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The Handmaid’s Tale tests June’s tenacious commitment to her daughters

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

“Motherhood has always been an evolutionary puzzle to me,” says Commander Lawrence to June, in yet another upsetting dinner scene of the season. He shares this after he’s warned June that her refusal to reveal where the Handmaids are will result in Hannah being hurt, which in Gilead can mean everything from having an eye torn out to death. June’s response is to tell him to go fuck himself. It stands to reason that he would be confused. Up till now, her anger, motivation, and extremely questionable decisions have been tied up with her maternal instinct to protect Hannah. June’s rise from a woman struggling to survive to Walter White-ing on the edge of irredeemable can be in some ways justified because of this drive.


Lawrence—who can come off as both an intellectual mastermind and the kind of guy on Tinder who thinks spewing nonsense Arendt ideology will get him laid–could also be talking about the Gilead project as a whole. A sizable portion of his nation duped into dehumanizing half of their population for the supposed sake of children. An entire ideology based on the survival of the collective by making it almost impossible to survive. Motherhood in Gilead is a genocidal force and a subversive one. And motherhood extends far beyond the baby we might hold in our womb or snatch from someone’s arms.

In a relentlessly bleak episode, even by Handmaid’s standards, June’s commitment to her own daughters is tested to its bloodiest limits. At this point, June is extending her Mama Bear fight to encapsulate not only Nichole and Hannah, but the Handmaids under her guidance, and even the despotic Mrs. Keyes, who terrifies me in similar ways that private school teen girls dismissively wondering why I still shop at Urban Outfitters can terrify me. We also explore the abusive dynamic Aunt Lydia has fostered with all her girls, which screams to me as being based less on vengeful spite than in the kind of petty neediness of a woman who wants to be defined only by her offspring.


But first, let’s turn to another type of baby: this episode, which represents the directorial debut of Elisabeth Moss. Quite a remarkable feat considering this is an extremely June-centric one, with her acting in almost every harrowing scene. As a director, Moss is really into cramped close ups where we can see every contorted facial expression. She is really into two-person sparring, which allowed Ann Dowd to bring her incredible talent to full force. She is also very into setting a God damn mood, with emphasis on the damn part. The vast majority of the episode is set in a prison/torture chamber that looks straight out of a Saw movie, one of Dante’s circles of hell, or the kind of Berlin nightclub I want to get shit faced in once this pandemic is over. Give the light designer a damn Emmy already, unless they already have one, in which case just keep piling those on.

It might be difficult to determine of this particular episode is so steeped in misery due to Moss’s directing or the writing, but seriously. They could have easily titled this one “Trigger Warning” for its absolute willingness to psychopathically adhere to torture as an aesthetic. It’s like the writers created a checklist of every atrocity committed by dictatorships around the world and threw them all in one episode. Physical restraints? Check. Waterboarding? Check. Ripping nails from the root? Check. Tossing women off a ledge? Check. Watching your friends get killed in front of you? Check. By the time June is shoved into a tiny box, with only a few holes for oxygen, one can’t help but feel it’s a huge metaphor for the experience of watching the previous forty-five minutes: suffocating, distressing, and like you need to watch “San Junipero” to remind yourself joy is also part of the human condition.

And though all these instances might make for stressful television viewing, they’re not nearly as interesting as the litany of recriminations Aunt Lydia and June ping-pong to each other. They’re also not nearly as interesting as Commander Lawrence laying out Gilead’s true core at that dinner, where he correctly points out, “Gilead doesn’t care about children. It cares about power.” I’ll leave you to see the thinly veiled criticism of the Republican Party in that dialogue for yourself. They’re also not nearly as anguishing as June coming face-to-face with an imprisoned Hannah, which finally pushes her to forego all her other motherly bonds and spill the secret location. Lawrence has a point. Motherhood can destroy lives.

This is an episode full of extremes. It would be tempting to say it’s indulging in the unforgiving repetitive nature of Handmaid’s, which is the show’s most fatal flaw. Except for that ending. THAT ENDING! An entire season of an industrialized breeding camp would have truly been a doubling-down of a despondent world we so have thoroughly explored, that what else is there left to say? By having June and the other Handmaids break free from that van and from Aunt Lydia’s grip, Handmaid’s might actually be running towards a creative freedom that is sorely needed. The last 10 minutes are heart-pounding, thrilling, and utterly devastating. It could be the foundation for a season that delivers big.


Stray observations

  • More nods to our collective nightmare! June was looking pandemic-chic with that face mask on her way to the torture chamber, and who can ignore the echoes to last summer when Moira announces she’s going to a candlelight vigil and march? But beyond the waterboarding and manipulation of old school family values, nothing brought me back more than Aunt Lydia cross-stitching as a way to ignore the horror around her. She looks like the kind that would get into sourdough during lockdown.
  • I went to an Opus Dei high school, which means I know this to be true: No one is creepier than a pious man with a kilowatt smile telling you not to be scared, right as he is about to condemn you for your sins. Reed Birney as that sadistic torture guard will forever haunt me.
  • The use of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is a reminder to everyone to listen to The Bend from start to finish.
  • Canada is an exporter of sublime maple syrup, Time Hortons mystique, and queer progressive witches, as followers of Chani Nicholas and Jessica Lanyadoo can attest. Luke burying a persimmon for good luck under the recommendation of a Toronto official is definitely The Most Canadian Thing to Happen this week.
  • Eyebrow watch 2021: I might need a big refresher on June and Nick’s relationship timeline because, from my understanding, the last thing June discovered about him was that he helped overthrow Gilead. That could make anyone sour on their paramour. Though that kiss didn’t make much plot sense, I’ll allow it after this year of worldwide physical deprivation. We all need a bit of dystopian romance in our lives.
  • How do we feel about June’s recitation of the Handmaids’ names at the end of the episode? Poignant and moving? Or a bit too close to the #sayhername hashtag for comfort?