How do you plan a covert escape mission when you’re the most notorious handmaid in Cambridge? This is the problem that June (Elisabeth Moss) confronts in this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale — and the problem she ultimately bypasses.
As predicted, the influences of Washington, D.C., that red-hot center of religious extremism, are slowly seeping into the outer cities. Now, the handmaids of Cambridge are subject to more and more frequent inspections — especially since they have the reputation of being the Bad Girls of Gilead. There’s Janine (Madeline Brewer), who’s keeps crawling back to her baby; OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), who killed a guard; June, who’s on her ninth life; a suicide bomber; a baby smuggler. Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) strut around and check on what new deviances the rebellious handmaids of Cambridge have developed.
Soon enough, they won’t be able to express any rebellion. Did you catch that update on the awful lip rings June saw in D.C.? Apparently the rings are coming to Cambridge. Lydia says that the actual vow of silence is voluntary. How cute! As if the concept of choice existed in Gilead. This episode shows just how little freedom anyone, from the Commanders at the top to the handmaids at the bottom, have in their lives.
As a handmaid, June has been at the bottom of the societal totem pole since the start of Gilead. In this episode, though, the Lawrences join her in a similar position: Backed into a corner by Gilead’s rules. After getting back from D.C., Mean Mr. Fred has enforced more rules, like making sure houses (read: the Lawrences) are kept as orderly as a Pottery Barn, and that Commander Lawrence actually has to attend meetings elsewhere. Further, Mrs. Lawrence can’t get access to the medication she takes for bipolar disorder. It’s more and more obvious that their situation is untenable. June and the Lawrences need to get out — which is what makes their alliance so possible and so thrilling.
The Lawrences and June become bound together irrevocably this episode. It’s not a pretty turn of events, but it’s dire enough to make Joseph take action against Gilead — for real this time. Together, they might actually be able to pull off the Save the Children scheme.
Step one: Find the children. When June first openly recruits Mrs. Lawrence, the floundering Wife is suddenly activated with energy, like she’s been aching for a good ‘ol scheme to distract her from her life. She brings June to the files in the basement with information about the stolen children’s whereabouts. In the past five years, all of the kids have been twisted by Gilead’s philosophies in unthinkable ways.
(Sidenote: Why do the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale have it out for Janine? June learns that her son, Caleb, was struck and killed by a car. June lying about it later on is a mercy.)
After reading those filles, June has information and access on her side. What she doesn’t have, however, is invisibility. In addition to the pre-existing visibility that comes with her being a handmaid in crimson, she has an extra Scarlet A for being June. She’s hampered by being “conspicuous,” as Alma criticizes.
In that, she has something in common with Commander Lawrence. After four handmaids have come and gone without babies, Fred sounds the alarm. From the messy house to the baby problem to the madwoman in the attic, something’s up with that family. “His influence does more harm than good,” Fred said, high on the attention of a man. Commander Winslow! Swoon!
So, to deal with the Lawrence problem, Fred and Winslow stop by for a little impromptu monitored Ceremony. It is as awful, (and infantilizing, and violating) as it sounds.
Essentially, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), Lydia (Ann Dowd), and the merry Commander Duo wait downstairs as the Lawrences and June go upstairs to carry out the Ceremony. I’m honestly surprised the Clown Show didn’t join them in the bedroom. Either way, there’s no escaping the Ceremony: A doctor is waiting to check June for signs of, you know. If Joseph doesn’t perform, the whole household will end up on the Wall.
What happens next is one of the most extraordinary interactions in the history of The Handmaid’s Tale. Joseph Lawrence, an architect of Gilead, is brought to his knees by his very creation. June, who has weathered so many monthly rapes, has to coach Commander Lawrence through the Ceremony. If you ever want to cite an example of emotional labor found in pop culture, this is it. June finds compassion where there should be vitriol.
“You have to treat it like a job. Try to detach yourself. See it from the outside. You’re not you. I’m not me. This is a transaction,” June says, coaching him on how to endure the violation he enforced — but a violation that women have been enduring for centuries. Commander Lawrence’s voice wavers in this response: “Are you sure?” It’s the first moment a man has put himself in a woman’s shoes in this show – and it nearly breaks him.
They finish the Ceremony while Eleanor trembles in the other room and Gilead’s cheerleading squad waits downstairs, listening for faint creaks in the wood. Can you say, “Yuck?”
All it takes is one Ceremony to convince the Lawrences to join June. With that, Lawrence is willing to transport June and Eleanor outta that grey-toned hellscape. Is he good? Is he bad? We don't know: But he is in.
However, Lawrence automatically doesn’t include himself in the escape plan, because he doesn’t think he can leave. After all, he’s a war criminal. Here, June sees her opening to enact her big plan. If he can transport 10 kids out of Gilead, he’ll be safe — and so will the children.
Looks like June is keeping up her side-hobby of insulting Commander Fred intact, even as her responsibilities as rebellion leader increase: “At least it wasn’t you,” she says, after the very public Ceremony is finished.
Let’s tally up June’s progress so far. Support of an authority figure with access to a truck? Check. Support from people on the ground? Needs work. At Loaves and Fishes, June taps the handmaids to start finding eligible kids who can sit quietly in a van for hours. Similarly, the Martha Express agrees to help transport the kids to the truck — in fact, the Marthas agree vehemently. They send baskets of muffins to the Lawrence house. Muffins are code for “yes.” I love this little piece of world-building — give me more. Seems like they’ll need a bigger van.
Why are so many adults willing to risk the Wall to transport kids out of Gilead? They all realize what June did at the hospital: The children are the future. Gilead’s future. So long as there are kids in Gilead, there will be Gilead.
Oddly, this episode finds Serena in a similar position to June and her crew: Willing to risk everything to “save” a kid. Though Serena is gravely mistaken in thinking that taking Nichole from Canada would be “saving “ her. She decides to use that phone from Canada, Chekhov's gun of The Handmaid’s Tale. Once the phone was given to Serena, it was inevitable that one day, she’d dial it.
What will happen when she does?