Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June went a bit crazy at the hospital and waved a scalpel at Serena, but had a compassion epiphany as Natalie died, and decided that her Great Plan was to free all the children of handmaids. Here’s my recap for episode 9 if you missed it!
This week: June’s new wide-eyed optimism is tested by other people’s fear, apathy and general hideousness, as she tries to recruit allies; it’s time for Commander Lawrence to choose a side; and Eleanor may be my new favourite character. Look, it’s been AGES since we paid a visit to Canada. We find happiness where we can, OK? As this episode relies on the International Baked Goods Code, let’s remind ourselves: scones mean no, muffins mean yes, spotted dick means someone needs to see a doctor, and cookies mean spoilers are ahead for episode 10!
“One step at a time, dear.”
This isn’t the first time that June has been desperately looking around for allies and working out the best way to get them on her side. One notable example of this was when she was trying to line up potential godparents for her baby last season. This time around, it’s a bigger plan and that means more allies, and she has a few in mind. She doesn’t risk a chat with Aunt Lydia this time, though she does manage to convince her of her meek compliance. She seems to have recovered these skills after last week, though she often has a wide-eyed zealous determination that makes you wonder if she is fully sane or whether her extended isolation at the hospital has broken her. With Aunt Lydia, June is just trying to go under the radar, and it works. Aunt Lydia loves New June. She is a “good girl”. Instead, June makes a series of approaches to other potential allies.
Play 1, Part 1: The Martha Network
Beth’s initial response to June’s idea is ‘What the damn hell’ or words to that effect. She thinks it’s suicidal. And it is! If June has learned anything so far it’s that Gilead is big and powerful, and people die (though apparently, her plot armour keeps her safe).
Play 2, Part 1: Commander Lawrence
The only usable aspect of Commander Lawrence’s personality so far has been his love for his wife, and June gives that a go. Poor Eleanor has been getting worse; the Baked Goods Code shows that her medication is no longer available on the black market, and without it, Eleanor is slipping away. Fear is a great motivator, she thinks. She floats the idea of both of them escaping, to freedom and healthcare. It’s not enough yet, but she has planted a seed. Interesting that she doesn’t trust him enough to tell him her plan yet. But she’s working up to it.
Play 3, Part 1: Handmaids
This is tricky. Her sister handmaids are avoiding her — because she’s as subtle as a neon sign saying HI, I’M PLOTTING SOMETHING, and because she has lost so many walking partners now — Emily, Lillie and Natalie. Last time Janine saw her, she was waving that scalpel around. Alma has had enough of June’s scheming, and it’s going to take more than a whispered ‘come on, you guys, I’ve totes got a plan’ to get them on side.
So far, it’s not working so well. Then some
old friends mortal enemies make an appearance.
The Play Not Taken, Part 1: The Waterfords
Inspection time brings with it the unholy trinity of Fred, Serena and George Winslow — the latter of whom wants to come and lech over Boston’s handmaids. For scale, Fred’s just there to lech over one of them. Once upon a time, June might have tried to use the Waterfords, but PRAISED BE, those days are gone. Someone should tell Fred that, though. He pops over for a chat because he’s as subtle as a neon sign saying OPPORTUNISTIC PREDATOR. (The pair of them, honestly.) He’s got June on his mind, which you’d think would be weird being as she slapped him, abducted Nichole and turned his whole house against him, but Fred is all about control. He wants to own June again. He enjoys taming women, using rape and violence to get what he wants. And he thinks June wants that too, which is sad, gross and infuriating at the same time. Because he’s trying to be smooth and show off, he offers to “transfer” her to D.C. — presumably for his own household, though this could just be so she’s nearby when he’s being a Very Important Prick, or so he can witness her being mutilated and controlled even more. At this point, she just changes the subject. She can’t manipulate him any more. Plus, he makes her skin crawl, quite rightly.
