The Handmaid's Tale: Other Women

When The Handmaid's Tale was renewed for a second season, my first thought was, I hope they don't decide to go backward and rewind the story.

But that's exactly what they just did, and I'm not happy about it. Not that this is a show that makes me happy. It makes me incredibly angry. The Handmaid's Tale takes millennia of misogyny in all of its different forms and expresses it through a theocratic government that seems to specialize in hate and oppression to the exclusion of all else. I sometimes wonder how a state so obsessed with expressing hate can function at all.

That said, this episode was powerful, not because they showed some horrendous violent torture, but because they didn't have to. June started out rebellious, determined to hang on to her anger as she was leg-shackled to a bed in a basement, which is what I expected that Gilead would do with her. Attended constantly by the hateful Aunt Lydia, June counted the number of flowers that decorated the comforter on her bed and thought about pig balls because she was longing for something to occupy her mind as she was fattened for the slaughter. She even insisted that Aunt Lydia call her June instead of Offred. (Good luck with that.)

I was wondering how they were going to get around this, and voila. As it turned out, the Waterfords wanted her back. They wanted the joy of pretending to experience June's pregnancy. Or, to be more accurate, Fred wanted it. Serena Joy, not so much.

So back to the Waterfords June went, once again in her red dress. Except that her stark, unpleasant bedroom is even more like a cell now, with the mattress on the floor and no other furniture. Sadly, even the graffiti carved into the closet by the original Offred had been plastered over, so even that tiny comfort was gone. Anything resembling privacy was gone as well, as Aunt Lydia invaded June's bath and told her to make certain to wash her filthy lady parts in order to protect that all important baby from germs.

For me, one of the creepiest things about the Wife/Handmaid deal is how the wives pretend that they're the ones who are pregnant. The baby shower was pretty much the ultimate in robbing June from experiencing her own pregnancy as she sat in a corner while the wives presented Serena Joy with baby things, including a fake bolster that would make Serena Joy look pregnant. June tried to ruin their good time, talking about her own shower when she was pregnant with Hannah, and saying with some satisfaction that she had felt the baby kick for the first time when she was alone the night before. And that ceremony with the red and green strings knotted together? It's fine if you're the green string, isn't it?


June started to lose her anger when Rita tried to smooth over what June did at the shower and Serena Joy slapped her, hard. And when June saw Alma's burned hand and learned that the second Ofglen had had her tongue cut out because she stood up for Janine. Or maybe it was hearing that Mayday had gone silent and wasn't helping handmaids escape anymore. Like hope was completely dead.

The title of this episode is "Other Women," and we got a lengthy "other woman" flashback to Luke's wife Annie, who confronted June in an attempt to save her marriage. Supposedly a religious woman, Annie was reduced to yelling insults and calling June a "fucking whore," which I can tell you, Annie, wouldn't be the way to get what you wanted from anyone. (June walking in on Luke yelling at Annie on the phone and then confessing that it was voicemail was the only even slightly amusing moment in this episode.)

But the flashbacks to Annie weren't what the episode was about. The fact that Luke was married when they started seeing each other was why June was a handmaid in the first place. The "other woman" in this episode was, of course, Offred.

What finally pushed June over the edge and back into her role as Offred, only more so, was what Aunt Lydia showed June as they walked by the river and stopped by the wall. Punishment for June's choices weren't just inflicted on Alma and Ofglen. The econopeople that helped her paid the ultimate price: Omar was hanged, Heather sentenced to become a handmaid, and their son Adam was given to "more deserving" parents. Heather, who didn't even want to help June, just suffered the same fate that June did, a sickening and practically unbearable parallel.

In this series, the focus of the camera is often on Elisabeth Moss' face, and here, it showed how utterly devastated she was by this latest blow. What can she possibly do now? No wonder she was ready to break. Aunt Lydia gave her a way out: June ran away, June consorted with terrorists -- but not Offred. Offred was kidnapped, which was the story Fred Waterford came up with to cover her return. Offred is blameless. It was Offred who begged the Waterfords to let her stay, who promised to be good. That scene where Serena Joy came into Offred's cell of a room and into her bed to stroke her stomach, that seemed like an invasion, but it wasn't. It's not Offred's baby bump now. It's Serena Joy's. All will be well and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.

