Gallows that buckle but don’t burst open in fake hangings, escape planes that get shot before they can even lift off the runway, victoriously and gruesomely cutting out an ear tag only to get it stamped back in three episodes later… Is this how Gilead breaks you? Asking both for the sake of June/Offred (as we’re back to calling her) and for the sake of The Handmaid’s Tale viewers like myself. This whiplash is getting nauseating.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×04 “Other Women”
What’s most horrifying about “Other Women” is how June being returned to her household and pre-Mayday Handmaid life isn’t just retreading the same ground from season 1. First, this is a trial period; if neither she nor the Waterfords cooperate, she’ll wind up chained to a stained bed like poor Ofwyatt until she gives birth and is then discarded, according to Aunt Lydia:
“You see, June will be chained in this room until she gives birth. And then June will be executed. Offred has an opportunity. It would be better for the baby.”
Her quarters are much more austere, with no small luxuries. The Nolite te bastardes carborundorum scratched into the closet has been replaced with a blank wall. The details of her escape have been similarly painted over, a daring flight retold as a horrific kidnapping, recasting her as a body, powerless. Aunt Lydia is her brown-robed shadow throughout the household, so that June can hardly get a private moment with Nick, or with Rita.
Rita, who hands her back the bundle of Handmaid letters from the season finale, still bound, still undelivered. It’s unclear if anyone from Mayday reached out, or if Rita simply ignored whatever secret missive came through. She’s too paralyzed by the fear that Serena Joy might find them, as she tells June: “You don’t know what it’s been like.” And she doesn’t—she’s been missing for 92 days, her absence stretching things so taut in the Waterford home that it’s poor Rita who gets backhanded for a comment June makes about her pre-Gilead baby shower. Imagine the consequences for discovering the letters. This is a disappointing development, as I had wanted Rita to have her moment—but it also demonstrates just how risky it was for her, as a woman of color and as a Martha, to play hero. Instead, she would likely have become yet another innocent punished for June’s rebellion.
The only thing protecting Offred is her pregnancy, and even that is conditional; it’s unclear if Aunt Lydia would judge her worth sending to a new household, or if she would wind up on the Wall anyway once the baby has stopped nursing. It’s also cold comfort, as being filled with the blessed fruit dehumanizes her even more than when she was a lower half being fucked during the Ceremony: She has been reduced to a vessel for the baby. It’s the dystopian-nightmare version of what pregnant women go through even today, touched without permission, their own needs dismissed in favor of the life growing inside them. In this case, it’s the further humiliation of Aunt Lydia standing over June in the bath, dictating that she wash “down there”; the bizarre participation on the fringes of the baby shower, watching the other Wives coo over how Serena Joy is “glowing” and over hand-knitted booties.
At first, June pushes back as much as she can. The pregnancy is a shield not only from Aunt Lydia’s cattle-prod shocks, but from any punishment for her insouciant “uh-huh”s instead of “blessed be the fruit” platitudes, or embarrassing Serena Joy at the shower with the knowledge that June and June alone felt the baby’s first kick. With that in mind, it’s such an odd moment after the other Wives have left, when June almost seems to bond with Serena Joy, Lydia, and Rita over the pile of presents—reminiscing about a shower that was actually thrown for her, in a world that no longer exists. I was delighted by her audacity, but confused by her own confusion when the others turn on her. June was clearly was lost in memory and not trying to act out, yet Rita got smacked for it anyway.
And that’s how Lydia breaks June. Perhaps she clocks Rita’s suffering, and then the exchanges between Offred and the other Handmaids at the shower, bearing corporeal punishment on June’s behalf: Ofglen’s tongue cut out, Ofrobert’s hand burned. Ofrobert was nicer to Offred than I expected, though she doesn’t miss a chance for a dig: “You didn’t make her say anything. This wasn’t your fault. Not that part.” Because Lydia’s ultimate power move is to bring Offred to the Wall, where the body of Omar the Econoperson and Mayday driver hangs, the hood crusted with dried blood.
