Elisabeth Moss’ Handmaid reaches a turning point in her life where she either does something different or gives in to the madness entirely … well, maybe a bit of both!
A "bottle episode" used to be a way to trim a season’s budget, taking place entirely — or almost entirely — one one set with a limited cast. "The Handmaid’s Tale" offered up a Gilead version of one this week, and it managed to pack an emotional wallop.
It turns out Ofmatthew AKA Natalie survived her shooting at the supermarket, meaning those Guardians were better at their jobs than we and Aunt Lydia initially gave them credit for. This gave us a deep exploration of the value of a child in this world, as well as the unique cruelty and bizarre growing kindness of Aunt Lydia.
So much of the hour depended on Elisabeth Moss, both in voiceover work and in the subtlety of her performance. Taking place almost entirely within the four walls of Natalie’s hospital room and with Ashley LaThrop mostly motionless in the bed, Moss had to carry the entirety of so many scenes with her facial expressions, her body language and her sparse interactions with others.
What we got was a tour de force experience that proved a pivotal moment for her character, a veritable rock bottom that we can only hope she emerges from more motivated, more driven and hopefully a little smarter than we’ve seen from her basically all season. Ironically, the turnaround came at the hands of one of Gilead’s enablers, the male doctor treating Natalie.
Or should we say, treating Ofmatthew’s baby. The mother is of no consequence as she won’t be the mother anyway. And even if she did survive, it would be the wall for sure after what happened in the grocery story. In a way, it’s a mercy the doctors are willing to simply let her expire after the baby gestates long enough to survive outside of her womb. That she might have anyway isn’t necessarily all that important.
Started at the Bottom
We thought we’ve seen June at her rock bottom before, in seasons where she’s given in to despair, but this was a new low point for her and it took an outsider to really point it out.
Moss was mesmerizing showing June’s slow descent into madness, forced to stay by Natalie’s side for weeks and months through her pregnancy. She was never allowed to leave the hospital room and had to spend all day, every day praying to the point she could barely stand. It was quite a penance, and when she begged to go home, Aunt Lydia would have none of it.
We found ourselves scratching our heads when she fetched a blade from the biohazard waste receptacle and even tried to rope poor Janine into helping her dispatch Natalie before the baby could be saved. This was June in the depths of her madness, still reeling from the loss of Hannah in her sphere of awareness and lashing out at everyone.
Poor Janine has already been broken by the system, a true sign of the type of madness that can be created to try and survive the horrors of life in Gilead. June found herself on a darker, deadlier path. The problem was, as the doctor so aptly pointed out, hers was a suicide path.
Killing Natalie with a scalpel is not something that can be hidden. Nor could it be hidden when she contemplated killing the doctor and Commaner Matthew and his wife. Then, she even went so far as to slash out quite literally at Serena when she stopped in to visit. The epitome and target of June’s madness and rage that Hannah had been relocated, though it was her own sloppy efforts to see her that caused that result (as we said, she needs to be smarter).
"How long have you had suicidal thoughts?" the doctor asked her as he stitched up her hand. June tried to correct that her thoughts were murderous, which is true. But only halfway true. "Doing any of the things you said would put you on the wall and you know it. So how long?" he asked again. This time, June had no answer.
"Look Your Best"
Aunt Lydia is such an interestingly complex character. Half the time we hope she somehow can become an ally to the cause of freedom and the other half of the time we want her to die just an awful death. That’s a testament to Ann Dowd and the writing of the character (though we aren’t enamored with the simplicity of her backstory so far, as seen last week).
This week alone, she chastised Oferic for daring to show June a hint of kindness and further chastised Janine for trying to use her hair to cover the damage to her already ruined eye caused by Natalie’s supermarket explosion. All of this seems in character, as we’ve seen Natalie walking around with that closed eye socket forever now.
But then, at episode’s close, she drops by to visit a recovering Janine and brings her a gift of a very nice eyepatch. Is this approved Handmaid wear? It is a matching red, but it’s Aunt Lydia’s remark that was the most startling. "Nothing wrong with wanting to look your best," she tells Janine.
Now we know Aunt Lydia has a soft spot for Janine, whom she knows is completely broken by the system. She has, after all, allowed Janine to live despite kidnapping and nearly killing her child and herself a while back. Aunt Lydia cares about her charges in a human way, even as she is willing to abuse them. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and one we’re glad to see the show still exploring.
"Heaven Is a Place on Earth"
We would have never expected Belinda Carlisle to be the soundtrack to an episode of "The Handmaid’s Tale," but it was appropriately ironic in its way, and used so cleverly. June could hear it in the beeps of Natalie’s room and the title of the song is such the polar opposite of what Gilead is.
And yet, Carlisle’s message that heaven can be a place on earth only helped to refocus June once she was able to bounce back from hitting the bottom and nearly committing murder-suicide. It’s worthy of note that the doctor did not turn June in, thus violating Gilead law while serving his own Hippocratic oath. It probably helps that he actually knew June’s mother as a doctor in the pre-war times.
Either way, June was given a reprieve and a chance to learn from the mistake she nearly made — and in a way began when she did attack Serena. And while there is still no clear indication of where any of this is going, we at least appreciated the candid honesty of June’s closing monologue to Natalie, still hanging in there for now.
June chose to go back to Natalie’s side after stepping outside the hospital only briefly. Much was made of the young girls coming into their first periods and being prepared for their own child-bearing years, and this was heavy on June’s mind. And suddenly, she had a mission. What she lacked was a vision but we respect that level of honesty.
After apologizing for being "shitty" to Natalie, June made a vow to her. Natalie’s son and all of the children — or as many as she could manage — will not grow up in Gilead. June has stepped back from the lofty goal of shutting down this powerful empire, but she has a new goal, and it’s not unlike the Underground Railroad.
If she can’t bring freedom to Gilead, then she will bring the children to freedom. She has no idea how she’s going to be able to pull this off, but she at least has something to work toward. Once again, the words of that doctor ringing in her ears: "How will you honor your daughters?"
Murder-suicide isn’t going to do it. Giving up isn’t going to do it. As June pointed out, Hannah will be flowering soon, so there’s a ticking clock on her ambitions.
Now, if we can finally move on from the darkness and despair and circular storytelling to actually move this ship forward, we’d all be better off. We’ve seen over and over again the depths of this world and we’ve seen over and over again just how it can beat June down to the bottom and stop its boot on her head.
We don’t mind setbacks, but as of this episode we are once again at Step Zero in June’s grand ambitions to do something about the state to things. It’s time to start creeping forward and making legitimate progress toward change in some way. How about change in June, for one. Let her be wiser from her mistakes and wily as we know she can be.
Give her a win, even if it’s a small one, and let her keep it. We know her one daughter is in Canada, which is a win, but we mean something tangible she can own and sit with and build on in Gilead. Let us go on a journey with her. But in order to do that, she needs to take some agency and start that journey.
"The Handmaid’s Tale" tries again to find a direction for June, airing new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.
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