The Handmaid’s Tale
I hope you watched this episode in bed, maybe with a soft towel nearby to catch the constant flow of tears and comfort your swollen face. From start to finish, this absurdly well-acted episode was a derby of emotional upheaval. In this show’s two and half seasons so far, we’ve seen women stoned to death, a cruelly staged false mass execution, women in love collapse and die from the radioactive colony filth, limbs chopped off, genitals mutilated, and dozens of handmaids burned over the hot licks of a stove’s flames. But this episode, with none of the physical cruelty Handmaid’s Tale has become known for, reached further into the emotional heat than any of those scenes of abuse.
It starts, however, with some small measure of pride. Gilead seemingly hasn’t learned that the more you try to suppress information, the more gleefully it’s shared, and news has spread that baby Nichole is safe in Canada. June is standing tall in Loaves and Fishes, happily receiving the genuine “Praise Be” comments from her fellow handmaids and reveling in her own role in the baby’s escape. Sure, she knew before this that Nichole had crossed the border, but now she also can find joy in the fact that Gilead has been publicly humiliated.
It seems her plans — to lure Serena and perhaps a few others into secretly conspiring against Gilead — are falling into place. Commander Waterford literally gives Serena a seat at the table and a voice. And Commander Lawrence’s obvious longing to rekindle some sense of kinship between himself and his wife (you’d think a brilliant guy would have a better line, but his “Did you do something different with your hair?” is a quite adorable attempt) opens up an opportunity for June to soften him up. “Maybe there’s just a little bit of him left,” she wonders out loud to Mrs. Lawrence, goading her into using her love as a carrot to convince the Commander to give into the hesitations he already harbors.
But this is Gilead.
It’s impossible not to scream at June to wise up, to stop placing her trust in these murderous nuts. And yet when Serena and Commander Waterford come to her and ask for her help to see “their” baby and wish her good-bye one final time, they are (she thinks) no longer the people they once were. By passing on Hannah’s whereabouts, Serena has effectively joined June’s cause.
What they’re asking of June is certainly callous. They want her to call the husband she last saw as she ran through the woods, desperately trying to elude capture. To arrange a visit for the “mother” who essentially stole that child from her body. To potentially expose Luke even further. To retie the thread between the Waterfords and Nichole, a baby they never had any right to, a baby they upended the world for.
Part of June’s initial reluctance appears sympathetic. She’s seen Hannah with another set of parents, she knows that a “last good-bye” is meaningless since no parent can really guarantee they’ll never ache for that child again. Serena will only suffer more by seeing Nichole in Luke’s arms. But June is now an agent more than a citizen: She’s plotting how every relationship or opportunity can be leveraged to her advantage, can get her closer to Hannah. “If I do this, what do I get?” she asks. What she wants, she explains, is for Serena to “owe” her. In a balanced relationship, sure, that might work. But in Gilead such a thing doesn’t exist.
So she does it. She calls Luke, lets the state listen in, watches as the clock ticks down the two allotted minutes. Smartly, the show matches that in real time, lets us understand how brief those 120 seconds are when both parties know they might never speak again, how long they are when they haven’t heard each other’s voices in three years. What a scene it is. As the conversation goes on, Luke’s face melts even deeper, like crumpled-up tissue paper growing worn as it’s unfolded and refolded; he tries to cram in an apology, a love declaration, anything at all to tell his wife how much he loves her. June, on the other hand, is steely, determined to use that time efficiently. She has a game plan: get Luke to bring Nichole to the airport, win Serena’s gratitude, parley that credit into an even bigger ask. But Luke has only the confusion of being interrupted by an unknown number while he shops at a bodega.
It appears at first that Serena may defect, that her plan to be near Nichole means not returning to Gilead. As she packs up old photos and then stands by that porthole window in her mother’s house, it’s like she’s saying good-bye to her childhood and old life. At last! I scream-whispered to myself. After all, a proper defection from a high-ranking Commander’s wife would cut open Gilead and let some of its secrets spill out like tainted blood. When she steps off the cargo plane (was she smuggled in?) and shakes her Guardian, striding down the hall with Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), who once promised her safety in exchange for her defection, the chances seem even higher. Striding out into the airport in skinny jeans, a floppy turtleneck, and some tawny flats, her hair loose for the first time in years, she seems ready to melt back into secular life.
Luke and Serena’s meeting did a funny thing — it made me empathize so deeply with Serena that for a moment I wanted her to grab Nichole, to run, to plead with Luke that they could work something out, some custody arrangement. Serena is a villain, a traitor to her gender, a woman so enamored of her own bad idea that she let it set fire to liberalism, to parity, to freedom. She’s also so deeply trapped under the rubble of her own mess that she can’t get out, even by digging slowly, brick by brick. So what do we do with people who fuck up this colossally? Do we believe in redemption in an age when two days of Twitter outrage can result in someone’s cancellation?
Luke certainly doesn’t. He spends every moment of the meeting looking over his shoulder, certain that a soldier will come marching up, demanding that baby from his arms. He’s as confused by Serena’s delusion as he has every right to be — she calls herself Nichole’s mother, wants to preserve her own legacy, as if those few months in which she harbored a stolen baby give her the right to control the narrative. But then again, what is she owed? Her methods are backward but her love is real, which is why the scene can’t have any positive resolution. There’s simply too much misery to go around.
Last episode, Mrs. Putnam let Janine hold her daughter as a show of godly generosity. Now Luke makes the same offer to Serena, with undoubtedly different motivations. In the moment, it seems like an act of charity, to give this obviously grief-stricken woman a small taste of that physical splendor holding one’s child calls up, to breathe in the sour-sweet smell. But it may also be the moment that pushes Serena to break her agreement with June, to ignore Mark’s reminder that she can abandon that deep-green dress forever. (Although that hidden cell phone must follow the law of Chekhov’s gun — someday, someone will use it.)
Just as June has yet another revelation about a potential ally, as she learns that Ofmatthew is pregnant for the fourth time with a Commander’s baby and is just as exhausted with her lot in life as you might imagine, a Guardian shows up. She’s back in that black van, the same one that hauled her off at the end of season one. But this time the doors don’t open onto an escape path laid out by the Resistance. Instead, she’s in a TV studio, pushed out under the lights and instructed to keep her head down and attitude appropriate. There will, Aunt Lydia intones, be punishment if she doesn’t obey. And so she stands there, a little dazed and more than a little enraged, as Fred and Serena beg the international community to send Nichole back to them.
What do the Waterfords really hope to gain? Is there a world where Canada would march up to the door of a refugee and demand that a baby seeking asylum be sent back to the totalitarian theocracy from whence it escaped? But regardless of their plan’s viability, it’s Serena’s treachery that will have the most lasting effect.
And yet the tone of this episode, its deep, abiding sadness, isn’t best captured by the helplessness June feels standing on that stage, with the whole world watching and nothing to do but keep her eyes downcast. It’s best captured by Luke, standing on a bridge with what first appears to be one of Mrs. Lawrence’s mixtapes in hand and then reveals itself as a love letter of a different sort. It’s a callback to Margaret Atwood’s novel, which was constructed as a series of tapes recorded by a handmaid named Offred and then unearthed some years later. And it’s also a glimpse of what may be harder than anything else June has yet had to do. She tells her love that she’s built a life inside her hell, that she’s doing everything she can to get out with Hannah, that all of this is just as awful as our worst dystopian fiction.