“But you didn’t ask them, did you? You chose for them. Such a selfish girl. Who killed him? Whose fault was it?”
His wife Heather has been forced into service as a Handmaid. Their son Adam has been, just like Hannah, handed over to a new family. He will likely never see his mother again.
All of this death, all of this grief, all of these lives ruined, because of June. Because of her position as this other woman, intruding on people’s lives. Events set into motion that would never have occurred if she hadn’t made them happen—the rebellion, but also the long-ago adultery that sealed her fate as a Handmaid and, before that, broke up a marriage. At least, by one telling of it.
The episode could have done more with its flashbacks to Anna, the woman Luke is married to when he meets June. I expected more from this than two confrontations—one emotional and filled with insults like “selfish bitch,” one silent and sad—but I guess there’s not much more to say. It’s two women with differing views of the situation and their respective roles in the breaking of sacred vows. This duality, surprisingly, explains the June/Offred divide better than past flashbacks between life pre- and post-Gilead takeover. As June buckles in front of the Wall, Aunt Lydia offers her this:
“June did this. June ran away. June consorted with terrorists. Not Offred. Offred was kidnapped. Offred is free from pain. Offred does not have to bear June’s guilt.”
And so Offred bears neither guilt nor any other emotion: She prostrates herself before Fred and Serena Joy and begs to stay. She takes up the platitudes again, saying first aloud “We’ve been sent good weather” to a baffled Nick (poor guy); and then that broken record replaces her internal monologue. That’s when it gets utterly chilling—when the inside voice that used to crack jokes about throwing back oysters or that used to rage about screaming in the grocery store is parroting the same banal, empty words.
So we see the point at which June gives up, but what about those of us watching her story? Seeing how little ground this season has covered is making it a much more exhausting viewing experience than last year, because at least then there was the feeling of momentum. How many times do you, as a viewer, watch hope get extinguished before you decide that you’re no longer interested in continuing with the story? Since this is all off-book, it’s anyone’s guess if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, or if it’s a flashlight held in the waiting arms of an Eye. The Handmaid’s Tale was never fun to watch, per se, but it’s in danger of losing what makes it so compelling.
June’s retreat back into Offred is, as Vulture puts it, a narrative dead end. If she rallies once again, we’ll just be waiting for the latest obstacle to beat her back into submission. Frankly, I’m hoping that the series takes this opportunity to call upon someone else to liberate Gilead’s prisoners—Moira, working through her PTSD up in Canada, or Emily, planning a revolt in the Colonies. Yes, we root for June, but this stopped being The Handmaid’s Tale at the end of last season. Let’s see these “other women.” Let’s see The Handmaids’ Tale in all its glory.
- I called this section “Scraps” to honor the bundle of Handmaid letters written on any available surface, but perhaps I should rename it to “Bundle” since those scraps aren’t going anywhere.
- It just occurred to me: Is there a special maternity-wear version of the Handmaid gown? Or are they constructed to be loose enough to accommodate a growing belly, making them not fit the non-pregnant Handmaids as a reminder that they’re failing at their calling?
- The handfasting ceremony between Serena Joy and Offred was fascinating to watch. Same with Serena Joy later creepily spooning her and whispering to the baby. I hope future episodes play with this weird physical contact between them and how it relates to Serena Joy’s experience of the pregnancy and the ever-shifting power dynamic between the two of them.
- Something is happening up in Canada, with Fred wanting a piece of the action. I was struck by the use of “By His hand” among the men; it’s not the first time this platitude has come up on the show, but it’s less frequent than “Blessed be the fruit”/”May the Lord open.” I imagine we’ll hear more of it as we stick with the Commanders.
- Next week (possibly a spoiler if you haven’t read the book): Nick gets married! So excited they’re showing us yet another fucked-up Gilead ceremony from the book.
How are you feeling at this point in the season? Do you want to see June rise up again, or someone else take the lead?
This feels like a good week for Natalie Zutter to be comfort-reading Sweetbitter. Share your own coping-mechanism entertainment with her on Twitter!