The Handmaid's Tale: 2x04 Other Women.
It is always important to remember that the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is that June, a straight white woman, never expected to experience the same kind of violence that queer people and people of colour have always had to live through in the history of the United States. She stayed longer than she should have, it took her longer to realise that being Luke’s second wife would rob her of all the rights she had always had the luxury to take for granted, and before any of it, she never quite took her mother’s activism seriously enough to engage with the arguments she was making about how deeply embedded sexism, homophobia and misogyny were in the United States even before Gilead. There is a much-used phrase in German that I’ve never head in English before – it translates roughly to “resist the beginnings” (“nip it in the bud” doesn’t quite capture it) and it means keeping an open eye for all the traces of a coming dictatorship. June’s mother always had her eyes peeled for it, to the detriment of her daughter, who never caught her attention as much as her political activism did – but at the same time, June has always been wilfully ignorant, and has only recently traced back the beginnings of Gilead.
June: I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant, then I would not know how ignorant I was.
The ignorance she scolds herself about will escalate in this episode, as her return to the Waterford household forces her to remember every single time that her own actions have brought terrible consequences for another person. She returns against the will of Serena, after Aunt Lydia offers her a way out of an unbearable prison – she can continue to be June, bear her child in captivity and then be killed, or she can be Offred, who was kidnapped, and enjoy the small luxuries of being part of a household. I watched June’s face, her sheer anger, her stoicism, and I thought that she was making the choice to return because there would be more possible ways out, more ways to resist, outside of the Red Centre. Now that the episode is done, I’m not so sure.
The June at the beginning of the episode has found some kind of meaning in her mother’s activism, in the bravery that has very likely cost her her life. She has also just been captured after getting so close to true freedom. Returned to the Waterfords, she is stubborn – calling Serena by her name, reminding her that Serena’s baby is safe as long as Hannah is, refusing to follow the conventions of the ceremonies connected to a Handmaid giving birth, where nothing is meant to remind anyone that the wives aren’t the true biological mothers. At the same time, everybody else bears the cost. Ofsamuel, June’s connection to Mayday, tells her that the organisation is no longer rescuing Handmaids – she was the last failed attempt. She also shares that the new Ofglen, who stood up for Janine, had her tongue cut out. All consequences of June’s actions, directly and indirectly.
When June is stubborn, when she disregards convention, she is no longer the one to bear the cost – after an initial attempt to strangle her, Serena is reminded that June now carries her child, that she cannot physically punish her if she wants that baby safe. So Rita is the one who is hit, who has to survive an increasingly hostile household with an instable and violent Serena Joy lashing out. June slowly comes to this realisation: that she can find edification and pride in her own resistance very easily because she isn’t the one who pays for it. It reminds her of before, when Luke’s first wife begged her to allow them to work out their difficulties, to save their marriage. June insisted it was Luke’s choice, and when Annie, months or years later, walks out on them out with their baby, she is devastated.
But -- here’s the caveat. If we follow this argument, that June is selfish because other people bear the cost for her freedom, then what does this say about Gilead? If June is the one who is responsible for all this suffering, not the actual culprits – Luke, back in the day, Serena and Aunt Lydia now – then how can we even think of an effective resistance against Gilead? June realises that being able to marry and love who she wants hurt Annie, that fleeing an impossible situation meant the end of Mayday saving other Handmaids, that everyone refusing to stone Janine to death cost Ofglen dearly – but all of these acts are acts of freedom, of liberty, of taking back something that was stolen with violence in the first place.
It culminates in Aunt Lydia, taking June to the wall, pointing at a man hanging there – a man she recognises as the kind stranger who did not leave her behind, who gave her shelter. Aunt Lydia tells her he was killed because of her, that his wife is now a Handmaid, because of her, that her child, Adam, has been taken away, because of June’s actions. It’s a horrifying call-back of an earlier scene, back in the Red Centre, when Janine retold the story of her rape and was then asked to take responsibility for the actions of her rapists. More than that, the other women were asked to accuse her of these crimes, to become perpetrators in this act of collective misogyny.
