Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

June buys into her own hype a little too much on The Handmaid’s Tale

Image of Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella in The Handmaid's Tale
Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella star in The Handmaid’s Tale
Photo: Hulu
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My favorite Poli Sci college professor said that one of the great difficulties of working in international development is that good doesn’t always beget good. You come in ready to implement some social justice-y plan, impeccable on paper, with all the necessary funding to get it off the ground and then life happens. Shit happens. Unintended consequences happen. Your measure saves a thousand lives in one instance and kills a thousand more in another. One solution creates a tsunami of problems.

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I wonder if he watches The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV show that is extremely committed to the idea that even the most necessary revolts bring some major bad juju.

Like the season opener, “NightShade” is focused on the different chain reactions that the Angel Flight, as the American resistance in Canada has taken to calling the 86 children landing on its shores, has unleashed in the characters’ lives. It’s difficult to describe any episode of THT as “fun”—suspenseful, thrilling, heart-pounding, sure. Still, when the show jumps between June in Gilead, Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) in Toronto, and the Waterfords in jail as it does here, it can definitely feel like a bit of a breather. As viewers, we too need a respite from the claustrophobic conditions of June’s perspective, who with each passing episode seems to believe more and more in her own hype, and is determined to always choose the option that keeps her tied to wrong side of the border.

More on that later, though. For now, let’s turn our attention to our neighbor to the North, where some intriguing developments are unfolding. (How many synonyms for Canada can we list throughout the season? Let’s find out!) To begin with, one of the major strengths of this episode is refusing to shy away from the conflicting feelings of the displaced. Freeing oneself from Gilead requires much more than fleeing its physical limitations; it’s very much a mental struggle for liberation as well. We see this in Rita (Amanda Brugel), whose mode of communicating continues to be littered with the language of pious believers, even as she extols June’s subversive actions at a non-profit fundraiser. We see it in Asher/James, one of the children on the Angel Flight who yearns for the family he left behind in Gilead, his little heart mourning for the fucked-up country that he insists is his true home. We see it in Moira, who has a difficult time parsing out the feelings of resentment and guilt she has towards her best friend.

And we see this mental incarceration in Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who is not a refugee but a war criminal. Or could she be counted as one of Gilead’s victims, despite propping up and perpetuating the horrendous system? One of the reasons Serena is infuriating but tittering on the edge of redeemable is because she has bursts of clarity that make us feel compassion for her. An ambitious, charismatic writer who gets her finger cut off for daring to suggest women read. A woman who ultimately gives back the baby she’s always wanted because she understands there’s no future for her in Gilead. A wife who orchestrates her own husband’s arrest.

But it’s when she’s being examined by doctors that Serena appears, for the first time, to believe that she herself was a victim of both an abusive system and an abusive marriage. Having to voice the fact that yes, her husband struck her and yes, he had unprotected sex, and yes that missing pinkie was his doing, can really put shitty behavior into perspective. Though she tries to justify his actions to Sam, later, insisting that it’s a completely legal form of punishment to permanently maim your spouse in Gilead, her crestfallen face during these scenes says otherwise. Hey, deprogramming from marital abuse is as difficult as deprogramming from the internalized values of Gilead. After realizing Commander Waterford won’t revert to whatever sweet self he was in the Before Times—“I am as you made me, as you made us,” he snarls to Serena—and with news that she is pregnant, it gives Serena even more reason to perhaps finally break free from her own self-made cage. And maybe even start to hold herself accountable.

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Back in Gilead, the renegade Handmaids are getting so antsy, they’re even considering heading to the Republic of Texas. The absolutely terrifying Mrs. Keyes is still prowling the grounds, sulking when the Handmaids don’t include her in chats and microdosing her decrepit husband with enough poison to stop him from asking questions and organizing ritual rapes. She is an unsettling presence, through and through, and one that neither June nor the viewer can fully trust. Not yet. But her knowledge of plants means that June can set in motion her next plot.

When June is smuggled into a brothel/Country Club (they really seem to function as one and the same there) to meet with a Mayday informant, she learns that of more unintended consequences from the Angel Flight. First off, her reputation precedes her, with tales of her deeds turning into yarns where she is taller, more lethal. Second, she’s inspired other acts of rebellion like cutting off power lines. Unfortunately, it also led to a massive raid in Boston that landed several women in the very brothel she’s in.

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Once again, we are met with a June Delay. A June Delay is when our character has the opportunity to get away from her own hell but decides to stay behind cause reasons. A June Delay is when she risks lives of people she loves to save lives of people she barely knows. A June Delay can be born out of guilt, martyrdom, maybe rage, but it always feels a bit self-indulgent. The ruckus scene in which June and her Mayday informant Daisy spike the liquor the Gilead soldiers are drinking during a wild party is mesmerizing, and even a tad titillating. But there was no chance in hell that it wasn’t going to mess up June’s plan to flee with the other Handmaids that night.

When chatting with Daisy, June insists that, “We are Mayday. It’s people just like us.” But the past two episodes have shown us that she is becoming an icon in the national imagination and a saintly figure in the international one. What image is June creating of herself now? What awaits when revelations of her own questionable actions come to light? We have the rest of the season to find out.

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Stray observations

  • THT has never shied away from reflecting our own horrific times in its storylines. The nods to our own border nightmare are well noted. From the sound of stomping boots as people packed in a back of a truck await their fate to the use of the term family reunification, a lot of America’s sins are on display.
  • The most Canadian thing to happen this week was Moira and her love interest braving subzero weather to eat takeout on a stoop. All we needed was for them to later take out one small blunt to wash it all down, as a friendly Canadian Mountie wishes them a goodnight.
  • Is anybody else ’shipping Moira and Emily? Just me? I felt like there was some sexual tension there. Maybe some trauma bonding.
  • Eyebrow Watch 2021: Nick was looking particularly dapper when he shows up at the empty farmhouse to ask June where the missing Handmaids are. “I’m trying to keep you alive,” he whispers, which appears to require killing· a guard and sending her to prison.
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Ines Bellina is a writer, storyteller, and bon vivant. When she's not working on her novel or overscheduling herself, she sings love songs to bulldogs.