Serena and June are careening down shockingly parallel character arcs and it's becoming less clear which of them, if either, will wind up the hero of this story.
What's happening to June on "The Handmaid's Tale"? We've talked in the past about how her single-mindedness has left a trail of people hurt in the wake of her obsessive tendencies, but we never expected it to take a Walter White turn.
This latest episode, and penultimate installment of this third season of the Hulu juggernaut, dealt with the fallout of two monumental shifts in the show's narrative to this point. On the one hand, June killed Commander Winslow at Jezebel's, an act that only tipped the iceberg of what she'll do to protect the caravan of children she is planning to shuttle to safety.
The second thread followed the Waterfords as Serena led Fred into the depths of the northern United States in an attempt to work out a deal with her contact in Canada, Tuello of the U.S. government in exile. We theorized last week that Serena had actually orchestrated the whole thing with Tuello, with the latter leading the couple deep enough into the woods to have inadvertently crossed the border into Canada, at which point both were promptly detained.
The parallel minds of these two women, both obsessed with their respective end goals with no regard for who may get hurt in the crossfire, is a startling thing to have laid out for you like this. For all that June despises Serena, she is like her in so many ways. Both are perhaps a bit too clever, but not quite as clever as they think they are.
And perhaps most importantly, and dangerously, both are so self-righteously certain of their goals that nothing and no one in their way has any real value. The betrayals at the hands of both women this week exemplified that perfectly. And yet, one woman might be on a road to a brighter future while the other seems to be sliding into darkness.
As expected, Serena totally sold Fred out for the chance to see Nichole. But even then, the terms probably aren't going to be fully to her liking, so it's hard to imagine her settling for what she's being given. Serena is utterly obsessed with this child that is perhaps hers in some twisted way, but is definitely June's in every conceivable way.
While she might fantasize about raising Nichole as her own, the truth is she's being given supervised visitation rights within the detainment facility and was even chastised by the child services agent to not refer to herself as Nichole's "mommy" as it will only serve to confuse the child. Neither the U.S. or Canadian governments recognize Serena has having any rights to the child.
The only reason she's getting what she's getting right now is as part of a plea deal arrangement they've come to in order to secure Fred and attempt to get some information about or leverage over Gilead on the world stage. Serena is a tool to them just as she is to them. What makes this exciting an interesting is that after three seasons, we generally have no idea what the future holds for Serena or Fred.
Hopefully the writers don't cop out and have them weasel their way out of this and go back to their lives. For one, it's hard to imagine Fred just forgiving Serena for her betrayal. And then there's Tuello, who's doing his best to undo all the damage Gilead has done to Serena's psyche.
We already know she has serious issues with some of Gilead's policies about women and how things are run in general, so it was very telling that after looking at her mutilated hand -- still wearing that wedding ring, though -- Tuello shows up with contraband pizza and tons and tons of reading material.
By focusing on an article on religion, Tuello smartly put the focus on an area that might pique Serena's curiosity. It's effectively been five years since she's been allowed to read anything, much less discuss them as an academic and an intellectual. Her brain was neutered in the world she helped create, so Tuello encouraging her to use it again could go a long way toward undoing all that subconscious programming.
Her single-minded obsession with Nichole, though, remains a weakness and we just don't see an amicable solution here. Plus, Serena is every bit as cold and callous and manipulative and dishonest as Fred ever was. She'll do anything to achieve her ends, so she certainly can't be trusted even if she seems to be coming around in future episodes.
But as awful as Serena's betrayal of Fred, it's nothing compared to the betrayal perpetrated by June in this episode. On the one hand, she betrayed Joseph, but as he's the architect of Gilead, doesn't he kind of deserve it no matter how reluctantly he serves the nation he built now?
No, it all comes down to what we're dubbing June's "Walter White moment." In Season 2 of "Breaking Bad," Bryan Cranston's Walter White stood by and watched while Jessie's (Aaron Paul) girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) OD'd and choked on her own vomit. For many fans, that moment of conscious inactivity is the moment Walter broke bad and headed down a path of no redemption.
This week, June came into Eleanor's room only to find that the Commander's wife had OD'd. She was non-responsive and breathing raggedly. And after at first considering running to fetch Joseph to try and save his beloved wife, June had a change of heart.
It was one of the most difficult scenes to watch as she gently kissed the shuddering Eleanor on the cheek and simply left her in her room to die, covering her tracks so it looked she'd never gone in the room in the first place. She then waited in her own room for Sienna to find Eleanor's now lifeless body.
It was cold and it was calculated, just as Walter's decision was. Now, Walter was making his decision for selfish reasons because Jane was standing in the way of his control and manipulation of Jessie. On the surface, June's reasons might look less selfish, but just because her end goals look more magnanimous on the surface that doesn't mean her methods are any less callous.
Earlier in the episode, Eleanor had twice put everything at risk. While Mrs. Winslow was lamenting in front of Elenaor, Joseph and Mrs. Putnam about how she fears her six children will be taken away from her with Commander Winslow's "disappearance," Eleanor started suggesting they could take those kids with them and save them, too!
At another point, she prepared to go out herself and start talking to other wives and commanders about how she could save their kids from Gilead. In her delicate state, Eleanor doesn't quite get that not everyone has grown to hate Gilead as much as she has, and exposing this plot would surely see the entire Lawrence household executed, not to mention many members of the Martha network.
So it was a calculated decision to save the plan to get the kids out in one week's time, but does that mean it was a good decision? Just as Walter did, June wrestled with her own conscience. Eleanor is an innocent in all of this, just as Jane was. And yet, due to their obsessive need for control, both protagonists allowed these innocents to die to protect their own interests.
At this point on "Breaking Bad," Walter White had yet to descend completely into darkness, so it's interesting that "The Handmaid's Tale" has created such a parallel. And in the same episode that Fred tells Luke that June is not the same woman he knew as his wife five years ago. "Gilead's changed her," he said with his signature evil grin. "I've changed her."
That certainly seems to be true, but to what extent? Killing Winslow is one thing. That was a move out of necessity for the mission as well as to prevent her own rape and, let's face it, Winslow was a monster. Eleanor was innocent, she was a reluctant victim of Gilead just like June, and she was June's friend.
How much further is June willing to go to further her own interests if she's willing to do this? How much further is Serena willing to go to try and secure hers? These women are on parallel paths of obsession and not coincidentally, Nichole is a major end goal for both women.
The same obsessive drive. The same willingness to turn on friend and foe. And on an inevitable collision course by series end. That should be one hell of a showdown. And by then, who knows who the hero of this story will be ... or even if there will be one.