Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Handmaid’s Tale breaks one cycle just to enter another

Image of Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale
Elisabeth Moss stars in The Handmaid’s Tale
Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

I don’t even know what to do with this episode.

I’ll start off by saying that it’s a very solid episode, after a good run of episodes in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is forward momentum. Beloved characters like Moira, Emily, and Rita show up. The plot thickens. It seems like the writers have taken to heart some of our complaints about the dreadful, repetitive nature of season three and are serving us with some much-needed variety in terms of tension. We are no longer stuck in the endless cycle of June Groundhog Day-ing it up in Gilead. And yet I still have no idea of how to even approach this episode.

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Let’s focus first on the good. For the vast majority of the episode, we explore the many ways that oppressive regimes leave physical and metaphorical wounds on individuals. In scene after scene, there are at least hints, it not outright examples of PTSD, survivor’s guilt, the aftermath of trauma. The unmoored nature of being in a new environment, the cumbersome self-consciousness that arises with loved ones after a prolonged separation, culture shock—it’s all there. Usually demonstrated with nuance, sensitivity, and great care. We will get to that end.

June, my friends, is in Toronto. FINALLY. The beautiful, vibrant city that has been home to so many luminaries in Canadian letters including Margaret Atwood herself, Michael Ondaatje, and Drake. Started from the bottom now we’re here, June! Given my own Montreal history, I am obligated to clarify that Montreal is better. Moving on.

And, well, everything is awkward as hell. And overwhelming. Mark, the U.S. government representative, wants intel right away when June’s memories of Gilead are freshest in her mind. Luke is trying his best to be a caring, understanding husband by giving her space, not pressuring her to get the romance a-flowing, or even share a meal alone. Him and Moira make a stunning, healthy, loving couple if it wasn’t for the fact that they are not, in fact, a couple. Yet as foster parents to Baby Nichole, they are completely in sync. Their daily routines and even their minds have melded into an easy flow, where they can read the baby’s cues and are absolutely ready to go with diapers if the other has forgotten. June stares bewildered, the odd woman out.

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Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Everyone is apologizing to everyone:Luke for not saving June or Hannah. June for not getting Hannah out of there. Emily for still being unable to sleep in the same room as her wife. Moira for ruining Oona’s NGO. Rita for baking only one bread instead of two. And to top it off, there are too many goddamn potato chips!!!

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Hell, even Serena is looking for repentance. She is on her knees, begging her very vengeful God to not use the baby as a punishment for her sins. Mark, who I always want to call Henry for some reason, overhears her prayers. I really wish they could just succumb to that sexual tension between them but there’s more important matters to tend to. With June in Canada, it is likely that she will be put away in some harsh prison up in Nunavut for 275 years or worse. He suggests teaming up with the Commander, despite Serena now dubbing him a sperm donor. Still, she complies and finally accepts Fred’s invitation to talk. The Commander is also on an apology tour, but the kind that involves even more God-mongering (is that a word) bullshit and whispering such sweet nothings like, “This pregnancy belongs to me as much as your first child belongs to you.” I swear the Commander’s voice is growing raspier and deeper with each passing episode and by the end of the season he’ll be in full The Dark Knight mode. But he still knows his wife and he knows what will get her to team up: the threat of not being able to raise her son if she is put away for good.

June learns of Serena’s pregnancy during a sobremesa (look it up) with Moira, Rita, and Emily. Just a couple of gals, drinking mommy juice, and dishing about how they are irreversibly damaged after years or persistent, nonstop violence. Her reaction then is a curt “fuck her,” but there is no way that will be the extent of it. And readers, it is not, for in the middle of the night Mark-Who-Looks-Like-A-Henry takes her to that exquisite jail cell Serena sleeps in.

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Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Ooooh, if this isn’t a back-and-forth for the ages. You know some misguided theater kids are prepping this scene for some insufferable summer camp that I wish I could have afforded back in high school. Though Serena claims to want to make amends, throwing God’s plans in there, June is all double, double, toil and trouble in her cauldron of internal rage, ready to have the venom come spilling out with all its lethal power. She lays it on thick. June says she is there to tell Serena how much she hates her. That she deserves no redemption, only shame and suffering. That she has destroyed everything: her life, her family, her child, potato chip technology. Serena is prostrated, trembling as if she were before the kind of vengeful god she prays to every day. And then, in a gesture that is reminiscent of Serena’s own past abuse, she yells in her face that the only reason Serena is pregnant is so that the baby will die and she can then feel only a fraction of the pain she has inflicted.

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Okay, cool, onboard with this. And then June has to squash any possible redemption for herself by doing what she did to Luke. I really have no further comment on this than what June’s own voiceover has to say about Serena, for they have become two sides of the same coin: “She’s pathological. She’s a sociopath. She’s toxic and abusive. She’s a monster. And by the way, consummate actress. [She is driven by] hatred and rage. And underneath all of that there’s nothing but pure misery. And she’ll do anything not to feel that way. Anything to feel ok. Even just for a second. She’ll do anything to get what she wants. Lie to you. Hurt you. Rape you. So if you feel yourself getting sucked in by her, run. Run for your life.”

Can we run? Run off with Moira, if at all possible?

Stray observations

  • I loved all the attention to sensual details that the cameras focused on, luscious and inviting but also uncomfortable in its abundance. The bounty of fruits in the grocery store, the sonorous steaming hot shower, that silky red robe June puts on in the hotel room—obviously reminiscent of the red cloak from Gilead.
  • Luke lovingly rearranging room service was so sweet and endearing, his own reunion nerves being projected in this attention to details. Ugh. FREE LUKE!
  • Eyebrow watch 2021: I was very, very close to writing FREE EYEBROWS too, given that June is still harboring some fuzzy-wuzzy feelings towards Nick. As she cradles Nichole, she whispers to the baby how much her first daddy loves her. But then I realized that I was being swayed by his luscious hair production for Eyebrows has his own unforgivable sins! Like, helping to institute Gilead. They deserve each other.
  • The most Canadian Thing to Happen this Week is postponing a profound relationship discussion for fear it might lead to frostbite.
  • “I just feel like you could be forever” made my iceberg of a heart melt.
  • May your Shot Girl Summer be a Lydia-Free zone as well.
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