Elisabeth Moss Delivers Another Bravura ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Performance, but the Show Needs to Look Beyond Her Gaze

·8-min read

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Testimony,” the latest episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Once again, Elisabeth Moss has been assigned a bravura bit of acting; once again, she’s delivered. The question “The Handmaid’s Tale” always seems to force is: Is that enough to keep us watching?

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On “Testimony,” the most recent episode of the fourth-season Hulu drama, Moss delivers a seven-minute speech, directly to camera, in a single unbroken shot. She narrates every terrible thing that has happened to her over the course of the series. Within the show’s universe, the context is a trial in which the crimes of her former captors, the Waterfords, are to be brought into the light. Within ours, it’s a chance for the show to announce it’s entering a new phase, and for Moss, who directed the episode in which she monologizes, to show what she can do as a performer and artist.

Moss is extraordinary as ever in this scene, nailing the technical aspect of a long speech without the mercy of a cut. Fans of the 2019 film “Her Smell,” in which Moss performs Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” in a similar lengthy shot, will be unsurprised that she can shift from strength to fear and back again, visibly bucking herself up before our eyes. Moments of doubt are banished by June’s growing sense of the political import of her speaking out; moments of strength are punctuated by a perfectly-calibrated performance of grief for what has been lost, lending a sense of June as canny political actor knowing how to make an impact. It’s a wonderful bit of work in a strong season of TV.

But certain elements keep the show, as good as it’s ever been, from being great. Anything we know about June feels like it’s dragged into the show through Moss’ performance; even in the actor’s greatest showcase to date, she’s describing a set of actions done to her. We know, on a basic and fundamental level, what she wants: To survive and to be reunited with her family. We also know that she has been brutalized in the worst ways humanity knows how to administer. The rest feels like it’s being created moment-to-moment, in a performance the show relies on for sheer incandescent power but doesn’t know how to support.

The two grandest scenes for Moss this year both came in episodes the actor directed: Before her testimony, there was the season’s third episode, in which June is tortured graphically. Later in that same episode, believing herself back in captivity, she reached a point of near-emotional collapse, and, left alone with her former lover Nick, gave him a big kiss and declared her love as the camera whirled around them and strings soared. Did she really love him? It completely tracks that a person who has been through hell and sees a familiar face doesn’t really know. It’s a problem, though, that the show doesn’t seem to, either, and that its focus remains on wringing popcorn moments out of a novel drawn from the most troubling aspects of the history of our species.

There will always be a taste-level problem with this series, one that waxes and wanes. The most jarring recent example was the recent scene in which June has a PTSD meltdown after believing she sees a handmaid in Canada, whose stinger is that she actually is seeing a Muslim woman in a hijab. This possibly unintended juxtaposition ends up as a startling, provocative, and unsubtle political statement about Islam’s treatment of women. In June’s testimony episode, there is a jarring parody of a defense attorney — a cruel and petty woman who reminds June that it was in fact her choice to become a Handmaid, even as it was an utterly false one.

Elements like this remind the viewer just how far from whatever was once its core mission the show can range. “Promising Young Woman,” in its treatment of an Alfred Molina character who overcomes his regret by joining the prosecution, recently made the case that defense attorneys should not exist at all. What is pernicious here is the sense of “Handmaid’s” trying to do too much, to grab within its arms not merely a troubling fantasy of where society might head in the future but a critique of the legal system as it presently exists. Gilead is so overwhelmingly, noxiously awful that it makes moments of attempted critique of 2020s America feel disproportionate. Even as we root for them to be punished, no one could seriously believe a defense of the Waterfords in an international tribunal would begin with the decision into which June was forced. But it’s the only way to squeeze in another point in a show that’s already cacophonous.

The most recent episode asks, throughout, what it means for a society to begin to forgive those who have done real and systemic harm — a serious question on which serious people cannot consistently agree — and at every story level shrugs the question off. A woman, for instance, who’d been begging Alexis Bledel’s character for forgiveness for having ruined her life as an enforcer ends up dying by suicide before Bledel can provide an answer, thus preventing the show from having to tease out something more challenging than catharsis.

These questions are hard indeed, and the absolutist strain in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is appealing. The Waterfords should fry! (I felt a bitter thrill at a scene, earlier this season, in which Moss, spraying spittle and curses, somehow found her way into Serena Joy Waterford’s cell in order to excoriate her.) But we are now, clearly, in a phase of moving towards some kind of rebuilding — examining the relationships the rest of the world has with Gilead and the way forward for those who survived it. “Burn it all down” feels within the realm of understandable responses, given that the show’s political milieu — for all the praise it’s gotten for being resonant with our times — is heightened to a near-unrecognizable degree, making everything an emergency and forcibly pushing back against nuance. But it’s also a note that’s struck too often.

Perhaps a problem for the show is that in making June a sort of superwoman everywoman — in assigning her no traits but the elements of personality Moss brought to the part, the better to make her cause feel universal — the show took on her point of view a little more than consistently makes sense. June isn’t really a character, but that’s okay: She’s the show itself. We see, for instance, in the trial of the Waterfords, June’s glimmering triumph, followed by the asinine brutality of her being asked follow-up questions. Both of these are, conveniently, exactly how she might assess the situation. We’re inside her mind as she confesses her love to Nick, with whatever “love” means in that moment a question the show is uninterested in resolving. Moss serving as director in both instances seems both like a great opportunity for a talented performer to try a new craft and a further deepening of the mind-meld between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the handmaid telling it.

Which is not such a problem, except: We badly need some distance from June’s perspective. It’s telling that Moss — a generationally talented performer and a very strong director of television in her first two at-bats — is at her best when her character is being seen by others, as in the striking sequence this season in which Samira Wiley’s Moira attempts to bring a traumatized June back into reality in order to save her life. From her vantage point, the ethical questions the show raises about forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t questions at all; given what the writers have given this character to live through, that makes sense, but that also forecloses entire lines of inquiry and thought this show might otherwise pursue.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in the wake of catastrophe — and the tough decisions made in the aftermath of such a thing would seem an obvious, intriguing, and of-the-moment subject. Instead, the show placed June in the company of a straw-woman defender and let her burn it down. Just before that, the series’ big showcase moment was a character describing everything that happened in the first three seasons. For all that June’s story is in a literal sense progressing, it’s hard to feel a sense of deep curiosity about a show that gave its protagonist her greatest spotlight ever simply to look backwards and retell a story we’ve seen from her perspective. More than ever, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” draped in the cloak of social concern, wants most urgently to comment on itself.

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