If you grew up in the Catholic Church, as I did, and went to 12 years of Catholic school, again as I did, the spectacle of ceremony always sticks with you. How the priest has to hold the host just so above his head. How an entire body of people kneels in perfect unison (except that one straggler who inevitably drops his kneeler and sends a resounding crash through the building). How all of the Mass is a choreographed play that has been running Off Broadway for a couple thousand years.
Gilead really dials into that love of symmetry and pageantry, and the cinematographer of The Handmaid’s Tale, Colin Watkinson, impressively shows off the order and control of the state’s ceremonies like an impresario of military footage. When this week’s episode opens, all those lines — of handmaids in red, wives in deep aqua, Marthas in drab neutrals — stream together like colonies of worker ants in a nature documentary. Everyone knows his or her place and glides along perfectly, as if they’ve been practicing for decades. (In reality, the handmaids must have learned all this at Aunt Lydia’s School for Wayward Women.)
Except: There are constant interruptions in the order — symbols of how some women in Gilead are going astray. There’s the unfilled seat in the church/meeting house/whatever you call a Gileadean hellhole, where Serena ought to be. There are all the handmaids’ bonnets lifted off the Putnams’ foyer table, except for June’s; she stays inside where she ought not to be. In “God Bless the Child,” women are put quite physically in their places — think of Aunt Lydia confined to a chair alone in the hall — but they keep sneaking out of them.
The celebration of life that June’s district attends in this episode includes a reminder of how Gilead’s founding fathers spread sympathy for their cause. The American birth rate was dramatically declining, to the point where most women couldn’t conceive; in order to prevent the nation from shriveling, the now-Commanders explained, a world of concubines and forced breeding became necessary. So all those handmaids who bore children in the past year (has all this really happened in under a year?) are given “seats of honor,” while the children’s “parents” take the stage, babes in their arms.
Sitting in a pew, looking out over the crowd and listening to the familiar organ strains of “Table of Plenty,” June is plotting. “Who among them,” she asks herself, “can be persuaded, can be turned?” It’s a big question that hangs over a slow episode, a piece of necessary but not always invigorating action. Can June turn Aunt Lydia, who scoots along in her Rascal (!!!) and occasionally offers a glimpse of sympathy for the handmaids? Ofmatthew, her imperious walking partner, has apparently delivered — and given up —three children for Gilead, perhaps suggesting that she’d take up an opportunity to overthrow the government and grab those babies. In this episode, Commander Waterford gives good reason to think he may be susceptible to June’s persuasion. And Serena, more than anyone, is positioned to do some damage to Gilead’s inner circles.
For Aunt Lydia, nothing more clearly defines the ambiguity of her role than an event like this. She’s too good for the kitchen and the handmaids but is pointedly directed away from the parlor and the posh folks. But pity isn’t something she takes to kindly (see last week’s Tasering at Commander Lawrence’s house), and she perches herself in the hallway presumably to appear authoritative over the handmaids, at ease but stately in her chair.
Janine’s little visit with Aunt Lydia isn’t intended to be patronizing. As June remarks in the kitchen, this is just who Janine is — always eager to please, thankful for any small kindness, a woman with a glass that’s far more than half-full. Her appreciation that Aunt Lydia, the tyrannical nut who tortured her and had her eye removed, also brought her back from certain death in the colonies is genuine. But Aunt Lydia doesn’t want to be reminded of her own frailty, so Janine’s comment that she prayed for her in the aftermath of her stabbin’ and her tumble down the stairs has the opposite of its intended effect.
Janine should stay in the kitchen with the rest of the handmaids, but her excitement over seeing baby Angela is too much to bear, and, really, nobody can blame her for wandering out of place toward her child. Perhaps chastened by Angela’s near-death experience last season, Mrs. Putnam, who certainly sees herself as doing the Lord’s work, lets Janine hold the baby, who instantly, cruelly begins to cry when taken from the woman she thinks is her mother. At so many moments, this could go awry: when Janine first steps up to the Putnams, when she holds the baby in her arms. But she gracefully hands Angela back to Mrs. Putnam; she isn’t provoked until Aunt Lydia steps up, Taser in hand, ready to cattle-prod a human being for the natural inclination to stay near her child.
