I’ve never felt so physically and mentally sick after watching an episode of television. In no shape or form is that to imply that the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is poor – far from it. But emotionally, ‘Other Women’ brings June’s (Elisabeth Moss) escape from Gilead full circle in a shocking and jaw-dropping conclusion.
What ‘Other Women’ delivers is how far the Gilead system will go to maintain authority, quelling any chance of a rebellious uprising. It’s the brain-washing vindictiveness that has a persistent manner of showing no mercy. But most importantly, the episode is designed to psychologically remove any sense of hope that freedom can be achieved.
Hate is such a strong word but Aunt Lydia (played superbly by Ann Dowd) is certainly deserving of that title. If there is a symbol of Gilead’s indoctrination, authoritarian power and self-righteous beliefs, then she embodies every fabric of the cause. One can only imagine how Aunt Lydia got into that position. She’s the only character from the main cast that hasn’t had a defined backstory, and in context it might not be necessary. Sometimes the mystery is more powerful than the realisation. But it’s the manner of that exercised power that is terrifying. She believes without question, doubt or a pause for thought, that she is doing the utmost best for these women. She is saving them. Through structure and obedience, she is Gilead’s drill sergeant to the birthing soldiers known as handmaids. Without skipping a beat, The Handmaid’s Tale showcases another opportunity to display that conflicting and contradictory nature.
That destabilising and chilling reality is reinforced when June is returned to the Red Centre: re-tagged, chained and counting the number of flowers on her bedspread. June is offered an option – re-join the Gilead community on a trial basis, living with Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) or stay in the Red Centre where she will carry the baby to term and then be executed.
Of course, there are moments of pure, fan-pleasing defiance. June refusing to accept her Gilead name, for instance. She refuses to pretend, or alienate her feelings, by speaking up when she’s not permitted to. Gilead can’t hurt her physically. June’s pregnancy has granted her power and protection. Her natural disdain for Gilead only exposes their familiar and hypocritical practices. However, the eventual heartbreak throughout this episode is how Gilead (through Aunt Lydia) systematically dissolves June’s behaviour towards an accepted conformity.
Everyone has a breaking point, and essentially ‘Other Women’ is a transformative battle for June’s true identity. The rebellious June and the subservient Offred are treated as a duelling personality mindset with no room for compromise. Like a priest exorcising a demon, only one of these significant personalities can survive.
The handmaid’s uniform, which became a burning, fiery symbol of June’s freedom in the opening episode, is now a nightmarish taunt in her prison-like dwellings. Rita (Amanda Brugel) returning the handmaid’s testimonial letters to June is a sign of outright fear and Mayday’s eventual silence. It’s witnessing the surreal and dissociating experience of the Waterford’s baby shower and bonding ceremony. But as the episode title suggests, ‘Other Women’ tackles the life left behind and the consequences of those actions.
Victimisation and blame culture has always been a significant element in the series, mirroring society today. You only have to look at the current #MeToo movement and the opposing and ill-advised commentary that women are somehow at fault for their predicament. The Handmaid’s Tale re-emphasizes that notion. Reminiscent of Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) affliction in Season One where she was blamed for being gang-raped, it is June’s turn to feel that religious judgement.
Her escapade away from Gilead is treated as selfish and impulsive and others have been severely punished because of her. Ofglen #2 had her tongue cut out. Alma’s (Nina Kiri) arms were burned and scarred. Rita’s prior conversation with June alluded to trouble, and we witness the full extent of that statement when she’s on the receiving end of Serena Joy’s vicious outbursts. Even June’s flashback, our usual source of insight and the methodical changes that led to Gilead, takes a negative and accusatory turn. She’s painted as a villain for breaking up Luke’s (O-T Fagbenle) marriage. The series doesn’t try to paint June as a hero or a saint. She is a complicated person, expressive in all kinds of emotions and the daily trials of life. But the idea that she is a sinner in her previous life as well as in Gilead only compounds her state of mind. She is at fault for everything that has happened to her. But what shocks June into the mercy of Gilead is when she sees the consequential fate of Omar and his family.
It’s a testament to the strength of the show that it depicts mental health and its traumatic struggles. In ‘Unwomen’, June offered a frank explanation about adaptability, finding comfort in walls and now that haunting statement echoes loud and clear. There’s an overwhelming sadness in seeing June regress into a lonely, depressive and broken figure, burdened by the severe weight of guilt and blame. June is a survivor but it didn’t take long before that internal and defiant wall caved in. It’s easier to forget the past and adopt a life of accepting servitude than to suffer further punishment by “June”. Offred is reborn into the world, sin-free and blameless.
If anything, what ‘Other Women’ powerfully demonstrates is Gilead’s far-reaching strength. They have an unrelenting willingness to stop at nothing. Mayday’s influence is non-existent; their operating network most likely purged and choosing to abandon their cause in helping the enslaved women. June’s escape is steeped in the fake news culture with the story casually re-written to suit their ulterior needs. Her temporary liberation was an act of terrorism, held forcibly by her captors where the fearsome might of Gilead was able to rescue her. Even the iconic “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” is erased from June’s wardrobe in the Waterford residence. It’s disturbing how an episode can draw subtle political parallels with our current world without feeling forced. The truth used to be based on facts but now it is debated inconsequentially and subjectively. The truth is re-shaped to thrive like an infectious, cult-like parasite. In the context of Gilead, it is the Orwellian manipulation to prove that their strict and extreme society works. It is the systemic removal of individual freedoms to adopt a collective and shared narrative. It is the slow and deteriorating erosion of any hopeful avenues, closing the loopholes that might be exploited in the future. In June’s case, there’s no way out other than submission.
‘Other Women’ broke my heart. It was an episode that had a casual sprinkling of daring optimism and dark humour. But in the end, that heart shattered into a million pieces and was then scattered off a cliff. While the audience gathers the pieces with a gradual and sore emptiness, The Handmaid’s Tale justifiably continues to rise in estimation as one of the best TV shows of the year.