Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Baggage”
Gilead works very hard to keep its women divided. Manipulating them into opposition through caste systems, and, where the Handmaid’s are concerned, inflicting brutal punishments on a group for one person’s actions. Gilead implants fear in unity, pushing its women further and further apart until they are stripped of all community. Until they are simply too scared to stand together, and all that remains for them is a solitary, submissive existence. But even that is sometimes not enough, because for a woman to truly surrender to Gilead’s grip, she must also become divided from her former self.
“Other Women” slows the season’s pace considerably to take a measured look at how this division, combined with the consequences of June’s actions, leads to her utter loss of hope. It’s an episode that sits in stark contrast with its season one counterpart, wherein June found her first real glimmer of optimism via four little words scratched into her closet wall. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – the message of courage that spurred June’s journey into rebellion – has been scraped away. By the episode’s end, it would seem June Osbourne, too, has been erased, replaced with a version of Offred that Gilead would be very pleased with.
It took a lot to break Offred. Even after she was re-tagged and chained to a bed, she was defiant, still insisting on being called June. It’s hard to blame her for the behavior after she had come so close to feeling the warm embrace of freedom. But back in Gilead’s clutch, she has but two options: to be June, remaining chained up until she gives birth, followed by execution; or, to be Offred, who has a chance at something more. Of course, the something more is still a life of imprisonment, but at least it has windows. In putting the Handmaid’s uniform back on, June’s internal division had begun, and things only got worse from there.
The baby shower was yet another display of Gilead’s separation methods. Offred must sit behind Serena, the “real” mother, removed from the celebration for the very life she’s carrying. While the wives coo and aw over gifts – tokens of their, albeit limited, stature in this society – the Handmaids are present but only in a peripheral sense, and only acknowledged when necessary. Even their inclusion in the string (?) ceremony, second only in its bizarreness to the birthing ceremony we saw last season, is merely symbolic. While I’m a little lost on what exactly the ritual’s overall purpose was, on some level it certainly serves to bond the baby inside of Offred to Serena; as if the string binding their hands could pass the pregnancy from one woman to the other.
Even as she’s being erased from her own experience, Offred clings to what little power she has left, finding the nerve to contradict Serena in admitting she has, in fact, felt the baby kicking already. That semblance of power is slipping rapidly through her fingers, though. Dwindling as she discovers Mayday has gone quiet; they’re done helping Handmaids, Alma tells her. Ofglen has had her tongue cut out, and we know Alma wasn’t the only Handmaid to have their arm forcibly burned. Alma may tell Offred none of this was her fault, but her guilt is nevertheless beginning to mount.
“Other Women” doesn’t feel as breathless as the three episodes before it, but, rather, suffocating in its relentless efforts to hurl shame, blame, and culpability all onto Offred’s shoulders. To be fair, June does need to carry some of that burden. As Kituria mentioned last week, we can empathize with June’s situation while also recognizing when she’s putting other people’s lives at risk. It wasn’t her first day in Gilead when she forced her way into Omar’s life; she knew there could be serious consequences. His death should weigh on her, even though it would never have happened under these circumstances in a Gilead-less world.
It’s a complex situation, to say the least. Placing the responsibility for these horrendous penalties on a member of the oppressed group feels erroneous – much like the victim blaming we see all too often in our own world today. There is a particular situation where June’s actions deserve closer scrutiny; unsurprisingly, she was perpetuating the divide of women long before Gilead’s inception. June was well aware of Luke’s marriage when they began dating, and while it’s my personal belief that he is more in the wrong – he should have ended things with his wife first – I also believe June could have been kinder to Annie, especially after they met.
Being forced into sexual slavery for having an affair or for being someone’s second wife is, of course, ludicrous. Even if June is partly to blame for the downfall of a marriage, it shouldn’t have led to life as a Handmaid. Nevertheless, this was the repercussion of staying with Luke, and the resurfacing of these memories was yet another way for “Other Women” to continue intensifying June’s feelings of guilt.
Ultimately, it all becomes too much to bear. Her fellow Handmaids have suffered mutilation, Rita has been Serena’s punching bag in June’s absence, Omar’s family was destroyed, and Annie was betrayed. But those are June’s sins; Offred could be rid of them all if she can, as Aunt Lydia would say, be a very good girl.
As June prays that Hannah will forget her, that she will forget herself, too, her internal divide becomes too wide to bridge. Offred is here to stay (for now, anyways.) The rallying cry of “nolite…” has been replaced with the mere mental distraction of “we’ve been sent good weather.” Where the first season’s fourth episode ended with a flicker of hope, “Other Women” concludes with a reminder of the lengths Gilead will go to snuff out those sparks of optimism.
Under His Eye
- The brief stories featuring Omar and Annie had better not be Bruce Miller’s idea of handling race better. The themes of this episode would have made for the perfect opportunity to dive deeper into the subject. Perhaps we could have seen more of Annie’s POV? Or, to keep things even more focused on the present-day plot, how about Rita’s? She’s obviously been struggling with keeping those Handmaids’ letters; why not show us more on that?
- My affection towards characters like June, Luke, Nick, and even Aunt Lydia is constantly in flux, but my disgust towards Serena only ever intensifies. There was something so unsettling about the way she put her hands all over Offred’s belly, as if there wasn’t an entire human being attached to it. Her worst moment this week though, was when she slapped the entire everything out of Rita; my blood was boiling.
- What is Aunt Lydia’s deal? Just when I think she’s entirely ride or die for Gilead, a hint of her humanity seems to surface. During the baby shower, she appeared to show at least some empathy for Offred’s situation. Even while clearly pulling rank, she also shows kindness to Serena. Of course, Aunt Lydia might just be very good at her job, feigning compassion merely to ensure compliance from both Wife and Handmaid.