Warning: Lots of spoilers.
“Other Women,” the fourth episode of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, is debatably the hardest episode to watch so far in the Hulu series that regularly delivers an emotional pummeling. It plunges June/Offred to new depths of misery. Handmaid has had episodes with bleaker settings and more ominous endings, but we’ve never seen Offred so utterly broken before.
71 Flowers on the Bedspread. Upon recapture, Offred’s ear is re-pierced where she ripped the tag out, right in the helix. That ear will be hopelessly mangled before the series is done. We then find her weeks later, chained in a fake bedroom like the one where she met Ofwyatt in the season premiere, where she’s had plenty of time to count all the flowers on the bedspread. Why do they furnish the pregnant handmaid dungeon with a Persian carpet? It’s an ultimate bourgeoise décor element that gives a veneer of civility to barbaric treatment.
Back to the Waterford House. The Waterford home will at least offer her exercise and a wider variety of things to look at, and better escape territory than the Red Center. Aunt Lydia puts the choice bluntly: “June will be chained in this room until she gives birth. And then June will be executed.” But an obedient Offred will get another chance in the Waterford home. On goes the hated red dress. Her gloomy return to the Waterford house looks like every horror film haunted house entry ever, the kind where the call is coming from inside the house and the virgin dies, and you want to yell at all the dumb teenagers to run away. But June has nowhere to run. The house is haunted, but there are no ski masks — just the memories of sexual abuse, helplessness, and lonely weeks locked in a room. It’s June’s personal Flowers in the Attic.
“Serena, remember: As long as my baby is safe, so is yours.” June has a lone victorious moment in an otherwise dismal episode. It’s grimly good to watch the smirk on June’s face as she stares down Serena Joy, nonplussed by the choking. Words heard previously in the series are repeated in a new context, as with “better never means better for everyone” and “Don’t get upset. It’s bad for the baby.” Serena Joy is angriest when June communicates to her woman-to-woman, and close to nice when Offred treats her as a superior. She can’t bear to see Offred as a peer.
Where’s Nick? Uh-oh. Dead leaves cover the entry to his apartment over the garage, and the door’s closed. Seeing Nick again would have at least given her something. But his apartment looks vacant. Fortunately, this is just a psyche-out — Nick shows up later in the episode.
Rita Did Not Deliver the Letters. We haven’t seen Rita so far this season. Based on a throwaway line of dialogue — “The Marthas have their own networks” — we hoped that Rita would deliver them. Someone was supposed to pick them up. She didn’t. She passes them back to a dismayed June. “Please don’t forget me,” the women pleaded, as they put themselves at risk by writing. They are forgotten.
Hell’s Smoothie and a Bizarro Baby Shower. We see more horror notes reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as June is forced to drink a foul green smoothie prior to Serena Joy’s baby shower. She spits it up, but no problem — Aunt Lydia says that Rita can make another. June’s life adds up to a living horror film: she’s given a sinister health potion to drink, and there’s puking, bizarre, culty string rituals, and the fact that she’s being forced to act as a physical host to the fruit of an insidious, oppressive group of fanatics.
Ofglen II’s Missing Tongue. We can figure out why Ofglen II was notably absent among the familiar handmaids’ faces at the Fenway Park mass hanging: she was likely in bed recovering from having her tongue removed as a punishment for standing up for Janine. At least Alma is speaking to June, but it appears the other handmaids do hold her partly to blame: not for what happened to Ofglen II, who spoke of her own free will, but perhaps for the burn scars on their wrists. Ofglen II is inscrutable. What is her journey? Ofglen II is never given a real name, and now she won’t be able to communicate except by nodding. If she writes anything down, she’ll lose a finger for the first offense and a hand for the second. What is her interior monologue?
Silent Mayday. Alma seems happy for June that she nearly escaped, but the resources expended aiding June seems to have given Mayday second thoughts about how they can best fight Gilead; Alma whispers, “They’re not helping handmaids anymore.” What is the state of the shadowy organization? Cutoff from participation in Mayday means less hope for handmaids overall, and fewer modes of resistance. It doesn’t make sense for Mayday to put its resources into helping them escape when the cost it so high and the reward vaguely altruistic and difficult to achieve.
