The Handmaid’s Tale
Are we addicted to watching women suffer on television? More specifically, after sex enslavement, psychological torture via faux hanging, and brainwashing — just to mention a few incidents — are we addicted to watching June Osborne and friends suffer on The Handmaid’s Tale? We watch hoping that June will eventually free herself and her daughter from Gilead’s evil clutches — or that the tyrants will fall — but along the way, we know that we’re in for ten hours of unabated torture per season. And there is no promise that she’s getting out of this alive.
This week, all of a sudden, when June stopped fighting and collapsed inside herself, I realized that I too was implicated in receiving some sick pleasure from watching her stand up to the theocratic, hegemonic, tyrannical patriarchy. It was an entirely different kind of downer to watch June succumb to the emotional strain of captivity, vs. flinching when she lay back on the Commander’s bed and pulled up her skirt. But isn’t it strange when an episode in which a woman is strangled, chained up, and threatened with execution feels out of place because it “goes easy” on her?
Why couldn’t I bring myself to feel as invested in June’s fate? Perhaps because we’ve been trained to want our heroines plucky, and when they wilt, we shrug. Or perhaps because enough is enough, already. Just as June found herself giving up by this episode’s end, so did I.
Reminders of June’s return to subservience pervade every moment of “Other Women.” Retagged with a new plastic brand, June is chained up in another faux-Victorian bedroom (that carpet and bedspread are straight out of a gothic novel) designed by the Aunts to maximize isolation torture while still allowing them to claim they put a pregnant Handmaid’s comfort first. Like the way the unnamed narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is enchanted by the patterns on the walls around her, June is unnerved and beguiled by the flowers on her bedspread. With nothing to do and nothing else to see, she teeters on the edge of madness.
But this wouldn’t be much of a show if June were simply chained up for the next few months. Not that her choices are all that great: She can either get her act together and go back to the Waterfords, or give birth on that damn floral bedspread and then be executed. The right decision seems obvious — always choose life, right? — but that doesn’t make it easy. Going back to the Waterfords is a way of not fighting back, after all.
When the Waterfords greet her at the door, they make it clear that no pregnant Handmaid of theirs would ever deliberately run away. Instead, their alternate version of events — that June was kidnapped by terrorists — creates a narrative of triumph for the Commander, who can now say his own forces defeated the terrorists. It also bestows a special form of lavish pity on the Waterford house: They are doubly blessed because God saw fit to return their lost child to them.
But behind closed doors, there is no need to treat June like the prodigal kidnapped daughter. Serena Joy, whose ego combined with her humble station has created the most vicious of monsters, wraps her hands around June’s throat to let her know that insubordination of any kind will not be tolerated. June has been gone, apparently, for 92 days — she is now into her second trimester — and Serena Joy won’t let her escape again.
Nothing reminds June that she’s just a piece of property like Aunt Lydia’s grating, domineering instructions. If you’ve ever been pregnant, you’ll recognize this as a more extreme version of the way women’s bodies — especially their bellies — become public gestational property. Acts nobody would have dared try before, like rubbing your stomach without permission or asking if your breasts hurt, become commonplace. Aunt Lydia strolls into the bathroom while June is bathing, tut-tuts that June ought to wash herself properly “down there,” and then warns her to “try to avoid any kind of shock to the system,” as if gestational enslavement weren’t a shock itself.
For a moment, when June feels the baby kick for the first time, it seems like there could be hope. But when Rita, her only female ally in the house, hands June back the letters she’d hidden away for her last season and tells her that she won’t take part in any dangerous rebel work, she realizes she’s all alone.
June’s digestive health is apparently part of Aunt Lydia’s purview, too, and as a bit of torture that we can all relate to, she coaxes a green juice down June’s throat. June vomits it back up onto the table with a sly smile and a, “Sorry, Aunt Lydia,” but she knows she’s been beaten when Aunt Lydia just mixes up a new one.
June needs her energy for the most screwed-up baby shower that’s ever been put on, in which she is made to sit on the side and watch the woman who’s planning to steal her baby open and coo over gifts. Any baby shower that you’re not the honored guest at is unpleasant, but in this case, the bar has reached a new low. June hasn’t lost her sass, however. When Aunt Lydia asks in her treacley voice, “Do you need to take a break?” June offers, with a smile, “No, I’m having a great time!” And she puts the screws to Serena Joy by contradicting her claim that they haven’t felt the baby kick yet. Serena Joy may get to open the adorable knit booties, but June has the intimacy of pregnancy.
The other Handmaids greet June with a mixture of interest and fear. Ofglen, formerly June’s friend, walks right past her, head swiveled forward, but that may simply be because she had her tongue cut out after joining June and refusing to stone Janine. Ofrobert stops to explain that Mayday has gone silent and is no longer helping Handmaids. June takes the burden onto herself: It’s her fault Ofrobert was mutilated because she started the insurrection; it’s her fault that Mayday shut down because she didn’t make it out of the country; it’s her fault that Ofglen has a thick ropy scar of burnt tissue on her wrist.
Gilead prides itself on fomenting distrust between its citizens and quashing rebellions through brute force — key tactics of any autocracy. And so Aunt Lydia, a good little soldier for the Lord, believes it’s her duty to ensure that June feels acute guilt for her attempted escape. She walks her down to the Wall and directs her gaze to a dangling hooded body with dark hands. We don’t see his face, but it’s Omar, the Mayday driver who took June in and never returned home. His wife, Aunt Lydia explains, is now a Handmaid. His son, the bright-eyed little boy who coaxed a real smile out of June, has been torn from his parents and given to an entirely new family.
June probably doesn’t even need the haranguing from Aunt Lydia (“Such a selfish girl …”) to get down on her knees and proclaim herself unworthy of the blessed life she leads at the Waterfords. And she probably doesn’t need Serena Joy’s “Mama loves you” whispered to her belly to fully cave in and revert to Stepford Handmaid syndrome. Every ounce of hope has been stripped from her psyche. Even the “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” carving in her closet is gone. This is rock bottom, right?
(Please let this be rock bottom for all our sakes.)
Narratively, however, we’re in a dead end. This emotional dip is cheap — like the showrunners knew June needed to collapse once to make her journey more “authentic” — but what worries me more is that this episode only feels so shallow because we’ve grown too used to the torture and gore. But where do we go from here? June has reverted into Offred; her practiced, “We’ve been sent good weather” chirps cement that. Now, she’ll either turn back into the June who fights, or we watch for six more episodes as she grows more and more placid and eventually gives birth. Not exactly thrilling television, but then again, maybe a welcome shift away from the 14 hours of degradation we’ve been through.