I hate negotiations, which is why I was really smart when choosing freelance writing as a career. Why do I hate the art of the deal? Because I’m convinced most people who partake in it are bloodthirsty, narcissistic sycophants who will use every dirty trick in the book to screw you over. Even when they’re fine people in other situations! Even when they appear to be genuine and transparent! Even when the terms they offer seem fair, but how the hell would I know what fair is given that I’m part of the lowest-paid demographic in this country? I haven’t trusted anyone in a negotiation since 1989, when my sister convinced me that using my mom’s expensive lipstick to paint my ENTIRE FACE would be fun. It was fun. It also got us into some deep shit.
This dark, trickster side of negotiations permeates the penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Almost every scene in this episode focuses on some sort of bargaining, dickering, and shaky transaction. Characters bring their baggage and ulterior motives to the table. They share only partial information and present it as if it were comprehensive content. “It’s Mercury Retrograde, folks, do not trust the verbal agreements you’re making!” would be my advice to June et al.
As much as I hate negotiations, seeing them unfold during this hour is absolutely delicious. You have June tangoing with Lawrence. Fred tempting Serena. Janine sweet-talking Lydia. Luke playing mental chess with June (and himself). Naomi pulling off the sweetest threats, most chipper to Serena with the politeness of a Midwestern mom. Warren granting Fred the Conservative Death Sentence par excellence: thoughts and prayers. Janine getting through to Esther (Creepy Teen is back!) with the firm-yet-consoling hand of an RA. And Mark-Who-Looks-Like-Henry pulling the greatest puppet mastery of all.
Basically, there are only two scenes where you don’t get a haggling of sorts. The first is with Lydia’s initial approach to Esther, based on the brute force that Aunt Lydia is convinced gives optimal results. The second is the long-awaited, extended reunion between June and Eyebrows, which is at theopposite end of the spectrum: full, intuitive emotional flow. (More on this in a bit.)
We have another stellar episode on our hands and this one, like the one before it, was directed by Elisabeth Moss. Is there anything the woman can’t do? By my estimation, I think she may have directed my favorite episodes of this whole season. As stated in other recaps, she favors a close-up shot (in keeping with the show’s style), to the point where I know the creases of June’s face better than that of past lovers. The nod to the red Handmaid’s cloak is there, on the coat June wears to meet up with Nick. Possibly my favorite artistic touch is the scene of Aunty Lydia dining with the other CEO Aunts on a long table that makes them look like a gender-reversed Last Supper painting.
But this episode is also dialogue-heavy, which I love, love, love. Let’s break down all these mini-battles of the will, in order of how much I want to focus on each. Sorry; I too get to act like an authoritarian regime in how I structure my recaps. Under MY eye!
First off, the Waterfords. What I’m enjoying most in this dynamic is seeing Serena realize her husband is pretty useless. Deep down inside, I think Fred knows this too. There’s a reason he’s urging her to commit the heinous, scandalous act of writing. Serena can captivate an audience with her rhetoric while all Fred gets are thoughts and prayers. And with Naomi making it clear that the baby is considered a Gilead subject, Serena has every single reason to officially turn back on the hell of her own making. Her life is at stake, but worse so is her baby’s.
Second, Janine and Esther in the Red Center, which sounds like a euphemism I would use back in 7th grade to talk about my changing body. Now that she isn’t force-feeding pork to Handmaids, I feel a lot more for the Creepy Teen. How could I not? Her second chance in Gilead looks a hell of a lot like the past she so desperately left behind: a life where she’ll be raped and abused by men, this time as a Handmaid. She is defiant and close to getting her tongue cut off if she doesn’t eat, but Janine intervenes. She manages to get through to her that the most subversive act she can do at the moment is survive to see the end of Gilead. I also get the sense that their alliance will lead to more rebellious acts, but with stealth. Janine appears to be growing into her power precisely by using her sweet, good-natured, obedient act as a way to get what she wants and hopefully blow shit up.
But my favorite moment in this whole episode is one where the combative dynamic of all characters totally faded away: June and Nick convening in a country home with Baby Nichole in tow. It was the end result of another negotiation, where Luke—can we take a moment to note that O-T Fagbenle has been giving some of the best performances of his Handmaid’s stint this season?—urges June to ask Nick for help with rescuing Hannah. His reasons are too sound to oppose. Just like that we get a Very Special Eyebrows Watch 2021 Report.
When June arrives, she doesn’t even need to ask Nick for his help. He has already whipped up a whole file of Hannah’s life for June, with the caveat that there are too many guards to rescue her. Nothing says romance like having the man who helped create the patriarchal regime that tortured you use his power to obtain info on your kidnapped daughter. And lest you think I’m being completely sarcastic, let it be known that I was actually very, very, very touched! The whole scene was tender and intimate; it involved such swoon-worthy moments like Nick saying, “Freedom agrees with you” and presenting a doll to his baby. My heart and my ovaries were shattering into a thousand pieces while I watched this brief, joyous moment of a family, made impossible by politics. To see Nick then slip on a wedding band after saying goodbye to June destroyed me all over again. Elisabeth Moss has said that the big theme in this episode is love and no other moment showcases it better than the quiet, peaceful time Nick and June spend together.
But alas, we are still in the world of Handmaid’s and the show wasn’t going to leave us with a bittersweet scene to cry over. Instead, when June returns to Toronto, we learn that Mark has been carefully setting everyone up to achieve his long-term goal: Fred’s entire knowledge of everything Gilead in exchange for his freedom. June’s testimony was important, but not because she could reveal the horrors of Gilead. It was important because it would scare Fred enough to get him to agree. I’ve been very uneasy about June’s unfiltered rage this season, but when she rushes out to Mark to yell at him, “I will kill you,” I felt that.
Though with June, you never know if she means it metaphorically or literally.
- The Most Canadian Thing to Happen This Week: “You’ve gone soft in Toronto. Must be all that maple syrup.” (Damn you, Lawrence, and your witty one-liners. Makes it hard to hate you.)
- Luke continues to be perfect, but the difference between how June kisses him and how June kisses Nick is s-t-a-r-k. That meeting between June and Nick is so heart-wrenching because it’s a rare glimpse of June’s vulnerable side. There’s a softness to her interactions with him that she doesn’t allow herself with anyone else.
- If this were real life, how much do you think Serena would be embraced as a #GirlBoss once her apology tour begins?
- June’s car ride back to Toronto was reminiscent of one my favorite Diane Lane performances ever (that tram scene in Unfaithful) and I would love know if Moss was inspired by it at all.