The Handmaid's Tale: 3x09 Heroic.
Heroic is an outstanding episode, carried entirely by Elisabeth Moss acting in a rare bottle episode that takes place almost entirely within the confines of one hospital room. It is a perfect format for a show with the premise that the lives women can lead are restricted in every possible way. This episode takes this premise as literally as possible: June is forbidden to leave the room in which Natalie, after being shot, is in a coma, awaiting the birth of her son and her death.
For the most part, Heroic is a one-person play. June is trapped in the room and trapped in her thoughts, with nobody else to interact with, with nothing but the noises of the machines that are keeping Natalie alive to keep her company. The days pass by unmarked, and she loses whole hours as she is slowly slipping into insanity, tortured by obsessive thoughts. The only thing that is keeping her company is the first verse of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth – repetitive, cynical in the context of what she and Natalie are going through, and unresolved. It nags her, the way that the sharps collector box does, which contains scalpels and other sharp objects to do damage.
The torture is designed to make her go insane, this is a calculated move by Aunt Lydia, who, as we’ve seen in the previous episode, hates June. She has given up on her and is now focused on breaking her completely. The episode also serves as a morality play on how Gilead functions, when we see the doctor focus exclusively on the life of the baby, condemning Natalie herself to being nothing more than a zombie whose flesh is cut in whatever way necessary to preserve the life of her unborn child. The other thing that contributes to June’s loss of sanity is the fact that Gilead itself is constructed in a way that makes insanity almost inescapable, playing mind games, bending reality, especially for those women who remember a time before. This turns out to be the central thing here: that Gilead has started to realise that these women who do remember the before are too dangerous and need to be dealt with, that the only hope for a regime that exists to destroy women is for those women to have been raised in no other reality than this one. For as long as women remember the past, are able to read it and talk about it, Gilead will remain vulnerable. So those girls that June sees passing the window from inside Natalie’s room are ghosts of a sort – the ghosts of Gilead’s future, in which girls born by Handmaids and raised by wives are reaching puberty without having any idea about the world that existed before, and the possibilities open to them. Being anything more than a mother and a bearer of children has become unthinkable to these girls, and their ability to birth children is being closely monitored, as it is the one thing that will decide their future fate.
Things haunt June, and other characters appear not for their own sake, but to make her realise things, and to stand out in contrast. Janine, still healing from the wounds Natalie inflicted, is here to present the opposite approach: a woman who has suffered incomprehensibly, but instead of becoming vengeful, instead of filling the emptiness with rage, she approaches Natalie with empathy and forgiveness. She is horrified when she realises that June has constructed a way out for herself that includes killing Natalie, and calls her out on her selfishness.
Equally, Serena’s entrance, as unlikely as it is, to confront the Wife desperately waiting for Natalie’s child to be born, serves less to illuminate anything about Serena than to show how fare away from planning and plotting June has slid. If anything, this version of Serena that appears out of nothing is like a dream – and for a second I thought that this may be where the episode is going. Deciding between whom to stick with the pointy end, June turns her fury on Serena once she walks through the door, but in the ensuing struggle mostly only succeeds in severely injuring herself. Serena still, improbably, keeps it a secret that June has hurt her, as if she is feeling pity for her, or perhaps it is just that her well-being is still essential to Serena’s hope to return Nichole home (she says “you were supposed to be one of the strong ones”, adding to the eerie sense that she isn’t quite there, and perhaps a figment of June’s imagination). The unsuccessful attempt to kill Serena leads to the central scene of the episode, in which June is stitched together by the same doctor who has not lifted a finger to lighten Natalie’s burden.
It's a strange interaction – because the Doctor is suspect from the beginning, for justifying his actions by claiming that only the foetus is his patient, and therefore the only person he has responsibility for, the only patient that his oath covers. It’s a convenient argument to make, one that does not have to justify the lack of an advocate for Natalie. But when he begins to close June’s wounds, she does become his patient, and therefore subject to the same rights that his oath bestows. He realises that her attempt to harm Serena wasn’t homicidal – it was suicidal, because everything she has been doing was designed to lead to her execution. This Doctor diagnoses her – with depression, with suicidal thoughts – and is the first one to ask her when this change has happened, when her fierce determination to escape Gilead has turned into self-harm. June tells him that losing all hope to see her daughters again has led her here. More than that, he understands where she is coming from, because he knew her mother.
He asks her at the end of their conversation about responsibility, “how will you honour your daughters?” – the daughter who is safe beyond the border and the other daughter who will soon walk through this hallways in pink, awaiting what fate Gilead has in stock for her. Natalie’s baby is born, and June may leave, but she decides to stay – to say sorry to Natalie, to tell her about the son, who has made it, to perhaps see Hannah, just in case she walks through the door.
June: I'm gonna get them out. I’m gonna get out as many children as I can. I don’t know how, yet, but I swear to you: I’m gonna get them out. Because Gilead should know how this feels. It’s their turn to hurt.
And finally, she remembers that second verse, and finally, she closes that circuit. Like when something annoying is stuck in your head and won’t leave you alone until you find the missing piece to complete it.
A great episode, but maybe not great enough to change my opinion that nobody but San Junipero has rights to this song.
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