The Handmaid’s Tale
Tucked away in this episode is an astonishing fact of Gileadean life. It’s been five years, June mentions as she roots around in the Red Center files in the Lawrences’ basement, since the American government fell and the world looked on as religious fundamentalists took over the country. Five years of Ceremonies, and Salvagings, and Guardians patrolling the streets with automatic guns, and babies kept out of their mother’s arms, and Scarlet Letter–red uniforms, and trauma, and despair. Five years in which the world has done nothing to rescue the imperiled citizens of Gilead.
That’s about the limit June can hit before this story turned from an imprisonment and escape narrative to a revenge plot. “Another walking partner dead,” she thinks to herself this episode, “They must think I’m cursed. Or a terrorist. I’m not though. Not yet.” Yikes.
Which isn’t to say that she’s decided in error. The Commanders, led by Waterford and a sometimes begrudging Winslow, have decided that Boston ought to run as tight a ship as D.C. does, requiring or perhaps plainly suggesting that Lawrence take down that dissenter’s collection of contemporary art and keep his home’s décor in line with Victorian standards. After a slew of incidents demoralizing to the State — June’s first escape, the bombing of the new Rachel and Leah Center, Baby Nichole’s “kidnapping” — the freshly promoted Waterford is keen to demonstrate his capabilities as a leader, all the way down to the primary-color paintings that adorned the Lawrences’ walls. Where first the modern art goes, we know, more of humanity is sure to fall as well.
But why exactly is June back at the Lawrence house to notice such things? That’s unclear. Just before Ofmatthew/Natalie pulled a gun in Loaves and Fishes and then went down, Aunt Lydia approached June to tell her that she’d no longer be serving the Lawrence family as a handmaid. She was being reassigned, Aunt Lydia illogically claimed, to protect her from the Lawrences’ strange predilections (as if it weren’t June who was causing the, ahem, problems). And yet, despite the fact that none of that has changed over the months June spent kneeling in the hospital, she’s deposited back on the Lawrences’ doorstep as if nothing ever happened.
Mrs. Lawrence, who is part captive and part ward, has turned even more Bertha Mason while June’s been gone — her disheveled hair, I’m guessing, is meant to symbolize the state of her mind. The meds that control her bipolar aren’t coming through (does Gilead ban psychiatric medicines à la Scientology?), and June sees an opportunity. Mrs. Lawrence is hanging on by a thread, she knows, and while Lawrence may be the economic genius who buoyed Gilead in its infancy, he’s also utterly dedicated to his wife — or at least as dedicated as a war criminal can be. “He’s scared,” June says. “Fear can be a great motivator.” Lawrence, she realizes, may finally have come up against his own limit and might be persuaded that helping June, or even getting out himself, is worth the risk.
(All of which makes me wonder if Hjalmar Schacht, the economist who worked with Hitler to strengthen the German economy in the 1930s, was an inspiration for Lawrence. Schacht was tried at Nuremberg, though not for crimes against humanity, and acquitted after it came to light that he had been in contact with the Resistance, been imprisoned in Dachau himself, and had denounced Hitler’s policies.)
June’s plan is no longer just to find Hannah and escape. Oh no, it’s not nearly that simple. After months of nothing to do but pretend to pray and muse on her situation, June has a plan — or at least an idea for what kind of plan she’d like to have. She’s going, she says, to get alllllll the handmaids’ kids out of Gilead. First she proposes the idea to Beth, whose Resistance connections — all those sad scones! — may be of use. (Though when June asked if anyone in the Resistance could “get kids out,” I did want to offer her a little reminder it probably already would be doing that if it could.) Then, gazing into the refrigerated section at Loaves and Fishes (are those freshly squeezed juices they’re handling?), she announces her intention to Ofrobert/Alma, whose role in the Resistance ought to gird her loins for such a wild idea, but it doesn’t. You’re insane, she basically tells June, a sentiment that anyone who has looked into her wild blue eyes as of late might second.
