The Handmaid's Tale, season 2, episodes 3 and 4- The writers reconfirm June's existence and delve more deeply into the roots of her "sin".
So I spoke too soon, when I suggested that the "theme" of season 2 might be June on the run from the authoritahs. After all, we've seen that kind of thing before, right? This was no time to do The Fugitive, but it was an excellent opportunity to explore a bit of the world of Gilead outside the closeted existence that is that of the handmaids. We finally see the Econowives of the novel (absent in the film) and they took care to keep the obvious perception issues between the female classes extant. Handmaids are thought to be promiscuous ("sluts") by the Wives and Econowives, so they're treated poorly, which comes across clearly when June ends up in the home of Omar and Heather and the latter doesn't want her to even touch anything in the apartment. (Keep the poor divided and they can't unite against you.) That notion of the "fallen woman" status of many of the handmaids is highly emphasized in both of these episodes, as the lynchpin of the guilt that washes over June, from past and present, is an assumption of her "sin" that both she and Lydia serve to foment within her.
Episode 3- When we see June developing an exercise routine for both body (running) and mind (research), it gives us an indication of her drive to keep moving forward and to distance herself from the regime that she's escaped, physically and mentally. But the tie that binds her is an obvious one: Hannah. The fact that she's been put into the awful role of a handmaid in the first place is that she's fertile and Hannah is the walking demonstration of that. When June begins to remember her mother, Holly, and the conflict that divided them- Holly wishing to constantly be active in changing society versus June's desire to live a "normal" life -it's a highlight both of the intense guilt that she felt at the chasm between them and the fact that she's come around to believing that her mother's constant vigilance actually served a purpose and it was June's fault for ignoring the wider political and social situation. Her mother scolded her for not "doing more" with her life, which is in essence the same message that Aunt Lydia delivers on a daily basis when she tells the handmaids that they're serving a higher purpose. The intent of Mom and Lydia are completely contrary, of course, but the direction is the same: aim higher, albeit only within the purview of a man in the state of Gilead and preferably without one in the state of Mom.
Moira ends up running into some of those same conflicts inside the safe environs of Canada. Being closer in mindset to Holly, she finds herself at loose ends while trying to stay civil with her roommates and help out other refugees. When confronted with the fact that someone she was helping actually cooperated with the regime, she has to struggle to stay sympathetic with him because the concept of willing behavior is beyond her. Or at least it is until she tries to drink her struggles away and ends up reverting to the nightlife identity she'd had at the brothel as "Ruby". Many of us don't realize the roles that we adopt and become comfortable with, especially when said roles are forced upon us. This is the main issue that June will end up struggling with in episode 4 and it's one that hangs over the whole series: the concept of identity and one's role within society. That identity often dictates our behavior toward people that we would otherwise have no dispute with. How many can say they'd be entirely sympathetic with someone on the other side of the Trump divide? And that's not even a situation where people were actively put to death, which is what Moira had to try to process. But that in itself is an outgrowth of staying aware of the changes in society, even the minor ones, which may only affect others at the moment and be less of a concern to you, but which could grow to incorporate you in very short order. This is the case that Holly was making and which June now feels semi-responsible for.
Technique-wise, I appreciated a couple of the camera juxtapositions, like the shot of the picture of Holly holding the infant June with present Holly reflected in the glass. I'm not sure whether that was done overtly as a storytelling device or just a way to show how the trick could be done with the camera, though. The moment where June discovers Omar's Quran and realizes why he'd be willing to help out other oppressed sectors of the populace was a good one. Also, the return to what was essentially the same stretch of woods from the first episode in season 1 was a decent launching point for what the audience probably thought was the step into June's new life and which she certainly thought it was with the declaration that she hoped Hannah could forgive her. But by the time the safe house had turned hot and Omar had disappeared, perhaps a bit too much was made obvious before the aborted takeoff? Episode 3 struck me as one that carried a little less intrinsic meaning than some of the others, despite having a good deal more action and motion.
