Trying to establish a unified theory of motherhood is akin to building a boat from shards of marble: the pieces are likely to be ill-fitting, and in any case, the finished product will certainly sink. There are slim possibilities for symmetry, or for absolutes, when we regard how people navigate a labyrinthine world, fumbling into miracles of love and tender kinship—how we choose from an infinite lottery the ways we might belong to each other. However, few intimacies are as conceptually confounding as motherhood. We understand that good mothers exist, as do lousy ones, and we parse the specifics of each narrative in our assessments (we are always keen to assess mothers). But ultimately, reconciling this identity—the mother—is an insuperable folly.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale—based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name—has always gestured to the fraught condition of mothering, but in its third season the show intensifies its focus. It summons for scrutiny variously competing concepts of this vocation and proffers a sort of haphazard battle royale—often ideological, until it comes to blows (and it nearly always does). June cum Offred (Elisabeth Moss), Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), Janine (Madeline Brewer), and numerous other Gileadean occupants combat persons and circumstances, turning, often in desperation, to every tool available to them in order to occupy the role they regard as their right, whether by virtue of biology or holy entitlement.
With a new surge of political attacks against reproductive rights sloughing across the United States, we ought to revisit our agitated and rivalrous notions of parenthood, not to mention the crime of forced pregnancy.
But the effectiveness of a dystopian narrative—of any narrative—rests in its capacity for theoretical organization. It need not answer questions, but it ought to clarify its own. And if it posits a thesis, we ought to discern it, ideally without ponderous exposition or heavy-handedness. More than ever before, The Handmaid’s Tale seeks to tackle an impossibly knotted question—what makes somebody a mother?—but in its efforts to sketch out the lines of contention, it topples into the weeds, insinuating muddled hypotheses and listing against the convenient argument of biological priority.
Gilead’s theocratic totalitarian state turns on the premise that motherhood possesses a crystalline, meticulously delineated definition. All mothers are women, in the most essentialist terms, but only women who are deemed morally and religiously robust by an archaic, misogynist metric are considered fit for motherhood. These women might bear their own children—an especial blessing, in Gilead’s eyes, because pregnancy rates have plummeted—or, like Serena Joy, they become mothers through the intermediary vessel of a handmaid, who, as we know, is a woman brought into the household for the purpose of compulsory surrogacy. Gilead justifies this practice by claiming Biblical precedent in the Old Testament’s story of Rachel and her servant Bilhah, whom Rachel forces to sleep with her husband, Jacob, when she is unable to become pregnant, so that she might give him children by proxy. Bilhah, then, is the first handmaid, and Gilead’s disciples, particularly the Aunts who guard and train the women rounded up for this purpose, impart their duties with liturgical gravitas. This is a hallowed calling, they intone.
But a handmaid, judged impure by Gileadean standards, is never a mother, not to any children she may have borne before the new regime—they have been assigned to new, appropriately righteous parents—or to the children she delivers to Gilead’s chosen couples through the ritualistic rape gussied up as sacrament. She is an instrument of both deity and state, a fleshly means to an end. Of course, June, condemned for sleeping with a married man who becomes her husband, still considers herself a mother to both children she has carried, and therefore resists her retroactive reassignation. But by Gilead’s curdled logic she was only ever an incubator for her first daughter, an insufficient placeholder until the child could be settled amidst more godly people. For June, or for anyone in her station to reject this thesis, to insist that she remains a mother to every child she grew inside of her, is considered presumptuous at best. But depending on what this conviction might lead a handmaid to do—in the first season, Janine kidnaps her baby and, after contemplating murder-suicide, hands the infant to June and flings herself off a bridge—it might even be condemned as heresy.
Those who embrace Gilead’s ideology of motherhood hand themselves over to wild theatrics and, at times, outright delusion in effort to buttress this ramshackle system of belief. Both Atwood’s book and Hulu’s prestige drama depict the erasure of the handmaid, both during pregnancy and in delivery. They demonstrate the absurd, ghastly pretense that the woman for whom the handmaid bears her child shares in the visceral experience. Children born from handmaids, into the houses of powerful Commanders and their wives, tumble into households seething with resentment, misery, and trauma. If there is love, too, then it comes at the cost of annihilated personhood—for the handmaid, certainly, and in some ways, for the wife she is compelled to serve.
At the start of the season premiere, June’s narration articulates her reason for remaining in Gilead. Entrusting baby Nicole to Emily (Alexis Bledel), she rejects the opportunity to escape to Canada and instead resolves that she will not leave until she can rescue her elder daughter, Hannah, who has been renamed Agnes and given to a childless couple, Commander and Mrs. McKenzie. “I’m sorry, baby girl, Mom’s got work,” June apologizes, in voiceover. She stands on the murky street in her alarm-red cloak, perilously visible and vacant of strategy.
Aided by Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the man responsible for Emily’s freedom, she does reach the McKenzie’s house, but before she can reach Hannah, telltale sirens alert her that the game is lost. She snatches a moment with her daughter, who is fast asleep, and ties a red string around her tiny wrist before the guardians drag her before Mrs. McKenzie (Amy Landecker).
An unremitting focus upon childbearing parents does not resonate. It’s not even narratively crucial.
