I wish Wasting Away With the Waterfords were a reality TV show, so the characters in the Handmaid’s Tale could finally say what they were thinking, instead of communicating entirely in passive aggressive glares. This week’s reality TV show episode would be particularly juicy, because whereas Episode 4 set up the dynamics between Aunt Lydia (Ann O’Dowd), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), and June (Elisabeth Moss), then this episode explores them in depth.
From the start, it’s obvious that June isn’t herself. She’s “Offred-maton” now, not June. Her first order of business is taking the bundle of letters from Mayday, and burning them in the sink. Gone, so many messages of handmaids looking to make contact with loved ones. From the messages, it’s obvious Sons of Jacob were successful in taking over most of the U.S. — there are notes from far-flung places like Colorado. Nick (Max Minghella) catches June in the kitchen, and tries to have a conversation with her. She blankly responds that she’s not supposed to be out of her room at night, and goes outside. Nick is confused, concerned, and 2% horny.
Generally, June doesn’t speak much this episode. Her spark of life has gone into hiding. During a “check up” with Auntie L, Serena answers all Lydia’s questions for June, including about her bowel movements. You’d think Serena would be happy with this new June, but she’s not. During a walk around the neighbourhood later on, Serena is peeved when June responds to all her comments with, “Yes, Mrs. Waterfords” and “No, Mrs. Waterfords.” June can’t win! Have too much of a personality, and you get punished. Be a “good handmaid,” and you’re not entertaining enough.
It seems Serena has gone brittle from wanting any sort of companionship — which is almost understandable, considering Mr. Commander gives her zero attention whatsoever. He clacks away on his laptop while she tries to tell him about her walk; he has more important things to do, like dealing with his jealousy for Nick, his competition for June’s affection. While at the Ivy League-y Commander HQ, Fred tries to get Nick “promoted” and sent away to D.C., but his boss, Andrew (Robert Curtis Brown), tells the Commander to keep Nick.
In Serena’s mind, even June has a companion. Nick approaches Serena with his concerns for the handmaid, who is walking around the house with a dull look in her eyes. Nick says that June doesn’t have anyone to look out for her. Serena, angrily, points out that she does: Nick himself!
Nick is right to be worried. June is not doing well. I repeat: Not doing well. While Serena simmers and focuses on June’s lack of respect, June bleeds. It looks she has a miscarriage, which would be disastrous for June. And if she loses her baby, she also loses her safeguard against the Colonies and Gilead’s more creative forms of punishment.
So, the Waterfords each have problems with their servants: Serena is disappointed by her difficult handmaid (who, little does she know, might’ve lost a baby), and the Commander is jealous of his driver. What do they do with their power? Throw a wrench into June and Nick’s happiness! Next up, the Waterfords successfully band together to wipe out any joy from June and Nick’s lives.
The Watefords’ big plan arises during something called a “Prayvaganza.” Even Serena can’t help but make fun of the name. The Prayvangaza, honouring high-achieving Guardians like Nick, takes place at a weirdly symmetrical hall. To everyone's surprise, including June’s, this turns into a marriage ceremony. Little boys hand all the Guardians boxes; Nick looks at his, and then stares at June grimly. A string of young girls — too young — wearing veils and white dresses walk out. These girls are scary, pure, mini-nuns. June looks woozy and terrifically unhappy.
Yep: Nick gets married to a (very young) stranger. So far, Nick has scurried through Gilead relatively unscathed. The party’s over, dude. You now have to deal with the moral reckoning of marrying a 15-year-old. I’m curious to see if his steely composure crumples, or remains steady.
After the wedding, Serena finally thinks she found a companion, kind of. Nick’s new wife, Eden (Sydney Sweeney), treats Serena with the unending admiration, respect, worship, hand-holding, etc. she so craves. Eden even has a whole speech she tells Serena, which her mother had taught her back in their home in the Massachusetts countryside. Eden seems like a good Gilead robot. I wonder how conservative the citizens of Gilead are. Did Eden’s mother teach her to please her new Wife-boss because she really believes in the Gilead machine, or because she knew she’d face the Colonies otherwise? Either way, her teaching worked: Eden seems totally into Gilead.
Serena treats Eden with a mixture of pity and careful delight — you can tell she’s enjoying this, somewhat. It’s Eden’s wedding night and Serena, being the closest thing Eden now has to a mother, prepares her using sex-positive passages from the Bible. Serena implies that sex should be enjoyable for both parties. Her speech has a surprisingly progressive message, considering this is the woman who formed Gilead, a country founded on the eradication of such carnal joys.
As this conversation is happening, Nick is outside smoking a cigarette in the rain, far from the realities of the marriage night. That's where he finds June curled up, muddied, on the ground. She fell (purposefully?) from the window. This is a big moment: For the first time, June gave up. He finds her covered in blood, and screams for help.
June wakes up in a hospital. To June's surprise, the baby is safe. After surviving what appears to be a suicide attempt, June seems to be back to her old, rebellious self. She goes under her covers and delivers a rousing speech to her child. “Hey, you listen to me. I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. You hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here,” she says. And I believe her! This episode tracks June’s journey back to herself.
If the Waterford household was a display of how warped human relationships in Gilead have become, then the Colonies show how goodness still survives despite overwhelming odds. Ironic, really, for goodness to be found in the pits of radioactive misery — and yet that’s the whole triumph of the scene.
Janine (Madeline Brewer) brings her wide-eyed positivity to the Colonies. She’s an interesting character: While she internalised Gilead’s message that God cradles her, she’s kind, generous, and open. Given her personality, she’s remarkably moved by Kit (Novie Edwards) and Fiona (Soo Garay), two colony workers who are openly affectionate and in love with each other. But Kit is extremely close to death. She collapses in the fields, and Fiona knows the end is coming.
Janine helps facilitate a wedding that is the complete opposite from the Prayvaganza mass wedding we saw earlier. Kit and Fiona are married by the rabbi in the Colonies. Yes, I bawled. Yes, it was the most beautiful scene so far in all of The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ve endured two seasons of bleakness. And yet, here it is: genuine love. Love like a weed, growing where it shouldn’t. Gilead can’t stomp it out!
Pay attention to the moments of female affection in this show. Usually, when women reach for each other, they’re separated immediately. It’s like Gilead knows women standing in solidarity are dangerous. So the moments when they do connect are more powerful. During Kit’s funeral the next day, Fiona and Janine hold hands. June held hands with the woman she was standing next to when she thought they’d be hanged. This is a terrible world, but people aren’t terrible.