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The Handmaid's Tale - Other Women - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “Other Women” was directed by Kari Skogland with the teleplay by Yahlin Chang whose other credits include Supergirl, Dirty Sexy Money, and ER. The episode features terrific performances from Elisabeth Moss (June/Offred), Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia), and Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy) – who is just so delightful to hate! I liked how the title in this episode resonated on two levels. Firstly, it underscores how divided the women of Gilead are – Aunts, Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas. Secondly, it refers to the “other women” in a marriage. June was an adulterer after all, and Serena sees her as the other woman in her marriage as well.

In this episode, we really see June mentally beaten into submission. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen her as low as she is by the end of this episode. She begins the episode, chained to a bed in the middle of a room. She muses about pigs who are given “pig balls” to roll around while they wait to be slaughtered. It improves their muscle tone and gives them something to do because they are curious by nature – just like June. I loved the contrast here to her jogging around The Boston Globe offices in the last episode and her going through the records, trying to make sense of what happened. Her captivity has clearly taken a toll on her already.

Aunt Lydia is brutal about her choices. June can continue to be defiant – and I loved seeing her making eye contact! – have the baby, and be executed or Offred can be submissive and have an opportunity to return to the Waterford’s – and maybe get passed on to another family? I wonder about this as June isn’t exactly young. At what point will they stop trying to “breed” her? What happens to her then? A truly submissive handmaid might make the transition to Martha, but June would have to be destined for the colonies…

Ann Dowd gives a truly wonderful performance in this episode. It’s clear that her only concern is for the baby – she both cajoles and chastises June and Serena – but at the end of the day, it’s clear that her only allegiance is to the baby. June continues to maintain eye contact with Aunt Lydia in the van on the way to the Waterford’s. Aunt Lydia clearly notices, but ignores it to some extent, though she does caution June that she’ll have to earn her place back and prove that she’s worthy.

This episode is full of beautiful shots. I was particularly struck by June’s re-entry into the Waterford house. We see her approach with Aunt Lydia and we get real time interspersed with slow motion. The best shot is the crane shot from above as June hesitates on the steps with the wind blowing her red dress and cloak around her – and then steps over the threshold.

June waits to be greeted “home.” It’s here that Aunt Lydia starts to demand more compliance and reminds June of her “posture” – forcing her head and eyes down. Fred (Joseph Fiennes) comes in first and welcomes her home. She looks straight at him and says “thanks” with a tight smile – she clearly still views him as something of an ally. I adored the look on June’s face as she stares at Aunt Lydia as Fred goes on about her “kidnappers” – it’s clearly the first time that she’s hearing the “official” story. Serena then comes in and takes Fred’s hand, making it clear whose side he’s now on. It’s also a nice reminder of what happened to Putnam (Stephen Kunken) when his wife wouldn’t stand for his “other woman.” When Aunt Lydia tries to get June to return Serena’s “Praise be,” June stares Serena directly in the eyes.

June returns to her room which is now a lot more austere – who knew it could get worse! There’s no bed frame or chair – no way to hang herself, obviously. She looks out the window, but there’s also no sign of life at Nick’s (Max Minghella).

Serena comes sweeping up the stairs and goes directly to June, grabbing her by the throat and forcing her against the wall. She grits out “92 days” and gives us a timeline. June just smiles at her, knowing that she is safe from real harm while she carries the baby. Serena lets her go, and June tells her, “Serena remember. As long as my baby’s safe, so is yours.” At first, I thought that she was referring to Hannah, but on reflection, I’m sure she’s talking about the baby inside her. June can be defiant because she thinks she’s protected – but the entire episode is about how others are hurt by her actions, and because June isn’t a monster, this is her Achilles heel.

