In her review of “June,” the first episode of this season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” my co-reviewer mentioned a scene in which each handmaid gets her hand burned over a stove top as punishment for refusing to stone Janine. “Not much is said, but everything is implied,” she wrote. June’s pregnancy gave her impunity, protecting her from receiving the same treatment as the other women watched her eat before going up for their own scorching. In “Other Women,” the season’s fourth episode, the opposite is true. We’re back to square one, June’s pregnancy is what is keeping her prisoner, and no one’s holding back from telling June exactly what the consequences of her escape were.
“Other Women” might as well be a throwback episode, as the cyclical nature of life as a handmaid is brought back full circle in what is ultimately a study in brainwashing. June is spared the lonely misery of spending the remainder of her pregnancy in solitary confinement, chained to a bed somewhere in the Red Center. But a reprieve from that punishment means proving that she will be even more of a “good girl” than ever before. And so it goes: June is back in her red dress; she lies in same bed, in the same bedroom in the Waterford home; the letters she received from Mayday remain shoved behind the bathtub, Rita too scared to do anything with them or Mayday too spooked to send anyone over to collect them, or both. “Commander and Mrs. Waterford, I would very much like to stay here at home,” June pleads, her meek voice back in full force. Home, sweet home it is.
Unbelievably, the Waterfords and Aunt Lydia have fabricated the perfect lie to cover for June’s absence: She was kidnapped by terrorists who presumably wanted to smuggle her out of the country. Serena doesn’t hesitate, however, to let June know that she will not forget her act of rebellion. “Ninety-two days!” she hisses, her hands wrapped around June’s neck the moment they’re alone. June’s penalty of continuing on as if nothing happened seems too easy, more of a chastisement than a true punishment, even more so because of the fate of other minor characters—who committed equally serious crimes or bravely dared to break the rules—is so much worse. The econoperson we met last episode who houses June when she refuses to stay at her new (apparently not so safe) safehouse is hanged on the execution wall introduced last season. His widowed wife is now a handmaid, and their son has been given to another, more “fit” set of parents. Ofglen, the first to speak against stoning Janine, gets her tongue cut out as a result. “You didn’t make her say anything. This wasn’t your fault,” Ofrobert says, trying to soothe June. The camera pans down to Ofrobert’s charred wrist, a permanent reminder of the handmaid’s burning. “Not that part.”
June has lost the war—for now, at least—but she’s still willing to fight the battles. “I felt the baby kick for the first time last night,” June says as she sits in a corner, the other wives helping Serena with gifts for her baby shower. The deceptively spiteful words halt all movement. Serena gets to enjoy the customary traditions that come with motherhood—the baby showers, the perfunctory baby booties—but June is still the one who gets to enjoy the intimacy of pregnancy: the first kick, the swelling stomach, all of which Serena tries desperately to co-experience and commit to memory, even when she thinks June is asleep.
Of course, the episode wouldn’t be complete without its perfunctory flashback to June’s pre-Gilead life. This time, we explore the biggest hurdle in June and Luke’s relationship: his first wife, Annie. Though the married couple has been separated for three months at the time of the flashback, Annie confronts June as a last ditch effort to salvage what’s left of their marriage. “Fucking whore!” she eventually yells at June, when the latter refuses to stop seeing Luke. The insult is a clear throwback to the very reason why June was made a handmaid in the first place. “You were an adulterer. A worthless slut,” Lydia reminds her in the episode’s “previously on” preview.
Indeed, “Other Women” serves as a reminder to June that if she wants to survive, she can no longer be June, the one responsible for the destruction of a family, the agony of soon-to-be parents of a baby who was kidnapped, and the collective scarring of those who followed her lead. “My fault,” Offred repeats in her head when she realizes the “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” illegally scratched onto her closet wall has been erased. The guilty recitation is the defeated handmaid’s new mantra—well, one of them. “We’ve been sent good weather,” she thinks by the end of the episode. We’re left with Offred, more subservient than we’ve ever seen her before. With no trace of June, Offred’s situation is more irrevocably hopeless than when we first met her. We can’t even hope for a storm to brew.
—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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