The Handmaid’s Tale
I can’t imagine a worse scenario to give birth in than this one. No access to an epidural, a dozen chanting women telling you to BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE in those perky ASMR voices, and only that hard, wooden birthing chair to deliver in. Plus you have Aunt Lydia reaching into your vagina and the woman who is about to steal your baby wrapping her legs around your shoulders, pretending she’s doing all the damn work. Gilead has left no torture mechanism unused.
June is opting out of this one, far back from the crowd, arms crossed, presumably unaffected by the thought of any punishment she might receive for her resistance. Her mind is too wrapped up in Frances, who tutored kids and loved Hannah and is now hanging with a broken neck and a smashed windpipe, all for the crime of passing along a tiny bit of information. Her mind is also too wrapped up in revenge, petty acts of intimidation meant to cow Ofmatthew into lonely silence after she dimed out Frances and June last episode.
But the chanting isn’t over yet! On a break from annoying the shit out of a woman in labor, the handmaids are dragged back to that empty gymnasium (I’m assuming they haven’t rebuilt the exploded Rachel and Leah Center yet — maybe Gilead needs an Infrastructure Week?) to sit in a circle around June and Shame Septa her for endangering her child. Except June doesn’t give a shit; she’s the kid who will come to detention, sure, but then spends a full hour staring out the window and smiling like an unrepentant little shit.
Aunt Lydia can’t let her off that easy. So she drives a screwdriver right into June’s heart, pointing out that “endangering” Hannah and, indirectly, killing Frances means that Hannah’s world is “emptier and colder than it ever was.” It’s not entirely true: Mrs. Mackenzie may be a religious zealot and kidnapper, but she does seem to care for Hannah, and it’s doubtful that they told Hannah anything that would alarm her. It’s a shame that she’s been pulled away from the friends we heard her laughing with last episode, but that’s nothing compared to the trauma Gilead already inflicted on her. And kids are resilient.
My favorite part of June’s swivel against Ofmatthew was the very quiet “Oh shit” that comes out of Janine’s mouth. Until now, any animosity among the handmaids has been low level. They’ve mostly stuck together (aside from shunning June in fear after her near escape), but it’s admittedly refreshing to watch them turn on one another. In a world this preoccupied with mere survival, it makes sense that they’d turn each other in, rat on one another — anything they need to do to ensure their own safety. Ofmatthew’s piety has always read as a defense mechanism more than true godly devotion. And it kind of felt good to hear June cruelly turn on her — “I have something else to testify. Ofmatthew doesn’t want her baby” — providing true information.
The swirl of the cameras, panning around Ofmatthew’s panicked, teary face in the middle of the circle, beautifully demonstrate the whirlwind the handmaid finds herself in. No reaction is acceptable. When she admits to the errant thought, but protests it was fleeting, she isn’t relieved of the burden of her fellow handmaids’ shame. When she cries, there is no sympathy, just “Crybaby, crybaby,” and June’s evil expression, perfectly wrought by Elisabeth Moss.
And yet none of this releases June from the emotional deflation of knowing where Hannah has ended up. Back at the Lawrences’ she’s still begging for information — which the Commander really ought not be inclined to give her for his own safety. One run-in with the Guardians for his wife is an accident, a second one might put her on the wall. And yet he, rather oddly, encourages the two of them to spend more time together. Is the Commander easing up? Does he secretly hope that June will make it out? It’s impossible to know between his bellowing and his kindness.
June’s earlier act — tattling on Ofmatthew — seems to push Ofmatthew even further out of a group that was already spitting in her drinks and probably sharply elbowing her on the stairs. But when the handmaids return for the baby’s birth, June is the one melting into the background, unable to join her sisters in even the most compulsory of activities. When that baby emerges from Ofandy, its umbilical cord around its neck, June stays away from the crush of handmaids who spontaneously hug the bereft mother. She tiptoes into the other room to pull the blanket off the baby’s face, more fascinated by the dead than the living, which is not a good sign for a captive woman. She feels relief — that a child, a girl, is spared a life in Gilead.
(Although it really bugged me that nobody tried unwrapping that cord and performing CPR. In a society this obsessed with birthrates, you’d think they’d go to any length to save a newborn. And as a person born blue with a cord around my own neck, I can tell you that it’s often possible to push some air into those lungs and get the baby screaming.)
Hulu, next episode, please show more scenes of the Aunts gathered round playing Wheel O’ Handmaids. The little glasses of sherry! Their sick enthusiasm for matching up victims with their soon-to-be rapists! Aunt Lydia’s obvious command over the other Aunts! This is the kind of Handmaid’s content we crave — closer looks at the folks who live on the fringes, who make all this possible, who happily embarked on Gilead’s purges and reconstruction so that they might exorcise their own truly fucked-up demons.
With that said, hallelujah for the Aunt Lydia backstory that we’ve waited years for — but boo to its brevity. If you’ve been wondering what would drive a woman to gleefully take on such cruelty as her job, we finally have an answer. We see the marvelous Ann Dowd in a former life as an elementary-school teacher, hair down, definitely a little more relaxed, but already with an edge of moral condescension. Miss Clements, as she was then known, takes a special interest in Ryan, whose mother, while busy and certainly not shopping organic, certainly isn’t neglectful. Rather, she’s teetering, working hard but coming up short — a bag of potato chips for lunch.
