Why Elisabeth Moss Deserves More than ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Column)

Elisabeth Moss has a long talk with a somewhat less-than-present conversation partner, to which Moss herself brings a certain wired tension. Her physical posture, upright even as her voice frays with exhaustion, indicates as much as do her words a new resolve to do better than she’s done as a caretaker. Having run out of things to say to a person about whom she holds complicated feelings, Moss finds in memory a piece of music to communicate a love and a passion it can be almost unbearably painful to admit. With limited instrumental backing and in an unbroken shot meant to communicate a building arc of catharsis, she sings a song about heaven.

Would you believe that scene has played out onscreen twice this year already?

Both the most recent episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the 2019 film “Her Smell” aim for an emotional knockout punch by tasking Moss with using a brief bit of song to sell revolutionary change within her character. In “Her Smell,” it’s an astounding, bravura bit of acting, supported by the choices director Alex Ross Perry makes in constructing the scene, and by the film buttressing it. That it’s at once so similar to the scene from “The Handmaid’s Tale” and so far superior emphasizes just how much Hulu’s signature drama, meandering through a cyclical story it doesn’t know how to conclude, has slipped away from the emotionally compelling show it was in its early going, and how reliant it is on Moss carrying iffy scripts across the finish line by strength of will.

And Moss, on the show for which she’s already won an Emmy, gets most of the way there. While some of the similarities between the two scenes feel either like purposeful homage or bizarre coincidence — the use of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” on TV and Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” on film, for instance — others seem like intuitive ways to make use of one of the two or three greatest performers of her generation. Moss, as an actor, has particularly grown into a master of using her voice’s texture and crackle to communicate shifts in emotion, and both singing scenes ask her to carefully modulate her tone to carry viewers through a character’s journey.

But on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s Moss alone doing the work of keeping the story coherent. The scene in question came at the very end of “Heroic,” an episode that previously had been a 45-minute gauntlet of misery for June. She’d been conscripted into keeping constant vigilance over her hospitalized walking partner Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), a woman who’d been shot by Gilead’s police force and who was being kept alive in order to give birth, after which she would be allowed to die. The ordeal for June, kept from home and rest and forced to keep watch over a woman whose pieties she’d already come to hate, went from abusive to somehow transcendent as June realized she might honor this unfortunate woman by committing herself to free the children of Gilead. She describes this ambition to Ofmatthew before, hearing in the routine beeps of the hospital room a rhythmic backbeat, croons several bars of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” her face glimmering with hope found in a loveless place.

It’s typical “Handmaid’s” — watchable in the extreme for both the high quality of its central performance and its willingness to be outright odd, even as it fails on any level beyond simple plot reversal. June’s fortunes, on the show, work like a sine wave, and so, too, do her reactions. She’s either optimistic about the future, in which case she allows herself a furtive smile before returning to a set jaw and a certain righteous gleam in her eyes, or she’s been once again crushed by the political realities of the world around her, in which case she’s broken in every particular.

In the scene that closes “Heroic,” we see a transition between June’s two states of being, in miniature. Previously in the episode, she’d been pushed to a state of incoherent desperation, attempting to stab Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in a sleep-starved and mad action for which she received basically no repercussions. Having received a bit of a talking-to by the doctor who stitched up her hand (Gil Bellows), the upshot of which is that she ought not be quite so despondent, June is eventually brought back to sanity and to life, choosing to fight on. As such, she talks herself into the idea that in the demise of a woman she didn’t like or respect in life, there is a lesson to be learned and a motivation to be derived. “I’m going to get them out,” she tells an unhearing Ofmatthew, “because Gilead should know how this feels. It’s their turn to hurt.” This is not meaningfully different than June’s rhetoric since the show began, which may account for why Moss ultimately has to sell the moment through song and not speech. To her credit, Moss manages to introduce a bit of shading into the final monologue, speaking to the comatose patient in an almost flippant manner at first, as if to comfort her by remaining the same familiar woman Ofmatthew disliked in life.

