The Handmaid’s Tale
June is alive! Like a Postal Service employee with a Rambo complex, neither imprisonment nor beatings nor a gunshot wound to the abdomen will stay this warrior from the swift overthrow of a terrorist junta!
Last season — which aired its finale a distant 20 months ago — ended with yet another bighearted display of gumption from June when she and her handmaid posse gave up their own seats on the escape flight from Gilead to Canada; instead, they distracted guards at the airfield so the 86 children onboard could take off unimpeded. As June darted through the forest afterward, a bullet tore through her gut and, for a brief moment (ignoring the knowledge that absolutely nothing can kill the protagonist of this streaming cash cow), it appeared her time might have been be up.
But season four and plot armor — that wondrous elixir — have revived June and thrust her and the other escapee handmaids into an admittedly intriguing situation. First, how does she recover? Her quick-thinking friends hustle her off to a secure building (?) that comes equipped with a curling iron, a feminine token deployed as a makeshift cauterizing tool. Like Hamish’s father in Braveheart (minus the anesthetizing booze), June bites down, and Janine jams the flaming red iron into her side. Imagine what June’s bra-burning mother would make of that $34.99 barrel wand from Ulta saving her daughter’s life.
The handmaids are hustled off to a New England farm by a kindly Guardian, who stuffs them under the seats in a truck, then leaves them to walk the last miles. By the time they wander up to the farm’s gates, June’s depleted body can’t take much more. Really, who can blame her? It’s been put through hell seven times over, and her own savior complex has seemingly made her believe she’s immortal. It’s no surprise that she hears the words You’re safe and keels over.
Up in Canada, the Waterfords are, despite charges of rape, torture, and general assorted war crimes, physically thriving (if emotionally suffering) in their Brutalist Zen prison/palace. (I’m all for a rehashing of judicial systems and prisons, but this is a bit much. The Hague as Aman Spa.) Free to roam the complex and unencumbered by trivialities like locks and guards, they’re called into a meeting (?) together (??) without lawyers present (???), at which Joel from Parenthood stops by to tell them about the Marthas and thee 86 children recovered from the “Angels’ Flight.” Serena, whose repentance for her Gileadean crimes wavers and flutters like underwear on a clothesline, worries about their “poor families,” meaning the Commanders and Wives who stole them. Fred raises his brow a lot. And then Joel from Parenthood drives in another dagger: The leader of the plot was none other than June, a.k.a. Offred. They are displeased. Hahaha.
Commander Lawrence is imprisoned too, though his dank underground cell in Gilead isn’t quite living up to the luxury of the Axel Vervoordt–designed Canadian jail. (I did spy, however, a leaning tower of books in the corner of the room, as if he were a political prisoner in Henry VIII’s court and had spent several years waiting for the monarch to rule on his fate.) Promoted last season to the position of Commander, Nick is still waiting, for unclear reasons, to be sent west to the “front” in Chicago. In the meantime, he is appointed the liaison to Lawrence. Although every other accused offender was present at his or her sham trial (remember Nick’s wife, Eden, who was tried, convicted, and pushed into a swimming pool with a chain around her?), Lawrence was kept from his. How did it go? Well, Nick is just there to “thank” him for “his service” to Gilead. In other words, Lawrence is a dead man.
Except he has a bargaining chip. Lawrence was always able to live outside the typical parameters of a Gileadean man. His house was filled with “deviant” modern art, his wife kept out of the social fray, and his whims were given more latitude. As the architect of Gilead’s economy and the voice of political wisdom, Lawrence bartered his brains for some independence. He does the same in this episode, reminding Nick that his expertise could keep Gilead from losing on the western front and in their diplomatic struggle with Canada. Lawrence knows Nick is sympathetic — and the father of June’s baby — so he adds a little endnote: “It’s June’s legacy.”
Eager to get in one last act of psychological torture, Nick and the guards come into Lawrence’s cell early the next morning, walk him into what appears to be an orthodontic torture chamber and then … offer him a shave. Lawrence is now a “consultant” for the Commanders, meaning he can charge them an astronomical sum, recommend “restructuring,” and leave without solving their problems or suffering any consequences. Congrats, Commander Lawrence!
Aunt Lydia hasn’t been quite so lucky. The escaped handmaids were under her charge, and the Council of Commanders believes she should have done more to prevent them from hatching a full-fledged plot under her nose. (This is a fair assessment!) So for 19 days, they politely interrogate her (read: beat her about the face) to determine whether she’s fit to return to service. She’ll resume her post — Gilead may simply be running out of devotees to place in positions of power — and she’ll also turn her full attention to hunting down “Delilah” June, which may make for a very rogue Auntie.
So let’s talk about where exactly June has wandered off to. She has escaped — by my count, this is the third time — to an odd kind of freedom on the Keyeses’ farm. Commander Keyes is an old man, easily in his 80s, with a failing memory and is too depleted to even notice the sudden influx of new “Marthas,” let alone tell any authorities. His wife, Mrs. Keyes (14-year-old Mckenna Grace, who played a young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, and Theo in The Haunting of Hill House), effectively runs the farm.
The pairing of June and Mrs. Keyes — who’s a kind of surrogate for June’s daughter Hannah — is one of the episode’s better ideas. Mrs. Keyes, a young teenager now and possibly prepubescent when she was married off, can’t quite decide what power she wields. When June first arrives and tumbles to the ground, Mrs. Keyes’s voice floats in, telling June that she had dreamt about her, that they were killing people together. She has kept June on in the hope that Mayday will adopt her as a child soldier and take her along as they unfurl a plan to topple the patriarchy. She’s impatient for revenge, and after this many seasons, I can’t exactly blame her.
As always, there’s a suffering contest at the heart of the show: When Mrs. Keyes demands Janine eat a chop from the pig she loved so much that she named him after a beloved (if shitty) romance hero, June dresses her down, citing the bodily horror that has been wrought on Janine and all the handmaids. As Mrs. Keyes points out, “wives have bad things too” — in this case, rape after rape after rape of her young body. Mrs. Keyes’s assertions of power are actually jolts of anger. “I think God is just, and he is going to make those men pay,” she seethes. “I want to hurt them so badly.”
She gets her chance. Capturing the Guardian she spots “trespassing” on her property is a tremendously foolish idea — releasing him is the only thing that would make it worse. But June disregards the simpler plan to shoot him and drag him down to the river. Her own idea is more vicious and fulfilling. It’s also a direct echo of Aunt Lydia.
Gathered around his dangling body, she starts a little speech that may as well be in Ann Dowd’s signature imperious voice. “Girls,” she says, “this man betrayed his own country, the United States. He’s a traitor. And this man raped a child, repeatedly. The punishment for these crimes is death.” The role exchange is remarkable: Here’s high-minded June, so incensed by the violence visited upon a child that she adapts her enemy’s techniques and philosophies. She hands a cleaver to the young girl she just held and reassured of her protection and encourages her to “make me proud.” June’s motives have shifted so readily since we first met her at the Waterfords’ Cambridge mansion that it’s often hard to pin down exactly who the show’s writers want her to be. Vengeful menace? Guardian angel? Unhinged victim? But this is a decisive stroke forward in one direction: The June of this season, who hugs a bloody Mrs. Keyes and calls her by her daughter’s nickname, has crossed the Rubicon.