It’s Annie’s old accusation, that June wrecks lives like they don’t matter – except this whole argument hides the true fact that Gilead is what has killed this kind and gentle man, that Gilead is the system of violence in which people perish. Asking June to accept the blame for these acts of violence, and then reinterpreting them, reframing them as a lesson that God has taught June, is a way of absolving Gilead. June did not truly choose for them, if anything, their act of kindness edified them, was a testament to their bravery in the face of a tyranny. And then, because Aunt Lydia believes that all of this is for the good of society, because everything is as twisted in her head as Gilead is – she offers absolution. She suggests that these sins against other people were committed by June, who escaped, not Offred, who was kidnapped. That June can be dead and free as long as Offred is without guilt, but forever trapped.
And Elisabeth Moss’ face never really gives it away, what happens in these moments. If she buys it. If she takes the easy way out where everything can be easier and lighter as long as she gives up, and becomes Offred. She asks for forgiveness, and to be returned to the home. She says she isn’t worthy yet, but she is trying to become a good woman. She does not have to bear June’s guilt, her fault.
June: I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it. Something that’s drowning me I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead. Please god, let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.
And perhaps – perhaps her guilt isn’t in allowing these people to die, accepting their help to get closer to freedom. Maybe the thing that June cannot forgive herself for is giving up Hannah, trying to cross the border without her. And maybe, if she just repeats these phrases over and over in her head, she can forget that she did that. But maybe something else is happening, and June is just going deeper underground, and waiting for a better opportunity to use what she has finally learned from her mother.
And this is so hard to write about. The complexities of June’s character in this moment, the way she is destroyed, because she could not flee, but also destroyed because she tried to flee without her daughter. Walking out and ignoring Nick, her one connection to not being Offred in this household, her one connection to having been the person who chose to escape.
The song that The Handmaid’s Tale chooses to play in this moment is Hate, by Cat Power, which back in 2006 was the most devastating song on The Greatest, an album that apart from this song was a complete departure from all of Chan Marshall’s previous records. It was based on an unreleased song by Nirvana that bears its central lines, and a song that is double hard to listen to if you’ve ever spent a moment reading interviews and articles about Chan Marshall’s struggle with alcohol abuse and mental health. It ends, at the very end, if you can bear to sit through it, with “I hate myself and I want to die, lines that she later, in the periods of touring where she was doing well, altered to “I don’t hate myself and I don’t want to die”. It’s an odd, odd choice for a musical cue at the end of this, once that tells rather than shows about what is still an incredibly ambivalent moment in Elisabeth Moss’ acting. It takes away from what Elisabeth Moss accomplishes here, which is a question rather than an answer, because both of these things can be true: Gilead is entirely responsible for people’s suffering, but June’s attempt at freedom has caused other people to suffer more than they would have, had she not sought freedom. It puts an odd, affirmative twist on the notion that the crimes of Gilead as a totalitarian state with no regard for women’s lives are in any way to blame on one woman’s attempt to lead a life of freedom and dignity.
Rita returns the letters to June that were meant to be passed on to Mayday, and she returns them to the hiding place behind the bathtub.
There’s a very revealing moment about Luke here, when he leaves the angry voice message to his still-wife, and afterwards tells June that she is wrecking HIS life, and only later corrects himself to say that Annie is wrecking THEIR life.
The whole emotional horribleness and creepiness and devastating effect of Mrs Waterford creeping up the stairs to June’s room, lifting the blanket, lying down on her stomach to speak to the child she insists is hers. The way it completely objectifies June, who may as well not be there at all. The way these two women are both so fucked up, except Mrs Waterford had all the power in the world to be a wife like the one that was kind to Emily, back in the day, because there are still - if limited – choices left to her.
This season is going to very difficult places, and it would be a lot easier if June remained strong and refused to budge, or if we at least KNEW that this was an act of hers, another attempt to become free, after learning so much more about herself in these ninety-two days. Maybe it would be a luxury to have that certainty (but then - for a second we thought we didn’t have that certainty about Emily, when she seemed to care for the wife, but then she once again became pure revenge, so who knows). I’ll be waiting for “The bedspread has 71 flowers.” To make a come-back, a mantra like Cayce Pollard’s “He took a duck in the face at 25 knots”.