Then it’s Serena’s turn. Her opening question, “How are you feeling?”, seems friendly enough. It’s a potential opportunity. But after the Lincoln Memorial showdown, there’s little point, so June goes with “How’s your arm?” instead. I choose to read this exchange as Serena saying “Wanna be friends again? As long as you know your place, of course. I protected you, remember? I can out you at any time if I want. I HAVE THE POWER! But I can look friendly for a moment, if there are witnesses around.” June: “Hey, remember that time I stabbed you? Yeah, I wasn’t feeling well, so I didn’t get much force behind it. I don’t blink much any more, which means I’m kinda unhinged and I could do that again! And I’m physically a bit better now! Don’t let the limp fool you, my stabby arm is raring to go. Still wanna be friends?”
Play 4: Eleanor Lawrence
June was improvising hard here, and it’s clear that she’s been underestimating Mrs Lawrence. One of the great things about Eleanor is that she is completely unpredictable, which Season 3 really needed. She can be useful, or she can be a liability — and I also love that when she catches June trying to break into a filing cabinet with all the stealth of a clown wearing tap shoes, June just tells her the truth. And as a result, she hits the jackpot. Eleanor serves up all the intel June needs. Then, when June starts to sow the seed of escape to sell her the plan, Eleanor shows that as fragile as she is, she’s sharper than anyone gives her credit for.
“Joseph is a war criminal. He can’t cross the border. He would be jailed for the rest of his life, or killed. And he would deserve it.”
At the halfway point then, she has information but there’s very little she can do with it. Then the Terrible Awful happens.
“They used to do this, in the first months of Gilead, to the households that resisted the Ceremony. They declared it unnecessary. Things change.”
The signs were there from the start. Commander Lawrence is falling out of favour. Once he was the guy who could get away with anything — he could keep contraband in full view of guests. He could demand that meetings come to him. But Fred Waterford’s star is ascending, thanks to games of Flirty Snooker with his new BFF, High Commander Winslow. There has been a seismic power shift, which means the Lawrences are vulnerable, and Fred has an opportunity to knock his rival a few rungs down the ladder, and torment June. Is he jealous that June likes Joseph more than him? Or is this more about showing off his power? Either way, he’s coming for the Lawrences, and suggests resurrecting a procedure used early on in Gilead: bearing witness to the Ceremony. It’s massively hypocritical of course, because he’s suggesting that Joseph’s failure to produce a child means he isn’t worthy of leading Gilead, and Fred knows that he had nothing to do with Nichole’s conception, but hey, we expect very little from him in terms of consistency, apart from ALWAYS BEING A PRICK.
The Lawrences have never performed the Ceremony. This isn’t because Joseph takes a particularly moral stance on state-enforced rape, but because it would mean cheating on his wife, and because he doesn’t want to have children. Never forget that. It’s not because he wants to protect handmaids from being brutalised; it’s because he believes that he is allowed to be exempt from something that he doesn’t want to do.
As a result, no-one in the house knows what to do except June, who knows all too well, and who this will hurt the most. This puts her in the awful position of directing everyone else around her, instructing them in how to rape her. You can see her thinking through the layers of awful as they happen. At first, OK, it’s the Ceremony. She takes a deep breath, but it’s a known quantity. Then the others arrive and suddenly it becomes more and more awful.
None of them want any part of this. Joseph thinks they can just hide upstairs for a while and pretend that the rape part of the Ceremony took place. But there’s a doctor downstairs who is waiting to check. If they don’t do it, he will know. And, as June points out, the Lawrences will both end up on the wall.
Let’s look at Eleanor’s reaction:
“Maybe we deserve it. At least it would all be over. You’ll be fine. It’s our sin.”
Eleanor is willing to die to prevent this from happening, and maybe I’m projecting, but this seemed to be more out of concern for the horror of the process than because she didn’t want her husband to ‘have sex with’ someone else — because when June and Joseph tell her that handmaids and Marthas are “required to report deviancy” and that they “would all be punished”, this is where she breaks down. She is willing to die — she thinks it is appropriate for her “war criminal” husband to die as well — but she won’t let June, Beth and Sienna die as well. She can’t have that on her conscience.
An alternate reading of this rests on the notion of privilege. Earlier, when they were in the basement, Eleanor says she is so happy to have June back because things are always more “exciting” when she’s around. It takes a ridiculous amount of privilege to be able to see excitement in Gilead, and perhaps her breakdown is more to do with the fact that this is the first time Gilead has touched her personally. She has been shielded from as much as possible, and now all that shields her is darkness and a curtain. Perhaps June is talking to both of them when she says, “You helped to create this world. How long did you think it would be before it came for you?”