The real odd man out here was Nick, who spent the entire episode floating in the background trying to hide his horrified expression. He finally tried to talk to June as she was going out to shop, but too late. Offred responded to his overture by repeating "We've been sent good weather" with a blank, pious look on her face. Nick will be lucky if Offred doesn't confess his involvement in her escape in an attempt to appease her captors.

Why didn't they make a run for Canada when they had the chance? Because we got a second season?

Bits:

— Afraid to do anything with the secret package of handmaid notes, Rita returned it to June, who once again concealed it behind the bathtub. There are now even fewer hiding places than before.

— It's interesting that Serena Joy is still smoking, and it's even those long, skinny ones that were marketed to women. It's a way of showing just the tiniest bit of feminist rebellion on her part. That, and her constant, almost bipolar seesawing between anger and placid acceptance. The first thing she did when alone with June was grab her by the throat and yell, "Ninety-two days!" Contrast that with the scene at the end where the two of them were in bed together sharing the baby bump.

— The men had a shooting party instead of a shower that included Janine's Commander Warren, who is now missing a hand. Fred Waterford mentioned Canadian sanctions against Gilead and said that he wanted to be special envoy to Canada.

— The photography was, as always, striking. When June returned, the shot was from above as she was going in the door, as if God was observing her return to Gilead. When Aunt Lydia barged into June's bathroom, we saw June's perspective from the waterline of the tub. And at the mens' shooting party, the clay pigeons dissolved as if into long sprays of blood.

— June's pregnancy is now showing. I kept thinking, what are they going to do with her after she has that baby? They were going to execute her after the birth when she was shacked in the basement. Is execution still on the table? Or is she sufficiently broken that they'll simply maim her in some way and then assign her to another Commander?

Quotes:

June: "There are 71 flowers on the comforter. I wish I had a pig ball."
Honestly, the thing that would drive me the craziest in Gilead is never being permitted to read.

June: "I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was."

Aunt Lydia: "I believe you know him. He drove a bread delivery truck. The wife will redeem herself by serving as a handmaid. The boy will never see his mother again. He has been placed with new parents, parents who are fit ... You chose for them. Such a selfish girl. Who killed him? Answer me, please. Whose fault was it?"
June: "My fault."
Aunt Lydia: "Who induced him to commit such a crime?"
June: "I did."

I don't know what to rate this episode. It was brilliant, but I hated it. I think I need more of a balance with something positive: Moira helping refugees, Emily taking the law into her own hands, blessed be the Froot Loops. What did you guys think? We haven't been getting a lot of comments on these Handmaid's Tale reviews,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

3 comments:

Indy55 said...

This episode was almost physically hard to watch. Even our normal life flashbacks were just uncomfortable to watch. But I think that’s certainly the point: June is 100% submerged now (as we saw in yet another pointed bathing scene), not even able to find respite in memories. She gets no breather, so neither do we. She was dragged kicking and screaming back to square one, and so were we. And it makes her finally being broken feel earned. The flashbacks here mixed with everything in Gilead really drove the point home about how even before patriarchy dystopia, the way women can treat other women is often as ugly as what these men are doing to them. The econowives, handmaids and marthas May be complicit out of fear, but Lydia and Serena Joy and many of the commander wives definitely have some score to settle and relish in the pain they cause. Anytime we see these gatherings of different classes of Gilead women, it’s like watching the Stanford prison experiment come to life, isn’t it? What horrifying effects the new power dynamic has had on every woman’s behavior. I’d like to make an official plea to the powers that be for us to get a peek into Aunt Lydia pre-Gilead before the season is out!

doram said...

I sometimes wonder how a state so obsessed with expressing hate can function at all.

The irony that I feel reading this as a black woman in America is ridiculous. Like head-desking, roll-on-the-floor-laughter ridiculous. And I don't mean it as a criticism towards you - just that I have to say that it never stops amazing AND amusing me that what black/brown people live every day of their lives is not regarded as a dystopia until it's shown happening to white people.

Lisianpeia said...

"When The Handmaid's Tale was renewed for a second season, my first thought was, I hope they don't decide to go backward and rewind the story."

I had a similar fear, Billie. Especially now that it's been renewed for a third season. Mostly I was worried that they would increase the show's psychological and physical torture for the shock value. I haven't felt like they have done that, but honestly for me the jury is still out. This episode, like so many others, was hard to watch, but it still feels organic in its storytelling. Even if they did go backwards with the story.

"For me, one of the creepiest things about the Wife/Handmaid deal is how the wives pretend that they're the ones who are pregnant." Same here, it's truly bizarre.