The Handmaid’s Tale
If there isn’t already a name for these kinds of episodes, I’m going to dub them “Barbie Dreamhouse Setups” after the hours and hours of organization and dividing of goods and home-décor composition that my sisters and I put ourselves through before we actually played with the Barbies. One could not simply play; one must first set up and have everything in the right spot. “Milk” is mainly about moving some pieces on the board, both literally (June and Janine from the Northeast to Chicago) and figuratively (Rita spilling Serena’s pregnancy secret to Fred). After the abundant trauma of “The Crossing,” Bruce Miller has tossed us a breather.
Rita hasn’t always been given her due as one of the more complex women of The Handmaid’s Tale. Way back in season one, there’s a scene in which Serena comes into the kitchen late at night, claiming she is looking for chamomile tea. Rita offers her something stiffer, and as the two sit together, she discloses that she once had a son, Matthew, who was killed in the war after the Commanders launched their coup against America. Serena assumes he fought for Gilead, but Rita never confirms it. What kind of “patriot” was he? Each time Rita moves against the grain, I think about that scene and wonder about Matthew’s, and Rita’s, loyalties.
Rita is decent, upstanding, reserved. Amanda Brugel plays her like a placid body of water — no ripples on the surface but surely with abundant life fighting and coexisting underneath. But she has always been slow to take big risks, and she has acted like a support system for both June and Serena, a position nearly as impossible to maintain as friendship with Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. (She is also shot in this episode with the most glowing, heavenly light on her, as if she is the Virgin Mary herself, ascending up into the puffy clouds while God beams a spotlight on her.)
Serena and Fred both greet Rita the same way: that it’s nice “to see a friendly face,” a line designed to soften her. But her resolve changes between the meetings. Despite Moira’s pep talk (and the fact that we know Rita already spilled all the beans on the Waterfords to the government), she approaches Serena with quiet anxiety, calling her “Ma’am.” It’s an ingrained feeling by now, the fear of a lack of deference, of not citing the differences in their Gileadean stations. Serena’s baby news (and her ivory silk charmeuse maternity set, a real find in a prison for war criminals) warms her up, reminds Rita of their bond over baby Nichole, and hearkens back to that chat in the Waterford kitchen. Any baby, for a spiritually devoted woman like Rita, is a blessing.
Serena assumes Rita will move into this Hague x Amangiri and take right back up as nanny, assistant, and soother-in-chief, there to make Serena feel that if this one woman is content (or at least not openly suicidal), then her reflexively patriarchal oppressive tendencies can’t be so bad. But it’s Serena’s blatant attempt to use Rita for her own self-defense that pushes her away. She still calls Fred “Sir” and stands at attention when he enters the room, but then she drops a little information bomb: the sonogram. There goes Serena’s plan to keep the pregnancy secret (although, alas, I have a feeling this will bring the Waterfords back together). By the episode’s end, Rita is happily eating sushi in an Alex Mill sweater I also happen to own, bathed in that celestial light.
Now it’s time to get serious, to talk openly about the absolute nightmare zone of illogical and impossible behavior that surrounds June and Janine’s ride on the Pasteur Express. June’s instincts aren’t the problem here — get west, head for the front lines, and find Americans who are fighting for the country (and also get yourself onto Lake Michigan, where you pull a reverse-Prohibition and smuggle yourself into Canada). But every step along the way is a bursting piñata of absurdity.
First, at the train depot, June and Janine scamper up just as a worker is yelling, “We need this stuff in Chicago!” Do freight loaders often point out precisely where the goods ought to go mere seconds before the train starts moving? I may not know much about choo-choos, but it seems to me that there are manifestos and timetables and that one knows where a train is headed long before the loading process begins.
Then, June chooses a tanker car with an open top. Like I said, all my knowledge comes from reading The Little Engine That Could to my 4-year-old, but I’d imagine that some of those tankers are filled with things like gasoline and that dropping feetfirst into one in the dark may pose health hazards. Of course it’s milk, because we needed a maternal metaphor to bop us over the head. But do tanks of milk sit with the tops open like that, so that any stray debris can just float on in? I’m assuming the FDA has been disbanded along with the rest of American bureaucracy.
Next, faced with 36-degree liquid and lacking a handy door to climb onto Titanic style (or, ahem, Rose style), June simply feels around for seven seconds and then pulls a plug to drain the milk. The opaque milk, in a vast container. And no alarms sound. Apparently, this little chugger doesn’t have sensors to let the conductors know that the weight has just drastically dropped or that all their cargo is leaking out onto the rail ties. Seems weird!
(The conversation on the way there seems about right: Janine has a point, June has a point, Janine is not a mushroom, etc.)
But then, upon arrival (a.k.a. gunshots fired by the resistance), Janine gives June a leg up to the top of the car, and June then reaches down AND SIMPLY PULLS JANINE UP WITH SHEER STRENGTH. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t climb the rope in gym class, but really? Really? June has enough bicep heft to simply pluck Janine out like a little minnow on a fishing line? The next car down had two perfectly good Jeeps they could have lay down in for the all-night ride! Why, why, why. (Which also reminds me: Are those ear trackers no longer in use at all in Gilead?)
In smoking, bombed-out Chicago, things aren’t as hopeful as one might imagine. Not because the city is any worse off than I anticipated but because the level of human degradation has sunk (or risen?) to grotesque levels almost on par with Gilead. It’s a wise subversion of the typical battle story, where one side is the Third Reich, out to destroy humanity for the sake of a new world order, and the other is the brave Allies, leaping into carnage to save innocents. The unnamed group that picks up June and Janine is on the right side, raiding Gilead trains for supplies. But its leader, Steven, sees an opportunity for himself — these “sex slaves” must be used to performing for men in exchange for favors, right? So why not acquire one for himself? His deputy, Theresa, stands by and watches as he tells June and Janine that one of them will be staying with him — either one, he doesn’t really care. Another man who sees his cause as righteous and his rights as superior.
Janine has sneakily grown into a fitting counterpart to June; she is discounted because she wears her hopes so openly. June puts out brute strength, always volunteering for leadership, assuming she can handle more than nutty, pig-naming Janine. But in this episode, their roles are reversed. We see Janine in a flashback, working through an unwanted pregnancy (which, surprisingly, is not with her son, Caleb, but with another baby after him) and pushing for an abortion, even though one of those predatory pregnancy “crisis” centers pushes every button to appeal to her tenderness. What the counselor at that center says is right: Janine would make a wonderful mother; she is a wonderful mother. Part of that job, she knows, is recognizing that as a single woman with a job at Denny’s, another child will drag down any momentum she has going in her and her son’s life.
It’s tricky to describe Janine sneaking off to give a blow job to Steven as brave, but it’s the sort of leadership she’s capable of. Janine has deep stores of resilience, an ability to find meager bits of happiness in the worst moments. “It wasn’t so bad,” she tells June. “He thinks my eye patch is cool.” The underlying idea here is that she can help, that June shouldn’t have left her behind, that she can handle what June cannot.