June is in the bath when the lights go out. There are little hints throughout that Gilead is under strain, and this is just one. Aunt Lydia simply barges in with a candle and a washcloth, instructing June to wash everywhere. June then turns the tables and makes it as uncomfortable as possible for Aunt Lydia, maintaining eye contact and making the motions as sexual as possible. Aunt Lydia declares the water is getting cold and tells June to get out and get ready for bed – never breaking. As June is drying off, she feels the baby kick for the first time – she’s not alone anymore.

In the morning, Aunt Lydia again breezes in, yanking the covers off June to wake her up, continuing to spout advice for the baby. Rita (Amanda Brugel) has brought her a fresh dress, and as soon as Aunt Lydia leaves, she gives June the letters back. June insists that someone was supposed to have made contact to pick them up, but Rita is too frightened to help. She tells June, “What if SHE finds them! You don’t know what it’s been like.” The she is clearly Serena, who proves again and again in the episode that she’s not fit to be a mother. June hides the letters behind the tub again.

June comes down for breakfast and we see that the house it being decorated – it’s Serena’s baby shower. Aunt Lydia has made a disgusting smoothie for June to drink. Nick finally makes an appearance and looks sheepish, but June smiles at him. Serena comes in, and Aunt Lydia demonstrates her control over June by making her drink the smoothie. June is both defiant and compliant as she downs almost half the disgusting concoction. As Serena is leaving, somewhat satisfied, June then throws up what she just drank. She says “Sorry, Aunt Lydia,” but clearly isn’t really, and Aunt Lydia with no emotion says they’ll just make another. EW!!!!

The wives all sit in a circle as Serena opens her gifts. The handmaids all stand in a circle behind them, heads bowed. June gets to sit in a chair somewhat further apart. The baby needs to be there, but they don’t have to acknowledge the “other woman.” Aunt Lydia asks June is she wants something to drink, ever solicitous of the baby, and June tells her no. Her anger is clear in the way she grips the arms of the chair.

The women make general baby shower comments, for all the world like they’ve actually given birth themselves. When Naomi (Ever Carradine) – another terrible mother – comments that she couldn’t breathe until the baby’s first kick, Serena suggests it’s too early for that. June then bursts into the conversation to tell them that SHE felt the baby kick for the first time last night. She had that experience all to herself and kept it to herself. It’s a reminder of just how apart from the process that the women really are. June manages to silence the conversation. When Aunt Lydia asks if June needs to take a break – clearly worried she’s going to do something else to upset Serena – June tells her no. She’s having a great time – and I really enjoyed her finally being able to hurt Serena too!

While the women are at the baby shower, the men are out doing manly things – but how appropriate that they are shooting skeet – it’s really like shooting something already dead and a lovely metaphor for their basic impotence. Warren is there and tells them he appreciates being included. We’re introduced to Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk) as he makes a really snide comment about Warren’s “HANDicap.” I was thrilled to see Greg Bryk – one of my favorite Canadian actors. He’s definitely going to shake things up I’m betting. He has apparently been assigned to Canada by Commander Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown) to get them to “ease sanctions.” There’s that indication that things aren’t going so well in Gilead.

Interestingly, Fred suggests that he’d also like to be named as a special envoy to Canada. Is he trying to get away from Serena too? He suggests that he could help with the negotiations, but Pryce is no fool. He asks if things are in order in Fred’s home. After all, he just lost control of his handmaid and it couldn’t have been cheap to expend those resources on getting her back – none of which is said, but all of which is implied. It’s clear that there is no way that Pryce is letting Fred go to Canada.

Back at the house, Serena has felt the need to take a break and is outside smoking when Aunt Lydia comes out to her. She tells Serena that she worked with many wives and handmaids, and Serena is quick to correct wives to mothers. It’s clear that it’s not just having the child that is important but being a mother – and that’s dangerous because that is the one thing that Serena will never be – unless, perhaps, she sleeps with Nick herself!

