In an episode closely focused on June, we see how Gilead can tear down even the most defiant and resilient of people

By David Canfield
May 09, 2018 at 12:42 PM EDT
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After June came so devastatingly close to escape, “Other Women” offers a straightforward answer as to how the bleak status quo of Gilead life is resumed — how June is re-conditioned by Aunt Lydia, tentatively welcomed back by the Waterfords into their home, forced to endure elaborate ceremonies and rituals that treat her, for the most part, as if she doesn’t exist.

In that construct, it’s a necessary, workmanlike episode, almost like a reshuffling of the show’s story deck. But The Handmaid’s Tale is rarely so content, to just push through the necessary plot points without any added artistry or complexity. Indeed, this week provides some vital character work: It demonstrates to us the limits of resistance, the consequences of activism, and the sheer psychological toll that operating in such an inhumane, all-seeing system can have on even the most radical, defiant soul.

“Other Women” is focused squarely on June, and particularly hones in on her dynamic with Aunt Lydia. The episode opens in the old gymnasium where Lydia does much of her dirty work; here, of course, she’s not violent or nasty, given that June is pregnant and her health and well-being must be preserved. But Lydia proves to be adept in other ways. Her maneuver in this episode, to get June back on track, is to systematically tear down her sense of worth — ironic, since June’s ostensible goal here is to prove to the Waterfords that she is “worthy” to once again live in their home. June eventually agrees to play along, if only because the alternative — imprisonment, and then death — is hardly preferable.

She returns to the Commander and Serena Joy, in a freshly washed handmaid uniform but still determined not to play by the rules. Even after getting caught and talked down to by Lydia, June is feeling the energy of her near-escape, Mayday, the good fight. She’s alternately amused and baffled by the Gilead spin of her disappearance — that she was kidnapped, and heroically rescued — but then considers its implications: that Gilead is so mighty, with so much reach, that even a near-perfectly-executed underground escape plan can be spun into a victim narrative.

As “normal” life nears resuming, however, neither Serena nor the Commander feel comfortable with the arrangement. For Serena, you see in every second of Yvonne Strahovski’s performance the degree to which June has gotten under her skin: there’s jealousy, rage, and pain present every second she shares a room with her. She throws June against a wall in her first moment alone with her, choking her, appearing desperate, and as she lets her go and heads out of the room, June reminds, coldly, “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.” Fred, meanwhile, wants nothing to do with the situation: the baby isn’t even his, his connection to Serena has diminished, and the ugliness of the whole thing is undeniable. He floats at a meet that he’d like to be sent up north to Canada, to negotiate loosening sanctions on Gilead. Really, it’s to abandon the chaos and despair he’s helped sow in his own home.

This leaves Serena and June — women caught in a system of misogynistic oppression, and who resent one another as a consequence — on their own. The episode’s centerpiece is their baby shower, with the other wives joyfully bestowing gifts and good cheer upon Serena while June looks on, invisible. Lydia is by her side, seemingly half to ensure things run smoothly and half to protect June, in her strange way — her twisted commitment to ensuring the “best” for her handmaids is no more evident than in this episode. She tries to keep the peace as the cold war between Serena and June escalates.

In one searing moment, another wife laments that Serena missed her first trimester (what with the “kidnapping” and all), but that, fortunately, the baby hasn’t kicked just yet. June interrupts, speaking for the first time and stunning the crowd. “I felt the baby kick for the first time last night,” she blurts out. Serena steps outside, mortified, for a smoke; Lydia joins her and acknowledges her resentment as “natural.” “God will forgive you for that,” Lydia assures, before leaving her alone (but not without putting out the cigarette). (Recap continues on Page 2)

“Other Women,” fortunately, is not so simple an episode, contrasting June’s heroism and resilience with Serena’s villainy and coldness. We see the latter’s emotional turmoil at a situation she knows is broken but which she cannot escape, and more profoundly, we see the former’s inability to hold onto that rebellious rush. The main event of the shower ceremony, in which Serena and June lock hands, surrounded by wives and handmaids, invokes God and family in a way that sticks to June. She holds tears in her eyes — of guilt, anger, pain, it’s not so clear — opposite a similarly, deeply moved Serena. Here, finally, they meet one another’s gaze.

The Handmaid’s Tale has a tendency to heavily lean into its #Resistance undertones, boosting messages of defiance with a pop soundtrack and indulging in June’s Atwood-esque caustic, witty narration. And this, at times, comes at the expense of nuance — the gravity and severity of June’s rebellion, and also its consequences. Brilliantly, “Other Women” complicates June’s image of herself, forced to reckon with what her attempted fleeing has wrought. She learns that Ofglen’s tongue was cut out after she stood up for Janine in season 1’s finale. She learns that Mayday has gone silent, no longer helping handmaids, after the failure. Most excruciatingly, she learns that Omar — the man who, perhaps against his better judgment, helped transport her even after he was told not to — has been hanged. Lydia forces June to observe the dead, looming body, and tells her that Omar’s wife has been designated a handmaid and that her child has been taken away from her, to live with another family. “You chose for them,” Lydia says. “Such a selfish girl.”

Lydia’s manipulative power is showcased here, as is the impossibility of truly living in Gilead. It’s obscene that an attempt to be free resulted in one family’s total destruction — but it’s a consequence one could have foreseen, sadly, and thus one that June must come to terms with. She feels the guilt intimately. She flashes back to memories of her initial dalliance with Luke, and what that meant for someone else in the equation — his then wife. We see her confront June before Luke had divorced her, pleading with June to back off and let her solve their marriage. We hear Luke berating her on the phone in the immediate aftermath. And in one final glimpse, we get a snapshot of Luke, June, and their child in a coffee shop, happy — only for Luke’s ex-wife to enter, take one pained look at them, and leave in seeming grief.

The baby shower’s religious focus probed crucial questions not just about atonement and guilt, but faith. What does June believe in — and what did she believe in? Her mission has always felt atheistic, but here we see the weight of that. She suddenly doubts her sarcastic act, her refusal to act polite in Serena Joy’s presence. She remembers her actions affect other people — and that neither now nor then has she always given that fact enough thought. People can be complicated and selfish. June is a heroic character, and one whose desire to find freedom we desperately support. But it left a trail of destruction.

How does Gilead strip a person down? “Other Women” documents how, with brutal clarity. Lydia instills in June enormous remorse. She forces June to reconsider her “Offred” identity as a pure one, free from blame. And she convinces her to sit before the Commander and Serena Joy and plea that she be allowed to stay. “I would very much like to stay here at home, if you’ll have me,” June says.“I am not worthy yet.” As she says these words, you feel the last ounce of self-worth being squeezed out of her.

It’s a draining, defeating scene, but also an important one — a reminder not just of June’s inner-strength, but her humanity, her limits. She’s not beaten into submission here; not tortured or abused. She’s compelled, again, to operate in a system that rewards submission and punishes anything else. In the episode’s final sequence, she repeats “My fault” to herself, falling into a cycle of blame and self-hatred. “I am inadequate and stupid, without worth,” she says. “I might as well be dead. Please, God, let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.” She puts her uniform back on. She heads outside for her morning walk, running into Nick. He screams her name, waiting for a response. In the most tragic response imaginable, all trace of June appears — at least for now — gone: “We’ve been sent good weather.”

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seasons
  • 3
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  • 04/26/17
creator
  • Bruce Miller
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