Wednesday, May 9, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - June is Flung Into an Identity Crisis With Dangerous Repercussions in 'Other Women'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.04 "Other Women"

A baby shower provokes a troubling shift in Offred's relationship with Serena Joy. Offred reckons with the choice she made that led her to become a Handmaid.

June was away from the Waterfords for 92 days. Those were 92 days were they didn't know what was going on with their baby. They had troops out looking for her everywhere. Fortunately, she has returned to them. It seems likely that June was on the run by herself for two months and then spent another month at the Red Center. She is literally chained to the bed at the start of "Other Women." She's in the exact position she feared to be in during the season premiere. She is now the pregnant handmaid who was noncompliant. She would deliver the baby and then be executed for refusing to abide by the rules of Gilead. The Waterfords asked Aunt Lydia to return Offred to their home. They were willing to give it a trial run to restore order to their house. It was agonizing to think that their baby was safe but growing far away from them. They wanted to be a part of the experience. They wanted to be active participants of this pregnancy. They didn't want to miss anything else. They have already missed the first trimester. Now, Offred is starting to show and the baby is kicking. It's a glorious celebration. But it also takes a long time for June to be comfortable being Offred again. This is the exact fate she feared. She didn't want to be captured and forced back into servitude as a handmaid. The Commander is able to spin all of this as Offred being kidnapped by the terrorists within Gilead that wish to see it destroyed. She was an unwilling participant who was held against her will. That's the only sensible story that the rest of the world can easily understand. But everyone within the Waterford house knows exactly what happened. June ran away. She did so to escape to a better life where she wasn't forced to subject herself to these heinous rituals and ceremonies. And now that she's back, she has to be broken in once more in order to fit into this life without questioning any of it.

It's heartbreaking to see June make that transition back to Offred. For the majority of this hour, it seems like she will stand in resistance to whatever Serena Joy says. Serena Joy is so angry at Offred for depriving her of 92 days with her baby. She has so much hatred for the selfish girl threatening to take her baby away. June still has power though. She knows that Serena Joy can't hurt her without also hurting the baby. She still believes in the validity of their arrangement. As long as June's child is safe, so will Serena Joy's. But it's so fascinating to see how much June inserts herself into Serena Joy's world. The system of Gilead props up the idea that the wives and handmaids share the same body. The wives are the center of attention whenever it comes to crucial moments in the celebration of new life. It's very ceremonial in order to bring good blessings to the child and its home. But the handmaids are frequently discarded as quickly as possible. They have a vital role in the proceedings. They are the ones actually giving birth to new life. But they aren't the ones being celebrated. Instead, it's a miraculous time for Serena Joy. She is finally getting what she has always wanted. She is finally getting her own family. But June feels the need to point out the various moments that she is missing. She's using the knowledge that the baby is now kicking against Serena Joy. She talks openly about discarding half of the baby shower gifts as a way to get under her skin. It's such an intense time. Serena Joy doesn't know if she can put up with June's antics for six more months. And yet, she is forced into accepting it by Commander Waterford who knows how important it is for Serena Joy to be a part of the experience knowing that she'll eventually have a strong child because of it.

All of this is June standing in defiance and rebellion against Gilead. She is doing things that could easily lead to her being executed. She is looking out the window wondering what has happened to Nick. She stares at him in the kitchen for much longer than she should. She needs to know that Rita moved the package of letters along just like she was told to do. She needs to know how badly Mayday was hit during the months-long search for her. The answers she receives are all very troubling. Mayday has gone dark. No one ever contacted Rita about where to deliver the letters. In fact, her life has only gotten worse because Serena Joy has transferred all of her anger into physically abusing Rita. As such, it's only a relief to have Offred back because it means she no longer needs to be holding onto the contraband. Sure, it seems like one big plot contrivance. It's a story that was established near the end of last season that was clearly important. This season had to start off with the idea of June actually being free from Gilead and trying to obtain a normal life once more. It needed to pay off the ongoing stories in Gilead eventually. They all just hit a pause button while the narrative focused on what was happening to June while she was hiding. And now, it's clear that not much has actually changed within the world of Gilead. Yes, things have gotten more difficult for Rita. But everything else is basically the same. It's the exact same routine that June fell into the first time as Offred. The only difference now is that she is pregnant. That means Aunt Lydia is roaming around the house all of the time trying to ease the tension between Offred and Serena Joy.

