Lots to talk about this week, but there is some business to take care of first. Dear Hulu, I apologise. I may have had an embarrassing attack of premature exasperation last week. I’d started to lose faith in you. I was wrong. I think you tested me on purpose, to get me right where you wanted me this week. Bravo.
Spoilers will follow!
This was an emotional episode for sure, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But right now, can we just take a moment to enjoy the ending…
The pervading theme for this week was friendship, and there was time this week to flesh out some of the relationships between the women in the show. There was a literal bridge in the episode, obviously, but perhaps we can see the idea of connections between women as figurative bridges too.
Friendship + bridges = an earworm that has haunted me since I watched the episode, so I’m going to share the misery. You’re welcome. (Sorry)
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Serena’s loneliness was foregrounded, and we saw her bonding with Rita alongside her relationship with Mrs Putnam reaching crisis point. Mrs Putnam exists to make Serena look relatively warm, which isn’t an easy job, and there’s a real sense of rivalry between the two Wives. They are both neglected, unloved and suspicious, but Serena seems to have more of a maternal instinct, and is much better at suppressing the desire to be bitter and jealous. (To Mrs Putnam’s face, anyway.) Her interaction with Rita humanised them both. She relaxed the rules, inviting Rita to drink with her, and talking openly about Mrs Putnam’s shortcomings to the Martha. They have a shared sadness at heart, which Serena has only just realised. I know some of you are watching and hoping for some rebellion from Serena - I think this counts.
Something that definitely counts is when Serena crosses that line into Fred’s territory: his study. Was that the Scrabble set she saw on the table? This does not bode well for Offred.
Book-Offred’s relationship with Janine is perhaps more complex than the relationship we have on the show. Moss’s Offred is warmer, more supportive, more protective. When the handmaids line up as a kind of honour guard for Janine as she leaves the Putnam house, it is Offred who breaks rank to ask Aunt Lydia if Janine is OK. It’s a risky question, but Aunt Lydia’s having something of a softening as well, so the risk passes. “She’s tougher than you think,” says Aunt Lydia. But Janine clearly isn’t OK. Forced to give up her child, believing the tall tales of Warren (see what I did there) and immediately re-posted to another home, given another name, given to another man… OF COURSE she isn’t OK. And I’m sorry, but I found Mrs Smileyface Monroe and all her ‘sweetheart’ enthusiasm far more unsettling than Serena’s icy disdain for the whole process. The Ceremony is awful; pretending otherwise is gross.
Poor Janine. Poor, crazy Janine. But in her craziness, she is finally liberated. She’s like a one-woman Truth Bomb on that bridge, swearing her head off and yelling Warren’s secrets for all to hear. (Well done, girl. I smirked when he was carted off in that black van.) Offred has been summoned to help, and she tries the riskiest way first: treason. It’s a lovely dream, this vision of the regime ending, and June, Janine and Moira going out to dance and get hammered. This serves a purpose, but perhaps not the one that she intends. It doesn’t talk her down; it instead gives her something to smile about in those last few moments. There never was any way to save Janine. She could only save Angela/Charlotte. The child was the only one she was tasked to save by Aunt Lydia, and the child is the only one that the regime cares about. I’m sure she was tempted to join Janine up there for a moment, but a particular kind of hope keeps her going: that she will see her child again. There is no hope of that for Janine. One way or another, she would never have seen her baby again. There was only one thing that could save the child. “You have to do what’s best for your daughter now. You have to give her the chance to grow up.” She does. And then she jumps. And in that moment, she takes more control over her body, her identity and her life than she ever has done before. She makes a choice. And it (sort of) sets her free.
The fact that she survives might make this better or worse, depending on your point of view. Is she trapped in her body forever? Might she still be a useful resource, even if she isn’t conscious? (Sorry; try not to vomit.) Or does she have a chance at waking up in a free and fair society? Has she had the best of both worlds: the power to choose to jump, but the ability to live a happy life and be reunited with her children one day? (I’m not crying, you are.)
