The Handmaid’s Tale
There’s a weird condition called “alarm fatigue” that hospital personnel sometimes develop. All these bips and beeps and boops start to fade into the background after a while, so when the pumps and machines start to indicate there’s truly a problem, doctors and nurses aren’t always able to pick up on it.
June, even after 32 days — and then, apparently, several months — in a hospital room, with ventilators and EKG readers dinging mercilessly, all day and all night, still hears the beeps. “Ohhhh baby, do you know what that’s worth,” she mouths along with the chimes, calling up Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” before she turns straight to the camera and, in a move that breaks the fourth wall a little more thoroughly than her prior stares and grimaces, tells the viewer, “You’ll hear it.”
And you do. Or at least I did. It’s the sort of oddity that at first might make you giggle but then feels suffocating, a form of auditory torture. I found myself mildly relieved every time Ofmatthew (or Natalie, whose real name we learned at the end of the last episode when Aunt Lydia screamed it in Loaves and Fishes) seized or slowed her breathing and the pitch and tenor of the beeps would change. That song is cruel in any circumstances (besides when it’s used in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) and downright maddening here.
For June, who has no relief from the dings, the white glare of the room, or the smells of antiseptic and shit and encroaching death, it’s enough to push her around the bend. As punishment (for taunting Ofmatthew, possibly, or for just generally failing to comply with any of the rules governing handmaids for the last two years or so), June is forced to kneel in supplication all day long, praying that her walking partner will heal. Wait, scratch that, she’s praying that Ofmatthew’s baby will make it to viability so the mother, who is a great uterus but of little other value to Gilead, can just die already.
Along with June’s descent into madness, that’s the big takeaway of “Heroic”: the shudder-inducing reality of what happens when the life of the baby is valued that much more than the life of the mother, when the fetus, an unknown being, is considered more important than its creator by dint of society’s obsession with the “innocence” of babies. Ofmatthew, who we should honor as Natalie with her real name, has become just a vessel for the safekeeping of this other human, a womb that just so happens to have a human attached. Could Natalie have been saved when she was brought in? Most likely not, as the doctor explains that she’d lost a tremendous amount of blood. (It also didn’t help that two Guardians dragged her out of the market after she was shot like she was already dead. Which makes me wonder why a government so hellbent on making more babies wouldn’t take better steps to mark pregnant handmaids. They’re already wearing scarlet robes and wings, for Christ’s sake, just tie a “Baby Onboard” sign to their heads or something.) But still, Natalie is stripped of every dignity, made to lie there helpless and maybe suffering so that her sick society can produce its next generation.
As a pseudo-bottle episode, “Heroic” opens wondrously with that agonizingly long sequence of June perched on her knees, drifting from one moment into another hour, eyes red and skin more wan than the walls around her, and knees cracked open from such long stints in “prayer.” Her voice is softer, more trembly and high-pitched than usual, as she describes that what she knows — or thinks she knows — are delusions of little girls sweeping down the hospital’s hallways. The light in the room suddenly flashes warm as day dawns, then cooler when the fluorescents come on. Elisabeth Moss, as always, uses her face so exquisitely that even without the voice-over, we’d know exactly how far gone June is.
Is it crazy of June to want to kill Natalie? (It’s certainly crazy of Aunt Lydia to leave June alone with her.) That depends on why exactly you think June bends that air tube and tries to cut off Natalie’s oxygen — whether it’s because she’s still infuriated by Natalie’s betrayal or because she thinks her baby is better off dead than brought up in this society of wack-jobs.
June’s slow plotting, and that grimacing reach into the sharps disposal box, are so off course for The Handmaid’s Tale that they feel fresh and invigorating. I wish the episode had continued down the same path, entirely dedicating itself to June and her days spent inside that one room. Janine’s presence is odd — isn’t anyone keeping an eye on her? (Yes, pun is intended.) — and their entire conversation unlikely. Why would June bring Janine, a pseudo-believer, into her confidence about killing Natalie? And why does this show insist on plopping June and Serena alone in rooms together even when it makes no sense to do so? A few episodes ago, they were wishing each other dead at the top of the smashed Lincoln Memorial, and now suddenly Serena is calmly asking a doctor to provide medical attention after June swipes at her with a scalpel. Some character stability would be nice!
But the swipe does lead to the episode’s most intriguing conversation, which is between June and the doctor (played by Gil Bellows, a.k.a. poor, shot-up Tommy from Shawshank Redemption), whose devotion to the Hippocratic oath wavers. In the middle of him stitching up June’s palm, she can’t help but blurt out her fury at how he’s treating (or, rather, not treating) Natalie. Like a lot of Gilead’s worker bees, he’s a drone, but he’s complicated. He won’t turn June in for trying to kill Serena (or admitting that she wanted to kill him, too), but he isn’t exactly a Gilead dissenter, either. This job is just that, a job.
It turns out that this very doctor knew June’s mother, the “scary” Dr. Holly Maddox. That level of human connection — when June has to admit her mother may be dead, may be alive, it’s impossible to know for sure — it creates an electric moment between them. He’s trying to do some good, it seems, inside the system. But it isn’t enough. He still reeks of complicity. He can worry over June’s suicidal tendencies all he wants, but as a man, he’s sitting happily inside a nest of privilege, doing the work of the oppressor.
In the middle of the night, when the beeping suddenly intensifies and June walks over to Natalie’s bedside, ghostly in her white nightgown, she sees that telltale spot of blood on the blanket. When the blanket is pulled back, it’s revealed that blood has pooled all around her body and June glimpses Natalie’s eventual demise along with her own freedom. Once the baby is born, June can leave the hospital (though to what home she will return we do not know). So it’s hard to tell if she’s gleeful or terrified when the doctors cut that tiny, tiny baby boy out of Natalie and a little cry emerges from his body. A few episodes ago, she looked on in gruesome satisfaction when another handmaid’s baby was stillborn. Now we don’t have any idea what to expect from her.
The episode ought to have ended here. Once June steps outside that building, the spell of claustrophobia is broken — for June and the viewers. Her explanation to Aunt Lydia — that she wants to be with Natalie for her final moments — is hard to believe. And Aunt Lydia, who is no fool, ought to see right through it. (Instead, she’s busy giggling over Janine’s fancy new red velvet eyepatch. Look out, because these two are an ominous pairing.)
Sitting by her bedside, this time seemingly in earnest, June apologizes to Natalie. Is she truly chastened? Is she pretending? Is she secretly wringing the life out of Natalie and we just can’t see what her hands are doing? In a way, it doesn’t matter. June’s nature can no longer be plotted or diagnosed or understood. As brilliant as Elisabeth Moss’s performance continues to be, and as stirringly as this show continues to find fresh horrors, June’s identity is too wavering and watery to know.
She again ends the episode defiant, swearing to Natalie that because her son “doesn’t deserve to grow up in this place,” June is “going to get out as many children” as she can. How? She doesn’t have a clue! (And neither do we.) I get that Handmaid’s Tale is no longer itself if June escapes or dies or just sinks under the bedcovers and refuses to get up, but this is getting ridiculous. We’ve spent two seasons now watching her spin her wheels and vow like a red-clad Joan of Arc that she will lead her people to freedom. Nothing comes of it. The group of resistance agents she recruited has been left by the wayside for half a season now. Hannah is more unreachable than ever. And all we have is June staring moodily into the screen, looking into our eyes, daring us to give up, too.