The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 4
Gilead is an aesthetic society. It values good taste and beauty. Its Commanders’ houses are chic, permanently prepped for a Homes & Gardens photoshoot (if only they hadn’t executed all the journalists, there could have been some quite lovely magazine spreads). Just look at the gleaming white Putnam place; it even has a pool that isn’t used to drown dissident children.
The beauty serves a purpose, of course – to disguise ugliness. The Wives of Gilead don’t want to confront the brutal regime behind their miracle babies and elegant mansions. They drape doilies and arrange flowers to distract from Gilead’s missing eyes and cut-out tongues. They sit their households down sweetly to hear a Bible reading before committing rape. The uglier the system, the prettier its disguise.
Which is why June and Serena’s new alliance couldn’t have hoped for a better floorshow than the one given by Aunt Lydia this episode. Slap bang in the middle of the Putnams’ marble floors and silk rugs, Lydia viciously attacked Janine and the spectacle was unavoidable. They may have turned their faces away, but every Wife in the district was in that room. Might one or more be – in June’s words – ignited by it?
Or perhaps like Serena, the other Wives will need to personally experience the loss of a finger/child before they see Gilead as it really is. Losing Nichole appears to have flicked a switch in Serena, activating a previously dormant empathy gene. All of a sudden, she feels for mothers separated from their children. It’s a shabby route to humanity, only taking threats seriously if you’re the one being threatened, but in Gilead, you have to work with what you’ve got.
June’s certainly doing that. This week she was part prison yard hood, squaring up to Ofmatthew in the kitchen, and part cigar-chomping Mafioso, brokering a deal between clients. “It’s worth discussing,” she cockily told Fred about the bargain he needed to make to get Serena back. The Godfather in a red dress.
All the breath-stopped tension of June’s former scenes with the Waterfords has been exhaled now that they’re all colluding in the secret of Nichole’s “kidnap”. No longer prison guards and inmate, they’re collaborators. Explicitly so in Serena’s case. It can’t have been an accident that Serena signalled her assent to June’s “wear the dress, pull the strings” by silently handing her cigarettes and a lighter. Not only are they contraband (especially for a walking womb like June, not that Commander Lawrence carries out that part of his job), they’re also a permanent reminder of Serena’s protest in burning her pretty house to the ground.
“God Bless The Child” does have tension in the silent panic leading up to Aunt Lydia’s attack. With a characteristic lack of self-preservation, Janine danced up to the Putnams and asked them to break one of Gilead’s fundamental laws with no real grasp of her transgression. It was this slow episode at its most gripping. Madeline Brewer makes any scene she’s in compelling because of her character’s childlike unpredictability. The same goes for Ann Dowd as Lydia (the flashback episode we’re all really waiting for), who is falling apart in front of us. Watching Lydia’s breakdown this season has been like watching the Waterford house burn – another instrument of Gilead razed.
The messed-up mother/daughter dynamic between Janine and Aunt Lydia fascinates. Just as June earlier struggled to describe her feelings for Commander Waterford, Janine and Aunt Lydia’s twisted bond acknowledges how complicated emotional lives are. Gilead may have written its laws to prevent attachments (“That’s exactly why the system was designed, to prevent this kind of thing from happening”), but it failed to account for the messiness of human emotion, an oversight that – if Serena’s arc is anything to go by – it will pay for dearly.
Elsewhere, Emily reunited with her wife and son in a series of careful, quiet and well-acted scenes. Like the baptism flashbacks, which added little, the Canada thread didn’t drive forward the plot but brought emotional range, even sentimentality to this famously hard-nosed drama.
Luke and Moira having Nichole baptized was a happy ending – increasingly less rare this season – only complicated by June having had to identify Luke in that video (the first time she’s seen him since they were separated, and her first proof that he’s being a father to Nichole, hence that smile).
Is Luke in danger now? Could Gilead reclaim its lost child? Or will the coalition of Serena and June be able to keep their daughter safe? What they’ll do next to “move the point” has given season three momentum. As the man said, smart girls are trouble.