This week, The Handmaid’s Tale ramped up both June’s relationship with the men in the household and the idea of a building revolution. Twinning these plotlines in this episode was smart – leaning too heavily on the male characters in a world like this isn’t really going to fly.
The Commander, clearly trying to construct an intimacy between himself and June that can never exist, has invited her back to his office for scores of Scrabble games by this point – 34, she says. He gives her a contraband women’s magazine as a show of attempted good faith.
While Mrs. Waterford takes June with her to clip hedges and June contemplates murdering her with the clippers, Serena voices the same thought that last episode’s doctor did – the Commander might be infertile, too, making every ceremony a waste. This scene puts Serena’s priorities into place – she’s willing to bend the rules if it brings about a child. So she tells June that she and Nick will start having sex, as well, to increase the chances of having a baby.
Just when I was getting sick of so much time with the male characters (sorry, but they drive the status-quo, not the forward plot), we spot Ofglen at the supermarket. June tries to speak with her, but they’re interrupted by the new Ofglen. The old Ofglen tells June she’s Ofsteven now, but I think it’s simpler to call her by her real name, revealed at the end of episode three: Emily. Emily manages to get one word to June, but it’s cryptic: Mayday.
Serena sneaks June out to Nick’s room above the garage, and stays in the room for yet another horrible sexual encounter. June’s eyes roam the room; this time, she tells the audience, it feels like she’s cheating on Luke.
Speaking of: the flashback this episode is to when June and Luke first get to know one another. Luke was married when he and June met (introduced by Moira’s outgoing spirit). Their lunches turn into an affair; June asks Luke to leave his wife, and he agrees, instantly – he loves her. Although this was already alluded to, it makes perfect sense that their daughter would be considered illegitimate in Gilead’s eyes – a child of a divorced father and a cheating mother.
June has to perform the ceremony, yet again, with the Commander, but it’s different this time, and it scares her. “Stop it. Stop it. Don’t look at me like that,” she thinks frantically; he grabs her leg. She confronts him angrily in his office for deviating from the script, but he’s far from apologetic. He argues in favor of this choiceless world he’s helped to create, telling her she’ll be able to “fulfill her biological destiny in peace.”
When she pushes back, having been given the leeway to do so, he scoffs. “Children. What else is there to live for?” “Love,” she answers simply. It’s a relic of a world that’s been swept away, the ability to engage with someone on equal (or, relatively equal) footing; she’s thinking of Luke, of their daughter, of being able to choose these things.
The Commander calls it “lust with a good marketing campaign,” saying that “every love story’s a tragedy if you wait long enough,” and then he strikes with his real ammunition: he tells her what happened to Emily, how they mutilated her. If anyone had shored up any sympathy for the Commander, it’s gone now. He tells June he’s a compassionate man, and it’s clear that he believes it of himself – it’s easy to do so when there’s always someone worse to compare yourself to. He gives himself points for keeping June on a longer leash but doesn’t acknowledge that he’s still holding her captive.
And then, the killer line, one that June repeats to herself afterward: “I only wanted to make the world better. Better never means better for everyone. It always means better for some.”
It’s the kind of line you keep turning over in your head, and I’ll let you hash it out in the comments. I’m still wondering if it’s a hard truth or a slippery lie.
June throws up in the kitchen sink afterward, and – typical – Nick comes in at this moment. When he tells her to go back upstairs, she cracks. “Don’t tell me where to go. Please don’t tell me what to do.” She seizes the moment and asks him, point blank, if he’s an Eye, a spy within the household. “Yes,” he says. Is he telling the truth, and revealing himself in a moment of honesty? Or is he taking advantage of the situation and lying to her to exert a measure of power?
At the market the next day, there’s – as Serena Joy calls it – “a bit of trouble.” June notices Emily again and tries to shake her loyal companion, who’s found a better life in Gilead than she had in America. It’s a nice moment of solidarity, when June tells an unnamed handmaid that her companion would love to look at the nearby lilies. The other handmaid understands instantly, running interference for June.
Emily takes the chance to effectively pass the burden of the revolution to June – she knows that it’s over for her, but she tells June that she’ll be able to help. “Mayday,” again – “help me.” Her final words to June are to introduce herself with her real name. And then, in a blaze of glory, she steals a car from a driver. For a second, you think she might get away, figure out a way to drive across the border, but she just goes in circles. For a brief second, she laughs; then she runs down one of the armed guards and is taken away. It’s probably the last we’ll see of her, but what a way to go.
At the end of the episode, June goes to Nick’s room and initiates sex – real, intimate sex. It’s an act she can own. The music feels dangerous, though. June is getting bolder as the episodes go on – maybe soon, she won’t need the voice overs at all. See you next week.