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The Handmaid's Tale: Heroic

"Don't do that. She's one of us."

This is the third episode in a row that I didn't like much. But yes, I got the point.

Aunt Lydia decided to punish June for her treatment of Ofmatthew, whose real name is Natalie, and forced June to do penance by kneeling in Natalie's hospital room until the baby is born. That's such a horror when you think about it, the torture of being forced into an uncomfortable position for hour after hour, day after day. And again, much of the focus of this episode was Elisabeth Moss' face – her colorless exhaustion, the bags under her eyes.

Let me pause for a moment and ask why punishment was more important than June getting pregnant. Aunt Lydia doesn't know what goes on in the Lawrence home, so what about the monthly sacred ceremony? What about endangering one of those all-important walking wombs? The handmaids are sacred objects, except when they are not. Their bodies are all important, except when they're not. It's senseless. But Gilead is senseless. Maybe that's the point.

Anyway. There was a purity to that sparkling white hospital room, the three evenly spaced windows and the lines of perspective pointing toward June and her suffering, while some of the shots with Natalie's body in the center made her look like a crucified Jesus in a Renaissance painting, eyes closed, her head on her shoulder, hair cascading down. With nothing to see but the comatose Natalie, June became obsessed with the sounds and smells of the hospital.

"Oooh, heaven is a place on earth." Why did June hear that oh so fluffy pop song? Assigning musical notes to random beeps and boops is like claiming that Gilead's policies have meaning, and June and Natalie were most certainly not inhabiting anything resembling Heaven. In her constant internal monologue, June said the Wives smelled like the Ceremony and the Handmaids who stopped by to pray with her smelled like food. And that Natalie smelled like a baby, a blameless infant, as she was treated like an object. Let's slice into her leg to increase the amount of fluids that the fetus is getting. Let's not worry about what that does to Natalie herself.

Increasingly desperate to reach the end of her punishment, June still couldn't make herself stop the respirator, couldn't stab Natalie with the scalpel. Her rage dissipated when she finally realized that Natalie wasn't the enemy – she was a fellow victim of this horrible place. And that like Natalie, June is at risk of death, which I think was the point of this episode.

Doctor Yates didn't report June for stealing the scalpel, and he knew that June had taken a "swipe" at Serena. Yates knew June's mother. ("Doctor Maddox, she was scary.") When June confessed that she had planned to kill the doctors and the Calhouns as well as Natalie, Yates saw it for what it was – a way for June to commit suicide. By shocking her out of her rage, Yates made June see the path that she was on.

(Of course, he did nothing to actually help her other than stitch up her bloody hand, because this is Gilead. He might have made a stab at honoring his Hippocratic oath, but as he was leaving the room, he turned so that we could see the Gilead star on his shoulder. Message received.)

After the premature birth of Natalie's son, June voluntarily stayed with Natalie until she died. Aunt Lydia chose to see it as June learning the lesson Aunt Lydia was trying to teach her, but it wasn't that at all. June was acknowledging Natalie's humanity, their sisterhood as Handmaids. At the start of the episode, June was calling her "Ofmatthew." At the end, she called her "Natalie."

During her punishment, June thought she was hallucinating the girls in pink, and it would have been better if she had – the girls were coming into the hospital for their "menarche exam." While adults all remember life before Gilead, those girls in pink do not. They weren't taught to read. Instead, they spout religious platitudes about their marvelous future bearing babies for the state. Rose, that freckle-face little girl with braids, is a slave of Gilead, a future baby incubator like Natalie and June. It's horrifying.

So June has now decided to focus on freeing the children. But what I don't get is how June can possibly think she's going to get children out of Gilead. What has changed? Nothing has changed. Increased hangings, that's what is going on right now.

Most of this bottle episode was about June, but there were some nice bits of Janine and Serena Joy that I should mention.

Whenever we see Serena these days, I ask myself, "Is she a good witch or a bad witch?" This time Serena was a good witch. Serena noticed that June was in terrible distress and cared enough to stay and talk to her, to acknowledge her pain, and later, to conceal the fact that June attacked her with a scalpel. Why?

And Janine, who was seriously injured by Natalie to the point of having a hospital procedure on her empty eye socket, came to Natalie's room to forgive her. Janine had every reason to be enraged with Natalie, but she was not. As a reward, Aunt Lydia brought her yet another red Handmaid accessory – an eyepatch.

I am always floored when we get a cute eye-related scene with Janine and Aunt Lydia, and we've gotten several of them. None of those scenes ever acknowledge that Aunt Lydia took Janine's eye as punishment. But we all remember it. The show doesn't have to remind us.


— The little girl in the hallway was named Rose. They actually gave her a pink/red name.

— After all of Natalie's worry that she was having a girl and how that girl would fare in Gilead, she had a fourth boy, after all. June had a point that boys in Gilead weren't free, either. They might have it better than the girls, but oppression is oppression.

— The scene where June put her hand in that sharps box and came out with a needle in the tip of her finger made me cringe. Would anyone actually put a scalpel in a sharps box, though? It's mostly for needles and lancets. Scalpels would be sterilized and reused, wouldn't they?

— And I should mention that Doctor Yates put the scalpel back in the sharps box, still within June's reach, when he left the room. You'd think he would at least take it with him.

— This bottle show took place almost entirely in a bright white hospital room. The use of color was striking: June's blue eyes and red uniform against that vast white floor, the trail of blood. I especially liked the four Wives in graduated teal and blue shades as they prayed over the baby. It would have been nice if they could have included a prayer for Natalie.

— I'm glad Janine said, "I look like a pirate" because it would have been silly if no one had said that. I hope the eye patch means less time in the make-up chair for Madeline Brewer, who is so consistently wonderful as Janine.


June: (re: the wives) "They smell of powder and soap. They smell like the Ceremony. Like Serena Joy, when she held me down. It's hard not to fucking gag."

June: "Maybe I'm crazy and this is some new kind of therapy."

Aunt Lydia: "God never gives us more than we can handle."
June: "Are you sure?"
I don't know why this made me laugh, but it did. Like Aunt Lydia is any sort of authority, like she actually knows what God wants. That's the thing that drives me nuts about some religious people, that they think they can decide what God wants.

Janine: "When did you get to be so selfish? Everything is always about you now… You're different. I don't like it."
Were they listening to the fans of this show?

Doctor: "They're not sick. They're here for their menarche exam."
Mrs. Calhoun: "They've flowered? How lovely."
June: (to herself) "That will be Hannah soon. Too soon."

Serena: "You were supposed to be one of the strong ones."
Everyone has limits, Serena. Even the strong ones.

Doctor Yates: "How long have you had suicidal thoughts?"
June: "Homicidal."
Doctor Yates: "Doing any of the things that you said would put you on the Wall, and you know it."

Doctor Yates: "I honor the Handmaid's life by saving her child. How will you honor your daughters?"

June: "I'm sorry I was such a shit to you. I got lost, I think."

Beautifully written, acted and filmed, as always. But I'm not happy with this one. It feels like we're meandering instead of forging ahead. If we have to meander, couldn't we do it in Canada?

Two out of four discarded scalpels,

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

1 comment:

  1. I found this episode rather boring. Admittedly, there may be some value in illustrating us that June's life as a Handmaid is often tedious as well as horrific but it doesn't make for scintillating viewing. When Janine starts to sound like the voice of reason, you know June has really drifted into the deep end.


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