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The Handmaid's Tale - Bear Witness - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “Bear Witness” was written by Jacey Heldrich and was directed by Daina Reid. Heldrich moves up from writer’s assistant and has previously written for Person of Interest. June (Elisabeth Moss) finally comes home from the hospital to find out that much has changed. This week’s acting Emmy has to go to Bradley Whitford (Lawrence) who is fantastic in this episode.

As we’ve become used to the episode opens with a beautiful cinematic moment of June reflected in the water with classical music overlaying the scene. The camera pans up to her determined face as she limps towards the Lawrence’s with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) following behind. Here, finally, is the hero – she’s been through her Valley of the Shadow of Death. Her limping reminds us of the wounds on her knees and her hand is still bandaged – is this an allusion to Christ reborn?

However, it is far from smooth sailing for June and her plan to free all the children in this episode. She barely recognizes the house which has been stripped of all of Lawrence’s eccentricities. This is just the first of Commander Winslow’s (Christopher Meloni) new regulations. All houses must conform to their standards – but more importantly, it is just the first indication of Lawrence’s own increasingly precarious position. He’s far from untouchable… The hideous wallpaper immediately put me in mind of the famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” – in which a woman is driven mad by the wallpaper in her room. Well, really she’s driven mad-er… It is hideous, and it seems the last thing to help Eleanor (Julie Dretzin). Dretzin is delivering amazing performances every week and does so again in this episode.

June is welcomed home by Sienna (Sugenja Sri), and Aunt Lydia solicitously tells June to go upstairs and take a nap. But in voice over, June tells us she doesn’t want to rest. Aunt Lydia loves the new look of the house and attributes it to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his insisting that all houses must adhere to DC standards – all an effort to advance his standing with Winslow. Aunt Lydia is happy to have returned June just in time for this month’s ceremony. Aunt Lydia thinks the house is now worthy of a child. June pleases Aunt Lydia when she ironically tells her that she thinks her time of prayer has revealed her true purpose. Of course, the double meaning is clear to us. Aunt Lydia thinks that June is ready to give Gilead another child, when in fact, she is plotting to steal back all the children and get them out!

June makes her way to the kitchen where there are three large baskets of scones on the counter. Beth (Kristen Gutoskie) comes in and tells her that scones mean no. This is how the Martha’s, the network, communicate. Beth has been trying to find medication for Eleanor because they’ve cut her off. Beth tells June that Eleanor is getting worse – she throws things now – and she shows June her bloody ear.

June asks Beth to ask the network for help in getting the children out. Beth clearly thinks June is the crazy one and tells her that she’s going to get herself killed. But June smiles as she eats a scone – it doesn’t matter as long as she saves the children.

June is welcomed home by Lawrence as he comes down the stairs from Eleanor’s room. She’s just thrown him out of her room, screaming and crying. Lawrence is clearly feeling the strain from all sides. She follows him into his study – where the books are now all piled on the floor. June asks him if he’s reorganizing – but of course, it’s more sinister than that, but it’s also another wonderful visual reflection of how Lawrence must now reorganize his life. He’s finally experiencing some of the lack of freedom he’s subjected women to in the course of helping to create Gilead.

June tells Lawrence that she’s worried about Eleanor – and her safety. Lawrence insists that Eleanor is safe – it’s her home. June points out that he can’t just keep her locked up there. He asks what she proposes he do – and she suggests getting her out. He won’t send her away. June tells him that he can go with her – he can get a truck and get her the help she needs. Lawrence knows that June is right when she tells him that Eleanor can’t take much more, but still, he asks her what she knows about how much someone can take. I loved the close up on June’s face as she smiles slightly and tells him “Everything.” And we know she does. The episode goes on to prove to Lawrence just how much June knows this. June walks out of the office, musing that Lawrence is scared – and that can be a great motivator.

June returns to Loaves and Fishes. She is accompanied by an Aunt (Yahsmin Daviault), and June muses “Another walking partner dead. They must think I’m cursed. Or a terrorist.” And the looks the other handmaids give her seem to verify it. June also goes on to muse that she’s not a terrorist – at least not yet. Even Brianna (Bahia Watson) dodges her and won’t look at her.

Alma (Nina Kiri) doesn’t want to help June, telling June that she’s too conspicuous. June doesn’t take no for an answer, and it’s a little funny as she chases her about the shelves – and why does no one realize that they never take anything out of them?? June asks Alma to find out how many handmaids’ kids are still in the district. June tells her that she’s getting them out, and Alma tells June that she’ll get put on the wall just for thinking that. And June just smiles and shrugs. She doesn’t care about herself anymore. Alma asks her if she’s ok, and June answers honestly that she’s not. The two are interrupted by a bell signaling an inspection.