It's a particularly brutal moment when Aunt Lydia forces June to accept the repercussions of her actions while she ran away. She needs this troubled girl to accept that she ultimately got people killed because of her foolish and selfish mistake. The show never needed to provide an answer for what happened to the family who took her in last week right before she made her trip to the airfield. It was just important that she chose to abandon the house to make the journey on her own because she was tired of waiting around for other people to act. And yet, the show does choose to provide clarity on the situation. The man who worked for the underground railroad was hanged for his crimes. Aunt Lydia takes June to the waterfront to see his body hanging to realize the cost of her actions. It also comes with the news that his wife has been sent to a Red Center to become a handmaid while the boy has been placed with a new family that will love him in a way that puts his priorities first. She sees these parents as being selfish and not recognizing the miracle that was blessed to them. It certainly sets up an ominous moment where June will run into the wife again who will more than likely blame her for the destruction of her family. Those are the emotions that June is feeling right now as well. Aunt Lydia is beating it into her head that June is responsible for these deaths. She is the one who caused all of this chaos because she wanted to run away from the perfect world. She can only be offered salvation once more by becoming Offred. And so, that's what she decides to do. She gets on her knees to beg for forgiveness and acceptance by the Waterfords. It's a moment that shows just how persuasive this environment and world can be.

It also doesn't come across as June saying and doing whatever she needs to say and do in order to stay alive. It instead feels much more insidious than that. During the final portion of "Other Women," June is actually suicidal. It seems unlikely that she'll actually hurt herself because she is pregnant and loves this child. But she feels sick that Serena Joy just slinks into her room in the middle of the night to talk to her baby. That's the moment where Serena Joy fully accepts all of the burden that comes from Offred being in the house once more. It's the peace that comes from the miracle of the life growing inside of her. But it's so traumatizing to June. She no longer has any comfort in this home. The first season did such a terrific job in showing how the many people who lived in this house live such vastly different lives. They never ever truly understood what the other was going through. A hallway seemed so agonizing and long because of what was waiting just around the corner. That aspect of the show still holds true. But boundaries are being broken as well. Serena Joy storms into the Commander's office. She walks into Offred's room in the middle of the night. Most importantly though, the words carved into the wall of the closest have been removed. Offred can no longer find solace and peace in that uncomfortable space. Now, there is nothing left for her but living the life of Offred. She just has to accept that and her world will have the limited amount of freedom once more. It's so haunting when she puts on the robe and the wings once more. She walks right past Nick refusing to acknowledge him as her secret lover. She's just repeating the same phrase to herself over and over again. It's repetition and acceptance that can allow her to blend back into this life. It's the outcome the story is currently thrusting onto her. But just how long is it going to be before some new crazy conspiracy plot pulls her back in and forces her to recognize the strength of June?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Other Women" was written by Yahlin Chang and directed by Kari Skogland.
  • This season has really utilized the flashbacks as a key source of theme for whatever story is currently happening with June. They are a bit more on-the-nose this time around. They are much more self-contained as well. It's the show continuing to flesh out June's backstory in order to paint a much broader picture of what her life was like before the creation of Gilead. There's still strong material to mine. But it's starting to become cumbersome as well.
  • Part of June's suicidal spiral comes from her seeming to reflect back on the time when she and Luke were first dating while he was still technically married to his first wife. That relationship received so much scrutiny after the government fell and June and Luke couldn't escape to Canada in time. But it's also awkward because it's the show asking the audience to see both June and Luke as flawed and deeply troubled characters who now view these actions as mistakes.
  • Of course, the show reminding the audience that Luke first started seeing June while he was married to someone probably foreshadows him eventually moving on with someone new while he's living in Little America. Sure, Moira can tell him that June is still alive and working with the resistance. But he hasn't had an active role in the present-day story so far. Is that going to change any time soon?
  • There's one random scene in the middle of this episode of the Commanders all getting together to discuss their next strategic moves while skeet shooting. It's a casual display of power that proves that Commander Waterford was incapable of being seen as a strong leader while his handmaid was missing. But now that Offred has returned, it seems much more likely that he'll be on the forefront of whatever Gilead has planned for Little America. He definitely looks down on their way of life and sees it as destined to fail.
  • Aunt Lydia interacts with Serena Joy as well. So much of the story is about Aunt Lydia bringing Offred back out to live in this society. But she is also there to ease the tension with Serena Joy while also forcing her to abide by the practices of the wives and handmaids being one during the pregnancy. As such, she is demanding that Serena Joy give up smoking. She's very controlling and Serena Joy only listens when she is around.