Elisabeth Moss
Screenshot: Hulu

“My darling,” said he, “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?”

So of course I said no more on that score, and we went to sleep before long. He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn’t, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately.

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The narrator of Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” never counts the flowers, or to be precise, the “interminable string of toadstools” that make up the florid pattern of the wallpaper in her nightmarish room. She tries to solve the mystery of the pattern, and of the woman she eventually discovers hiding behind it. She also doesn’t have a pig ball.

“Other Women” is an immensely complicated hour of television, in which June wrestles with her own other woman—and it’s Offred. Director Kari Skogland doesn’t shy away from the messiness and complexity of such an exploration. As with Gilman’s indelible story, we see this episode, for the most part, through June’s eyes; as with most of the first season (and particularly while at the Waterford’s house), the camera practically lives just inside the circle of the handmaid’s bonnet. What’s vital is the world, as she sees it, and so we watch her see the world. We see her view it through the eyes of a woman who has no fucks left to give, who stares down her oppressors, who makes her existence plain.

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Screenshot: Hulu

Then we see her view it through the eyes of Offred.

Screenshot: Hulu

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In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the speaker sees a woman in the wallpaper. In “Other Women,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) makes clear again, and again, and again that June and Offred are two different people. June is a deviant runaway. Offred is an unwitting victim. June is a selfish monster in need of punishment. Offred is a lost lamb worthy of redemption. June is a slut. Offred is a handmaid. God teaches June a lesson. God shows Offred the light. June has flowers on her comforter. Offred has flowers on her sheets.

This isn’t “The Yellow Wallpaper.” There are similarities that go beyond patterns in prisons—a whole mess of gaslighting, for one—but that’s a story about mental illness (among other things), and this isn’t. Still, the idea of two women who are also one woman is one worth exploring. In Gilman’s story, the speaker is one woman who sees another trapped in her wallpaper:

By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.

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But by story’s end, that’s not the case:

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Here’s it’s June, defiantly June, “you know my fucking name” June, until it’s not June anymore. This isn’t a mental break of some sort, but a choice. June is still in there, somewhere, saying “my fault,” while Lydia says “June’s fault.” But in what might be the most chilling moment in a show full of horrors, even June’s inner voice chooses to go full Offred. As she stands outside those gates, it’s not the crackle of the nearby Guardian’s radio that’s most present, but the chirping of birds. They’ve been sent good weather, so Offred says, and she repeats it to herself.

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As previously stated, this is a complicated hour. It’s unpleasant to think about (and frankly, to write about) but when perspective is considered—something Skogland makes it hard to forget—it becomes more clear. It doesn’t matter what Luke thinks of Annie (Kelly Jenrette of Grandfathered), or of June, or of their affair. It certainly doesn’t matter what we think of their affair. It matters what June thinks of June, and thinks of Annie, and thinks of their affair. It matters that June thinks of that part of her past at all, because in considering how she got here, she arrives at “my fault.” In knowing the handmaid’s messages may never reach the outside world, she arrives at “my fault.” In considering burnt arms and missing tongues and hanged fathers and stolen children, she arrives at “my fault.”

I’ll admit that I assumed (or perhaps hoped) that the family that helped June in last week’s episode had just been delayed at church; I assumed their fate would be unknown to June, and thus to us. That assumption, perhaps a foolish one, made the casual revelation of Omar’s body all the more shocking and upsetting. He becomes the final entrant in the parade of pain that Lydia, Serena Joy, and Alma all put on June’s shoulders. The question of the episode is not whether or not any of that pain belongs on her shoulders. The question is what becomes of her when she believes that it does.

What she becomes is compliant and obedient. Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy make it clear to June that her defiance and refusal to surrender her humanity will be punished, but that the punishment will be inflicted on others (plus, you know, she’ll be executed.) She tries to flee and the man who helps her is murdered. She mentions her own baby shower and Rita gets slapped. She stands up for Janine and all the other handmaids are mutilated. So when Nick tries to speak to her, she talks about the weather.

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Skogland does a tremendous job here. Moss does a tremendous job here. It’s beautifully shot, using the camera to tell us what’s going on in June’s head; it’s beautifully acted, with each invasive closeup progressively less June and more Offred. Writing about a show like this one can be terrifying, to be frank. I’ve watched this episode three times, and each time I felt differently; I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow, and I also don’t know that I’ll ever watch it again. But in this moment, it’s impossible to imagine another hour of The Handmaid’s Tale doing more to show how ruthlessly our most human instincts can be turned against us. In this hour, June seems to die, and Offred to live, and it’s, in part, because of other women.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.

Stray observations

  • Musical corner: For my money, this one worked incredibly well. Cat Power’s “Hate” .
  • If you’re unfamiliar with the story behind “The Yellow Wallpaper,” let me direct you here. A happy ending, of sorts: “Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading [it]. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
  • Ever Carradine’s Naomi Putnam is just the worst. She’d be an insufferable monster in or out of a dystopian hellscape.
  • If “We’ve been sent good weather” is this week’s most nightmarish moment, then “Mama loves you” isn’t far behind it.

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