Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale: June and her fellow handmaids gave Ofmatthew the Mean Girls treatment until she could take no more, and there were some revelations about pre-Gilead Aunt Lydia. Here’s my recap for episode 8 if you missed it!
This week: Natalie and June are hanging on to life and sanity by their fingernails, their fates intertwined in a boldly claustrophobic episode that will probably divide viewers. Episode 7’s execution of Frances veered into fridging territory, and episode 9 runs with that as well, but I think it ultimately (just) resists it by the end of the episode. Spoilers are ahead for episode 9!
Episode 8’s exploration of shame continues this week, with June forced to take a good hard look at what she has done, and wrestle with her own conscience. She’s taken a turn for the crazy, which we know from (more than usual) lingering close-ups of her unblinking eyes, meandering voiceovers, visions, surreal and jumpy editing, and the fact that she’s got a Belinda Carlisle song stuck in her head. And now, so have we all. Thanks, June. This is just like the time we tortured Petr with “Baby Shark” on Slack. Except nowhere near as funny.
Natalie barely survived the shooting last week — but she lingers on, unconscious, because the doctors want her baby to survive. The foetus is their patient, not Natalie. “Ofmatthew is just a vessel now,” June tells us. Wives visit, to pray over the baby — not Natalie. Handmaids visit, to pray for the baby — not Natalie. June is not allowed to leave the room. She spends all day kneeling in front of Natalie’s bed, and sleeps a few feet away at night. She says, “32 days so far. I will be here until there’s a baby.” As time passes and she starts to lose her mind, Natalie becomes an obstacle, a symbol of her suffering. Because Natalie is still pregnant, June can’t go home. She starts to resent everything about Natalie and the hospital room: the beeping, the smells, the droning of the prayers.
It’s brutal for the knees. And the mind. “I don’t feel well,” she tells Aunt Lydia, as she begs to be allowed to go home. Aunt Lydia offers nothing more than the vague platitude that “God never gives us more than we can handle,” but God didn’t do any of this. And June is losing herself. She thinks about killing Natalie — so that her punishment ends, not really out of any desire to put Natalie out of her misery. She detaches herself from compassion and loses her ability to guard her words. Once, she was very good at that. She kept the sass in her voiceover and played the game out loud. Now she says things like “If you’re lucky, you may get to see her shit herself,” to Aunt Lydia. There’s no real malice behind her words here, just a highly worrying sense of emotional detachment.
Aunt Lydia will seem like the world’s biggest hypocrite for calling June “heartless”, but it’s interesting to note that while June tells us she’s stuck in the hospital room “until there’s a baby”, Aunt Lydia says she’s there until Natalie goes home. “You owe her that consideration after the way you’ve treated her.” That’s right, Aunt Lydia is the only one so far thinking about Natalie. True, it’s her job, and it’s her best way to punish June for as long as she wants — Natalie will never “go home” — but wafer-thin mint of credit where it’s due.
“Please God, let them die.”
God isn’t listening to June’s prayers, so she takes matters into her own hands. Her first attempt to kill Natalie, by cutting off her air supply, doesn’t work — the infernal beeping gives her away too soon. Then, after managing to retrieve a used scalpel from the disposable sharps box (let’s skip over the needle under the fingernail, because aaaaaaarrgggh), she’s interrupted by Janine, who has come in for a visit.
Poor Janine. She was the only handmaid who was nice to Natalie last week, and by virtue of being near Natalie when she broke, she was viciously beaten by her. Her old wound re-opened and became infected, so she’s in for some treatment. She has no cause to love Natalie, and she isn’t fully sane on a good day, but unlike June, she hasn’t lost her compassion. She feels guilt and shame as well, because she hasn’t been praying for Natalie, and she thinks the latest seizure was her fault.
Janine: Do you think she can hear me?
June: I don’t know.
Janine: Hi, Natalie. It’s Janine. I just want you to know that I forgive you. And I want you to get better.
