Another week, another harrowing episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. “Other Women” unearths an unpleasant time in June’s past, and also parades a new fresh hell before her eyes – bringing our pregnant heroine, who has already suffered immensely, to a new level of despair. Whatever happened to that revolution?
Of course baby showers in Gilead are as unsettling as you’d imagine. Image: Hulu
After very nearly tasting freedom, only to be yanked back into the bosom of Gilead at the last second, it’s understandable that June (Elisabeth Moss) is feeling utterly crap.
It doesn’t take long for a new cattle tag to be punched through her ear – so much for all that gory effort to get the old one off – and she’s chained to a bed in the Red Center, Under His Eye but mostly Under the Eye of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
Television has seldom had a villain as oversized and yet somehow so nuanced as Aunt Lydia – you can just tell her mind is going a mile a minute beneath all her fundamentalist rhetoric, and her patronising manner often feels like an act conjured by a woman who understands the way Gilead works way better than anyone else, particularly the very fraught dynamics between wives and Handmaids. At any rate, she has her claws back in June and is intent on seeing her give birth to a healthy baby.
June’s choice is simple: Stay at the Red Center, give birth, and be executed – or submit once more to being called Offred, put on her red Handmaid’s frock, pretend her near-escape was actually a “kidnapping by terrorists”, and prove she’s worthy of serving the Waterfords.
June chooses the latter, and though she still has a bit of sass left in her at first – pointedly staring at Aunt Lydia while she washes “down there” in the bath, as instructed – it slowly seeps out as the episode progresses. There’s the dreadful feeling of being back in that bedroom/prison cell in the Waterford mansion, where the resident “Martha”, Rita (Amanda Brugel) has fearfully failed to deliver any of the desperate messages smuggled to June via Mayday, and season one’s iconic “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” graffiti has been erased from its hiding place in the closet.
There are no more secret messages of hope in Offred’s closet. Image: Hulu
Then there’s the indignity of being forced to participate in a “baby shower” for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a ghoulish ritual that culminates with Offred and Serena Joy’s hands being bound together as Serena chants “let the little children come to me”.
There’s the sick feeling that comes over June when she learns that not only is Mayday no longer helping Handmaids, but the Handmaid who spoke up against stoning Janeane last season had her tongue cut out for doing so.
Worst of all, remember the kind Econopeople father who stashed June in his home last week? The reason he and his family didn’t return from church was as ominous as June feared. Aunt Lydia, who knows everything as always, coldly runs down their fates: The wife was forced to become a Handmaid, their sweet young son was placed with a new family, and the man… well, that’s his corpse up there, swinging in the breeze atop Gilead’s public-execution wall.
June is deeply horrified – so horrified she doesn’t need Aunt Lydia to point-blank say all of this is her fault, but of course Aunt Lydia does anyway. But then Aunt Lydia breaks it down for her in a way that only she can: June, who ran off, did this. Offred, who was kidnapped, did not. Offred is blameless, though it will sure help her case if she kisses Waterford arse, which she does.
After they reconcile, Serena – who was ready to clamp Offred back into leg irons at the Red Center – does another one of her total about-faces, creeping into Offred’s room to spoon her, or rather, “her baby”, groping Offred’s pregnant belly while murmuring “Momma loves you”. We’ve long known that in Gilead, personal space is a privilege, but this interaction takes that notion to a whole new level.
June’s return to the Waterfords – and subsequent downshift into total submission, to the point of what looked like near-madness – isn’t just because of her present-day trauma. We get some meaty flashbacks to a crucial time in her pre-Gilead life that The Handmaid’s Tale has avoided exploring until now: The fact that she hooked up with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) while he was still married.
Of course, we saw their first illicit tryst and watched their love bloom, and witnessed the joy they experienced with their daughter. But June was initially the “other woman” (and an “adulterer” and a “fallen woman”, as Aunt Lydia crisply reminders her), and she met Luke’s scorned ex twice.
First, the distraught woman confronted her as June was leaving a yoga class, where a sorta-polite “I want to ask you to back off” type of conversation soon escalated into screamed insults. Then, a few years later, June is with Luke and baby Hannah when she spots the woman in public, and can tell there’s still hurt and fury there.
Though she isn’t sorry she followed her heart, June’s guilt is still palpable. In the present, with so much more emotional weight pressing down on her, the perceived sins of her past reverberate with even more magnitude. “Let Hannah forget me,” she decides, with a dark, defeated acceptance we’ve never heard from her before. “Let me forget me.” This… isn’t good.
Eating for two. Photo: Hulu
- While June was counting the 71 flowers on her bedspread at the Red Center, Serena was counting the 92 days that Offred, and the baby, were MIA.
- Aunt Lydia’s relationship with secret smoker Serena is just as tense as her relationship with Offred, with much weirder power dynamics.
- Kinda feel extra-bad for Rita, who’s become Serena’s punching bag now that slapping Offred is off-limits.
- Nick (Max Minghella) was kind of a ghost this week. Apparently, nobody figured out that he helped June flee – or perhaps that’s another shoe still waiting to drop.
- We don’t get much Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) this week, but there’s a small yet significant-seeming scene that has the menfolk on a skeet-shooting excursion during the baby shower. Seems that after last season’s apparently successful dealings with Mexico, Waterford is angling to be the “special envoy to Canada”, a post he’ll be considered for if he can get his home life in order. Things seem to be moving in that direction, with Offred back and all, so will he get the gig? And – considering Canada has become a haven for Gilead refugees – why does he want that particular assignment?
- The melancholy end-credits song is “Hate” by Cat Power, and it contains the lyrics “I hate myself and I want to die.” Again… not good.