A Marriage in Gilead

Sarah Welch-Larson

The Handmaid’s Tale has always been about the role of women in society. In Gilead—the dystopian setting of the show, in which the United States has been replaced by a theocracy—women are reduced to servants, wives, and mothers. They are punished for speaking out of turn, for reading, and for failing to stay quiet and follow the rules. Season three turns its focus on marriage, suggesting that Gilead defines marriage the same way it defines much of its societal structures: based on a grave misunderstanding of Scripture.

Season three begins with the same choice that ended season two. June (Elisabeth Moss), a handmaid, has decided to stay in Gilead even after she had the chance to escape. She managed to get her baby daughter, Nichole, safely to Canada, but she won’t leave without her older daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). June is surrounded on all sides by enemies and not-quite-friends, trying to negotiate the harsh society of Gilead without losing her life or the last shred of agency she has. She’s been reassigned to a new household, but she remains closely tied to the Waterfords, her previous household, because the Waterfords had claimed Nichole as their own daughter.

Season three gives special attention to Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). Serena is a fascinating character, at turns villainous and sympathetic. She is as close to equals with her high-ranking husband, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), as any woman can get in Gilead, but she’s still forced to take second place in her own marriage and home. When she tried to advocate for a woman’s right to read Scripture at the end of the second season, she lost a finger as punishment. She’s been grieving the loss of Nichole, whom she considers to be her own. She’s furious with her husband for allowing her to be punished and she’s unsure of where to go or what to do. Gilead has no place for her if she leaves her husband, but her current situation with him is abusive and unbearable.

In season three, The Handmaid’s Tale substitutes its trademark overhead shots for shakier camerawork and darker shadows to indicate Serena’s mindset (although there are moments where smooth tracking shots are used to indicate bursts of clarity). While staying with her mother, Serena is drawn into a prayer circle with other husbands and wives of her rank, who pray without fully understanding what they’re praying about or who they’re praying for. Serena hangs back in the doorway, wearing a dress that is uncharacteristically old-fashioned and ill-fitting; she’s uncomfortable in her clothes, in her situation, and in her own skin. Her discomfort is made even more plain on her face after she is urged to sit down in the middle of the prayer circle. The camera spins around her, focused on her face, as the others pray over her.

Not understanding that Serena’s marriage is abusive, the prayer circle members recite a portion of Ephesians 5—“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands”—that is commonly read at weddings. Like most of the verses and prayers that form the backbone of Gilead, this verse is taken out of context. That passage in the Bible actually begins with a command to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (emphasis mine), then goes on to instruct husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies. Marriage is not a one-sided commitment, nor is it a master-servant relationship. It is a partnership in which “the two will become one flesh”—one body, one unity, and one illustration of Christ’s love for the church.

Like most of the verses that form the backbone of Gilead, this one is taken out of context.

Christ’s love is not abusive, nor is it demanding or unreasonable. A marriage should not be, either. Another chapter, also commonly read at weddings, that is also understood to be about Christ’s love is 1 Corinthians 13. The chapter lists everything that love is (patient, kind, truthful) and everything that love is not (envious, proud, easily angered). When held up to this chapter, Gilead’s legalistic society falls short in every possible way. It dishonors others (forcing most of the population into servitude, treating them like cattle instead of human beings); it is self-seeking (presenting itself to the world as a perfect nation at the expense of the servant class); and it keeps a long record of wrongs (complete with severe punishments for anyone who dares cross the line). Gilead tries to do everything by the book, but it has none of Christ’s love.

Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 are not at odds with each other. They are part of a whole, and should not be taken out of context. Partnership, honor, love, and marriage are all two-way streets. The Handmaid’s Tale should be considered as a whole as well; the show has a decent grasp on Christian faith and thought, and does not present Gilead’s views as those of all Christianity. Despite being subjected to physical, mental, and spiritual abuse, June remains faithful. She prays under her breath as the world goes mad around her. She pushes back against Serena’s claims that she wants to take Nichole back because she loves her, speaking hard truth even though it could cost her dearly. “This isn’t love,” June snaps about Serena’s attempts to possess the child. “You are small, and you are cruel, and you are empty.”

June is right. Serena knows the words of Scripture, but she does not have love for anyone except herself. June, on the other hand, knows love when she sees it. She exercises it every day by being kind to the servants, by trying to help the other handmaids, and by risking her life to protect her daughters. She understands the self-sacrifice that comes with love, even at personal cost. The love that she has stands out on her face, burning as brightly as the red of her cloak.

Topics: TV