Fact: For every minute that went by in the episode, I wanted to quit watching and turn on Terrace House— that pleasant Japanese reality TV show that follows a bunch of strangers in a hose, like a kind-hearted and tame Real World. I haven’t had a chance to watch Terrace House yet because of prestige TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. While this was certainly an artful, gleaming hour of TV, it left me so incredibly bummed. And it’s been a bummer of a week, hasn’t it?
Unfortunately, we’re all already in too deep to abandon June (Elisabeth Moss) and the rest of her Gileadean compatriots. But after this season of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m tempted to stick to sweet reality shows and sitcoms. This episode was particularly sadistic. Its whole purpose seemed to be steeping the audience in the awful, unnatural realities of Gilead, without furthering the plot. We get it: Things are incomprehensibly bad. I can only hope that some sunshine slips through the cracks, that something changes. Because otherwise, why would I keep watching?
This week’s theme might be called “What the hell did we do?” The shocking climax forced even Gilead’s most powerful to confront the awful repercussions of a society structured along the lines of dogma, not by humanity or love.
It’s not Gilead, however, that’s keeping June away from her baby. For the past few weeks, June has been living in the Rachel and Leah Center and pumping milk into bottles while she waits for her next assignment. The only consolation the endlessly infantilising Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) can provide June with is a bran muffin. “I think i’ve earned a whole cake,” June responds. After all this, I admire June’s ability to make sarcastic quips at every opportunity.
Separated from her child, June isn’t measuring up in her utility as a glorified cow. Her milk isn’t sprouting freely, her economic value is waning. So, in order to jump-start her milk, Aunt Lydia takes her to see her baby — who she calls Holly, and Serena calls Nicole — in a church. Instantly, upon seeing the infant, June’s red handmaid’s uniform becomes stained with milk (I’m learning so much about how breastfeeding works). Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) looks at her boobs with such a lecherous glare I’m tempted to reach through the screen and smack him. Aunt Lydia heroically womansplains the importance of June being near her own baby, but Fred isn’t having it. While he’ll stare at her sexually, he won’t let June touch — let alone nurse — the baby.
Eventually, at Aunt Lydia’s urging, Fred lets June move back in the house. Serena is furious. Serena seems to be under the impression that a rebellious nature is infectious, and June will somehow transmit her spirit to Holly through touch. Fred and Serena have another bickering session (they haven’t recovered from the blowout in the empty mansion), which ends with Fred employing the classic line, “Mother knows best,” coated in sarcasm. It’s as if even he acknowledges Gilead’s artifice — Serena’s no mother.
Back in the house, June reunites with the rest of the Waterford’s crew. In one of the episode’s few beautiful moments, June and handsome Nick (Max Minghella) have a bittersweet conversation about their newborn daughter. June runs the name “Holly” by him as if they were a real couple; they daydream about a life in which they could be a real family.
June and Nick aren’t the only daydreaming couple. While getting milk for a midnight snack, June runs into Eden, who consults June with a gnawing concern of hers. Shouldn’t children raised by parents who are in love — organic, natural love, not pairings manufactured by the state? June gives Eden advice that would go on to have major, devastating repercussions: “I think in this place you grab love wherever you can find it.” This line sent full-body chills down my spine. After all this, June still advocates for a brave, giving, selfless love.
No matter the cost, Eden bends towards love and away from self-preservation. The following day, she and Isaac (Rohan Mead), the foxy Guardian, are both absent. Waterford spews — he has another PR disaster on his hands. Why can’t he keep his women in line? Why do they keep running away? It amazes me — the dolt really doesn’t seem to get the twisted effects of Gilead. He turns to June to understand why Eden left. After all, she’d run away multiple times. He’s shocked by her insinuation that she’d rather hide out in an empty house than go home with him and Serena. Shocked, I tell you. After calling Eden a “slut” for her infidelity, the hypocritical oaf then pulls the same trick on June. He tries to proposition her for sex (and trying for another baby) as “payment” for letting her see Hannah, as if reuniting with her long-lost daughter for an anguished 10 minutes had really been what she wanted.
Barely a day after they disappeared, Eden and Isaac are found, and are to face a trial for their sins (our first exposure to the Gilead criminal justice system). In their only heart-to-heart as a couple, Nick tries to convince Eden to renounce her actions. Eden’s an interesting mixture of romantic, moony-eyed teenager and Gilead fanatic. She believes wholeheartedly in God, so she can’t reconcile the fact that Gilead — a country founded on Biblical principals — would deprive her of an honest, God-serving love. “All I wanted was to make a real family. Isn’t that what Gilead wants of God’s servants?” Eden is bumping up the same realisation that older generations already know: Gilead is a hypocritical sham of a country, not based on Christian values but on fear. Nick and Eden forgive each other; I wiped away tears.
Eden and Isaac are carried up to a high-rise diving board to face their punishment as a crowd, which includes the Waterfords and Eden’s family, watches. Gilead’s pious versions of Romeo and Juliet refuse to deny the validity of their love. Love is stronger than Gilead — love is godly., Eden quotes the Bible instead of confessing. As punishment, they’re pushed off a high-rise diving board into pool littered with other weights, proof of past executions for infidelity. It is absolutely shocking and devastating. Something in Serena, I think, breaks, because she lets June nurse her ever-weeping baby at last.
Finally, the episode also introduced a new setting of terror. Emily (Alexis Bledel) is stationed at the house of the erratic, controlling Commander Joseph Lawrence, played by Bradley Whitford, the dad in Get Out, who might just be the most destabilising actor alive. Is Lawrence for or against Gilead? It’s unclear. While Aunt Lydia claims he designed the Gileadean economic system, he doesn’t live in a conventionally rigid and Gileadean household like the Waterfords’. Unlike the Waterfords’ immaculate house, this house is dingy and littered with books and artwork. The only art at the Waterfords’ is a portrait of the new “family” with Nicole.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Even if he has a good taste in books, it’s 99% likely Commander Lawrence is a despot of at least some variety. He keeps his wife locked away in her room, a la Bertha in Jane Eyre, and threatens Emily with chopping off a finger when he catches her reading. There’s a terrible irony in this assignment. Emily goes from the Colonies to the home of the man who conceived of the Colonies. Not only does this Commander know every last detail about Emily’s past — he’s well aware that she’s not a believer. This could be potentially dangerous.
But is he a believer? Something in Bradley Whitford’s strange tone (and in the fact that he pours Emily wine, and seems to empathise with the loss of her child) makes me feel like he, too, is skeptical. I can’t decide if I want to know everything about him or run away, fast. Unfortunately, Emily has no choice but to stay put, and drink the wine Lawrence puts in front of her. Unfortunately, no one in Gilead has a choice but to stay put. At least, until Mayday gets involved.