Under the Eye: “The Crossing”

“Whenever I look at you now, I won’t see a powerful warrior. I will see a six year old boy who is powerless to protect himself. In spite of all you’ve done to me, I find you a pitiable man.” That was a great moment of storytelling as well as a personal genesis in the development and evolution of two (not one) characters. It tells a story of both sides; looking at it from both sides. The aggressor. The prisoner. This isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, it’s the tail-end of a Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter called “Chain of Command,” and believe me, it’s not one of my favorite episodes. This moment, though, perfectly captures something that could have been as equally effective in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Alas! (In a whisper.) It was not to be … Actors want to be tortured, don’t they?

It reveals something about them as people when they can drop their natural defenses, or at least pretend that they’re dropping their natural defenses. An actor wants to appear respectable through performance, but as we know, “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness*.” June is muzzled, taken back to Gilead proper by Nick, who is now beginning to resemble the bad, inattentive boyfriend or male rival in any John Hughes movie. Think James Spader or Robert Downey, Jr., though Max Minghella doesn’t quite cut it with his downward casts and proto-beta mannerisms. You always got the feeling Spader and Downey, Jr. could be dangerous if prodded, but Minghella is a spider with no venom. Nick tells her Esther was taken into custody.

I see Esther as a prime candidate for a lobotomy; it’s kinda weird Gilead doesn’t do that anyway. I know there was one horror story Lyds told June to keep her in line, but otherwise, you’re trying to rape half the population, right? Why not go all the way and rape their brains? The other handmaids are still at large. Oh, they’re very good, Mr. Bond! Gilead will want to know where the other handmaids are. June is led by Aunt Lydia down a corridor with doors leading to rooms of torture and indoctrination. June is taken to a room and struck by Lydia, who is deliberately dense and doesn’t understand why June would free all the children. Another of the show’s failings: the idiocy of the bad guys. June is placed on a rack. Maybe they’ll make her taller. That’s what all women seem to want.

Now for the obligatory funny story. I knew you were waiting for this. I do a podcast with my friend, John Froelich called Upstairs at Froelich’s. We talk about movies and such. In one particular episode, we discussed two Sam Raimi/Coen Brothers movies: Crimewave from 1985, and The Hudsucker Proxy from 1994. Raimi directed Crimewave. The Coen Brothers directed The Hudsucker Proxy. At the time I had to review Crimewave, this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered. In the role of the main inquisitor/torturer, Lieutenant Stans, was Reed Birney. Birney was also the protagonist, Vic Ajax, of Raimi’s Crimewave! How about that? Isn’t that weird? From what I understood, he had semi-retired from acting and became an acting teacher. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University.

The thing I don’t get about Gilead’s impressive knowledge of torture and murder is that while these are the pious, the gloried and misunderstood, wouldn’t they require consultants or experts in torture in order to effectively convey pain? Do they have a checklist of approved murder techniques? The techniques seem to change day-to-day. One day, it’s being hanged by forklift. Another day it’s drowning in chains. Some days they skip ceremony all together and shoot people in the head. Torture tends to be more psychological than physical, and the physical portion of it involves death. It’s the fear of death that yields the fruit. As for torture, I’ve got an original one: coat your subject’s lips with hot sauce and then refuse them a napkin! It starts to burn the skin after a short time. That smarts! Reed wants to know where the handmaids are, but he’s so pleasant and polite about it in a very sweet way, it’s unsettling for June.

She’s not used to being treated like a human for five seconds, until the demon comes out and shuts off Reed’s senses so he can set about removing her fingernails. June lies about a location and then Reed suddenly becomes the “good cop.” They clean her up and treat her nice until they discover she has lied. Next, they take her to a roof where two of her old Martha friends, Beth and Sienna, are poised to be shoved off. This is a very grade school level of torture. They’ve officially run out of creative ways to kill people on this show. Reed hasn’t been doing his homework. Beth and Sienna (as well as June) know that whatever happens, they will be killed. I think the inquisitor should study his victims in order to be more effective, don’t you? Can you imagine how many resources were wasted torturing one handmaid while killing two others.

Why is it so important Reed know where the other handmaids are? It’s because writers can’t understand the motivations of their baddies, so they make them illogical. This is me with my writer’s hat on. In Canada (Blame Canada!), Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) receives word that June has been captured. I don’t know how anybody would know that in Canada. Luke asks if there will be a trial. Is he serious? Lydia (Ann Dowd) keeps trying to scare June. Just kill her and be done with it. June indicts her as a liar and a failure for not protecting the handmaidens. People are lighting candles and marching for June. I’m still wrapping my head around the notion that there are wealthy people in Canada during an apocalypse. I need some time with this. I’ll have to process it to a point of understanding. Luke wonders why June chose to stay in Gilead, knowing she’d probably get caught. He’s having a hard time dealing with this. Meanwhile, Reed puts June in a cage, where she gives us a reprise of “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”.

This one tiny little woman, recovering from a recent injury, whipped and beaten and prodded and poked somehow represents an enormous threat to Gilead. They’re scared of her. Reed is scared of her. Fred and Serena are scared of her. Why are they scared of her? In this never-ending barrage of psychological turmoil, she sits at a sumptuous meal with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who has been elevated from prisoner to … let’s call him “creative consultant.” He warns that her daughter, Hannah, will be hurt if June doesn’t cooperate. He tells June that Gilead doesn’t care about children. No shit. In my notes, I wrote: “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears.” You could’ve knocked me over with a feather! True to his word, June is taken to a large room housing a transparent cage. Inside the cage is Hannah. Hannah is frightened of June. June finally breaks and reveals the location of the safehouse.

In short order, the ladies are arrested. Every aspect of what follows makes no sense. Ah, nonsense! You are still alive, my old friend … There are six handmaids total in a van. All of this over six handmaids. Anyway, there are six handmaids, Aunt Lydia, and the driver. The driver wants to stop at a railroad crossing to take a piss. Okay. No problem there, except that Aunt Lydia notices very quickly that she’s outnumbered and all she’s got is an overworked cattle prod. June overpowers her and wants to beat the holy hell out of her, but one of the handmaids urges her to run away with them. She should’ve taken the cattle prod, but she doesn’t. They run like mad for the crossing. The driver draws his gun and fires. Why does the driver fire on them as they escape? I thought they were valuable. They’re fertile women, right? The driver shoots two of the running handmaids. June and Janine run up ahead and make it over the tracks before the train rushes by. The remaining handmaids are run over by the train.

I guess this wouldn’t be considered a complete setback considering they were all headed off to certain death any-which-a-ways! On top of that, the whole thing plays out in maddening, pointless Zack Snyder slow motion. So endeth the stupid-eth scen-eth in the series-eth. “The Crossing” marks Elisabeth Moss’ first time in the director’s chair and, quite frankly, it shows. It suffers from too many pedantic film school 101 choices, as well as an over-reliance on torture to pad out the running time. There have been more blatant attempts to squeeze out episodes with nary any progress in the overall story arc (I’m thinking of last season’s “Heroic” and the previous season’s “Holly”, both directed by Daina Reid) just to fill an episode order, but this season’s order had been reduced to ten episodes instead of the usual thirteen. There’s no excuse to not just get on with the story at that point. Speaking of padding, I better wrap this one up. This was the worst episode of the show ever made. It was written by series creator, Bruce Miller, and directed by series star, Elisabeth Moss.

*Come now, Gentlemen, I know there’s some mistake. Performance, 1970.

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