The latest installment of this bleak cautionary tale explores human empathy, and what it takes for some people to be able to truly understand the suffering of others.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” does what any good science fiction project does, and that is force us to look back upon ourselves today by projecting what we could become in the future.
In this near future dystopia, what we see is what happens when we stop seeing other people as wholly realized human beings just like we are, when we stop being able to recognize their humanity just as we acknowledge our own.
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It’s when we “other” another person into something less than that we start to lose our own humanity. But it’s also about how powerful a glimmer of empathy can be. It can move mountains.
Empathy was all over this week’s episode as Luke got a first-hand glimpse of just a fraction of the suffering June has endured since her capture by Gilead all those years ago.
We also saw Serena getting a first-hand glimpse as to what life was like for June in their home, kept as a prisoner and reduced to her womb, a vessel through which a baby will be born, rendering her completely inconsequential as a person herself.
Then there’s Aunt Lydia, who has been experiencing her own awakening of sorts through her interactions with Janine, who has suffered tremendously at the hands of the GIlead system.
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Lydia cares for the Handmaids in her care, and yet they suffer tremendously. She has even been the cause of so much of that suffering, but she has done so with zealotry, believing that her faith and her God supported her all the way.
The only way for that to work, though, is for all of this to be pure and within her God’s vision. Yes, these women are subjugated to state-sponsored rape and impregnation, but there is a ritual that makes it okay, she justifies to herself. So long as everyone follows the edicts put forth by their church, then nothing is against god.
But what is power without abuse? The two almost inevitably go hand in hand. Lydia has suffered plenty of abuses and indignities herself, but she stays strong because she still believes she can protect her girls, within this system she has come to believe in. But oh is she being tested.
This week’s hour started with Lydia discovering that Esther, who tried to kill herself and Janine a few weeks ago after Commander Waterford’s funeral where she had a special private audience with Commander Putnam before she was to be assigned to his house.
It turns out, Esther is pregnant, and awake. Commander Putnam took advantage of his power and position and he simply raped her, right before a funeral. There was no ceremony, no adherence to their faith, just pure abuse of power.
In one of the most emotionally harrowing scenes of the whole series, Esther rejects Lydia’s apology, telling her she doesn’t believe that Lydia is sorry. All the men do this, she tells Lydia, and she believes Lydia knows this.
In a performance that is unbridled rage, young McKenna Grace screams in her restraints, completely out of control, and we feel the pain of this former Wife, this teenager who’s now been raped, humiliated and debased by a system that tore her down and will now force her to bear this child to term. The final scene, looking down at her as she wails her frustration and powerlessness is gut-wrenching.
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Serena may not be in Gilead, but she may as well be. Trapped inside the Wheeler house with no autonomy or free will, Serena isn’t even able to leave the house to go to her ultrasound. The Wheelers instead set up an entire birthing suite in their upstairs.
On top of that, the doctor who comes to check on her proceeds to ask her out to dinner, with the Wheelers blessing, of course. When Serena pushes back against this idea to Alanis Wheeler, she gets shut down … hard.
There’s been a sinister hard edge that’s all too familiar in Mrs. Wheeler, reminiscent of Mrs. Waterford in the earlier seasons. We’re certain that Serena recognizes bits of herself in Alanis, just as she starts to recognize bits of June in herself.
Like June, she is trapped in this house, with no freedom or agency of her own. If she didn’t know her place in the household yet, that became quickly clear after her chat with Alanis.
Alanis told her in no uncertain terms that Dr. Landers was a good catch and a fine fit for her. When Serena suggested she may not want to remarry at all, Alanis told her that her feelings didn’t really matter, because her baby needed a mother and a father.
Then, when Serena wanted to step out for some fresh air, Alanis put a stop to that. She told her it was too cold. She told her it wasn’t going to happen. And then, in the final humiliation, she literally sent Serena to her room.
The shot of Serena sitting on the edge of her bed and sobbing was another echo of seasons past when it was June weeping at her situation, feeling helpless, powerless and lost. Serena has gone from the highest of highs with all the hope that she could break that glass ceiling she helped create in Gilead, only to be quickly reduced to the glorious vessel that is her womb. She is, after all, only a woman.
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At the close of last week’s episode, June and Luke were captured in No Man’s Land, but it wasn’t clear who had captured them in this space between Gilead and Canada that neither had sovereignty over. Well, we did find out this week.
For Luke, this was a huge wakeup call as to what June must have endured during her time in Gilead, with O-T Fagbenle really delivering a powerful performance in his own rage and sorrow and helplessness.
He wants to do the man thing and be the hero and protect her and rescue her in this moment because he wasn’t there to do it then. But he’s not in a position to do it now, either, which only make him even more frustrated.
There was a very cute exchange between the two of them, before things took a dark turn, where they flirted across their separate cages. It was a testament to the strength of their bond, which has been tested already, and surely will be again.
At one point, in his impotent frustration, Luke actually tries to make a run for it. It’s ill-advised, and maybe something June would have tried before enduring years of this sort of thing. She’s learned to bide her time, but Luke isn’t there yet.
In a scene that couldn’t help but evoke the death of George Floyd and so many other black men by authority figures, June watches helplessly as the masked men subdue Luke and even after he’s stopped resisting, hold him in a chokehold to the point he starts to pass out.