Maybe this doesn’t belong here, but can we talk about the relationship between Aunt Lydia and Janine in the comments? There were a few shots this week that intrigued me. Aunt Lydia’s expression when ‘Ofdaniel’ entered her new home: was that compassion? Sympathy? Her face when Janine jumped: was she just horrified at the loss of breeding stock? Or did she care? She’s keeping vigil at Janine’s bedside: is she a guard or a loved one? If she is a guard, then Janine has not escaped. I’m leaning towards a kind of maternal love, albeit a warped one, but is that comforting or not? Help me out, folks.
Midway through the episode it looks like June’s friendship with Moira is over. But this was a nice addition to the book. Book-Offred has built Moira into a kind of folk-hero, only to be disappointed by the broken reality when they reunite. Here, she gets to give her a good talking to. Both in the book and in the show, Offred scolds herself using Moira’s real or imagined words, to keep herself going, to persevere. In this episode, she recycles these and gives them back to Moira. It seems not to work. Moira has apparently been broken beyond the reach of sweary pep. She has lost herself in her new identity, Ruby. “I was doing alright until I saw you again,” she says. It was only then, perhaps, that she saw what she had had to become. In seeing June, she saw herself again. She disappoints herself. And for perhaps the first time, we see June openly grieving for her loss.
The other theme of the week was rebellion. By seeking out a more active role in Mayday (via Alma), June finds a reason to go on. She also finds some power. She manipulates Fred (well….sort of) and even though she has to sleep with him again, she has chosen this path, and so the exploitation starts to feel mutual, at least. Re-casting herself as the femme fatale, the spy extraordinaire, gives her purpose. She can endure more; she is taking some control. She is able to take part in banter at Nick’s expense.
For about 5 minutes, that is, until Fred admits he knows he’s been played, and has in fact been playing along. DAMN IT. He is an attentive chap, and he’s “not dumb”, allegedly. But he’s not grasped the full extent of her reasons for wanting to go to Jezebels, and that’s something. The swiftness with which he changed from ‘sugar daddy’ to cold hard Commander was chilling. “Pull yourself together. We’re going.” No trip to the bar to see Rachael. No package. No help from Moira.
It seemed that June’s career as a spy was over before it had even begun, but she’s not the only one rebelling. This is where I’ll grudgingly admit that Nick’s episode gave us something useful: the channels and the networks of information. Never underestimate the scale of the resistance. This felt so much like the French resistance in World War 2 to me. (OK, OK, my first thought was actually a 1980s British sitcom about the French resistance. Don’t judge me. I can’t help the way my brain works.) Messages are passed right under their noses, and the package (whatever it is) has found its way to June.
That note. With just a few words, Moira is back. “Praised be, bitch.” We see her reflection in the bathroom mirror; she sees herself. She has found herself again. It’s like a return to Lacan’s Mirror Stage, whereby the recognition of her reflection reasserts her true identity and clarifies the ‘self’. Or perhaps she is just able to look herself in the eye for the first time in a long time. Her chin is high; she is no longer ashamed and broken. She’s made another toilet lever shiv thing, and she’s not afraid to use it. She only threatened to use it on Aunt Elizabeth, but there is blood on her hands now. Is this progress? Does it show that she won’t underestimate the regime this time, and therefore has a better chance at escaping? Is it a warning that you can’t return to your pre-Gileadan self without compromising some of your personal values? Does that suggest that Gilead’s damage is irreparable, and that the regime corrupts even the most heroic? Is it a rejection of liberal ‘softness’ and a pragmatic recognition that the revolution won’t be bloodless? Is it a sign that the new Moira is not the same as the old Moira? We don’t know yet; I can’t wait to find out…
As she starts the engine to escape, we see her in the mirror again. This time she smiles.
Welcome back, Moira. Love you.
P.S. Can you believe it’s the last episode of the season next week?