This review contains spoilers.
2.4 Other Women
In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, the liberated women of Stepford were killed and replaced with subservient robots. In this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, June’s transformation from defiance to docility involved nothing so lurid. It was done with guilt, trauma and the patient application of psychological pressure.
Aunt Lydia broke June by making her feel such shame and worthlessness that she divorced herself from herself and willingly took up the identity of Offred. June’s previous attempts to flee Gilead having failed, her only remaining escape route was to give in to it.
This mournful and uncomfortable episode tracked June’s deterioration. We watched as her early defiance turn to deference. Back at the Waterford home, Aunt Lydia had to remind June to adjust her proud, upright posture. By the end of the hour, June bent her head automatically.
June had started the episode like a dangerous caged animal, showing her rebellious strength again and again in a series of power tussles. Aunt Lydia though, showed the patience of a saint, by which I mean one of those religious zealots who starves themselves into martyrdom while declaring that the Lord is miraculuously sustaining them solely on air and communion wafers.
Each one of June’s challenges to Aunt Lydia’s authority was met with the same impassive wall of forbearance. Just what is going on behind that redoubtable face? Who was Lydia before all this began? Headmistress? Matron? Hockey coach? Someone so traumatised by her previous life that Gilead seems like glorious utopia in comparison?
If there’s a flashback episode on its way to answer that riddle, I can’t wait to see it. After Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd is this show’s most compelling screen presence. The pregnancy plot pitting the two against each other is this season’s strongest move yet.
Aunt Lydia made a series of strong moves this episode. She confronted June with the symbol of her enslavement—the handmaid’s gown—and made it seem like a lifeline. Our lead was given the choice between living as Offred, free of sin, or dying as June, mired in the stuff. It’s a good pitch and easy to understand how, alongside the brainwashing repetition of Lydia’s cheery infantalised language (“rub-a-dub-dub!”), it could work even on someone as disdainful of Gilead as June.
That disdain was visible in June’s arrival at the Commander’s home. Her incredulity at the kidnapping lie and breezily delivered “No, I’m having a great time” at the baby shower (for a fundamentalist Christian regime, Gilead certainly has a thing for occultish ritual) were pure June – clever, dangerous, drily witty. The way she hesitated at boundaries in the Waterford place though, pausing at the foot of the stairs and before the threshold of her former bedroom, showed up the trauma of her return.
Aunt Lydia’s real coup was confronting June with the corpse of the driver whose death she’d brought about. The guilt, combined with that over the tortured handmaids, and June’s existing self-hatred, broke her.
The flashbacks—sometimes gulps of fresh air away from the stifling atmosphere of Gilead—offered no relief this time. Last week, June drily quoted the Commander’s season one words that “better never means better for everyone” and in the case of her romance with Luke, that was certainly so. Luke’s wife Annie was devastated. Even before the Sons of Jacob made their move, June was being labelled a selfish bitch and a fucking whore.
Forget Annie and think of the future Luke told June, in a scene that framed the pair exactly like the Commander telling Serena to do the same about June.
Serena and June also tussled for power. Serena has it, but June’s pregnancy enables her to undermine the whole charade by, as she did at the baby shower, reminding everybody what a fiction this all is. To Serena, June isn’t only ‘the other woman’ in her marriage, but also in her experience of motherhood.
Other Women ended with June at her lowest point. The dry inner monologue which usually releives Gilead’s suffocating pressure was gone, and in its place a couple of mantras. First, the deeply sad words of the sexual assault victim, “My fault, my fault, my fault,” followed by “We’ve been blessed with good weather,” the robotically numbing words of someone who has checked out of reality, a different form of escape entirely.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.