“He’s not resisting, he’s not resisting,” she pleads over and over to deaf ears. Finally, he is let go, beaten some more and tossed back in the cell, but it was a powerful reminder of the cruelty that men in power can and too often commit.
Ultimately, they learn from the men that have captured them that they’re to be taken to Gilead — but the situation is a little more complex than that.
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Joseph Lawrence & Nick Blaine
Incensed after finding out what Warren did to Esther, Lydia approached Joseph with the information. He put her in her place when she said there must be justice, asking what crime Warren actually committed. Is not impregnating these women what GIlead is all about?
Isn’t impregnating them against their will how this all works? But, Lydia argues, there’s a ceremony. It is a sacred thing that is happening, under the watchful and supportive eye of God. This was not that. This was rape.
Later, Joseph and Nick are with Warren, who proudly tells Joseph that his New Bethlehem initiative is dead, and then laughs when they confront him about raping Esther before a funeral in his study.
Warren’s argument is to wonder why Joseph even bothered to seek power if he wasn’t going to enjoy the spoils of it. One of the most disgusting men in a series filled with them, Warren has acted with impunity for years now.
Toward the end of the episode, though, the tide seems to have turned. Warren is arrested at breakfast and taken before Joseph and Nick, right outside.
In front of his wife and other patrons, he is told that an overnight session of the High Criminal Court of Gilead has found him guilty of apostasy, “sins of the flesh” for “the rape of unassigned property.”
Warren had earlier laughed that it didn’t matter because Esther would have been his property the next day anyway. But Handmaids are not supposed to be raped indiscriminately. They are supposed to be raped only during a sacred, government approved ceremony with the Wives present.
With shocking swiftness, Nick executes Warren. Later, Lydia takes her girls to see Warren being hung on the wall, calling this the justice she had been seeking. Janine says she wishes she could have been there to see it, hinting with her face at the suffering she probably endured under this man, as well.
As Esther told Lydia, Warren is not the only one who abuses these Handmaids and treats them as their own living sex toys. And that’s not even getting into the Jezebels, which are Gilead’s best unkept secret. God may have had a lot to do with the design of Gilead, but seems to have very little with the execution of that design.
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When Ryan called Serena in to see him after he very bad day with Alanis, it could have been anything. What she didn’t expect was for him to tell her that his men had captured June Osborne and her husband Luke in No Man’s Land. So that answers that question.
He then told her that he didn’t feel he could trust GIlead to handle her properly, so he was going to have his own man, Ezra, pick her up and then take care of her in No Man’s Land, much as she did to Fred.
June insisted and then begged with tears in her eyes that she be allowed to go with Ezra to see June’s execution. He took everything from her, she pleaded. She needed to see June’s ending for herself so she could tell her son exactly what happened to his father’s killer.
With initial reluctance, Ryan agreed, and so it was that Serena finally got to leave the house — with Alanis telling her that at the slightest discomfort, he would bring her right home. But that clearly wasn’t the pan, as it looked like Serena was enduring labor pains in the car, but certainly not saying anything.
June and Luke, meanwhile, were completely oblivious about this plan. They thought they were going back to Gilead. Only, when they were getting ready to be loaded into the bus, the men note that Luke is “legal,” so Gilead doesn’t want him. He’s taken to another vehicle to be “dumped” at the border.
So June finds herself alone. Again. In a bus with strangers, with her hands tied before her, she was resolved both that she might die, but also that she and look had vowed to never give up hope of finding one another again and staying alive at all costs.
But then, it all went sideways as the bus stopped, Ezra boarded and said that Wheeler had approved him to take June off the bus. As the bus pulled away, it revealed Serena standing behind Ezra and June.
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It was just the three of them. Serena insisted that June get down on her knees and pray, and June, still committed to trying to survive at any cost, acquiesced. Her prayer, though, was from the heart.
“I pray that my daughters live a life of peace, a life without all of this hate and violence,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “Give them a life. Give them a happy life. And, dear God, may they do better than we did.”
At this point, Serena had pleaded with Ezra to let her shoot June herself, insisting that she needed to do this. Ezra, like Ryan before him, acquiesced to Serena’s powerful will. After June’s prayer, Serena said, “Amen.” But she did not shoot June.
At the last moment, she turned and shot Ezra. His bulletproof vest kept him from getting truly shot, but it still knocked him back and stunned him. With him incapacitated, Serena again turned the gun on June.
Only this time, she insisted June get in the car and drive. Serena, clearly struggling again with labor pains, held the gun on June as they drove away and the credits rolled.
With that, we have no idea where it goes from here. These two women are mortal enemies, and both have vowed to kill one another. Serena, though, is clearly in a desperate situation as she does not want to have her baby at the Wheeler house where she’ll be likely trapped forever.
This may be her last chance at freedom, but what does that even mean to her? We can’t imagine she’s ready to give up Gilead’s ideals as she helped build them. She just doesn’t want the worst of them to apply to her.
Is it possible that her brief time living as a Handmaid does has opened her eyes in some way? Every time Serena seemed to show a glimmer of goodness, it’s been quashed by her unrelenting, self-serving, petty, vindictive ugliness. So we’re not holding out hope for a redemption arc.
It is fun, though, that we genuinely have no idea where the show goes from here. Presumably, Luke is headed back to Canada, but this all-new Thelma & Louise? Truly anything is possible.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” drops new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.
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