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The Continued Cost of June’s Survival

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“Try to remember that all of this is your doing. Everything that has happened to you — to Hannah, to Janine and the others, to those poor Marthas — all of it, you’re responsible. Your fault. Your choice. Your. Choice.” —Aunt Lydia to June in “The Crossing”

The events of the third season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale found Elisabeth Moss’s heroine, June Osborne, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the stomach after executing the major rescue operation known as Angel’s Flight, which liberated a plane full of children and adults from the totalitarian state of Gilead and into the safe harbors of Canada. Even if June didn’t succumb to her wounds right there in the wilderness, next to the Guardian she killed, she’d surely be found and executed, right? It made sense, Vulture argued at the time in a piece titled “It’s Time for The Handmaid’s Tale to Let June Die.” It would both fit a narrative put in place by author Margaret Atwood’s source material and broach the idea that another (female) warrior could pick up her sword and finish the fight from behind enemy lines. There’s no way one woman could cause this much havoc in a slave state and survive.

Series creator Bruce Miller, however, did not agree with the notion of offing his lead. When asked during the show’s all-virtual winter Television Critics Association press day in February whether there was ever any question of killing off June, he responded matter-of-factly: “No. The show is called The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s about her.”

And so, with the release of the first three episodes of the new 10-episode season of The Handmaid’s Tale, June has persevered through nearly four increasingly bloody seasons. She’s been whipped and raped and held prisoner. She’s escaped and been captured. She’s led a couple of rebellions and freed the enslaved. She’s swayed her sworn enemy, Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) — one of her captors and the Machiavellian wife of the high-ranking Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) — briefly to her side. People are somehow always willing to do things for her. They have crushes on her or are fascinated by her. They knowingly risk their own safety or futures for her. They seem to forgive her when her schemes don’t work or don’t benefit them. June has lived through it all not because she is a superhero in a cape, and not because she came into this situation particularly adept at the arts of anarchy and rebellion. She’s lived because she is the television archetype of the bulletproof dream heroine (see also: Weeds Nancy Botwin and On Becoming a God in Central Florida’s Krystal Stubbs).

But Aunt Lydia is right when she confronts June in this season’s third episode, “The Crossing,” after June’s been captured (again) and is (again) lying in wait for what she assumes will be her execution (it’s not — again). Others have paid heftier prices for June’s actions. In fact, pretty much anyone June’s had any interaction with since being forced into that infamous oxblood cloak and white winged bonnet has suffered because of her.

This isn’t to say that some of them didn’t deserve what they got for their association with June. While in Gilead, Serena was briefly aligned with the woman whose ceremonial rape she repeatedly participated in — and one that was not part of the ceremony — leading her to dabble in what passes for a feminist movement in Gilead. In an attempt to better things from the top down, she dared to read a Bible passage in front of the all-male Gilead council of Commanders, which included her husband. But, c’mon, everyone there knows there are rules if a woman is caught reading. She lost a finger, not just for the act itself but because she embarrassed her spouse by implying to his peers that he can’t control her. Now the Waterfords are imprisoned for war crimes by what remains of the United States government after they were tricked into entering Canada. It’s kind of an awkward time in their marriage for Serena to learn she’s going to have a baby — the only thing she claims she’s ever wanted. Like June and her flock, Serena must now figure out how to survive her predicament without endangering the health and safety of herself and her child.

And Aunt Lydia? The woman who tortured June and other handmaids with cattle prods and doublespeak, ruling over the “girls” in her charge? While June was on the lam, Aunt Lydia herself was tortured based on the assumption that she must have known this would happen (especially since it’s not the first time one of her charges has gotten out of line). It says a lot about this lady’s dedication to the cause that she did not break. But surely her ability to do her job must now be called into question. What is left for Aunts after their services are no longer needed?

Then there are the bad people June chose to kill, either out of self preservation or for revenge. This season, she poisons the drinks of Gilead’s Commanders while they party at the brothel known as Jezebel’s. Last season, there was the scuffle with the soldier in the field, not to mention the time she made viewers collectively wonder if adrenaline and a well-placed pen were really all it would take for our petite lead to take down the human-sized Wreck-It Ralph that was Christopher Meloni’s Commander Winslow. All of these murders could be justified by an audience that’s aligned with June’s point of view and is out for vengeance — but they also left other, innocent, characters exposed and vulnerable.

So many good people, or at least people striving for goodness, have died as a result of June’s actions. Omar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the bread-truck driver from season two who hid her in his family’s apartment when attempts to smuggle her to Canada temporarily failed? His traitorous actions earned him a place on The Wall with a hole in his head, while his wife was forced into June’s line of work and their son was shepherded off to a family whom the powers that be deemed more deserving. A cropper-plane pilot was going to ferry a pregnant June to safety, and they might have made it if she hadn’t waited for Max Minghella’s Nick, the baby’s father, to board the plane at the last minute. That pilot died execution-style on the runway.

It’s unclear how much longer Nick and June can work together to keep each other alive, or why he even still wants to help her. She refused his attempts to aid her escape and sent their baby daughter into the wilderness with her unhinged friend Emily (Alexis Bledel), not knowing if they would make it safely to Canada. Will these two eventually be set up to turn on each other, like something out of The Crucible? And could a similar fate befall Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford)? He was one of the founders of Gilead and now seems to want to destroy his great, evil invention. But, this season, he also seems all too excited to be free of the prison cell he found himself in after he helped June organize the flight of refugees. Why are these men infatuated with her? Why do they feel the only way to break the system they created or control is by going through her? They are the ones with the actual power.

Then there are the parade of handmaids, benevolent Guardians, and other servants (or Marthas) who marched to slaughter after spending time with June. The Martha Frances (Ordena Stephens) was hanged for “endangering a child” after she went against her better judgment and tried to help June connect with her kidnapped daughter, Hannah. Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop), the pregnant handmaid who turned in Frances, was so bullied by June and her flock that she snapped in a supermarket and ended up shot in the head. She spends her last days comatose in a hospital as June, who is forced to sit beside her, debates whether a mercy killing is worth the risk since the shooting didn’t cause Natalie to miscarry. (That so many of the characters who perished are people of color while June, a white woman, is fine is a problem that’s long plagued the show.)

This season, any attempt of June’s to deny her culpability in these deaths is lost. She is forced to use her own hands to push an innocent, crying Martha off the ledge of a building. Thanks to Gileadean half-truths and June’s own meddling, daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) — the one person she actually wants to save and the reason why she’s chosen to stay in this horrific republic — is terrified of her, and her life may be in danger. The escaped handmaids, who could have easily left her for dead after she was shot in the field, but instead found shelter and nursed her back to health? She rats them out to (literally) save her own skin. For all their evil ways, the higher-ups in Gilead never thought to install their prisoners with tracking devices. And was it an accident or acts of suicide that led Alma (Nina Kiri) and Brianna (Bahia Watson) to prove that humans are not faster than trains? The very fact that this group of women’s farcical escape from the prison van in “The Crossing” even worked should be considered an act of God — which may not be that far-fetched an idea.

During last season’s finale, as she was carried off from the field, June quoted the Old Testament character Moses, someone working in connection with God to chart a path of freedom for the oppressed while their captors die chasing them. “And the Lord said, ‘I have seen my people in bondage, and I have heard their cry,’” she says in a voiceover. “’I know their sorrows and I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place to a land flowing with milk and honey.’” If this is truly meant to be a parallel to the story of Exodus, then maybe June should remember that Moses died just before reaching the Promised Land.

The Continued Cost of June’s Survival