Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale is almost over, but it doesn’t quite feel like it; the knowledge of season two is reassuring here, but I’m not any more sure of what’s going to happen in next week’s finale than I was before “The Bridge.” But first: episode nine.
We open with poor Janine, as she’s forced to give up her daughter to her assigned commander, Warren, and his wife. She’s scattered and reluctant, but she seems to be soothed by the commander’s promises. She’s taken to her next posting through a sea of other handmaids. Bringing back the baby subplot (Angela/Charlotte) had me wondering what the next generation is supposed to look like in Gilead. Will children, all raised together in relative luxury, all be divided into servants, wives, handmaids, and commanders? How will they decide which children are assigned to which post?
June approaches Alma after Janine leaves – “I want to help,” she says. “With Mayday.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Alma says quickly. She finds her again later, without so many prying eyes and ears, and sends her on a mission (impossible?): Go back to Jezebel’s, the converted hotel, and retrieve a package from a woman at the bar.
June is nervous; she’s held off on getting involved in revolutionary activity this entire season, but she goes to Waterford in his study to try to coax him into taking her back. It seems to work, a little too easily; afterward, we see June cycle quickly through a range of emotions: false excitement, fear, and something dangerous, the gaze of someone trying to become a hunter. (Side note: of course Elisabeth Moss is an incredible actor, but Elisabeth Moss is an incredible actor.)
Waterford takes June straight into one of the rooms for yet another painful rape scene. “Did you like that?” he asks her. She grits her teeth and says “yes.” Afterwards, when she asks to go down to the bar, he deflects: “Offred. I’m not dumb. I know why you wanted to come back here.” Of course, it’s not anything to do with underground activities: he brings in Moira, who the Jezebels have renamed “Ruby.” No woman in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, from prostitute (more accurately: sex slave) to handmaid, gets to keep her own name. Even the wives are “of” their husbands, in a subtler way: Mrs. Waterford, not Serena Joy.
“I know you know Ruby,” says Waterford. “I know her too.” (I usually want someone to stab Waterford, but this really put me over the edge. Fingers crossed he meets an untimely demise.) Waterford goes to shower, and Moira and June get the chance to talk to each other again. But instead of being relieved, Moira is furious that June would endanger herself by coming back – and even more angry that she’s there in service of the rebellion. She’s not the same Moira we saw at the start; she’s exhausted, emotionally stripped, resigned, and hopeless. And I don’t blame her at all. Her existence has been whittled down to a single point – survive. It’s impossible to consider anything else.
June responds with anger, too. (I said this last week, but their energy against one another is better than any of the other relationships in the show. I could watch them the entire time.) “You’re a liar. Cuz you said we would find Hannah,” June says. “You will find her,” Moira says. “No. We will. That’s what you said. When all of this was over, you, you promised. You f**king pinky swore… Moira, do not – do not let them grind you down.”
Moira leaves, and June is taken back to the Commander’s home empty-handed from mission impossible. She’s woken up early in the morning by a panicked Serena Joy, who puts her into the car and takes her to a bridge.
Meanwhile, Janine’s been having a bad time at her new house. She shies away from the ceremony and begins to struggle and cry out. Like every other rape in this show, it’s awful to watch. She pushes the new commander off her, cowering.
Back at the bridge, Janine is standing on the edge – with her baby daughter. She reveals that Warren was also having sex with her outside the ceremony, forcing her into different acts. Aunt Lydia pushes June forward with a new mission: “Make her listen. Save that child.”
June does. She talks to Janine in a way that no one else can, drawing on their shared friendship. She promises her that they’ll get out, one day, and all go drinking together – do karaoke, dance, watch the sun come up. Janine asks June to come with her, and June considers it. “I can’t,” she says. “I’m sorry. I can’t, because of my daughter.” She asks Janine to do what’s best for her daughter, and so Janine gives June the baby, kisses June goodbye, and jumps.
She doesn’t die; Aunt Lydia sits with her in the hospital, watching over her. I’m actually fascinated by Aunt Lydia’s character – strict and soft, the carrot and the stick all in one person. She exists to uphold the rule of the state, to push against her fellow women, but it’s clear how much she genuinely cares for the girls. In her warped view, she’s doing the best thing she can for them.
They arrest Warren for what he’s done, which is a very small plus. And finally, the clincher: when June picks up groceries from the butcher, there are two packages, not one. She’s startled, hiding it and reading the note: ”Praised be, bitch. Here’s your damn package. –Moira.” And we see Moira: psyching herself up in the bathroom, slipping a makeshift knife into her sleeve, getting into a van, wiping blood off her hands. It’s beautiful to see her like this again, face naked, without the trappings of compulsory femininity. And for a second – like Emily in the driver’s seat – she smiles, too.
There are a handful of other scenes that don’t really add much to the arc, and probably should have been cut out: Serena Joy and Rita drink together in the kitchen, and we find out that Rita’s 19-year-old son died in the war that lead to Gilead’s founding – an interesting enough piece of backstory, but not entirely relevant. Nick talks with the cook from Jezebel’s again, who makes him pasta (why?) and spouts some clunky dialogue about the unlikeliness of a rebellion. I’m never all that interested in Nick’s scenes, but these dragged more than usual.
This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was stronger and more cohesive than last week’s – but something about the pacing is still kind of throwing me. Parts of this arc felt like they would have made a really excellent mid-season episode, while the increasing desperation and dangerousness of the main characters felt in line with the penultimate episode of the season. I think it’s the way that the rebellion is being treated – it’s only in episode nine, out of ten, that June finally gets actively involved in the handmaids’ spy network. While this development would make sense in a season that’s only hinted at the existence of an underground resistance, it feels too little too late when it’s been repeated to us, over and over, since the beginning. But I’m sure we’ll find out next time.