Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale, Season Two, Episode Four: Other Women

For the last season we've watched as June has been subjected to torture and degradation, yet in the face of it all, though she has had moments of sadness, June has always been a fighter. The Gilead may have renamed her Offred but she has refused to take on that monikor, identifying only as June in her mind.  This week, we see that a mind can only be pushed so far before it breaks.

June has been captured and locked in the very room that Aunt Lydia warned her was her destiny if she didn't capitulate to everything that the Gilead wanted from her. Because June is pregnant and the Gilead prizes babies June cannot be subjected to the physical punishments that Aunt Lydia seems to love so much and this forces Aunt Lydia to switch gears.  Alone in a room with nothing to amuse her and no one to interact with, it's clear, June is in danger of losing her mental faculties. When Aunt Lydia first appears a defiant June stares her down. June is informed that she she can remain chained to the bed and then executed after the baby is born or she can change into her red dress and move back in with the Waterfords.  It's not really a choice and so June returns to the Commander and Serena Joy, with Aunt Lydia whispering in her ear about being lucky to be there, entreating her to be a good girl. 

June may be back in the red dress and back in the Waterfords home but she is not yet defeated. In fact, June is amused that they managed to frame her escape as a kidnapping in order to save face. Even in moment of defeat the Gilead always looks for ways to stay on top. Serena is the only to physically harm June in the episode a rare moment on a show in which we have become accustomed to violence against women as a regular occurrence. The moment June and Serena are alone, Serena pounces and begins to choke June who keeps a slight smile on her face never for one moment showing any kind of panic. June knows like we all know that as long as she is pregnant, Serena is not going to harm her.  When Serena lets June go and marches out of the room, June calls out,  “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.” That's June's way of reclaiming power by throwing Serena's own words back at her. 

Aunt Lydia however is determined to break June down and remind her that she is nothing more than a womb. June cannot even bathe without Aunt Lydia waltzing in and demand that she "wash down there", lest any nasty germs get at the baby.  Gilead so anti-woman that it's not surprising that a vagina, is deemed dirty even as the womb is elevated. June is ordered to dress and come downstairs to have something healthy for the baby. This is when June makes eye contact with Nick for the first time since returning home and it does not go unnoticed by Serena Joy. Since everything is about the baby, June is offered a green shake.  Pretending compliance, June takes a small sip with ordered to by Aunt Lydia and then several mouthful when ordered to consumer more.  June however isn't ready to play good girl yet and proceeds to throw the shake up all over the counter.  A smile crosses June's face at this tiny moment of rebellion but it is short lived because Aunt Lydia simply decides to make June another shake.

Throughout the episode there's a lot of tension between June and Serena.  Serena is filled with disdain for June, largely based in jealousy of her fertility and the trapped environment they are both.  This is after all what Serena wanted but she now she is all to aware that without motherhood she is irrelevant and only June can provide her that. Serena is without doubt a true believer but as the walls are closing in, I don't believe that her rage is solely based on non compliance. I am quite certain that at least a part of it has to do with feeling suffocated by the Gilead.

Continuing on with absurdity, it's time for the baby shower.  June is forced to sit and watch as Serena opens presents and the wives coo.  As the wives comment that it's a shame that Serena has missed so much of the pregnancy and that it's too bad that she hasn't felt the baby kick yet, June is quick to volunteer that she felt the baby move the night before.  Aunt Lydia tries to defuse the situation by asking if June needs a break, June is quick to declare that she's having a great time.

And just where is the commander while this huge estrogen fest is going on? He's busy hunting with the other commanders. It's clear at this point that he's only minimally invested in the baby who isn't even his to begin with and even less interested in the domestic war waging between Serena and June. In fact, the commander is busy trying to get himself assigned to negotiate with Canada, who it seems has put sanctions on the Gilead.

On a break, June attempts to reach out to her fellow handmaidens. Ofglen, who participated in the rebellion (read: the refusal to stone Janine) led by June, simply walks right past June without even acknowledging her. It's Ofrobert who explains that as punishment, Ofglen had her tongue cut out. June asks about Mayday, only to learn that they are no longer helping handmaids to escape. June is quick to take ownership, particularly after seeing the nasty scar on Ofrobert's hand, and is told she is blamed by some for certain things.

It's time to finish off the worlds oddest baby shower, The women gather in a circle and June gets on her knees in front of Serena and the two women join hands.  Perhaps it's because June has just learned the cost of her rebellion, but it's clear that she is moved and joins in completely in the prayer the women offer.

Despite having June firmly ensconced in the commander's home, Aunt Lydia doesn't feel that she has finished discharching her duty to torture the women who are under her purview.  Lydia and June walk to the wall where they discover a new body is hung up for display. The head of the body is covered with a sack but the black hands are clearly visible.  It turns out that the body belongs to Omar, the driver who took June in when she was on the run. June collapses to the ground in grief as Lydia turns  the knife, revealing that Omar's wife has been made a handmaiden and their child has been given to parents more fit to raise them.  Lydia tells June that she has been, "a selfish, selfish girl". I'm quite certain that the similarities between Omar's family and June's isn't lost on her. Aunt Lydia explains that June can simply become Offred and leave all of the shame and hurt behind her because unlike June, Offred is pure of heart.  Aunt Lydia wraps her arms around a crying and distraught June. At least for now, it appears as though the Gilead has won; Aunt Lydia has done her job well.

That night, as June lies in bed, Serena climbs in next to her. Serena wraps her arms around June's swollen belly, telling the fetus how much she loves it and that everything is going to be okay because Momma's here. It's creepy and yet another violation that further breaks June down.  The next morning, June arises, praying to disappear and hoping that her own daughter forgets all about her.  When June passes Nick in the hallway, she walks past him without acknowledging him at all.

This episode was absolutely necessary. No one could have gone through what June has gone through and not been deeply effected by it.  It's always been a matter of time before Gilead broke June and the question now is will she stay down and sink deeper into the alternative Offred identity Gilead has created for her, or will she rise once again in rebellion? 

Interspersed through June's messed up baby shower and the manipulative plotting of Aunt Lydia, were scenes from June's previous life. We are reminded once again that Nick was married to someone else when he met June.  We watch as Nick's ex wife begs June to back off so that her marriage can have a chance to survive and finally resort to slut shaming June, when June doesn't comply.  We get to see the ex wife walk into a coffee shop and see June and Hannah before leaving in the most dejected fashion possible.  I'm not at all pleased with the juxtaposition here, even if it is a stark reminder that women in a patriarchal world are always responsible for a man's sexual decisions. The truth is, June didn't make anyone any promises, her husband did. I'm not pleased that this is the reason June is now a handmaiden or that it implies that she deserves the treatment she is getting.  I suppose the point is to remind us that Gilead is wrong but I am concerned that there will be many who view this juxtaposition and decide that the so-called crimes are equal.

We didn't see much of the commander this week, because he was busy hunting with the other male leaders during the huge estrogen fest (read: baby shower). It gave us a little further insight into global politics. The fact that Canada is sanctioning Gilead, as well as providing shelter for escaping handmaidens, tells us that the stakes are high.  This is particularly true given that the British and Canadians are training together.  Given that the war has clearly caused problems with the environment, it leads me to believe that all of the fresh Canadian water is now at play.  I really do hope we get a larger view of the geo political world.