I heard about June Osbourne’s (Elisabeth Moss) sexual reunion with her husband, Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle), before I saw it. A colleague had screened the Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episodes already and was aghast. She warned me that seventh installment “Home,” which houses June and Luke’s dimly lit scene, seemingly confused undue sexual aggression with female badassery, a now meaningless buzzword tacked onto empty TV flashes of “tough” characterization. When I finally sat down to take in “Home” myself, I was still shocked by what I witnessed.
There is nothing empowering about June and Luke’s first sexual encounter in years on The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a disturbing tableau — which is the harsh reality the team behind Handmaid’s set out to create.
“Home” marks June’s long-awaited arrival in Canada, a country free of Gilead’s fascist chokehold. June is welcomed to Canada as a refugee, given a hotel room for a few days to help feed the U.S. government intel about her time in enslavement, and eventually allowed to head “home” to Luke’s house in the suburbs. June spends most of the chapter coming to terms with how disconnected she feels from her husband and the mostly happy life he has created in a new country. Luke got out of the United States when it was still technically America; he never witnessed the true horrors of Gilded. Technically, these facts are a good thing, but they also create an ocean of alienation between husband and wife. It doesn’t help that Luke is desperate to reunite with their kidnapped daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), while June knows their daughter is terrified of her.
This distance begins to close, at least physically, towards the end of “Home.” Unable to sleep in her comfy bed with Luke, June goes to confront Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), who is being held in jail by the United States. June growls at Serena that God only made her pregnant to kill her baby, thereby exposing Serena to a fraction of the pain she has caused countless other women by helping conceive Gilead. Serena is reduced to a sobbing mess, leaving June satisfied as she exits her former torturer's (confusingly palatial) cell.
Energized by her domination of Serena, June takes this energy home to Luke. In the dark, she wordlessly removes some of her clothing and approaches a fast-asleep Luke. The sound of June’s pants unzipping off-camera is purposeful. First, she kisses him. Luke is intrigued by the come-on, but also baffled. He wants to know what time it is. A part of him probably thinks this experience is a dream, after years of worrying about his wife’s safety. In seconds, June goes from stroking Luke under the covers to fully mounting him. No words are exchanged; no verbal consent is given. As Luke comes to understand what is happening, he goes to touch June, likely to feel like an equal partner in this sexual encounter. June grabs his hand, pulls it off of her, and pins it down.
“June wait. Wait a minute. June wait. Wait,” Luke softly asks. The moment Luke says “wait” the first time, everything should have stopped. That is how sex (as opposed to sexual coercion and violence) works. June ignores Luke. She clamps her hand around his mouth to force him to be quiet. She continues to ride him, only increasing her vigour as time goes on.
The Handmaid’s Tale zooms in on June as she reaches orgasm, treating the experience as if it is a sexual win for her. The tilt up to her face makes her appear powerful; her wide smile and gasps of pleasure paint her as free for the first time in ages. The camera’s glances down toward Luke sap this sex scene of any excitement. Instead, it’s sad. Luke winces as June holds her hand over his face, and his face goes slack once she removes it to enjoy her orgasm. This is not sexy for Luke. He doesn’t look like someone thankful to finally connect with his wife — he feels used and disoriented. Sex does not end like that. Sexual violence, however, does create these feelings.
The Handmaid’s Tale writers room aimed to capture the unvarnished “truth” of what June’s return would look like through this upsetting scene. “We all want a fairy tale ending for June. I really, really do,” episode writer Yahlin Chang told Refinery29 over email. “Is it realistic, given what this particular character has gone through … given her years in Gilead and all the trauma and violence that has infused her life there (and some of which she has been forced to inflict), that on this particular day right after she left Gilead that she could instantly snap into a super healthy and tender intimate relationship with Luke?”
The answer to Chang’s question, as the scene proves, is a hard “no.” The writer/producer recognizes as much after speaking with psychologists and trauma experts on the hypotheticals of June’s experience. “Is it more honest to the character that issues of power and dominance along with just the thrill of escapism have creeped into her relationship to sex,” Yang continued, “And that sex might be more enmeshed with some of those issues rather than being about an intimate loving connection with the husband you haven’t seen in years?”
While Handmaid’s Tale’s clearly put in a lot of thought into June and Luke’s reunion, it still falls into a similar trap to Game of Thrones’ extremely controversial 2014 intimate scene between Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his lover/sister Cersei (Lena Headey). Jaime was (deservedly) held as a prisoner of war, nearly executed, and got his beloved sword hand chopped off by a sadist before his return to King’s Landing and Cersei. Jaime and Cersei have now both lost a child. Upon seeing Cersei again, Jaime holds her down and penetrates her, all while she says “stop” repeatedly.
Many viewers were upset that Game of Thrones did not grapple with the aftermath of the encounter, which all parties involved said was not a depiction of rape. Handmaid’s Tale had the opportunity to explore how June’s devastating, but narratively understandable, actions affected the DNA of her marriage forever. A single conversation would suffice. Instead, in the scene directly after June’s orgasm, we see the couple playing in the snow with their baby daughter. Luke beams at June, as if nothing has happened between them. When he stares at her for too long, the look doesn’t seem to be born of apprehension or hurt, but of concern over whether June really is as content as she seems.
“We all left that place fucked up about sex,” Moira (Samira Wiley) says about herself, June, and their fellow Gilead refugees 30 minutes into “Home.” Handmaid’s Tale season 4 has three more episodes to give June a chance to work through what those words really mean.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.