Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale: We caught up with some old friends, saw some new faces, and then had a rage fit when June almost escaped only to be dragged away at the last second. Damn it. In case you missed it, here’s my recap for episode 3.
I hereby promise to spoil every last detail of this episode, so abort mission if you don’t want to see spoilers! I know some of you are reading this instead of watching, or checking here first to see how terrible it is before you catch up, so you can stay! Ready?
We were all dreading this week, right? Somehow more than normal? No good was going to come from this. No good at all. And true to form, this was another parade of misery, lightened up only by Aunt Lydia’s kindly ‘midwife from hell’ routine. That’s right — things are so bleak that Aunt Lydia (AUNT FREAKING LYDIA!) is the show’s nearest thing to comic relief nowadays. It’s a testament to Ann Dowd’s brilliance that she made me wonder in all seriousness, to quote my notes: ‘Could she just make friends with Aunt Lydia?’ And that is how I came to the sad and horrifying conclusion that as much as I would want to be a Moira, I’d totally be a Janine. God dammit.
Dowd really was a tour-de-force this week. She did it all: the threat, the doom, the indoctrination, the emotionally aware sensitivity to Serena’s feelings… She can make a wake-up call obnoxiously cheerful, and turn a smoothie into an act of torture FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. She made June wash herself down there in the bath under supervision, managing to make it a violation of privacy akin to infantilisation rather than voyeurism, and almost indulging June’s resentful compliance as if she’s just a naughty schoolgirl testing boundaries. And just when you think she’s going full Kathy Bates in Misery, she goes and offers forgiveness and a hug. A HUG. Last time we saw her, back in episode 1, she was torturing handmaids. Now she’s a hugger. And it doesn’t feel out of character or fake; it feels totally natural. Dowd deserves all of the awards for this role.
Because this show is the most depressing thing on television that isn’t the news, I’ve resorted to amusing myself with making songs up about it, which I sing when working out how to write up the episodes. It’s a thing. Roll with it. For example, when we saw the Colonies in episode 2, what I didn’t tell you about in the recap was that I couldn’t stop singing “Do you remember ze good years in Gilead” in very gentle parody of ‘Those Canaan Days’ from Joseph, while I was writing it up. It is a terrible habit. But the heart seeks levity where it can… And as you, dear readers, may need something to lighten the mood, here are some of my musical choices from this week’s episode.
At the start of the episode, Destiny’s Child was the prevailing tune:
“You know my fucking name.”
But then, it got a lot more Jean Valjean in Les Mis, FAST:
I made a few lyrical tweaks for my version. Something along the lines of this:
“Who am I? Did I condemn that wife to slavery? Pretend I do not see her agony? This Mayday man, can’t see his face, he went to judgement in my place.
Who am I? Can I conceal myself forever more? Pretend I’m not the girl I was before? And must my name until I die be no more than ‘of’ and a guy?
Must I lie? How can I ever face those burnt women? How can I ever face myself again? My womb ‘belongs’ to them, I know, I made that bargain long ago…”
So fair warning: You might get some show tunes stuck in your head. You’re welcome. (Look, if SNL can do Les Mis about a lobster in a diner, we can have some fun too.)
Aunt Lydia had a very important job to do this week: Turn Jean Valjean back into a meek, obedient version of Handmaid 24601. And bloody buggery bollocks, it looks like she’s done it.
That first shot, of June getting another ear tag AFTER THE HORROR OF CUTTING OUT THE FIRST ONE perfectly summed up the brisk and inevitable victory of the regime. Nice try, sweetie, but we can just pop another one in there. Chained up at the Red Center, she is given a choice, and it’s all a question of identity. ‘June’ will be chained up until she gives birth, then executed. ‘Offred’ has some options. June knows that the house always wins one way or another, but at least if she bets it all on the red dress, her life has a slightly longer expiration date. It’s the measliest of chances, but she does it anyway. The Waterfords want her back. No, wait. They couldn’t give a monkey’s ass about her. They want ‘their’ baby back.
At first, it’s just a dress. June barely puts any effort into her performance as Offred, openly finding the cover story of kidnap by terrorists a ridiculously convenient bit of face-saving for all involved. Serena waits about 5 minutes before threatening her, and June turns Serena’s threat from the season 1 finale back around onto her:
“As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.”
Just as her pregnancy afforded her some privilege during Aunt Lydia’s Handmaid Optimization Regime: Rebellion Inhibitor Doctrine, it keeps her relatively safe for now. But she is on thin ice, and no mistake. She has to put up with Aunt Lydia’s overbearing nonsense, be the elephant in the room at a very premature baby shower, watch Rita become her whipping woman, and endure Serena’s surprise bump snuggles in the middle of the night.
“All manner of things will be well. Mama loves you.”
