Identity Works and (White) Guilt Doesn’t in The Handmaid’s Tale

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June’s situation is less than ideal. She’s back in Aunt Lydia’s custody, chained to a solitary bed with a bowl of food and water on the ground. It’s only makes sense when she begins to muse about pigs in pens and rats in cages, and how they sometimes resort to electrocuting themselves just to have something to do. Her version: counting the seventy-one flowers on the bed’s comforter over and over.

But this room is a lot more than a prison. When Lydia enters – as ominously as ever – she offers June a choice. Remain June and stay here in this room until she gives birth and is promptly executed, or don the red cape, become Offred again, and return to the Waterford home. As unappealing as the choice is, anything has to be better than counting to seventy-one for the next six months. Besides, despite years in captivity, she never lost sight of “June” before.

This is the first of many subtle power plays between the two women as they jostle for control of June’s soul. Elizabeth Moss gives a standout performance in what has already been a tremendous body of work on the show, challenging her captors with her eyes at every turn, daring them to blink first. She knows she has leverage over Mrs. Waterford for the time being and flexes it, reminding Serena, “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours,” echoing the threat Serena made to June at the end of last season. Mutually assured destruction cuts both ways.

June makes tormenting Serena her mission. At Serena’s baby shower, she calls out from the back that the baby kicked for the first time the night before and later mentions her own baby shower from before the rise of Gilead. She appears to be winning too. Serena unravels throughout the episode, smoking longer and longer cigarettes and lashing out at anyone nearby. But through each of June’s power plays, Lydia is beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder, reminding her who really calls the shots, and biding her time.

It’s just after June ruins Serena’s baby shower that we get the episode’s first flashback to June’s life before Gilead. It introduces June to Annie, the wife that Luke is leaving for June. Annie doesn’t hold back against June and hits her with some pretty heavy accusations that would have felt right at home in Gilead, calling her a whore and invoking the wedding vows she’d made before God. June can’t help but feel guilty for ruining a marriage and being the other woman, even though it’s Luke who made the decision, and we know from the rest of the series that they had a very happy life together.

This idea of guilt for the actions of others comes back when June sees the fallout of her decision to stand up for Janine at the end of last season. One handmaid has had her tongue cut out, another has serious burns on her arm. “You didn’t make her say anything. This wasn’t your fault. Not that part,” Alma tells June, clearly still holding some resentment for June’s lack of punishment from the beginning of the season. That last part hits June where it hurts and Lydia hammers away at the same spot as she makes her move. She walks June by the corpse of the man who helped her in the last episode, forcing her to soak up the fallout of her failed escape.

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Guilt is heaped onto June as Lydia makes her take the blame for the man’s death. But in a insidiously brilliant move, Lydia gives June an out. June is to blame for everything. June got this man killed and her fellow handmaid’s scarred. June is the one who ruined a marriage. Offred, however, is free from blame. As long as she buries June and becomes Offred, she can find peace. As the episode ends, only Offred remains.

While the way “Other Women” deals with identity is powerful, the episode fails in its attempt to equate different kinds of guilt. June’s guilt over breaking up a marriage is much more reasonable than her guilt over Gilead’s crimes. While Luke is an adult and made the decisions to cheat and to leave his wife for June, she did know he was married and that their relationship would hurt his wife. It’s not the same as fighting injustice and seeing your comrades tortured and killed because of it. She didn’t even ask them to join her. While this is a flawed parallel, the show’s attempt to forgive June in the eyes of the audience for both of these actions is noble, even if she doesn’t feel that way. What’s isn’t is how “Other Women” tries to sneak white guilt into the same equation.

The Handmaid’s Tale has faced a lot of criticism for being a work of white feminist art and for not finding the space for intersectionality. This episode has never made that critique feel more correct. In the turning point of the episode, Lydia shows June what can only be described as lynching imagery: the black man who helped her in the last episode hanging by a noose with a canvas bag over his head. The scene is where Lydia brings the hammer of guilt onto June and is preceded by her flashback to meeting Annie, the implication being that these types of guilt are equal and that while June feels them heavily, we as an audience know that it’s not her fault. But using such blatant imagery of American racism feels like an attempt to Trojan Horse white guilt into that same absolution.

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