There's bleak and then there's "The Handmaid's Tale." To say this is a difficult and challenging show is to say that childbirth features some mild discomfort. This week's episode was about "Other Women," and it showed how the women of Gilead participate in its oppressive partriarchal theocracy.
We've already explored the hypocrisy of the men who rule it, with their government-sanctioned whorehouses and seen how one of its female founders (Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Waterford) was stripped of her own power and autonomy solely because of her gender, but now we took a deeper dive into how it is the women who are instrumental in breaking the spirit and almost the humanity of other women.
After all, if you are a woman trying to stand up against a patriarchy, how far do you really think you'll get if your sisters are not in arms beside you, but rather standing against you ... while still beneath the heels of men. And so hope withers a little more. And without hope there is no resistance, and without resistance there is only left acceptance and compliance.
This week's episode skipped flashbacks almost entirely, save for two glimpses of June (Elisabeth Moss) encountering Luke's (O.T. Fagbenle) first wife. It was because she cheated on this woman with Luke that June was deemed unworthy of becoming an Econowife and eking out a more normal existence in Gilead. And it was only because she was fertile that she wasn't simply hung on the Wall for all to see.
She may be less than human per the strict moral standards of this society, but with a viable womb, she can at least be useful.
Last week, June's flight came to an inevitable and brutal conclusion as she was literally ripped screaming from the belly of a plane -- just as her child will be ripped from hers and given to the Watefords -- just one takeoff away from freedom. With that taste of freedom, June re-entered Gilead society with a chip on her shoulder and a defiant streak a mile wide. After all, she knew the precious gift she carried gave her some leverage.
But Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) still knows ways to break a fellow woman down. It turns out it's easier than you might think.
As we saw in the season opener, Aunt Lydia dare not use electric shock or other forms of violence on June now that she is with child. Instead, she resorts to mental warfare, and proves she is equally adept at this form of torture. For the record, we are still dying for Aunt Lydia's backstory because we need to know how this complex character came to be so cold and yet not completely without compassion for her "girls."
Nevertheless, she chained June in the basement of the Red Center for her transgressions. And then she presented her with an odd choice. And it was more than just a choice of what she wanted to do, as the Watefords had agreed to take her back in, it was the choice of who she wanted to be.
"June will be chained in this room until she gives birth. And then June will be executed," Lydia said dryly. "Offred has an opportunity. It would be better for the baby." Offred is the name Gilead gave her (of Fred), stripping her of her own identity. But when faced with death or humiliation, life almost always wins.
Step 2: Show of Strength
Though June had accepted the offer, this was a gesture to save her own life, rather than an acceptance of the reality of her situation. And so more work was to be done. First, Lydia showed her the strength and influence of Giliad when she said in front of the Waterfords, "We were determined to rescue you from your kidnappers. And God blessed our endeavor."
This is now the official narrative of what happened to June. Control the media, control the message, control the minds. It's classic oppression, and it shows June how futile resistance ultimately is. No one will even know what she almost accomplished.
Step 3: Eliminate Allies
Of course, there are those in the network who know, including other Handmaids, and even the Waterford's own Martha (housekeeper), Rita (Amanda Brugel). Only June doesn't have them either. June was gone for 92 days, and while she tasted a twisted sense of freedom during that time, we only get a hint of what the women left behind had to endure.
"You don't know what it's been like," Rita tells June, returning to her the stack of letters from other Handmaids across Gilead telling their story. Someone was supposed to come for those letters to help spread the truth to the world of what was happening in the former United States. Even that glimmer of hope was dashed.
During a creepy baby shower sequence for Serena, June was supposed to sit back quietly and let June get all the accolades for her baby that June was carrying. And yet, her spirit was still alive. She believed that she was not alone in the fight.
That was before she learned the consequences of her impulsive actions. When Omar of the Maday operation had urged her to stay behind last week because the next safehouse was compromised, June forced him to take her in. That led to his disappearance and her ultimate capture. The end result of that, as she was told by the other Handmaids, was that Mayday was out of the business of helping Handmaids.