Bump touching etiquette is something I find very strange at the best of times, let alone when the bump toucher has state-sanctioned permission to steal the baby from the pregnant woman. Fred thinks that Serena deserves to enjoy this pregnancy, which will be tricky as she hates June’s guts. Aunt Lydia is more pragmatic: “It’s only natural to resent her.” And the battle for dominance really does start to look like a pissing match at times. The surrogacy ritual we see in this episode, with the symbolic linking of the hands, and June kneeling in apparent submission to Serena, is meant to portray a spiritual connection like a marriage between handmaid and Wife. However, June forgot/refused to join in with the chanting, which made Serena’s repetition of “Let the little children come to me” rather more demanding than prayerful. GIMME DEM CHILDREN!
But it’s facing the other handmaids that provides the first proper sting for June. She hasn’t seen them since the stove-top burning incident, and it’s pretty awkward. Ofrobert (scars clearly visible) talks to her, but delivers the worrying news that Mayday’s gone silent. Word is, they aren’t helping handmaids anymore. What are they up to instead? I suspect we’ll find out. But if Mayday aren’t doing ‘Search and Rescue’ anymore, perhaps they have moved up to ‘Search and Destroy’ instead?
Perhaps more painful was June’s brief reunion with Ofglen. Initially, June seems worried that Ofglen won’t talk to her, but it’s only a second before we are told that she doesn’t talk to anyone anymore. Ofglen 2.0, you will remember, thought that the regime was better for her than the time before. But her breaking point was the Particicution; she spoke up before June’s rebellion, and was beaten and dragged away. As punishment, she had her tongue cut out.
And this is where the theme that finally breaks June starts to kick in. The episode is titled ‘Other Women’, and part of that is catching up with the other female characters of the show, those whom June ‘left behind’ when she escaped. Part of it is about the importance of female solidarity. The most brutal part of it is collective guilt and shame. Look what you have done to these other women.
The shame thread manifests clearly in the flashbacks, this time to June and Luke’s first wife. The first one takes place early in their relationship, when June is the ‘other woman’ and she is confronted by the angry wife of her lover. Later, when they are married and Hannah is a baby, they see her in a café. Luke’s ex-wife has become the ‘other woman’. The fact that Luke had been married before was what made June an ‘adulteress’ in the eyes of the regime, which then made her the ‘other woman’ in the Waterford house. (Hulu’s themes are very carefully managed!)
She remembers Luke’s wife; she sees her fellow handmaids, scarred and brutalised. She sees Rita struck for something she said. None of this is really her fault. But good people often feel guilty and responsible. Bad people don’t care. Good people do.
“I would like to be without shame.”
She might be able to cope with just those other women, but worse is still to come, because what happened to Omar, his wife and their son was kind of her fault. He is dead because of her. His wife’s worst nightmare has come true, as she’s been press-ganged into service as a handmaid. And their cute, adorable son has been taken by a family of fanatics.
Aunt Lydia lies with the truth. When she asks who killed Omar, the answer isn’t June, because the regime did it. But they don’t care. June does. Whose fault is it? Aunt Lydia is an expert at taking shame and magnifying it. She did it with the victim-blaming group exercise in season 1, and she’s doing it again now. June doesn’t need a circle of handmaids pointing at her chanting ‘your fault’; her conscience is already screaming it. It’s unbearable, so much so that she physically collapses under the weight of all that shame.
But it’s not enough for Aunt Lydia to break June; she has to mould her into something new. She offers her a choice. It’s all down to identity again.
“June did this. Not Offred. Offred is free from blame. Offred does not have to bear June’s guilt.”
Pretending would keep June alive but not sane. There’s only one way to cope with all of this shame: total and absolute surrender. She means it when she begs to stay, and when she says “Let me try to be good.” We might have a glimmer of hope when she heads for the closet, but the iconic faux-Latin catchphrase that kept her sane in season 1’s 4th episode has gone, and all she’s left with are the words in her head: “My fault, my fault, my fault…”
“I have done something wrong. I might as well be dead. Let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.”
And with that, June has left the building. Offred is back. And she’s like a broken record:
“We’ve been sent good weather, we’ve been sent good weather, we’ve been sent good weather…”
Well, damn. Aunt Lydia didn’t need to torture her body, just her mind. It could have been worse, you guys! There weren’t any HIDE BEHIND THE CUSHION moments this week. Just another drip-drip of doom. If you’re feeling down, remember: The Unofficial Handmaid’s Tale Musical is in development.
“Do you hear the handmaids sing? They’re gonna overthrow the men. They’re gonna tear the Aunts a new one and have agency again!”
COME ON, HULU, I HAVE AN UPRISING SONG ALL READY TO GO!
For a few seconds, I legitimately thought that Serena had had a buzzcut. Serena: you don’t have to scrape back your hair so tight. It’ll give you a headache, and your hair’s at risk of breaking. No-one wants fly-aways, Serena. We know you are desperately seeking control; you don’t have to show it with your hair.
Fred’s not had much to do so far! He’s angling for a promotion, now that he’s got his pregnant handmaid back, and he’s looking all ‘fruitful’. Ew. I stand by my prediction that he is going to be in T-R-O-U-B-L-E this season.
So much for Rita’s rebellious spirit, huh? She hid the letters for June, but is relieved to return them now. June protected those letters. What will Offred do?