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

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May 09, 2018 at 12:42 PM EDT

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)

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