It is a truth universally acknowledged that all handmaids eventually lose their minds. OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) reached her breaking point in last week’s episode, resulting in a rebellious outburst and a violent death.
Or so we thought.
In “Heroic,” we learn that OfMatthew is alive — but in a position that’s almost worse than death. She’s braindead, lying on a hospital bed. Her pregnant belly, the only part of her that matters to Gilead, was not affected by gunfire. June (Elisabeth Moss), forever OfMatthew’s walking partner, is forced to kneel before her body until she gives birth. Will this be the trial that breaks June’s mind?
On the journey to find the answer, get ready for an abundance of The Handmaid’s Tale’s signature traits: extreme close-ups of June’s face, June’s demonic green-eyed gaze, June’s figurative editorializing in voiceover. So, lots of June. And isn’t that the great flaw of this season? Lots of June, pursuing her desires at all costs. “When did you get to be so selfish?” Janine (Madeline Brewer) asks. Undeniably, June has changed from a person who fights for everyone to a person who fights for herself and her kids — even if it leads to the death of many women, especially women of color.
The other “star” of the episode is OfMatthew — voiceless, tubed up, and being handled by doctors and June as if she were nothing more than a sack of meat. She represents both the consequences of Gilead and of June’s selfishness. In an interview last week, LaThrop told me that originally, The Handmaid’s Tale went farther in ravaging OfMatthew’s body (as if cutting into both thighs to control seizures weren’t enough).
The Handmaid’s Tale is constantly tempting audiences to draw connections between its storyline and current events. This episode contains a neat and striking connection between the debate over control of women’s bodies raging across the country. “OfMatthew is just a vessel now and the baby is all that matters,” June says, as OfMatthew’s body is across from her. When a woman is pregnant, the baby’s life supersedes her own.
As if she hadn’t meddled enough in getting OfMatthew to that comatose state, June decides it’s her role to be the arbiter of OfMatthew’s fate. She tries killing her more than once — first by disconnecting her from a life-support tube, then by trying to recruit poor Janine (and her infected eye socket) to kill OfMatthew with a blade. In an unprecedented role reversal, Janine is the one who talks June off the ledge.
Once June starts flirting with her homicidal impulse, she can’t stop. When June the Unhinged smiles, you know she’s thinking of murder. June upgrades her ideal murder victim from OfMatthew to the doctor and OfMatthew’s Commander and his Wife. She’s planning how to take out that trio of Gilead apologists when Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), the undeniable perfect target, walks in.
Like it or not, but Serena and June are yolked. Serena’s forever the villain of June’s story. She held her captive in that cold house. She held her down as Fred (Joseph Fiennes) raped her. She’s trying to get Nichole back. She is, simply, the worst. So of course June, pushed to the edge of sanity, tries to murder her.
That makes sense. What happens next makes much less sense. After Jun attacks her with a blade, Serena flees and then tells the doctor June accidentally cut herself – a lie so obvious even the doc picks up on it. Why wouldn’t Serena take the opportunity to vanquish June, and all her threats, once and for all?
What June’s really experiencing is a suicidal tendency masked as a homicidal one. Prior incidents in The Handmaid’s Tale prove when a handmaid goes out, she takes other people down with her. Emily (Alexis Bledel) killed a guard with her car. OfMatthew lobbed Janine with a can and killed a guard. The handmaid suicide bomber handmaid killed countless Commanders. Handmaids despair at their individual lives and rage at Gilead. They want out — and the only way out (aside from Canada) is ending their lives. Before dying, they take down a piece of the society that created them. Rage and despair.
Of course, it takes a man to explain June to herself and work out this internal logic. The doctor treating OfMatthew feels kinship with June because he worked with June’s mother, Holly. It’s infuriating to see that men can still retain their personalities, their sense of humor, their careers, their ability to think straight. Gilead changed (straight white) men’s lives, but it didn’t take them away.
Most heartbreaking, maybe, are little girls who grew up in Gilead, like Rose, like Hannah. They never had a chance at having a life. June meets Rose in the hospital. She’s one of many young girls taking a “field trip” to her future — after getting their periods, girls in Gilead tour birthing wards. As she tells June, Rose’s expectations for her future amount to getting married and having kids. Gilead will work through erasure, through erasing people like June
The fact that OfMatthew has a boy, not a girl, is supposed to be a “happy ending” to her story. June is relieved. The child won’t grow up to be a Rose. But I don’t see what there is to celebrate about another baby coming into Gilead. Great, OfMatthew gave birth to a future rapist?
June insists on staying with OfMatthew until she dies. She finally shows OfMatthew — who she now calls Natalie — some compassion, and apologies for being a “shit.” Watching OfMatthew’s C-section seems to have awakened June. Yep, a woman had to die to renew June’s sense of purpose, and broaden it to be bigger than herself. “I’m going to get them out,” she says, her mission to get Hannah out now extending to all children of Gilead.
Though after her conversation with Mrs. Mackenzie (Amy Landecker) in the first episode of this season, June should know that “rescuing” children from Gilead is not straightforward. Maybe the children are brainwashed. Maybe they don’t want to leave. Maybe it’s too late. Somehow I doubt that anyone would want to live in Gilead’s repressive state — but June will have to “deprogram” young minds of Gilead's warped philosophy and smuggle them out, a near impossible challenge.
Handmaids, as this episode shows, lose their minds. This might be the episode that I lost mine. “This has to end,” June says. I agree — but I’m talking about the show and its egregious treatment of women's bodies. And its insistence on turning June into a hero, no matter how “selfish” she is. And for trying to mine a moment of intimacy between Jane and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), with whom she has a warped Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship. And for trying to make me care about Serena. I will never care!
This was 49 minutes of pure torture camp. It was hard to watch. I get it – that’s the point of The Handmaid’s Tale. But maybe I’m tired of watching it.
Last notes: The beginning of this episode gives an explanation for the show’s pop-heavy soundtrack, which features contemporary songs that always contrast with the mood of of Gilead. What we’re hearing, I think, is the internal soundtrack to June’s life. She sets her life to ballads from the ‘80s, like Belinda Carlile’s 1987 song “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” which opens this episode.