of her childhood. Yet, as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk argues, the showrunners struggle to build Gilead’s world beyond the walls of the Waterford house. Accordingly, Eden’s character is crammed into an already claustrophobic domicile, and because she is a clear obstruction to the narrative schema, we know she won’t be long for the show.
The question, of course, is how to eliminate this fresh-faced innocent, who dresses like one of Captain von Trapp’s brood in the Sound of Music. As always, the showrunners select the most gut-wrenching possibility, an end that calls to mind Romeo and Juliet—if they were the star-crossed members of a fanatically evangelical youth group. After falling in love with Isaac (Rohan Mead), a young Guardian assigned to the Waterford family, the couple flees to Eden’s family home. But there’s no sanctuary to be found for illicit romance: her parents confirm their blind allegiance to the regime by turning their daughter over to the authorities. Eden and Isaac refuse to disavow their love, and so, without delay, the lovers are executed in front of their families and the Waterford household.
It’s a wretched tragedy, and what’s more, it’s another opportunity for the showrunners to reiterate Gilead’s barbarity, a tendency that has begun to feel nearly pathological. This time, the convicted are shoved from a diving platform into the deep end of a pool, weights shackled to their ankles. Seeing these children die bravely and torturously for a love that might have faded—this is heartbreaking. But because we hardly know them, because the story, ultimately, isn’t that interested in them, their deaths register more as a further assault on the show’s addled viewers than a meaningful commentary on faith. They become just one more entry in The Handmaid’s Tale’s brimful cabinet of horrors.
Throughout the show’s crusade to shock its viewers, the second season, more so than the first, also foregrounds June’s relationship with her mistress Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), for whom she is ostensibly carrying a child, and focuses more keenly on Serena’s impetuses and misgivings. We learn that the source of her fertility complications may derive from an incident where, the target of an infuriated protestor, she took a bullet to the abdomen. Yet this shooting scene seems to imply an equivocating perspective on the stakes of resistance. In a flashback, Serena visits a university to make a case for her conservative views regarding female biological destiny. We watch her—practically an avatar for Ivanka Trump’s delicate and genteel beauty—face a wrathful crowd lobbing insults like “fascist bitch” and “Nazi cunt.” It feels like a castigation of the left’s unwillingness to countenance conservative views—even when those views ignore fundamental tenants of bodily autonomy, and, in Gilead, have become the source of so much violence and brutality.
When Serena finally asserts herself, accusing the students of entitlement and myopia, it’s unclear what the show is asking of us: to interrogate the sympathy we readily parcel out to beautiful white women, or to appreciate Serena’s tenacity, even if we find her politics abhorrent. In the greater context of the season, the latter strikes me as more likely. But say those students had listened—had practiced the “civility” about which we hear so much these days: Gilead would still be the outcome; its arrival might even have been hastened by such docility.
As we learned in the first season, Serena is one of Gilead’s architects, although she has been displaced from her position of authority and circumscribed to the domestic sphere. Intuiting June’s intelligence and courage, she seeks opportunities to threaten and degrade her. She is abusive and manipulative in every conceivable manner, particularly when it becomes clear that June no longer fears her; she tosses her knitting needle to the ground simply to demand that June fetch it and return it to her. And when Serena is rendered desperate by her own insufferable position—watching with intimate proximity as another woman grows pregnant with the child she cannot carry herself—she traps June in her bedroom, holding her down while Fred forcibly penetrates her, purportedly to catalyze the labor. We are, it seems, supposed to regard this rape as markedly worse than all the others June has endured. All this makes June’s creeping, fraught, but steadily swelling affection for Serena vexing.
Of course, Gilead’s vast structure of oppression was bound to create some strange bedfellows. When June agrees to help Serena compose documents under her husband’s name it’s not only a temptation for a former editor who is no longer permitted to read—it’s the path of least resistance in a household where Serena can, and has, made June’s life a brutal misery. But the affection that June fosters for this woman, however understandable at points, provokes a few queasy questions about what sorts of alliances are worth making.
When, towards the end of the season, Serena’s finger is mutilated as punishment for reading aloud from the Book of John, June squeezes her hand in an intimate gesture of consolation; from all appearances, any anger over her mistreatment has dissipated. Perhaps, because Serena has defied Gilead’s law and suffered for it, June fancies them on the same team. But this would be a dangerous assumption. Moreover, not all of June’s fellow handmaids could muster such sympathy for Serena, no matter what she has endured. Before Emily returns from the Colonies, she encounters a Wife (Marisa Tomei) who has been condemned as an Unwoman for having an affair. Although it’s understood that no one survives the Colonies’ toxic terrain, Emily nonetheless seeks a quicker vengeance on the behalf of Gilead’s handmaids and poisons her. “Every month you held a woman down while your husband raped her,” she intones, both soft and bitter, as the Wife realizes what’s happening. “Some things can’t be forgiven.”
The show, to its credit, does not condemn Emily for what she chooses to do. Her hatred—her yen for blood—is posited as understandable, in light of the atrocities visited upon her. After all, as a lesbian—or, in Gilead’s terms, gender traitor—Emily has endured especial barbarity at the hands of the bigoted state. If June escapes Gilead, she will, to be sure, suffer monstrous trauma, but her body will be more or less intact. With her clitoris surgically removed, Emily’s most tender self—lover and spouse—has been subjected to irrevocable interference. She is not merely denied the possibility of sexual pleasure within the world of Gilead; considerable efforts are made to prevent her from ever experiencing it.
June must hunger for female fellowship—this to some extent explains her dogged efforts to reach common ground with Serena. Yet if she were queer, like Emily, or black and queer, like Moira, she might not feel this potential for communion, or perhaps she’d reject it wholesale, reasoning that nothing Serena does can amend her crimes. But at base, June and Serena are the products of similar backgrounds: they are both well-educated, culturally-literate white, heterosexual women—blonde and attractive to boot. For one to look at the other is to regard a distorted mirror: sameness ever so slightly deformed.
If the showrunners were not so adamant in their efforts to align their narrative with current events, perhaps June’s relationship with Serena would be a fascinating study in feminine intimacy and nothing more. But we have been asked, entreated, to make parallels, and Serena Joy, as others have argued, hearkens the honey-smiles of Ivanka and Hope Hicks and every other refined conservative woman who, with nails buffed and manicured, voted to divest millions in their country of constitutional rights. The Handmaid’s Tale metes out portrayals of violence so nightmarish they are more punishing than illuminating, while simultaneously raising the question of Serena Joy’s redemption.
Do we attempt to reach the women who have been architects of fascism, and who would see so many caged and killed? In the pell-mell of resistance, what charity ought we to offer those who may wish to atone? Emily would argue, “Not a fucking bit.” And June—
When I watched her return to Gilead, gathering herself with a hero’s poise, my immediate thought was: “She’s going to save Serena.”