June: She can’t get better.
Janine: I’ll wish for it anyway. I want you to find peace. Is that better?
And then it all goes further downhill. June is brandishing the scalpel and tries to persuade Janine that killing Natalie is the “right thing to do.” It says something about how far June has gone that it takes Janine to talk her down. Briefly, it’s a sweet moment. “She’s one of us,” Janine says. But when she tells June to hand over the scalpel, June’s expression changes immediately; she goes from childlike to dangerous in a heartbeat. And Janine speaks for the audience when she says:
“When did you get to be so selfish? Everything is always about you now. Your problems. You’re different. I don’t like it.”
It should spark an epiphany. But that comes later. June might not be preparing to use the scalpel on Natalie, but that doesn’t mean she won’t use it on someone else. Does she pick the Wife? The Commander? Doctor Douchebag? Who would be a strategic pick? Who’s a purely satisfying pick? Who’s got prominent veins? Eeny meeny HEAVENS TO BETSY, that’s good timing for Serena to show up, isn’t it? Why go for strategy when there’s REVEEEEENNGE up for grabs?
Last time we saw Serena, she and June had a blazing row in D.C. and their potential alliance was emphatically over. Serena’s here to offer her support to, uh, Matthew and Mrs Matthew, and part of her can’t resist a little smirk in June’s direction. But nothing is ever simple, and WRITERS MESS WITH US, and DAMMIT, they’ve gone and given Serena depth again. Sure, part of her enjoys seeing June broken and in pain, but Serena catches June when she staggers, calls her by her name, and sounds shocked when she says “You’re not well.” June’s attempt to go SLASHY STAB STAB fails miserably, and Serena does more harm to June when disarming her than June did to her. Serena looks horrified: “You were supposed to be one of the strong ones,” she says. What has horrified her more: being attacked, or the failure of the system?
And then the most surprising moment: Serena could completely screw June over by reporting her. But she doesn’t. She tells Doctor Douchebag that June cut herself, and disappears on her clippy-cloppy shoes, presumably picking up some Band-Aids on the way.
Let’s take stock then, so far. In that hospital room, who is treated like a human being? To Janine and Aunt Lydia, Natalie is a person. To the doctors and the Wives, she is an incubator. You don’t need to worry about scarring an incubator. Aunt Lydia’s compassion doesn’t extend to June, while Serena’s does, though not to Natalie. For June, Natalie is a person, just not one she cares about. So far, the doctors have all ignored June, as if she is furniture. She’s not their business; Natalie’s unborn baby is. But Doctor Douchbag is about to mess with us as well. He stitches up June’s wound, and because June’s lost her filter, she has a very frank conversation with him.
“My mother was a doctor. She treated pregnant women. She always put her patients — the women — first.”
It’s a reminder that he isn’t treating Natalie like a person. He shrugs it off. But then he is kind to June.
June: You should know I was going to kill Serena. And her. And you.
Doctor: I warned them. You can’t leave that girl in here, praying for months on end. The brain atrophies in isolation, and breeds despair. How long have you had suicidal thoughts?
Doctor: Doing any of those things would put you on the wall, and you know it. So. How long?
June: I don’t know. Since I realized I probably won’t see my daughters again.
Doctor: You feel hopeless.
June: How should I feel? Doctor, she’s someone’s child too.
Doctor: I honor the handmaid’s life by saving her child. How will you honor your daughters?
And there’s the epiphany moment. Shame it had to be sparked by a dude, especially the (mostly) callous Doctor Douchebag. But there it is. It was a long time coming. And suddenly, all those shots of the young girls coming in for their menarche examinations make sense. And Janine’s scolding makes sense. It’s not all about you, June. Other people here have problems too. You have lost your daughters, but you are not the only one who has had children stolen by Gilead. Look at Natalie. Look at Janine. They have lost like you. Look at those young girls. They have only just started their periods, and they are already being eyed up for their ability to breed. There is a parade of misery that extends past you.