The confrontation between the two women—who each believes herself the rightful mother of the child—is quiveringly contentious, yet threaded with sympathy born from shared love. Each grasps at opportunities for claim. Mrs. McKenzie reveals that she learned from Hannah about her brief meeting with June at the summer house. “Of course she told me,” Mrs. McKenzie emphasizes to a surprised June, in quiet, but smug victory, “I’m her mother.” June scoffs, as if attempting to spit her rival’s words from her own mouth.
At the conclusion of the visit, the women begin to speak more peaceably, until Mrs. McKenzie observes, “Praise be, she has your eyes. It truly is a miracle.” Now it is June’s turn to usurp. “I’m her mother,” she predictably returns. June stares, and Mrs. McKenzie’s mouth quavers. At last, she turns her head, pained by June’s visage.
For the women in Gilead who have accepted stolen children, like Hannah, or who, due to struggles with infertility, have relied on handmaids, like Serena Joy and Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine), the sight of June, or Janine, deflates their conviction in Gilead’s dogma, which assumes them that they are the rightful mothers of their children. Perhaps, in the case of Mrs. McKenzie, it is not merely a matter of biological inheritance, but an inconvenient reminder that her child lived—however briefly—another life before she was installed as Agnes McKenzie. Perhaps she understands, in her gut, that she is complicit in something wretched, even if Gilead’s edicts for motherhood have favored her.
But Serena Waterford is tormented by the fact that she did not carry Nicole, that they are not tethered by blood. Gilead’s rites—the brutish Ceremony, the deranged carnival on the day of the baby’s birth—hang weightily on metaphor, and on the rigorous abuse and obliteration of the handmaid, in order to foster a chimera of fleshly tie between the child born through surrogacy and the woman who claims her. Yet the power of symbolism is easily punctured by desire, particularly when that desire greets you at every turn, embodied as a healthy, pregnant woman living in your house. It’s a dismally tragic moment when, in the second season, Serena places her breast in Nicole’s mouth to playact at breastfeeding: in the flush of love and desperation, she slips fleetingly into Gilead’s seductive fantasy and pushes it to the very lip of delusion, where Biblical conceit transforms into bodily fact. But she is horrified and chastened when the baby recoils, crying at the deception: this body cannot feed her.
June, who recognizes Serena’s yearning for biological motherhood better than anyone, soothes and exploits that vulnerability depending on what seems most effective in the moment. A jaded Serena is, in June’s estimation, a potential ally; moreover, the women have fostered something of a wobbly affinity that has sat queasily with me since the second season. When Serena visits June at her new post with Commander Lawrence, seeking comfort from the person she most resents, and upon whom she can best depend for honesty, June rises to the occasion. “She isn’t mine,” Serena murmurs, gloomily. “Serena, only a mother could do what you did,” June avows. This reassurance—that motherhood is not determined through genetic lacework but rather by the willingness to sacrifice—is a welcome moment in a television show that, by virtue of its premise, aligns itself with biological essentialist views of motherhood. Certainly it makes sense that the villains of the show are couples who rape women in order to impregnate them and harvest the babies they bear, and that June, Janine, Emily, and the other handmaids would be shattered and enraged by the kidnapping of their children, or in Janine’s case, the loss of a child she carried and regarded as her own. It is eminently reasonable that the handmaids would weaponize both their reproductive capabilities and their biological ties to Gilead’s children because they have been savagely stripped of everything else.
But an unremitting focus upon childbearing parents, poised in opposition to the women whose motherhood relies upon them—albeit in the most sadistic way—does not resonate. It’s not even narratively crucial.
June hopes that Serena, in giving up the child she lavishly adores, understands what motherhood demands, and that this knowledge will bring empathy for the handmaids of Gilead—so many of them torn from their own families. She hopes that this experience might prod Serena towards rebellion. But June is still learning what it means to be a revolutionary, and she chronically overestimates her influence of Fred and Serena Waterford. June has never fully understood that Serena does not change so much as she reacts, and like most people, particularly selfish, coddled ones, she is motivated when circumstances become inconvenient for her. She let Nicole go, after all, when she was in shock from having her finger mutilated. Serena Joy does not know motherhood, but not, as she fears, because she does not know the pulses and toil of pregnancy and childbirth. She cannot comprehend what it means to be a mother because she is lost in her own narcissism, and obsequious to every inclination born from it.
At the start of the season, a woebegone, delirious Serena sets fire to her bed, the same one in which she and Fred repeatedly raped June through the masquerade of a sacramental insemination and, finally, in a fiendish effort to induce labor.
The smoke moves through the house, alerting June that something is amiss, and she soon discovers the source. She enters Serena’s bedroom, its elegance beset by flames, Gilead’s most prominent wife tarrying in its midst, still and remote. At June’s back we catch a glimpse of a painting hanging on the wall: a Victorian rendering of mother and child. It is, for the moment, untouched by the fire, but it will inevitably burn with the rest of the house. Serena must have chosen it not merely as decoration, but as a talisman to usher in what she so coveted—blessed motherhood—and to justify her complicity with all that Gilead becomes. Yet how often did that pair of visages taunt her?
It would be satisfying to interpret Serena’s pyrotechnics as an ideological renunciation, a sign that she can no longer countenance this world for which she was an architect. But this, too, is a reaction, a breakdown born from covetousness (and is that not a Biblical sin?). She does not condemn the system for its own bloody existence. She condemns it because it has failed her.