Flashback Time: Hi, Annie. Pre-Gilead June shown leaving the yoga studio, where she’s shocked to meet Luke’s first wife, Annie, who asks her to back off. Annie tells her, “You can’t just wreck people’s lives like they don’t matter.” Annie comes across as unhinged for stalking June, but she’s also a woman in love and pain.
The show needed to clear up that it was not a good marriage in order to remove the biggest reason we might have for judging June and Luke. The fact that Luke cheated on his first wife poses a major impediment to Luke and June’s likeability. We are predisposed to dislike people who cheat on their spouses, as well as the people they cheat with. We also know that lots of people get married multiple times. Lots of people get into bad first marriages when they’re young and don’t know themselves. Nobody in these complicated situations among grownups is entirely clean or entirely guilty. And Gilead is a place with no room for gray areas. If half of all marriages end in divorce, then half the population and their second spouses are candidates for punishment.
What has Annie been up to since the war? Is she a Martha? We could be in for some complications if the state of Gilead thinks she’d still married to Luke. IMDB lists Kelly Jenrette as Annie for one episode only, but my first thought on seeing that The Handmaid’s Tale had cast Annie was: it would be cruel trick/subplot for Luke if Gilead were to tell him, “Sure, we’ll send your wife to Canada,” and he’s thrilled and then… Annie gets off the plane.
Such a Selfish Girl. Omar, the driver who took June into his home in the last episode, is seen dead, hanging from a wall. Aunt Lydia informs June that Omar’s widow has been sentenced to serve as a handmaid — the fear that the state holds over all the fertile Econowives — and that their son, Adam, has been sent to a new family. June has visited her own heartbreak on Heather, as Heather feared. Aunt Lydia reflects that that was not what they would have chosen and June caused this by inserting herself into their lives. God knows how many people died so that June could have a doomed, limited freedom for her first trimester? Omar, the pilot, possibly the driver, and we don’t know the current whereabouts of the Boston Globe caretaker or the butcher.
Mamma Loves You. Serena wants to fake-experience the pregnancy. So far as Serena and her friends were concerned, it’s the Waterford’s baby. Offred is not allowed to be a person. Offred is a vessel. Serena Joy is aware that June was a mother, but she is only halfway human when she can successfully infantilize Offred, like when she expected Offred to be grateful for the music box that endlessly plays the same bars from Swan Lake while the plastic ballerina spins around and around. Serena is an energetic woman with nothing to do except wait for this baby. But it’s her own fault. On the scale of small stringed pity instruments, Serena Joy gets a smashed dollhouse violino piccolo. She could use a copy of What to Expect When Your Handmaid’s Expecting, but they’d chop off her slender fingers if she tried to read it.
Bastardes With Sandpaper. The sheer boredom of not being able to read to pass the time must be one of the hardest aspects of life in Gilead. The harshest blow to Offred/June comes when she sees that her predecessor’s carved words, “Nolites Tes Bastardes Carborundorum,” have been literally ground away from the inner closet, along with her own, “You are not alone.” She’s alone, and prays for Hannah to forget about her.
We’ve been sent good weather. We’ve been sent good weather. We’ve been sent good weather. We’ve been sent good weather. Offred’s transformation into an automaton is complete. At first it looked like June was going to stick up for herself and use her untouchability as a pregnant woman for some small measure of power. But Aunt Lydia emotionally manipulates Offred into obedient devastation. It’s noteworthy that her final thoughts are a mindless repetition of the most common conversational topic. Women in Gilead are limited to the most inane small talk about weather, to gossip and trivialities. The only information that they have on anything real is limited to what men choose to tell them.
For the record: it is not June’s fault that Omar is dead. It is the fault of the guards who hung him and the system they served. Omar’s death is the fault of anyone who favored a patriarchic theocracy. It is that fault of anyone who thought that taking women’s rights back several centuries was a good idea, and anyone who thought that doing so was not so bad. June’s only guilt is for having, perhaps, not fought hard enough to prevent the rise of Gilead. It’s the fault of every person who looked around at our continual efforts, however imperfect, to build a diverse, multicultural society while compensating for past injustice, and thought, “Things were better in the past.” But it’s not June’s fault. Here’s to hoping that she’ll see that soon. Enduring a season or more where Offred remains this broken would be hard to bear.