After the Terrible Awful, the episode revisits those earlier plays. First up: the plays not made. Once again, she is meek and obedient with Aunt Lydia. She resists any urge to deal with Fred — saying “At least it wasn’t you” — which was delicious, as was the lingering shot of Fred’s humiliated face and the cut to Serena’s suspicious glare from the hallway.
Play 2, Part 2: Commander Lawrence
He once sneered at June for being transactional. Now, she has taught him the value of seeing terrible events as transactions, and she can make a move for a better transaction. Remember episode 8’s exploration of shame? Not even Lawrence is immune.
June: That’s not going to be the last time that happens. You know that, right?
Joseph: I’ll get you a truck. You get my wife out, safely.
June: You can get out, too. You just have to bring them something. Something valuable. Kids. The stolen children of Gilead.
Joseph’s grim joke that he would “be a hero” means that an alliance with June offers him his best shot at redemption. Of course, he goes for it. It’s his only escape from shame, and he can barely look her in the eye. ALLY: CHECK
Play 3, Part 2: Handmaids
The intel June got from the Red Center dossiers, courtesy of Eleanor, gets Alma and Janine on board. In Alma’s case, it’s real, but June lies to Janine — which, considering the circumstances, is probably a kindness. The handmaids are in. ALLY: CHECK
Play 1, Part 2: The Martha Network
Also known as the Baked Goods Bookend. Damn, that’s a lot of muffins. The Marthas are in. They are definitely going to need a bigger boat. ALLY: CHECK
All in all, there’s a sense of rising action — that something big is about to happen, and Season 3 is building up to something huge. It’s also an episode that offers several readings of ‘Give me children, or else I die’. In the Bible, it shows maternal longing. In Gilead, it’s a threat to handmaids. This week, that threat became literal and immediate — perform the Ceremony or we all die. But it’s something else as well. This mission is the only thing keeping June going. She is emphatically “not fucking OK”, and the thought of saving the “stolen children of Gilead” is all that sustains her. Children are also the main thing that keeps Gilead going. Children are Gilead’s excuse for existing, and if Gilead cannot perpetuate itself, then what is the point of it? Rescuing children is the only way to hurt the regime. And in this way, the line becomes a tantalising promise. Are we going to see the death of Gilead? ARE WE?!
Odds & Ends
“Just treat it like a job. Try to detach yourself.” June’s coaching of Joseph comes from her voiceover in Season 1. It’s how she coped with the Ceremony, and she shares this with another victim of Gilead.
Serena didn’t approve of bearing witness, but she did precious little to prevent it. She wasn’t concerned about June, of course — she wanted to offer comfort and moral support to Eleanor. Because Serena can only imagine pain and suffering if she can connect it to something that affects herself.
Serena’s fed up with waiting for Fred to get Nichole back. So she’s dug out the Treason & Coconuts phone. But the Americans don’t really want to “help” the Waterfords, right? They want information and access, not to appease terrorists and war criminals? How much is Serena willing to sacrifice to possess Nichole?
“The punishment for contraception is being torn apart by dogs.” Yeah, but Joseph doesn’t want kids, so you have to risk it. It’s for your own good, June. Man, I am tired.
Winslow doesn’t like Janine’s eye patch, but Aunt Lydia defended it (and by extension, Janine), so she’s feeling pretty gutsy and sure of herself! Then, we hear that the veil and the mouth ring are coming to Boston. “We’re rolling it out slowly.” Hmmm. Aunt Lydia checks that “the vow is voluntary, of course,” and for a moment, all of this sounds very WAY TO GO, AUNT LYDIA, but then we remember that she has a very warped understanding of ‘voluntary’… So let’s not get too excited, eh?
Until next time: I shall be quietly sulking in the corner about missing Team Canada again, but I’ll be back next week when IT ALL KICKS OFF. In the meantime, check out this plot twist! He can totally find out where Hannah is!
Header Image Source: Hulu