The Handmaid’s Tale Finds New Versions of Hell From Within

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Since the first episode, The Handmaid’s Tale has been interested in putting its characters through variations of Hell. There’s been more than enough sexual violence, torture, and sheer cruelty to make even the hardiest viewers cringe.

Nevertheless, and through it all, June has always kept her eye on the prize: escape. Although last season’s girl power musical montages felt more than a little heavy-handed, they served as obvious reminders that, while they were battered and beaten, June and company were still fighting all the same. But something changed at the end of last week’s episode when June suffered a complete mental breakdown.

Picking up right where it left off, “Seeds” spends its first scene watching June stare into the blank space on the wall where a mirror used to be, before destroying the letters she had been holding onto since late last season, memories of the humanity that Gilead has tried to stamp out. As the letters burn, we see her face in the reflection of a dark window, a truly haunting image made only more powerful by its juxtaposition with the scene before. June has submitted completely to “Offred,” and lost all recognition of herself.

It is that inability to even recognize oneself that defines the theme of this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale a brand new Hell that might be the scariest version yet.

Serena is just as alienated by this reality. She suffered a kind of break last week as well, something that surely started during the absence of June (and her baby), but is taken to new levels as she continues chain smoking. She can’t help but be reminded that she isn’t the mother she so desperately wants to be, forced to watch as Aunt Lydia takes stock of June’s pregnancy. Still worse, she sees Lydia taking notes, a special privilege in a world where women are no longer allowed to read or write. This hits Serena especially close to home. Afterall, before helping to create Gilead, she was an academic, steeped in creating and consuming ideas.

Nick, the father of June’s unborn child and the man who helped her nearly escape, is given a promotion by Gilead. Now a step closer to becoming like Commander Waterford, Nick is married to a young (I know I italicized it but I just want to bring extra emphasis to how young these women are) woman in a mass wedding before a crowd of onlookers. Where he was only recently looked at how Gilead treats women with disgust, he is now expected to be part of that machine.

Through it all, our usually bold heroine remains detached, offering little more than “Yes Mrs. Waterford” and “No Mrs. Waterford.” Even as her uterus begins bleeding an alarming amount, June carries on, not only divorced from her situation but also from herself.

In the colonies, Emily and Janine watch as the women around them continue to drop like flies. “We come here. We work. We die,” Emily explains to Janine. The colonies are bleak Hell in its purest sense. It’s hot, the air and water toxic, slowly rotting the flesh off of its victims as they work themselves to death. Still, Janine is new to this place and holds onto her positivity. She invokes God on several occasions, makes a wish by blowing on a dandelion, and is touched by the love two of the women share. Emily can’t understand. This place is bleak, having sapped her belief in wishes, in love, and in God. If God was holding them in the palm of his hand, “He couldn’t hold you in His palm somewhere else? Like Bora-Bora?”

It reaches a breaking point when Janine organizes a wedding between a woman on the brink of death and the love she found here in Hell. Emily accuses Janine of dressing up the slaughterhouse, annoyed that she would pretend this place was anything other than what it is. “Cows don’t get married,” responds Janine, and it’s in that moment that Emily realizes how she let this place become a true Hell — by forgetting her own humanity.

Back in Gilead, June’s bleeding is even worse, and she collapses outside. Upon waking in the hospital, she hears her baby’s heartbeat. She speaks to it as June, not Offred, promising to save it from this terrible world she finds herself in.

This ending is far from satisfying. In an episode that somehow raises the bar in terms of creating cringeworthy moments — from lingering shots on June’s bleeding uterus to Nick’s uncomfortable marriage to a barely pubescent girl — June’s immediate snap-out-of-it moment doesn’t make sense. Faced with her own death and the death of her unborn child, June seems to have found herself, but there is no process to this change. In one scene, she’s disassociating in bloody underwear, and in the next, she’s looking directly into the camera promising to escape. That declaration is powerful, but offers no explanation for how she was able to escape her current Hell, one where you can’t recognize yourself.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • Ann Dowd only has a couple minutes of screen time, but the shadow of Aunt Lydia looms large over the whole episode. She’s just as menacing to Serena as she is to the handmaids and her brainwashing work sticks with Janine all the way to the colonies. Is Aunt Lydia the most terrifying villain on TV right now?
  • As June wakes up in the hospital, the second image we see is the barrel of a gun. The threat of violence is a constant in Gilead.
  • There were no flashbacks in this episode, which I think contributed to how much more grim this episode felt than others. Usually the flashbacks have an ability to tie in the story of Gilead to some more basic human emotions, but it makes sense in an episode centered on the idea of disassociation.
  • Aunt Lydia mentions to Commander Waterford that they won’t know the sex of the baby until it’s born, which is weird. The hospitals seem to be just as technologically advanced as our own. Is not knowing the sex a religious thing or something else?
  • The clapping scene at the wedding was a piece of brilliant filmmaking, giving us the complete feeling of June’s disassociation in a public space. Even when I don’t like with the story The Handmaid’s Tale is telling, you can’t deny the artistry of how it tells it.
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