Even worse, June learned that Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) had her tongue cut out for standing up for fellow Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) when Aunt Lydia wanted them to stone her to death during the Season 1 finale. All that strength was simply beaten and tortured right back out of them. The strength of the Handmaids united was gone.
"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 am," June said as she was forced to participate in a ritual binding her and Serena Joy together through her child. She was foolish to think her actions would have no consequences under this brutal regime.
And yet, June still felt she at least had some power of defiance in the house, because she knew that it was with the driver Nick that she had conceived this child, under the orders of Serena. So she spoke out once again as they were cleaning up, only to have Rita physically punished for her outburst as Serena lashed out in rage and frustration.
Step 5: Compassion
It's not enough, though, to simply close all the opportunities for freedom and scare the person into cowering before the system. To truly and properly break them, they must come to believe that this is what is best for them. This is the only way. And so Lydia pulled out her next trick: compassion.
She took June to the Wall and showed her a man hanging there. A man she might recognize. "Don't think this is easy for me. You were a fallen woman. I am trying to give you the best chance you can have," Lydia says. In her own twisted way, though, Lydia is right. Gilead would not allow a woman like June to live were she not of some value to them. In her own way, Lydia is protecting all of the women under her care.
What we don't know, though, is if Lydia is sincere in caring for these women, or if her brutal compassion is just a form of psychological warfare to wear them down. Did we mention we need an Aunt Lydia backstory?
The man hanging on the wall was Omar, hung and killed because June convinced him to take her in. Killed for his compassion. "The wife will redeem herself by serving as a Handmaid," Lydia explained as June looked up at Omar's lifeless body. "The boy will never see her again. He has been placed with a new family."
It was important at this moment for Lydia to make sure that it was June who took ownership of this moment. Obviously, anyone on the outside knows that it is Gilead that had this man killed to maintain their brutal control over this society. But June was at her most vulnerable here, racked with guilt at the death of a man who only showed him kindness, and the destruction of his family. And so this was when Lydia had to strike.
“Who killed him?" she asked June over and over again. "Answer me, please. Whose fault was it?" And June accepted that it was hers. "And why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?"
"To teach me a lesson."
Step 7: Separation
And here was the moment. This was the moment when the psychological torture and emotional trauma of her entire experience had reached an apex, and Lydia was there with the solution. Aunt Lydia had the answer to make all the pain go away.
"Offred does not have to bear June's guilt," she explained. Offred is pure. Offred is of value to Gilead. June is the adulterer. June is the defiant one. And so June prostrated herself before the Waterfords, begging them to give her the chance to come "home."
It was a difficult scene to watch, because at this point, we did not know June's mind. She had previously shown the capacity for duplicity, pretending submission while internally maintaining her defiance and looking for the next opportunity. We kept looking for that glimmer in her eyes, that spark of revolution that has driven her narrative thus far.
Step 8: Compliance
"Please God, let Hannah forget me, let me forget me," her inner voice finally said later. And then we watched as she finished donning the complete Handmaid's uniform, with the red cloak and white wings around her face. Her eyes were blank. She was finally compliant.
After smiling at Nick earlier in the episode, she blankly walked past him here. When he tried to apologize for their failure to get her out, she gave him a chilling response by simply echoing one of Gilead's empty platitudes: "We've been sent good weather."
Silently, she stepped outside the gate and awaited her shopping partner, as expected. It is within those wings that June has railed against the system and risked everything to build her network of support among other Handmaids. Season 1 featured many wide shots looking inside that enclosed space to show us her defiance, to show her spirit and will.
Now, as she stood there, we got that familiar wide shot. But Offred looked down into the camera with a blank expression. And as we looked into her face, seeking that spark, her inner monologue said, "We've been sent good weather," over and over again, like a broken record ... or is that person?
Surely, June is still in there. We'd like to think that after such a bleak and heartbreaking episode, it can only get better from here, but after 14 episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale," we know better. New episodes drop every Wednesday on Hulu.