But strong choices, as is often the problem with this show, are not the same as ones that work. “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” conveys nothing but a bit of comfort and solidarity with Ofmatthew and ironic counterpoint to June’s situation, as randomly chosen as is her newfound status as leader of a crusade. And it comes, jarringly, at the end of an episode in which June has, for the umpteenth time, been pushed to the point of breakdown; she sings it in a weary whisper, her eyes rimmed red with tears. That June is fueled by a newfound-once-again inner strength is heartening but more than a bit baffling, and Moss can’t quite make the dots connect. The performance was entertaining, as surely will be June’s forthcoming role as the Joan of Arc of Gilead, but neither seems tied to anything in character or story. Maybe there’s nothing to tie it to in the first place.

Contrast this with “Her Smell,” whose first acts depict the extended collapse of Moss’s Becky, a falling rock star in thrall to several addictive substances, none more potent than ego. In her madness and her authoritative belief in herself above all, she defines her surroundings as much as June is defined by hers, and her trajectory has none of June’s relentless back-and-forth between success and failure: It just points downward. As she goes through a period of seclusion, finally working through the process of rehabilitation, Becky meets with her young daughter Tama (Daisy Pugh-Weiss), who knows Becky only as a distant figure, one she seems to have already, perhaps even unknowingly, forgiven for her tempestuous affection and her mysterious impulses. The pair’s talk is strained both by what Tama cannot understand and by Becky’s inability to turn away from the inherent drama of being herself. When Tama asks her musician mom to play her “a song that reminds you of me,” Becky declares, with a flicker of vanity, that she wants to deliver a “cover,” then in a single shot works through “Heaven” at the piano, moving from self-conscious focus on hitting each note and on containing her own emotions within subtle gestures to a sort of aching abandon. Becky loses herself, on the song’s bridge, belting both more loudly and more piercingly than she may have intended when she began. There’s a catch in her voice, like a door that, if opened, might yield years’ worth of secrets and of pain. It stays closed; the performance returns to the pleasant and the familiar. Becky lands, at the end of the song, on a safe, tight composure, adding a flourish of the keys as if to deflate a moment whose emotional weight cannot, for her, be borne without ironic distance.

This is a moment that stands among the very best screen acting I’ve seen this decade, and makes “Her Smell” the crowning achievement in what has become a very exciting career for Moss. Her other major roles include sharply witty supporting turns in the films “The Square” and “Us,” compelling lead performances in the film “Queen of Earth” (also directed by “Her Smell’s” Perry) and the series “Top of the Lake,” and such crisply elegant scene-stealing on “Mad Men” that the realization that her Peggy Olson was indeed the show’s second protagonist hit late in the run, and all at once. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” has brought Moss to a new echelon of fame, it’s hard to sort it among those performances because of how much less she’s been given. When Becky sings about being in heaven, we’re seeing the fractured hopes of a person reckoning with the fact that those of her mistakes that even are fixable will take her a lifetime to mend. When June sings about being in heaven, putting that remarkably agile and mutable voice to very similar work, it’s because she was feeling the familiar bounce-back from defeat to rebirth once more, and, more crucially, she just decided to. It was the way she was in the moment — the precise emotional opposite of her emotional mood earlier in the episode, and also likely the opposite of the way she’ll be in an episode or two again, blunting the impact of her own work and subsuming any political argument made by the show into a slipstream of recursiveness.

An art film has different obligations to its audience than does a streaming-series zeitgeist hit, but the latter has been uniquely diffident by any standard about its protagonist’s story and even her self. June, subject to the theocracy in which she lives, can only ever exist in a state of perpetual response rather than in moments of creation of the sort Becky, building a bridge to her daughter with each halting keystroke, does with ease. Due to Gilead’s hatreds and the show’s writers’ strategy of protracted abuse, she can only be reactive. Moss, the lead of a series whose veering turns back and forth from torment to reward have been as capricious as the laws of the nation it depicts, can do no more, either.

The star does hard and good work with what she’s been given, even as it yields diminishing returns. But it’s a bit of a shame, too, that her time must be spent inhabiting a character knowable only through what she endures and how she endlessly emerges from it newly motivated, only to snap again, a cycle yielding less insight each time as it consumes the schedule of a star who might do a million other things. The role is purgatorial. And Moss is an actor who can, at her poignant best and with the support of a project whose overall vision is as clear as her own, eventually convince any viewer to believe in the divine.

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