Episode 4, OTOH, was fairly dripping in subtexts and multiple meanings. First off, let me say that either Kari Hogland's direction ramped up for this moodier piece or the screenplay by Yahlin Chang was a step ahead. At every turn, there were atmospheric angles or long shots or lighting that easily set the tone for what was happening. One of my favorite aspects was the repeated long stares of malice between June and Lydia and June and Serena. Here was the constant confrontation between two parts of the state's hierarchy and the unwilling servant of it; two convinced that they were creating a better world (or at least one in which her personal agenda would be served, in Serena's case) and one filled with nothing but disdain for it. But part of what fuels that conflict is that there is conflict in the first place. June's taste first of rebellion and then of freedom and then of agency (the encounters with Nick) has given her the impetus to try to exert influence even in a situation where she is demonstrably powerless except for one element: her pregnancy. In that situation, she knows that their retribution for her insolence must be restrained, so she when she glares at Lydia who refuses to meet her gaze on the ride to the Waterfords; and again when she keeps a winsome smile pasted on her face while Lydia is forced to stare at June's genitals for as long as the latter wants to wash them; and again when "Mrs. Waterford" becomes "Serena" in every private moment, she demonstrates her newfound sense of agency and control.
In this respect, Lydia's very complex role actually aids her in this endeavor, since Lydia's primary purpose is to insure that the birth takes place successfully. That means disciplining Offred, but also nurturing her and protecting her from Serena, which only empowers June. It's Lydia's duality that actually ends up furthering the identity struggle that June/Offred encounters. Lydia knows that the handmaids are servants to a higher power, even if they refuse to acknowledge that. It's incumbent upon her to get them to function in that manner, even if it means stripping away the elements that make them human. In her eyes, that humanity is irrelevant to the greater cause, no matter her previous fondness for Janine or her evident concern for the well-being of the vessel that carries the child that is all-important. When she first points out that June will remain locked in the room but Offred can move about in the world and return to the Waterfords, she's isolating that essential abandonment of humanity that not only the handmaid program but the state of Gilead requires. It's a requirement to leave behind all that drives people to be living, emotional creatures and instead aspire to a level of spirituality that even the architects of the state (like Fred) don't understand.
But June's ultimate crisis with her own identity is created not just by the pressures brought by the state, which she is more than ready to resist as mentioned above. Instead, it's driven moreso by her own guilt over actions she's taken in the recent past or hasn't taken: disdaining her mother's concern over the changes in society, the harm done to the other handmaids by following her example, the anguish she caused Luke's ex-wife by furthering the wedge between them (the root of her "sin" as a fallen woman and subsequent role as a handmaid) and, of course, Omar's death and his family's disintegration because of his accession to taking her in against his initial instincts; at least in part similar to the fate of her own family, given Hannah's placement. All of these factors come crumbling in on her and lead her to the conclusion that the fault lies with the sinner and the crime in question is that of being human. June is human. Offred is not human, but instead a tool of the state. At that point, she resolves to become Offred, if only to shield herself against the overwhelming guilt that she has imposed upon herself and which Lydia has been only too happy to encourage her to embrace in order to break her to the point where she is simply the willing vessel of children; a true believer, indeed. The poignancy of the scenes with Annie and their aftereffect is especially notable here, since the driving force in June's life at the moment is to be reunited with her family... in complete contrast to how she contributed to the dissolution of Annie's.
Again, I thought Hogland's direction was more sure-handed here, as there were some interesting approaches that didn't carry the facade of being camera tricks. One that really stood out was during the apology scene in front of the whole household. Every time the camera turned to Fred, it included Nick, so that we could see the beneficent overlord countered by the perturbed, surprised, and occasionally disgusted face of Nick who didn't understand the transformation of the woman he loves taking place in front of him and later confirmed out on the driveway. The hazy lighting of segments of the baby shower, giving the common social spectacle the ethereal nature of high ceremony, was perfect Gilead. It was also amusing to still see fanatical Christians swiping from the pagans, given the handbinding sequence between wife and handmaid.
Next, we'll get on schedule and I'll do a single review for episode 5 and then timely ones the night of or next morning for the rest of the season.
Marc writes about TV almost as much as he watches it. You can find him occasionally tweeting, sometimes ranting about politics, but mostly writing here at There Will Be Games. If you're so inclined, please feel free to support the site at the link at the bottom of the page and/or the writer.