"The Handmaid's Tale" has always been topical and timely, but this week's difficult episode is painfully current and might be too much for some viewers.
"The Handmaid's Tale" has always been topical and highly political, made even moreso in the Trump era, but it got downright creepy this week as the Hulu series showcased the inherent cruelty of ripping children from their parents even as White House policy is coming under fire for doing just that.
The latest episode premiered on Wednesday, and it was an extremely uncomfortable examination of power and cruelty.
If any episode of this incredibly bleak and depressing series finally drives people away from watching altogether, it might just be this one, which culminated in a heartbreaking and all-too-brief reunion of June (Elisabeth Moss) and the child literally ripped out of her arms by Gilead's forces in the series pilot.
In a slight deviation from what is happening now in Texas, it was June who was trying to flee across a border with her family to escape the oppressive regime that the United States had become, but the end result was the same. June was found guilty of breaking the law (adultery) and so she gave up her rights as a human being, and her right to her own flesh and blood.
Yes, that law is unjust and inhumane, but the soldiers are just doing their duty in upholding it. Sound familiar?
Kind to Be Cruel
Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) thought he was doing June a kindness by allowing her a brief reunion with her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), or at least that's how he presented it. With the Waterfords, nothing is as clear as we might hope.
It turns out this "kindness" may well have been the ultimate cruelty as it showed just how traumatized Hannah has been by this forced separation. Still very young and impressionable, their reunion started with the little girl understandably being angry and resentful toward June for not trying harder to find her and reunite with her.
The sad reality is that this has been proven impossible time and again. For all her tough words, June is utterly helpless in her situation, as we saw again in the closing moments of this episode when Nick was taken by Guardians for being at the abandoned house where the meeting took place. Did Fred set him up and turn him in? If so, it was likely because Nick's new wife Eden (Sydney Sweeney) is tired of him ignoring her and suspects he's in love with June (which he totally is).
But back to the family reunion as Hannah did slowly warm up to June, who learned that her new family had even gone so far as to rename her ... like a pet.
Heartbreakingly, it was slowly revealed that Hannah does understand more about how this new society works than we at first knew. "You’re having a baby," she said, noting June's pregnancy. "You don’t get to keep it."
By the end of their meeting, when Hannah was whisked away abruptly, the little girl's defensive bubble of distant coldness had crumbled and she was crying out for her "mommy!" June knew, though, that this was a recipe for disaster. If Hannah went home crying about June, the punishment would be severe for both of them. "Enjoy your life and love your parents," she told her daughter. "I need you to keep yourself safe."
And that's the most tragic thing of all; June is telling her young child to take responsibility for her own life and safety because the government policies and laws won't let June do that. While she tried to stay strong for Hannah, as soon as the little girl was gone, June absolutely lost it. It was a gut-wrenching thing to watch, but beautifully performed by Moss.
This will likely be her Emmy-submission episode, and if it isn't, either a terrible mistake has been made or things are about to get even worse.
Pain Begets Cruelty
To understand why Fred Waterford may have felt June deserving of some kindness, we need to step back to an earlier ritual that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) initiated. For months, we've seen her shell start to crack, with glimpses of decency and humanity creeping out. We thought seeing June's husband in Canada and remembering what freedom looks like might change her, but it looks like we're at the "two steps back" part of her journey.
In fact, Serena achieved a new level of cruelty this week by orchestrating the ritual rape of June, hiding it under the veil of helping with the pregnancy. Serena had been embarrassed by false labor, and coupled with June's other little acts of resistance, she decided to have her revenge and assert her dominance once and for all in the most blatant way possible.
This ritual proved even more difficult to watch than any before it. Gone was the compliant silence of the Handmaid. Instead, June was begging and pleading and crying as Serena held her down and Fred violated her. Already pregnant, this act went beyond even the barbaric laws of this new land, but as always it's easy to justify.
But the real goal was obvious; it was to completely break June's spirit. For Fred it was also simply about getting off, as an earlier scene spotlighted the hypocrisy in Gilead even better than last season's whorehouse sequence. Another commander commented to Fred, "My Handmaid’s about to reach her expiration date. She wasn’t that much fun to begin with."
He then added about June, "She has proven fruitful," adding with a wink, "And not bad looking, either."
For all their talk that this is about saving humanity and propagating the species, it's about institutionalized slavery and legally being allowed to rape whoever they want whenever they want. The corruption of this patriarchy was there from the beginning, and yet there are wives like Serena not only turning a blind eye to it, but becoming fully complicit in it.
Shame Begets Cruelty
While we don't yet know for sure what was happening in the closing moments of the episode, we have some theories. Of course, it could just be a coincidence that those Guardians showed up at this abandoned house in the middle of nowhere while June was meeting with Hannah. It seems unlikely that Commander Waterford would have revealed their location, as he'd be in as much trouble as June and Nick.
It could be Serena, as she's been bristling under Fred's thumb for awhile now, and especially since he embarrassed her by beating her with a belt a few episodes back. We've seen what an embarrassed Serena is capable of, and she'd already decided to channel all of her shame and helplessness into being awful to June.
If she'd somehow found out about this meeting, what better way to assert some control in her own life by punishing the two people who've embarrassed and frustrated her for so long. Yes, this is a messed up way of thinking, but this is how Serena operates. She has a chance to make a better choice, and more often than not, she doubles down on the most awful choice available.
The only problem with that theory is Nick, and we've seen no reason for Serena to be angry with him. Now, he could just be collateral damage because obviously Nick knows that it was he who impregnated Serena behind the impotent Fred's back, so that might just be a convenient way for Serena to cover all her tracks.
The more likely solution, though, if someone is behind it at all, is Eden. She's been growing more and more frustrated with Nick's ambivalence to her existence since their surprise marriage. This week, he caught her kissing another man, and when she subjugated herself before him, he dismissively told her he didn't care.
Filled with shame and guilt, Eden could very well be lashing out at this husband who refuses to give her what she wants and what society tells her she deserves. She was the one in the wrong, but when he wouldn't accept her apologies, he might just get her rage instead. Someone's been learning from Serena.
Throwing a wrinkle in both of those theories, though, is the fact that June was left in the house. Clearly the Guardians didn't know Nick was with anyone else, nor did they seem aware of the quick escape of Hannah's group. So it could well just be a coincidence, but the end result remains the same. By the close of the hour, June is deeply pregant, without a vehicle and all alone in the middle of a snow-covered nowhere.
Granted, Fred should know where she is, so likely he'll do what he can to get June back home. The bigger stakes for June are that she has an opportunity here, if she is brave enough to take it, to keep her word to this baby to not let it be born in Gilead. Of course, this baby is due any moment now, so there is tremendous risk in that.
For the first time, June is in control of her own destiny, even if the options before her aren't that great. There's a cruel irony in that.