The epiphany comes just in time. Natalie starts bleeding, and a hop, skip and emergency C-section later, her baby is born, and June can go home. For the first time, she watches over Natalie with compassion. Her little talk with the young girl in the hospital hallway rams home that epiphany even more. She’s Gilead to the core, but there’s definitely solemnity and fear behind that young girl’s eyes. This will be Hannah soon. All of the handmaids’ daughters will face this fate. They deserve more.
June has her Shawshank Redemption moment when she finally tastes some fresh air outside the hospital, but in case she’s wavering, there are more girls going in. Another reminder. More menarche examinations. There’s a lot of misery to go around, June. And so, she stays.
June: She’s still alive. I need to stay with her.
Aunt Lydia: That would be very kind of you.
Aunt Lydia seems to think that June has learned her lesson, but she’s learned a different lesson entirely. She’s learned compassion, forgiveness, sisterhood, and selflessness. Did you spot that once Natalie had given birth, she was left in the operating theatre and not moved back to her room? It was almost like she was waiting to be disposed of. She is utterly alone. She was never the patient, right? Her body is used for stitching practice. She has given so much to Gilead and they couldn’t care less. Now she has done her duty (ugh) no-one pays her any attention. Even the beeping machines are quieter. But finally, June is a comforting rather than resentful presence. Finally, Natalie is a person worthy of her compassion, not a traitor, a jailer, or an annoyance.
“I’m sorry I was such a shit to you. I got lost, I think. Not that that’s a good excuse. I don’t really have another reason. They just take everything from you, you know? They really do. Your son, he’s beautiful. He is beautiful. And everyone is praying for him, but I wouldn’t worry, seriously, because I think he’s just like you. He’s a fighter. And he doesn’t deserve to grow up in this place. He deserves to be free. They all deserve to be free. So, Natalie, I’m going to get them out. I don’t really know how yet, but I swear to you, I’m going to get them out. Because Gilead should know how this feels. It’s their turn to hurt.”
June’s going all Schindler’s List then. It’s a welcome change from reckless and cruel, so I’m here for it. The song that haunted her for months becomes a comforting lullaby and a promise. The credits roll with just the sounds of the beeping and the ventilator accompanying them. Both cease quietly and peacefully. RIP, Natalie.
Callbacks and References
I might be harsh with Doctor Douchebag’s nickname, but hey, they aren’t exactly a shining bunch. To survive the first purges, they were either lucky or complicit. Despite the occasional Not Awful Person Working in Healthcare, like this guy:
…the ones we’ve seen so far have either been creepy, or inept, or complicit in torture and mutilation, so Doctor Douchebag is kind of bearing the weight of all the doctors who came before him. He might claim he’s honouring the life of ‘the handmaid’ but really, is that what he was doing?
This isn’t the first time that June was at risk of losing her sanity. When she was locked in her room by Serena, she nearly broke. Back then, the faux-Latin graffiti gave her something to cling to.
Aunt Lydia has used solitary confinement as a punishment before — she kept a pregnant handmaid chained up at the Red Center, and then offered June a choice of this fate or going back to the Waterford house.
Janine was trying so hard to return some favours this week. She was looked after by June and Moira at the Red Center, when she was close to losing herself, and she was saved by handmaid solidarity at the end of season 1. I wish she had been the one to get June on track again.
The handmaids who seemed to be true believers or (at the very least) the most obedient — Natalie and Lillie — both swung drastically in the other direction before they died.
The Janine / Aunt Lydia relationship continues to be horribly fascinating.
The young girl with her earnest, sad eyes reminded me so much of Eden. Bodes well.
Next time: We’re back to the Lawrence house and June can make a start on her Great Plan. There’s just one problem: the Waterfords are back in town with their new BFF, High Commander Winslow, and they are all a bit suspicious about Commander Lawrence… 4 more episodes to go!