Aunt Lydia tells Serena that it’s natural to resent the handmaid – the “other woman” – but that God will forgive her for it. Serena tells Aunt Lydia that June makes it difficult, and Aunt Lydia tells her that June is strong but that means the baby will be too. She tells Serena that “everything from here bust be for the good of the child.” And then she grabs Serena’s cigarette and tells her no more smoking because it’s not good for the baby! It’s telling that Aunt Lydia is in a position to do that to Serena.

Meanwhile, June is sitting on the stairs and she gets Alma (Nina Kiri) to stop to talk to her. Alma is wistful that June almost made it and tells her that everyone was “shitting themselves.” June asks if anyone from May Day was killed, and Alma tells her that May Day has gone silent – but they aren’t helping the Handmaids anymore. Has June ruined everyone else’s chance to escape?

Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) won’t stop to talk, but Alma explains that it’s because they cut out her tongue for speaking out about Janine. Alma tells her that June wasn’t responsible for Ofglen speaking out, she didn’t make her say anything. When June notices the horrible burn on Alma’s arm, Alma clarifies that Ofglen isn’t her fault – but the burn and the punishment of those who followed June is her fault. Moss is excellent here as we see the devastation on her face. It’s the beginning of her descent.

In the next scene, we see the ritual with the wives in the inner circle and the Handmaid’s in the outer circle. Serena stands in the middle with June kneeling at her feet. A thin rope is twined around everyone’s hands, binding them together. It’s clearly a ritual which looks like June offering her baby to Serena. As Serena chants almost in rapture, June is consumed with guilt. She would like to be shameless and ignorant – but she’s not.

June’s other great source of guilt would appear to be the other time she was the “other woman,” and the flashbacks this week concern Annie (Kelly Jenrette), Luke’s (O-T Fagbenle) wife. She accosts June at the gym, begging her to leave Luke alone and give them space to work out their marriage. She tells June that she still loves him. And in a horrible echo of the present, Annie bases her claim on the marriage vows that she and Luke made before God. Annie becomes increasingly incensed and tells June that she can’t just wreck people’s lives and she finishes by calling her a “fucking whore” – and we’ve certainly heard Aunt Lydia call June a whore often enough. It’s a reminder of how June’s actions and desires for her own life have an impact on others. How often do “other women” ever consider that? I think June is the one exception – even though it doesn’t stop her.

June is not the only one in this relationship, and she comes home to find Luke leaving an angry voicemail for Annie. He asks if she’s ok, and she clearly isn’t. She’s told Annie that Annie and Luke have been separated for 3 months, but she reminds Luke that they started when he was still with Annie. She asks him, “what if I hadn’t come along?” But she did. Luke tells her that he loves her and that Annie is just trying to drive a wedge between them – and that is also what Aunt Lydia is trying to do. And the consequences to June’s actions continue to pile up in the episode.

The shower is over, and they are putting the presents away. Serena says it will be a challenge to make sure her baby doesn’t grow up spoiled. And I would added abused! Aunt Lydia remarks it was a beautiful shower – she’s trying her best to placate Serena to encourage her to take June back. June wanders over to the gift table and wistfully picks up a bootie, remembering her own shower. She offers that after her shower they gave away half the gifts. I loved how this drew such a perfect line between June’s generous nature and Serena’s covetous one. Serena is clearly furious at being shown up. Rita tries to defuse the situation, saying she’ll clear the toys away, and Serena furiously backhands her. She can’t hit June after all…

Aunt Lydia whisks June away for a walk. At first, I thought she was taking her out to protect her – and in one sense, it’s clear that Aunt Lydia does think that she’s protecting June by breaking her. Aunt Lydia tells her that it isn’t easy for her either – and I was really starting to feel in this moment that maybe Aunt Lydia did feel something for June. She tells June that she’s trying to give her the best chance that she can have – after all, June was a fallen woman.

