The Handmaid’s Tale: 3x01 Night.
June, whose path out of Gilead was secured, who had a way to leave, who could have taken her one daughter and made her way across the border, decided to stay. She gave the child for Emily to keep safe, because she could not leave her other daughter behind in a Gilead that hates women.
Night is held together by scenes in which women speak to each other instead of allowing men dictate the conversation. There’s Mrs Mackenzie (played by Amy Landecker from Transparent, turning a little to a lot), who decides to speak to June about her daughter when she breaks into their mansion, realising that the only way to ensure that June will not return is to give her a level of security that Hannah is taken care of. She tries to convince June that her constant return is traumatising for Hannah, that it removes certainty, that, if June continues to insist on her motherhood, terrible things will happen (she will bleed to death in front of her child). Then, realising that this path will lead to nothing, they connect over who Hannah is – her likes, her dislikes, the fact that she wants a dog and says she will get the antihistamine shots, but that she will likely not go through with it. There’s so much tenderness there in their shared care for a girl, except The Handmaid’s Tale never lets us forget that the Mackenzies kidnapped Hannah, that they re-named her, that regardless of how motherly Mrs Mackenzie behaves, she stole June’s child, and she is now insisting that the burden of mitigating the trauma of that crime lies on June’s shoulders.
“You know how all of this ends if you die on the ground in front of her. If you love her, you must stop.”
The thing about this whole episode is that there are moments where I am not 100% sure that the show even realises what it is doing, especially with Serena Joy. Yvonne Strahovski has been outstanding in the role, working with a much more difficult role than Elisabeth Moss is, but The Handmaid’s Tale has veered into some dangerous territory in trying to make her more sympathetic. She is one of the creators of Gilead, and her conservatism, which included many of the ideas that are realised in Gilead, predates the creation of Gilead, and her own alienation from the leadership. She has put herself into the cage she is in now, one that doesn’t allow for much action, but as much as her newly found resistance, her rage, is captivating – when she burns her marital bed, which stands for so much grief and anger, and all the ways in which Commander Waterford has betrayed her, to the ground, and ends up destroying their whole house along with it – it’s impossible to forget what she did to June. She participated in the rapes, she tortured June, she stole her child from her, and the thing that triggered her resistance to the regime – realising that it did not provide a good place for her daughter to grow up in – is built on the wrong idea that June’s child is her daughter. June’s and Serena’s relationship is complex, intimate but filled with resentment and rage, but the fact that it is interesting to see them verging on killing each other or accepting that they are doomed to safe each other, probably, doesn’t paint over the fact that Serena is culpable. As much as she believes she has lost, she is guilty, and helping the child she calls Nicole over the border, and standing up against her raving husband (an increasingly pathetic man who has outstayed his welcome here – Bradley Whitford’s Commander Lawrence has more layers to discover, at least), doesn’t change the fact. It’s a strange, and again, extremely intimate moment in which June decides to explain to Serena why she chose to stay behind instead of going with Nicole, why she handed her daughter over to Emily (who, Serena points out, is a murderer) instead of making sure that she left Gilead safely. She addresses Serena and completely ignores the powerless raging Commander Waterford, who threatens and growls and is ultimately powerless, finally, to do much of anything.
All of this while elsewhere, Emily is left to get herself and June’s child safely across the border that used to be so elusive, so impossible. The many times that June almost made it across, only to be swallowed back up just before being safe. Emily must cross the river, and she does so with the same impossible resilience that has allowed her to survive the seemingly impossible so far. And then she hears the beautiful words – “As a person in need of protection, do you wish to seek asylum in the country of Canada?” They’re magic words that unlock the impossible.
And not to be cynical, but what a scene to show in 2019, in the world we live in now, where even newspapers have adapted the dehumanising language of racists to describe people in need of protection. In The Handmaid’s Tale, in the magical land of Canada, instead of encountering resentment, or accusations of using up resources that Canada cannot provide, Emily is met with applause, and “You’re safe now, and we’re very glad you’re here.” Can this last? Of all people, you’d think that Emily would find the cracks in that welcome all too soon (and consider that her red uniform is in an evidence bag, hinting that her escape from Gilead might serve a lot of political purposes). For now, she finds Luke and Moira, to bring news of June. And June, across that border, is back at the Red Centre (minus Aunt Lydia, who didn’t make it), suffering the torture she has suffered before, but soothed by news from the underground that at least one of her daughters are safe. And then she is brought to her new Commander – Lawrence – and she smiles quietly to herself when he asks her if she will be trouble, because she knows that trouble is exactly what Lawrence is out there to find.
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