The Handmaid’s Tale
Mayday, Gilead’s resistance, has kept June at a distance for two straight seasons now. She might have been an asset to them earlier, but she turned down the chance to join (waaayyyyy back in the second episode), and after that, the loosely pinned-together network never brought her into the fold. This left viewers peering in from the outside, too. What do we know about them? They’re shadow-dwellers out of necessity, but they’re effective. They’re composed of Marthas, handmaids (like Ofrobert), Guardians, and possibly even higher-ranking Gileadeans. In season one, Mayday orchestrated Luke’s eventual escape to Canada, then in season two they organized the bombing that crumpled dozens of commanders at the Rachel and Leah Center. They got June all the way to that small airfield before she was captured, and now they’re sending that beneficent Walter White of a chemistry teacher deeper into the state to cook up more explosive gifts for the patriarchy.
Oh, and June is essentially now one of them.
Admittedly, this is the story line I’d been hoping for in season two — an inside look at how to bring down an autocracy from the inside out. As the product of a marching, yelling, organizing feminist, June has always been a fighter. She was once reluctant to attract the attention of the execution-happy Commanders (and who can blame her?), but with a history of inciting chaos and the ability to sometimes lure the devout over to her side (e.g., Serena, Commander Lawrence), she’s a perfect fit for this hush-hush crew. And if anybody might be able to help her reclaim Hannah from the Mackenzies and hightail it north to O Canada, it’s Mayday’s ragtag gang of schemers.
At first, however, the Marthas don’t really want June, and we can’t blame them — she did, after all, just sink their efforts to get her across the border. Ofrobert makes this clear in their whispered conversation among the canned tomatoes. (We’ve seen the handmaids grocery shopping at Loaves and Fishes at least a half-dozen times before, but every time it strikes me anew how brilliantly art-directed this show is. That clean, almost barren aesthetic; those partly filled shelves; the inclusion of a metal detector to signal that Gilead knows it needs to protect itself from its own citizens.) So when an opportunity lands in June’s lap to ingratiate herself with the Marthas, she jumps at it.
Sometimes when the silver-maned Bradley Whitford pops up on the screen, I still find myself waiting for him to escort someone on a walk-and-talk through the West Wing, but damn it if he doesn’t own this season so far. His mercurial moods — one minute he’s wary but charmed by June’s pleading to let the escaping Martha stay, and the next he’s bellowing in her face that women like her “are like children” — keep June (and us) dangling in a state of suspense about his true motives. We know Lawrence really loathes being lied to and having strangers in his house, and that he’s like a trained CIA agent when it comes to spotting mistruths. He’s been swayed into freeing Emily, sure. But why does he allow June and the Marthas to essentially operate an Underground Railroad out of his basement? And is Mrs. Lawrence depressed, or is there something else we’ll eventually uncover about his wife’s mysterious reclusiveness and penchant for bathrobes?
June’s foray into the world outside her cloistered and gilded neighborhood offers another intriguing glimpse of Gilead’s working-class structures and strictures. Now, it does feel a little bit like the old-timey, early-20th-century New York laundry scene from Annie at first (or maybe that’s just me?), but the chain-link fences and single-file ID checks have the distinctly referential air of the Jews leaving the Lodz Ghetto day after day. There’s the Marthas saying, “Through work we’re cleansed,” which sounds remarkably similar to Auschwitz’s “Work will set you free.” The flapping flags, too, with their black silhouetted birds, are a direct nod to the Third Reich’s eagle with outstretched wings. While we often read the clues in The Handmaid’s Tale as a foreshadowing of America’s future, the series is also carefully invested (in this episode at least) in reminding us of autocracies past.
(The chemist Martha who is left behind in the garage is a nod to the past, too — to June’s own escape, when her driver dropped her off at the loading dock of a Boston newspaper and left without so much as a fare-thee-well. June’s hug is a small touch of solidarity.)
In other news, Aunt Lydia has pulled a Jon Snow and brought herself back from the dead (yes, that’s an Easter joke) after a brutal stabbing. I have to admit that if I had Ann Dowd on my show, no matter the role, I wouldn’t let her die, either. So it’s a delight to see her hobble in, leaning so hard on that cane that it seems it might crumble under her, and then pull one of her classic bait-and-switches. First she tries to lure June into her confidence, worrying that there’s something rotten going on between the Lawrences. (It’s utterly illogical that Aunt Lydia would worry that the Lawrences had caused harm to Emily, rather than the other way around, but let’s ignore that for the moment.) Then, when June touches a sore spot by offering Aunt Lydia sympathy, she switches into the vicious anaconda we’re used to, whipping out a cattle prod and zapping June far closer to the uterus than a repro-obsessed concubine matchmaker ought to. Her return, as unlikely as it seems, provides a fresh opportunity for a handmaid to eventually lay her to waste.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, Luke and Emily’s story lines both simmer. For both, normalcy feels out of reach, even if they’re safely ensconced in Little America. And neither has (understandably) dealt with the emotional trauma that plagues them. For Luke, this manifests in his refusal to bond with June’s baby. I mean, could you? Could you wrap up your wife’s child in your arms and coo it to sleep while she still lay behind enemy lines, trapped in a political structure that promotes rape and forced impregnation? Could you hold that child tight while your own blood lives in another family’s house and answers to a new name? His snap at Emily, then, is rude but understandable. Her family is just waiting to be reunited. His is still a war or an escape away.
The banality of Emily’s high cholesterol is a perfectly drawn detail. In just a few days, her worries have diminished substantially, from fear of execution by hanging to a potential heart attack 50 years down the line if she doesn’t watch her intake of beef and pork. The last time she saw her wife, Sylvia (played by the incomparable and criminally underutilized Clea Duvall), they were torn apart at the airport, with Sylvia sent off to Canada with their son, and Emily remanded to one of the Aunts’ medieval training facilities. We may imagine that in her place we’d be knocking people out of the way to reach a phone and dial our long-lost beloved. But the reality of trauma is more complicated. How will Emily explain the intervening years? How will she stand to hear about Sylvia’s relatively carefree life? Will her son even recognize her? How will the two women climb back in the same boat and row in the same direction after one of them has spent so long lost at sea?
We don’t hear their conversation, and we don’t need to. The ripple effect of Sylvia’s stopped car — how it sends horns honking in every direction — is enough.