The question isn’t why Aunt Lydia snaps — she’s a desperate woman, weakened and fearful that her position will be ripped away from her, determined to prove her might by any means possible — but why the Commanders and their wives look on with such disdain. Are they merely upset that such a thing has happened in their (gasp) living room? Do even they see the beating of a handmaid who simply speaks out of turn as too extreme? Have they remained so shielded from the reality of the handmaids’ lives that this is a true moment of revelation for them? These are men and women who planned the bombing and overthrow of their own government. They designed and enact ritualistic rape “ceremonies.” They know about the radioactive colonies and blithely allow women to rot and die there. So what is it about this moment that causes them such distress?
Part of their shock is certainly due to June’s forceful, effective intervention. Who could imagine that another handmaid could leap into the fray and stop Aunt Lydia’s stick from bashing into Janine’s body yet again? That she could scream the word they’ve all been dying to scream for years now: No! And that it would work. If this is the beginning of a power shift, it’s certainly due in part to June’s newfound confidence vis-à-vis Serena.
It’s strange how, after moving out of their lives (and their burned-out shell of a house), June has greater importance as the third leg that props up the Waterfords’ marriage. The Commander, who has been demoted and whose morale has sunk with his career prospects, is certainly worried about the effect his rogue wife will have on their standing in the community. Serena has no friends to speak of in Gilead — she can shoot the breeze with Naomi and the other wives, but she’s head and shoulders above them intellectually — and June has become, by a very strange default, her closest confidante. So the Commander comes to June in the kitchen, shooing out the other handmaids with promises of deviled eggs (touché on the religious imagery there, writers) and seemingly begging her for advice. Her prescription, of course, is one that will also help her. If June can wiggle Serena back into the Commander’s arms, supply her with “a real voice,” and then run Serena’s agenda, who knows what might happen? But it’s still odd that the Commander, a man who knows that death awaits any of those who fall out of line, would so readily agree to such an idea.
Which brings us to that improbably chic meetup by the Putnams’ indoor pool, steam swirling off its surface as the two women each escape to a place they certainly ought not to be — lounging, alone, where they can plot. For two seasons now, viewers have been wondering if Serena would cave to her own moral compass and see that the dangerous ideas she espoused in A Woman’s Place weren’t bad just for other women but for her, too, and that the laws and abuses we inflict on other women, thinking ourselves immune to their effects, eventually come back to haunt us. Finally, June pushes Serena past her comfort zone, first reminding her of the work they once accomplished together over long hours in the Commander’s wood-paneled office and then imparting, “Wear the dress. Pull the strings.” It’s to be an inside job, then, with Serena — through methods we do not yet know — working her husband and the other Commanders until June can flee with Hannah or Gilead falls. Their shared cigarette, enjoyed with both women leaning back as if carefree, is, funnily enough, June’s Peggy Olson moment. She might as well be walking down the hall with a box of her belongings and some Japanese erotica.
The plan bears fruit immediately. Serena, it seems, knows a lot more about Hannah than we ever knew. She relays this info — where her school is, what time they play outside — and June takes it all in.
Hopefully, this alliance, a long time coming and well earned by both women, will be able to bear the revelation that Nichole is in Canada and that she’s safe but in the arms of Luke. When they cry at the sight of her on the video captured at a rally to free Chicago (a plotline surely of consequence in the future), it’s impossible to know whether they’re crying for the same reason.
Will both of them reunite with Nichole one day and live out some shared-custody arrangement? It’s possible, I suppose, though it’s not probable that Serena will make it out of this alive. As if to finally dispense some hope into this bleak landscape, the episode ends on two high notes. There’s Emily’s reunion with her wife, Sylvia, and son, Oliver, played with such beautiful facial dexterity by Alexis Bledel that I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t win her another Emmy. Every hesitation and arm cross and shoulder fold is so wonderfully organic, and her tour of Oliver’s room, with its photos of Emily and Oliver tucked into every conceivable spot, is one of TV’s saddest happy moments in recent memory. And there’s Luke and Moira’s baptism of baby Nichole, a sign that, somehow after all this, they still believe in something. Is it God? Each other? Or perhaps just the idea that the wee one they’re holding may one day see her mother as well.