So Lydia turns Ryan and his mother, Noelle, into a project. She brings them back to her house for chili, gets to know Noelle, invites them to Christmas. But the benefits of the relationship run two ways. With a confidence boost, Noelle takes on a new job at a department store, buckles down to the job of raising her son, sees the errors in her own dating ways. And Lydia (who we learn was once married and practiced family law — I want ALL the details of that story), gains a family and the belief that she’s doing as God commands: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some people have entertained angels.”
The tenderness between Lydia and Noelle is real — when Noelle buys her a makeup palette for Christmas and lightly brushes eye shadow onto Lydia’s lids, you can see her relax into the pleasure of intimacy, delighted at being touched. And when Ryan lovingly refers to her as “Aunt Lydia,” a role we unfortunately know she’ll grow into, she smiles so broadly it’s like her face might crack. Despite her initial objection to any sort of love life, Lydia even follows Noel’s advice and shows up for a New Year’s Eve date with the kindly, similarly religious principal with whom she’s sweetly bonded.
Disappointment and rejection, then, are what set Lydia down the path toward blind religious zealotry and intolerance. But first, we get to see her in sequins! And singing karaoke! And tossing back a glass of Champagne! It’s clear Lydia has gone out on an emotional limb here, and that once she feels momentum, she isn’t quite sure where to take it. There’s a lot of sadness to how wonderful Mr. Thorne is for her, a man who wants to say grace, who tells her she looks lovely, who is fun-loving and adventurous but honorable and respectful. “I’ve never seen anyone so devoted,” he compliments her, and we can see the beginnings of where Miss Clements turns into Aunt Lydia.
It’s shocking at first to see Lydia’s sexual aggression. Who could ever imagine the dour Bible-beater engaging in any sort of premarital sexual contact, even some kissing or a hand in the pants? Even though things go further than he wants, Mr. Thorne isn’t put off — he’s not ready for sex but certainly wants to see her again. All could be righted. But clearly something has already been knocked off balance inside Lydia. Rejection in any capacity is too much for her to bear. She smashes that mirror — destroys her own reflection — with such fury it’s a wonder her hands aren’t in bloody ribbons afterward.
Then comes the moment that shocked me so profoundly (and this on a show that each week plumbs new levels of deep maternal sadness inside me) that I found myself bent over with hands over my ears, unable to listen to Noelle’s screams as she stormed into the school. Lydia, fully armed with the knowledge that Ryan’s mother is trying, that she’s fit, that she adores her son and provides for him, calls Child Protective Services and has him removed from her care, sent to the foster system instead. If she can’t be happy, and if Noelle in some small part helped set her up with the expectation that she might be happy, then Noelle needs to pay a consequence. And so begins Aunt Lydia’s long history of ripping children away from mothers she deems unfit, passing them on to someone else, assuming her godly judgment is inherently accurate.
Back in Gilead, Aunt Lydia is about to exercise some of that judgment again, arriving at Loaves and Fishes to tell June that she is being reassigned away from the Lawrences, away from a (potential) shot at freedom.
What do we make of June’s newfound cruelty? That she isn’t content just to make Ofmatthew suffer once but that she pointedly turns her wings so the other handmaid, already crying and on edge, sees her smirk and will assume that June has been whispering some further malice in Aunt Lydia’s ear? Until now, June has gone rogue, yes, but always with the spirit of liberation. She’s lashed out at the wicked who keep her and the other handmaids enslaved and captive. It’s true that what Ofmatthew has done, how she’s pushed Hannah out of June’s reach, is perhaps unforgivable. But is it worth turning Ofmatthew’s life into its own separate hell? Ofmatthew couldn’t have known that June’s child was at stake, that she’d interrupt a plan to take her on the run. Does she deserve this? And, more importantly, what does it mean if our heroine has expanded her hatred and vengeance to include even those who don’t stand directly against her?
The scene is perhaps one of The Handmaid’s Tale’s best this season, or any season. Trapped inside the wings ourselves, we can finally see how limiting and disorienting they are, how a lack of peripheral vision turns everything into a target. When Ofmatthew turns on poor Janine, who has been beaten to a pulp so many times it’s a wonder she has use of her limbs, she can’t see any further down the road, doesn’t realize that this one act of violence can only escalate, turn into more. From there the scene unfolds like it’s destiny. Ofmatthew smashes a Guardian’s face, knicks his jugular, takes his pistol. Aiming it at Aunt Lydia, and then June, she isn’t sure what to do next. But June’s smile, spreading slowly, seems to turn her into Ofmatthew’s next target — and June seems almost … welcoming of that fate — until another bullet spins her body up in a balletic arc and sprays her blood like a sprinkler system.
June couldn’t possibly foretell what Ofmatthew would do, that she’d pick up that gun, or that she’d end up dead herself. But it’s that defiant stance as they pull Ofmatthew’s body down the grocery aisle, a trail of blood behind her, that opens up the possibility that June is headed toward derangement, not freedom. Then, as Doris Day’s voice spills out, singing that most cavalier of songs, it feels certain.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the character of Mr. Thorne as Mr. Warren. We regret the error.