Meanwhile, Waterford is amping up the regime’s power and control with a new series of measures. Called together in that bespoke Brutalist amphitheater, the handmaids line up for inspection, with Commander Stabler (I’m sorry, but I really can’t help but call him that in my head whenever he appears onscreen), Serena, and Aunt Lydia in tow. Waterford offers June a transfer to D.C. — which is almost certainly a veiled threat — but the more important conversation is taking place in softer voices in the background. The Commanders are “rolling out the veil and ring,” i.e., those cruel masks and lip sutures June saw in D.C. Aunt Lydia, slightly concerned, hopefully asks if they will be “voluntary” (good God, who would volunteer?) and the Commander answers in the affirmative. But a crackdown is still coming, one that could dampen or hamper June’s plans.
Back at the house, June goes to root around in Lawrence’s office for those Red Center files, hoping to figure out exactly where all the handmaids’ children have been placed. When Mrs. Lawrence wanders in, rather than seeming flummoxed about why the handmaid is using a kitchen knife to (unsuccessfully) pick a filing-cabinet lock, she offers a magical solution. Those files? They’re in the basement, just sitting in boxes! (Side note to Boris Johnson: This is why some organizational skills are necessary for those in power.) As partners in crime for the second time, June feels enough kinship with Mrs. Lawrence to urge her to flee Gilead with her husband. Mrs. L has a clear-headed answer as to why they can’t: “Joseph is a war criminal.” But perhaps with the right offer to Canadian officials, June implies, that small issue of him having designed the Colonies will just float away.
It’s hard for The Handmaid’s Tale to shock us anymore — after all the hangings, beatings, and ritualized rapes — but the scenes of June and Lawrence’s forced, observed “Ceremony” provoked a tormented gasp out of me. June has been through dozens of Ceremonies with the Waterfords; in season one, we watched as she lay between Serena’s legs and Commander Waterford grotesquely pumped his semen into her. But this encounter was somehow more degrading, more reminiscent of that soul-blasting Black Mirror episode in which the British prime minister is forced into a live televised sexual encounter with a pig. June’s bond with Lawrence and his wife turns an already cruel rite into an emotional horror show.
Luckily, the show’s writers knew exactly how much to show. Had they foisted a gratuitous sex scene on us, it would have undone the brilliant work of the actors, who do some of the season’s best work here. June, Lawrence, and Eleanor run through every available option. “We can’t just sit here,” June says as they stare at one another in the darkened room. “We could play canasta,” Lawrence jokes, before learning that a doctor will examine June after the Ceremony. Waterford and Winslow will know if no sex has occurred. They’ll all end up on the Wall, including Beth and Sienna. Eleanor’s keening is entirely understandable.
And so June begins to slowly, steadily talk Lawrence into raping her, or having sex with her, or whatever you might call a mind-boggling, uncompartmentalizable scenario like this. “Just treat it like a job,” she says. “You’re not you, I’m not me.” These are the words of a pro, of someone who has disassociated for years. They are also proof, yet again, that a woman’s work is never done. This is the very heaviest of emotional labor.
In the aftermath, when the doctor comes in to examine June and he reaches toward her groin to examine her, I had hoped she’d use her legs like a vise on his neck. Instead, she at least gets her jollies by quipping to Waterford: “At least it wasn’t you.”
The forced Ceremony is all the proof Lawrence needed that his days in Gilead are numbered. He offers June what he can — first, a packet of birth-control pills (“The punishment for contraception is being torn apart by dogs”), although he cruelly does not pour her a drink, and second, a truck, so she can get Eleanor and others to safety. Will he come, too? If someone as high up as Lawrence turns on Gilead and brings a cadre of freed children along with him, he might just turn from war criminal to “hero.”
And so it’s back to Loaves and Fishes (where the handmaids are shopping with those fisherman net bags that every good farmers’-market shopper now owns). To convince Ofrobert/Alma to join her, June wields the power of the Red Center files and tells her that her son, Dylan, is just a few towns away and can easily be brought to safety. Janine too wants her son to join them, but we know from June’s reading that he’s dead, killed in a car accident a few years prior, and that Gilead didn’t even bother to let Janine know. Is it cruel to lie to her and say he’s been relocated to California? Or is it just the right kind of lie, an unselfishness that June knows she owes Janine?
In the episode’s last moment, we finally see some momentum toward the story line fans (myself included) have been hoping for, for a while now. The Resistance will act. The Marthas — who oh-so-brilliantly telegraph their intentions with goddamn baked goods — will help. That ten-seater van won’t be enough. They’re gonna need a bigger boat.