The Handmaid’s Tale
“My name is June Osborne. I am a citizen of the United States, and I seek asylum in the country of Canada.”
And with that, several years and three and a half seasons of June’s attempted escapes from Gilead have come to an end (well, for now). By stepping onto Canadian ground and applying for its government’s protection, June not only pushes herself into new territory but takes The Handmaid’s Tale to a distinct new phase: a legal battle, a PR scuffle, a diplomatic rescue mission, and a story of revenge.
“Home” is the first brilliant episode of the season, and maybe the best the show has been since early season two. It’s fast-paced enough that we catch up with every major character now living in Canada, and it’s dedicated to the mutating emotional fallout that Gilead has buried inside every character, the Waterfords included. The title is, of course, only partly true — Toronto is home to the cobbled-together American government, to the Gileadean refugees like Luke and Moira, and now it’s playing host to June. But it’s a home in exile, an entirely new country and city and house. A new way of being in the world.
When June, Luke, Moira, Joel from Parenthood, and his crew first pulled up to the glamorous Fairmont hotel in downtown Toronto and waltzed in past a pianist and dozens of travelers, I was reminded of novelist Thomas Mann’s life in exile in Princeton, New Jersey, after fleeing from the rising Nazis. By all measures, Mann was fantastically lucky. His wife and his children also safely left Germany and were granted American visas; connections in Europe moved vast amounts of his fortune into Switzerland and other safe harbors; Princeton University took him in and offered him a large house in exchange for his presence on campus. But still, unhappiness and disappointment plagued him. Mann had a powerful voice in the American political landscape, but no amount of rousing speeches could return his beloved homeland to its former self. Had he stayed in Germany, he would have died torturously at the hands of Hitler’s cronies. But, he wondered, Would that death have meant more than all the condemnatory speeches?
June is secured in a top-floor suite, with a charcuterie spread and abundant flower arrangements to greet her. (The toiletries are so good that Moira reminds Luke to steal them.) Joel from Parenthood is there to personally debrief her from the comfort of a deep-seat sofa, and silver-domed dishes whiz up from the kitchen below. With the promise that Nichole will shortly be in her arms, June’s arrival is ideal, free from uncertainty or fear.
But everything is unfamiliar and overwhelming, especially the trivialities. June and Luke are so uneasy in each other’s presence that Luke reels off a list of things they could do together: eat, drink, go to the bathroom? They don’t immediately end up in each other’s arms, a torrent of information and catching up tearing out of their mouths. This dance is way trickier — how do you explain to your spouse what they’ve missed over several years? Or how your back ended up an abstract painting of purple swells and red abrasions?
It’s significant that when Luke and June do end up talking — 17 hours of sleep later — June tells what is most likely the biggest lie of their marriage. The handling of June and Luke’s respective guilt has been exquisite. June was in Gilead, in striking distance of Hannah, and couldn’t spring their daughter from her strange captivity. Luke had all the comfort of life in Canada and couldn’t do a damn thing for either one of them. But June refuses to redistribute the weight of her most burdensome knowledge — that Hannah may have been entirely reprogrammed by now, that she may forget her real parents or see them as an aberration of Gilead’s pristine ethos. Instead, the story June tells Luke is of their earlier visit, of her holding Hannah and telling her, “I was so sorry I wasn’t with her to protect but that I’d always be her mommy, and that her daddy and I would always love her, and that we’d never stop.”
Now that she’s safe from immediate harm, June sees her new shape as profoundly different from that of the hole left in her friends’ and family’s lives. Moira and Luke have perfected their co-parenting, tossing diapers back and forth in the grocery store like pros. Pancakes are on order in the morning, grocery lists are half made, and friends can pop by for dinner on a weeknight. Mentally, June is in a gray zone, joking one minute about the horror of healthy chips and the next flashing back to Alma’s face gazing at her through the grocery-store shelves. She isn’t relaxed enough to adopt a “fuck ’em” attitude about Gilead like Moira or to have a therapeutic girls’ night with Rita and Emily where they talk about working through their trauma. To June, it must feel as if everyone has moved on, while she is still bent on revenge.
The Waterfords, meanwhile, continue to bob and weave around each other, a king and a queen from opposite sides of the chessboard who pair up and split up, depending on the threat. Even after all the jerking around the character has been put through by a veering plot, Yvonne Strahovski brings a particularly notable breed of self-pitying narcissism to Serena that has turned her into the most interesting character on the show. Does Serena truly believe that God is watching over her and believes her to be his special child? Absolutely. Does she also recognize that she subverted the very meaning of a God by co-creating an entire nation to bend to her particular desire to have a child? That too.
Fred, however, has one simple aim, and it’s power. Even removed from the dignity of his office, he thinks of himself as the master of “Offred.” And eventually, opposition to the woman sent to them years ago to bring them together with the “gift” of a biological child is what will unite them again. Fred can’t fight Serena and June at once, and Serena — dressed like Eileen Fisher’s take on the Virgin Mary — can’t take on either of them and expect to ever mother her miracle baby.
The crowning moment of this return-to-excellence episode is June’s confrontation with Serena. For a long time, Serena swayed back and forth between cruel accomplice and potential turncoat. (Remember how likely it seemed in season two that she might help June escape Gilead?) She’s now the full-throated villain of the series, more dominant than Aunt Lydia and more venomous than Fred. She deserves every second of the dressing down June gives her in an unlikely middle-of-the-night prison visit, but her open sobs aren’t a sign of defeat.
What must get under June’s skin the most is Serena’s self-righteousness, the belief she professes over and over that God’s hand is behind her menace and cruelty — and in this instance that God brought June to Canada and to the Zen-jail so that Serena could “make amends.” What self-involved bollocks! So while June’s spat-out, jaw-set, eyes-blazing castigations aren’t new, this one felt better than usual, mostly because her bravado is backed up by a system that might actually put the Waterfords in tiny little handmaid-free cells, with no Marthas to do their baking, and then throw away the key. “Do you know why God made you pregnant?” June seethes. “So that when he kills that baby inside your womb, you will feel a fraction of the pain that you caused us when you tore our children from our arms.”
And then two guttural, leonine questions: “Do you understand me? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” Serena, it seems, does understand her. And perhaps, just a little bit, now realizes that her alleged God has forsaken her.