In the end, Aunt Lydia has a cruel punishment for June. She drags her to the river walk and shows her the body of Omar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). June collapses to her knees – finally driven there by Aunt Lydia and the weight of her own culpability. Aunt Lydia isn’t done yet. Omar’s wife will redeem herself by becoming a Handmaid – something she told June she despised. Their son will never see his mother again. She tells June it’s not the path they would have chosen for themselves: “You chose for them. Such a selfish girl!” Aunt Lydia presses her advantage demanding of June who killed them? Who made them do these things? Why would God to this? And June finally replies brokenly that she did it and God is trying to teach her a lesson.

Aunt Lydia goes in for the kill – what did this woman do before this? Was she just a religious zealot? A torturer for the CIA?? She clarifies for June that the lesson was for JUNE, to teach JUNE a lesson because June ran away and consorted with terrorists. Offred, on the other hand, was kidnapped and is free from blame. Offred doesn’t have to bear June’s guilt – and we see June retreat to the safety of Offred.

In their absences, Serena has gone to Fred to demand that he send June back to the Red Centre to have the baby there. I suspect that she doesn’t trust herself around June. Fred tells her that she’s strong and deserves to “experience” the pregnancy. Or maybe he sees an opportunity to punish Serena? He tells her to think about the baby and that June is nothing.

We see June kneeling again – this time as a supplicant, essentially begging to be allowed to stay with the Waterfords. When Serena presses for more, June tells her, “I’m not worthy yet. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for me, please. Please let me try to be good.” Nick and Rita are standing as witnesses, and Nick looks shocked – but he hasn’t seen the psychological torture June has been put through. The Commander thinks it wonderful, and June still in shock, wanders back to her room where she stands alone, swaying slightly.

Serena is standing by the baby’s crib, smoking and thinking. She’s clearly not going to let Aunt Lydia bully her! She then goes to June and lies down behind her, placing her hand possessively over June’s stomach. This was one of the creepiest scenes ever. She doesn’t say a word to June, and June never lets on that she’s even awake. Serena only speaks to the baby, telling it, “All will be well” and “Mama loves you.”

As soon as Serena leaves, June gets up and retreats to the closet where where she found strength before. But what she finds is that the note has been erased – she is alone – and the question then becomes has June also been erased? She cries as a litany of “my fault” runs through her mind.

The final flashback is Luke and June with Hannah at a busy coffee shop. The happy, nuclear family. But then June sees Annie across the crowd. She’s alone and turns and leaves when she makes eye contact with June. She is clearly still in pain and appears to be alone – but we don’t know that for sure. June is still clearly a source of pain, but we have no indication that she hasn’t moved on and found happiness with someone else. However, June will always be the “other woman” – just as she will always be that for Serena.

June is filled with self-doubt, thinking “I have done something so wrong… so wrong that I can’t even see it. I am inadequate, stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead. Let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.” And this resonates with what Luke said to June about Annie – “Forget about her. She doesn’t matter to US.” And that is what June has really forgotten. She still matters to people. She is still a beacon of hope, she is still a mother. It also underscores the theme of not forgetting – the wall in the intake centre, the shrine that June made, and even the letters tucked behind the bathtub.

In the morning, June seems to have forgotten herself. She gets dressed and goes downstairs, putting her hat on to go out, I was struck by how much the cornette acts like a blinders on a horse, allowing the wearer to only see their path ahead. As June walks out, Nick finally tries to talk to her – a little late buddy! – and she just keeps walking, saying “We’ve been sent good weather.” She keeps repeating this over and over. She lets herself out of the gate, presumably to meet her walking partner to walk to market – though she has no basket or list. And then the complete evidence of her submission is June’s adopting the “posture” – head down, hands clasped in front.

This was another terrific episode that traced June’s descent from defiance to beaten submission. Great performances from Dowd, Moss, and Strahovski in this episode. This is also a nice parallel to Moira’s (Samira Wiley) own loss of self after her failed escape attempt. I’m betting that June is going to draw strength from the baby growing inside her and that the baby will be her motivation to keep fighting to free both herself and her baby from Gilead – and especially Serena. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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