It was a little surprising to wake up yesterday morning to find people in our Handmaid’s Tale group saying that they didn’t like this week’s episode – nothing happened, it was slow… when I saw this very differently. Believe me, I’m not a fan of slow moving plots – I’m reading a book by one of my favorite authors right now, and if anything is going to happen, it’s going to have to be in this last 20 pages, and SOMETHING better happen. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?
The way I see it, what happened in this episode is that June is going off the rails. We’ve seen a definite turn of the corner in June. She is ultimately a kind, forgiving, loving person, living in an impossible situation. She’s already had one break with reality, in season 2 during her pregnancy with Nicole. She fought back from that to become a little harder, more self-focused. But we’ve seen the essential June nature come through several times – most notably with Serena and Janine.
So who can blame her, in the hellhole that is Gilead, for starting to lose her already tenuous grasp on reality? Coming so close to escaping, teased with glimpses of Hannah, tortured by Aunt Lydia, and seeing her efforts to get Nicole to safety jeopardized – how strong does she have to be? And really, what woman COULD withstand all of that?
Elizabeth Moss is doing a fantastic job of showing us the traces of madness behind the eyes. It’s like a Survivor firemaking contest – sparks, beginnings of a flare, and nothing…. sparks, and fire slowly building. Do we really need a big action each episode? A Commander killed, or an escape, or Canadian protest? The real hell of Gilead is psychological. And that’s where this episode put us, into June’s deteriorating psyche. Gilead won’t be overthrown by the actions of one Handmaid, but the Handmaid certainly may be destroyed by Gilead. That’s the story – can she resist? Can she survive? Right now, we can’t be sure.
Last episode, June had bits of hope, after her initial talks with the Swiss delegation, after Serena told her where Hannah went to school. By the end of this episode, she’s back even farther than Square 1. The Swiss have declined to say definitely that they’re going to help keep Nicole in Canada. Nick isn’t who she thought he was, but she really doesn’t know who he really is. She’s being forced to participate in this charade to get the baby back to Gilead. She came THISCLOSE to seeing Hannah, but instead feels guilty for lying to and jeopardizing one of the few people deserving of her sympathy, Mrs. Lawrence (not to mention potentially nuking the help that Commander Lawrence may be able to give her).
Hannah is now out of her reach, and she’s got the death of the Martha on her conscience, as well as the knowledge that she’s participated in the hanging of many people. And as we all know from Harry Potter, killing splits your soul – we can see June’s being split right before our eyes.
The Lord is calling on you girls. He’s depending on you to be His holy instrument. His charge is surely difficult, but He has special blessings for the strong and faithful among us.
And I’ll clue you in – she has what is only, at this point, a minor snap. Learning that her walking partner, OfMatthew, is the snitch that gave up June’s conversation with the Mackenzie’s Martha, she naturally blows – sick of hearing this girl’s pious, Gilead-favoriting parrot lines, she has to be pulled off by the other Handmaids (who are probably just as horrified by OfMatthew’s betrayal).
Look at Emily – arguably, she’s had it worse than June. She’s definitely not coping well, even though she finally is out of Gilead. But is Gilead out of her? The Swiss representative, reluctantly, makes her go back through everything (they know) she’s done – running over a Guard, stabbing Aunt Lydia and pushing her down the stairs; she tells Moira about the Wife she killed in the Colonies. Moira is one of the few who understands what she’s going through – “You killed anybody since you’ve been out? I think we’re good.” But Emily, and even Moira, still have a long way to go to achieve any kind of normal in their lives.
As I see it, this show isn’t an action story – hey, here’s this bad regime, we have to tear it down, grab your guns and bombs and Rambo it out! Instead, it’s a psychological terror story – what does this kind of oppression do to people? What happens when you take away the things that people love and treasure the most, when you take away their freedom, when you fill their daily lives with fear? How will people react when you enslave one group, create a society that the majority doesn’t agree with but can’t effectively fight against? How does an individual react when she has lost the people that mean the most to her? When you do it over and over again? When you push her not just into the corner, but into a box filled with knives? When her captors rejoice at the way she bleeds? That’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as I see it.
Yes, I appreciate the bits of “things happening” – the bombing of the Red Center, June’s lost chance to get away with Nicole – but as this really isn’t a blow-em-up storyline, I’m entirely fascinated, in a repulsed sort of way, by how June’s story is playing out – her strength, her resilience, her disgrace, her fall. Is she as far down as she can go? Can she rise again? Can she find a way back? So for me, this wasn’t a slow episode in what some people are calling a slow season – it’s a simmer. And I’m waiting for the boil.
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