The Handmaid’s Tale
Portions of “Testimony” were so visually dark I pumped up the brightness factor on my screen to its maximum and still squinted at the characters. For the dinner scenes, only a row of three little kitchen lights illuminated June and Luke’s faces. The first couple group-therapy sessions in the library were practically under cover of darkness; I wondered if they’d intentionally kept it that way to protect their identities. But in the last library scene — when June brings the former Aunt Irene back to join them and places her in the center of the circle like a handmaid about to be stoned — it was daylight and sun poured in. The only other Canadian scene lit up so gloriously in this episode was June’s testimony in the court, when the combined heraldic light and wooden lattice structure behind her practically turned into a halo.
Elisabeth Moss directed “Testimony,” and it’s hard to imagine any of this was incidental, that we weren’t supposed to see June in a brighter, stronger light in the moments when she turned on her revenge-o-machine and went gunning for the Waterfords and Aunt Irene. She’s emerged from any final reserve and has fixed her sights on ecstatic fury as the route forward. Is June supposed to be saintly, a Joan of Arc figure given divine blessing to wage a war on her oppressors? Maybe, maybe not. The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly ever so cut and dry, and June is clearly tipping into a mental state about which we’re supposed to feel ambivalent. If we supported June’s whatever-it-takes tactics to escape Gilead, should we support them now to bring that whole baby-breeding system crashing down? Is June’s righteousness a sign of her rightness?
June’s testimony itself surprised me in its vagueness. She essentially recapped the show for us, starting with the systemic rapes at the Waterford manse, her forced relationship with Nick, her escape to the Boston Globe building and capture on the tarmac, and being kept from Nichole. She tells the courtroom about Serena reading the Bible aloud and the pinky-finger punishment (presumably to let them know that Fred will hurt any old woman, including his wife), about not escaping with Nichole, and then about the Waterfords forcing her and Lawrence to have sex while they coffee-talked downstairs. (She also provides us with a rare date when she says she was sent to the Waterfords in 2017, essentially explaining that the show has been happening in “real time.”) Not that these charges aren’t damning enough, but I expected more particulars, more nitty-gritty on the pleasure Fred and Serena take in subjecting her to punishment, on their high rank among Gilead officials and their creation of the state (which she knows about intimately from her time working with Serena in Fred’s office in season two). Perhaps she’s saving her ammunition for the trial.
The testimony is one long shot, with no cuts for Waterford or Luke reactions; June is front and center, finally unmuzzled (literally, considering her time in D.C.). And though I find it hard to believe that the judges would allow this cursory hearing to go so off the rails, it wasn’t surprising to find that the Waterfords’ female attorney — clever hiring decision, Fred! — used the “blame the victim” line of defense. It’s the old standby in cases of male-on-female violence, put to its most extreme use here by a lawyer arguing that a woman whose country was taken over in a theocratic coup essentially joined the brigade of concubines with open eyes and zero coercion dispute the fact that the alternative was certain death-by-radiation in a prairie gulag. And then Fred, God help him because this man is a fool, leaps up to speechify about “God’s path” and his rewards and the way in which the ends justify the means because the birth rate is rising in Gilead. Did he just counteract his attorney’s argument by claiming justification and also piss off hell-hath-no-fury-like-June-Osborne-scorned? Why yes, he did. Turns out that having Serena beside him in “the teal” is good for the zealots in the crowd, but that’s about it.
June’s rage against the machine has been a long time coming (for reference: Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum was season one, episode four), but “Testimony” is a quick study in how she recruits other women to her cause. At the first group meeting she practically wants to spit on her fellow former handmaids. They’re meek and mealy-mouthed and healing-focused, they practically revere June for simply going to court — or at least that’s how she sees them. “Why aren’t they more angry?” she asks.
It’s a question at the heart of the show: What is the “appropriate” response to trauma, or rather, why do we assume there is only one appropriate response? June cannot accept that Emily doesn’t want to confront her abuser — fury is the only way forward. So she pushes and bullies Emily into a cruel and painful confrontation with the Aunt who ratted her out, sent her Martha lover to her death, and got Emily’s clit surgically removed. Sure, Emily admits after Aunt Irene/Iris hangs herself, “I feel amazing. I’m glad she’s dead. And I hope I had something to do with it,” but that doesn’t mean June is any less of an emotional tyrant. Or that her takeover of the therapy group as an angry army is a virtuous move.
(As a sidenote, I struggled to understand why Moira is in charge of this group. She’s a personal friend to two members, and not necessarily qualified as a trauma counselor. Seems she was shoehorned into these scenes as a way to create animosity between her and June, but surely the writers could have accomplished this by having Moira, also a former handmaid, as a member of the group and not its leader.)
At the end of the last episode, June came home from tearing Serena a new one and clambered atop her husband in bed. He resisted, she moved forward anyway. Regardless of your interpretation, her motive was to regain a sense of power over her body, to take back the sexuality that was sheathed in a red robe and cropped wimple. This week she goes for it again, trying to kiss Luke in lieu of talking to him, throwing the pair even further off-kilter. Luke assumed once he’d heard June’s testimony that he knew “everything,” that now they could put it behind them and whistle off into some creamsicle-colored sunset. But not only does he not know everything (including the ins and outs of her relationship with Nick, and, until the last scene, her final encounter with Hannah), such a feat is impossible, and his attempts only further alienate June. She fought like hell to get to Canada, but now that she’s there, her two most vital relationships (Luke and Moira) may be the sacrifice she makes to enact her revenge.
Down in Gilead, a different sort of vengeance might be in the mix. Aunt Lydia, poor dear, has been more Taser-y than usual and requires a little slap on the hand from Lawrence, whose motives remain cloudy as ever. Janine, it seems, has resurfaced from under a pile of rubble in Chicago, and she’s back in custody in the torture box, awaiting a commanding figure like Aunt Lydia to straighten her back out. The two have always made a tantalizing pair – Lydia is the parent figure Janine has always craved, and even the bloodiest of punishments haven’t prevented the handmaid from reveling in Lydia’s approval.
And so when Lydia pulls out the line most likely to work on Janine — that June abandoned her annoying ass back in Chicago when she had the chance — it starts to break through. She ends up in Lydia’s arms, still mistrustful but willing to listen. But it’s Aunt Lydia’s response that’s the most intriguing. Hulu has also optioned Margaret Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, which hints that it may begin to incorporate some of its elements into the final seasons of Handmaid’s Tale. Readers will know what that entails, but without giving too much away, let’s note that Aunt Lydia’s teary face and special affection for Janine may signal a shift with big, big implications.