Could it be? Dare I hope? Are we actually free from Gilead, or at least, in the process of freeing ourselves from Gilead? And obviously only the physical reality of Gilead for, as the previous episodes have really hammered in, Gilead is also a state of mind. But I can’t say I’m not feeling relief at the prospect of actually seeing this story move beyond the confines of that regime.
June and Janine are making like a Bruce Springsteen couple and running far, far away from their sad lives. Their search for freedom is obviously not guaranteed and as we follow them on their perilous journey to Chicago, we explore yet another fun, twisted tool standing in their way: emotional coercion and manipulation. It’s a dynamic June wields a little too often in this dark evolution, but we see it even more fiercely reflected this week in Rita’s interactions with the imprisoned Waterfords and in Janine’s backstory—the two standout storylines in an engrossing episode. Less trauma porn, more emotionally resonant than last week’s for sure.
June and Janine hop onto a freight train heading to Chicago, only to find themselves in a refrigerated container full of milk, looking like two frightened fruit loops floating around in a cereal bowl. June is still on full problem-solving mode, finding a way to drain out the whole cargo while Janine is still in her usual panic mode. Thankfully the milk hijinks are resolved quickly enough to get to the meat of this scenario, which is the spat between the two over whether divulging the secret location was a betrayal or a necessity. Janine tends to be presented as weak, emotionally fragile, too eager to please since Gilead had her eye removed as punishment. But this is also a character who lost one eye precisely because of her rebelliousness, and it was exciting to see that fighting nature come back during her argument with June and during flashbacks of her life pre-Gilead.
There’s been a lot of discussion online and in the comments about whether the end of the Trump era would diminish interest in the show (wishful thinking to call it an “end”, but whatevs). Time will tell. Nevertheless, the writers behind Handmaid’s appear to be more clear-eyed about how vulnerable women’s rights are in the U.S., Trump or no Trump, by taking inspiration from the very real messed-up crisis pregnancy centers that mislead women in every state. The flashback itself can get a little PSA-ey: Janine is basically a stand-in for every low-income, overwhelmed pregnant woman who googles “abortion services” and somehow find themselves in front of a volunteer spewing false info about the dangers of the procedure and how fatherhood can whip your man up in to shape. On the other hand, it also gives us a glimpse into her humble but beautiful life with her son Caleb, as well as her fine-tuned bullshit detector that may have been garbled in Gilead but can still pick up clear signals from time to time. (See the way she calls out June as evidence.)
I am still trying to parse out how Janine’s experience in the crisis pregnancy center informs her decision at the end of the episode. After hearing the train come to a halt and the sound of gunfire, June and Janine emerge from that vat of milk to meet a group of street-clothed armed fighters. When the ringleader tells them they are allowed to stay as long as one of them provides sexual services—this after he criticizes Gilead for having sexual slaves—it becomes abundantly clear that they are not in Mayday headquarters. June offers herself up first in the one gratuitously awful scene of this particular episode, but he stops her by claiming he isn’t “forcing her” and she can just leave. In case you’re wondering, this is still a pretty obvious attempt at coercion. June is set on running again but Janine decides to give this man his way. It’s an upsetting situation all around but the character herself does not seem too particularly upset by it. It is Gilead persevering? Or Janine making a choice about her body?
Thankfully, we have Rita’s storyline to shake off the ick factor of that whole situation. We still don’t know much about her own life pre-Gilead, but this episode drops little clues here and there. She’s looking for a sister and nephew in the Canadian refugee camps. She is Catholic, which might explain her allegiance to prayer more than Gilead’s propaganda. And she is still struggling with the emotional hold Serena Joy commands over her. We also learned in the early seasons that she lost a son, and maybe it’s his memory that makes her cry with happiness when Serena tells her the news that she is pregnant. But Rita is now “free to do as you please,” as Commander Waterford admits to her when she visits him. After realizing she is being used as a pawn in the Waterfords marital dramas, she cuts ties with both by dropping that sonogram picture on Waterford’s lap like a bomb.
Because Rita is quiet and sturdy, a person who felt perfectly at home in the hearth of a kitchen, that shot of her enjoying takeout sushi carried the weight of a much bigger gesture. This is her choosing a new path for herself, a different vision of what her life can be, removed from those earlier scenes of her making homemade bread—a task she had in Gilead. It’s a scene so full of placid contentment, that one hopes all our Handmaids will find their own version of sushi takeout soon. But this is Handmaid’s, and that kind of peace is relegated to very, very few.
- Quick, take a shot of Malört while wearing a Cubs jersey when June growls “Chicago is still Chicago, they’re not giving up.” FUCK YEAH, WE’RE NOT.
- Serena’s cell looks like a fabulous Manhattan apartment that your iciest cousin rents for $3427 a month, while the Commander’s looks like a sleek conference room in some exploitative architect firm. Still, I love how the designers continue to set the mood by bathing them in dark, blue, gloomy tones while everything in Rita’s life is awash in a celestial light. We know where the evil lies.
- Most Canadian thing to happen this week was the snow lightly falling outside of Serena’s cell. Schitt’s Creek is a perfect show with the exception of how it treated Canadian weather. Everyone should have been walking around like penguins for nine out of ten episodes, instead of making it appear like this small town was in perpetual spring. The Handmaid’s has shitty Canadian weather down.
- Please put “I’M NOT A MUSHROOM” on a pillowcase somewhere for I will happily buy them as little souvenir of my mental state during lockdown.
- Eyebrow Watch 2021: No sight of him this episode! It can’t be the end though. We know he’s on a mission to keep June alive, especially after last week’s tongue action.