Aunt Lydia quickly gets the handmaids in place for their “very special visitors.” Fred shows up – all the other handmaids have their heads down, but June looks straight ahead and stares him right in the eye. I have to give a shout out to Fiennes in this episode – this is one of his best performances. He asks June if she is alright and apologizes for keeping her out in the cold. She’s a bit confused – until he mentions that it’s warmer in DC… maybe he can get her transferred. He clearly still has a thing for her. They are interrupted by the arrival of Winslow and Serena (Yvonne Stahovski) – and June ends the conversation by pointing out that his wife has arrived.

Winslow is eager to see what Fred has – Fred’s “girls” have “quite a reputation.” The use of girls is such a sign of disrespect - and contrasts with June's later comment about Lawrence. Both Serena and Lydia look concerned. Fred exchanges the ritual greeting with the handmaids, who obediently reply. Fred insists that they’ve made a lot of progress since the “Calhoun incident.” Aunt Lydia is quick to say they have 2 new confirmed pregnancies.

Winslow immediately notices Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) new eye patch and is clearly not happy – it’s not regulation! Aunt Lydia quickly tells him that her “alterations” were damaged through criminal actions so they decided to make an allowance. He questions that she’s satisfied with that decision in a district that “has fostered violent rebellion!” Aunt Lydia says that she is – at present. Winslow then questions that there are no “rings” – no mouths stapled shut. Fred says that they are rolling it out slowly, and Aunt Lydia quickly adds that the vow is voluntary. It’s clear that neither are supporters of the idea.

Serena takes the opportunity to talk to June. She asks June how she is, and June tells her she’s fine. She then smiles and laughs and asks how Serena’s arm is. It’s almost like they are friends… Fred asks if Winslow remembers Ofjoseph, and we learn that Winslow and Lawrence are old friends – golf buddies. Every Sunday – after church, of course. Winslow asks June how she finds Commander Lawrence, and no one is particularly pleased by her answer – she says he treats her with respect. It’s a dig at Serena and especially Fred, but it’s also a red flag to Winslow. June tells Winslow that she’s grateful to be in Lawrence’s service. June smiles as she sees it sting Fred, but Serena looks worried – and that makes June thoughtful.

June comes home to find Lawrence is out – he goes to meetings now. It’s another sign of how much power he’s lost. June immediately heads into the study to try to start looking for the children, but all the filing cabinets are locked. She’s interrupted by Eleanor wandering in, looking for a book. She says hi as soon as she sees June. June is hiding the scissors she’s been using to try to pry open the filing cabinets behind her back – exactly as she held the scalpel in last week’s episode. I was a bit worried she would attack Eleanor, but Eleanor isn’t an enemy – she’s an ally. She immediately knows that June is up to something again and asks if it’s her daughter. June tells her no. Hannah is gone. Surely, she hasn’t just accepted that?!? Eleanor wants to know that June is doing in there then. Surprisingly, June tells her the truth – she’s looking for other people’s children – her friends. Eleanor clarifies – the handmaids? June says yes, and Eleanor tells her that that information is in the Red Center dossiers – and that Lawrence keeps them all in the basement!

Eleanor abandons her book and tells June, let’s go! I don’t have all day! Eleanor is clearly not well as she natters on about the clutter, but she finds the dossiers for June. June sits on the floor, smiling, and starts going through the boxes. Eleanor meanwhile wanders about. June finds her own dossier – and we finally get a time line. Hannah was born in 2009 and Nichole in 2017.

June asks Eleanor if she’s ever thought about leaving. June says that Lawrence would help her, that they could go together. June tells her that he loves her so much, and he wants her to be safe. Eleanor may be unstable but she hasn’t lost complete touch with reality. She knows that Lawrence is a war criminal and would be killed if he crossed the border. She admits that he would deserve it. Eleanor retreats from the reality of the situation, suddenly distracted by a random briefcase, declaring that she’d been looking all over for it. She scoops it up, telling June that she’s happy she’s back because it’s always more exciting with her there – and then she runs back upstairs….

Meanwhile, the Waterfords seem to have a very modern condominium to replace their house. They are entertaining Winslow, who is impressed by what Fred has done in his district. Other fringe districts haven’t been as compliant. Serena asks if there’s been pushback on the new policies, and that’s almost too far. Serena backtracks and says some MEN are set in their ways. Winslow lets it go and agrees with her. Fred makes a comment about those who cling to old habits. Serena asks if he’s thinking of anyone in particular, and Fred says Lawrence. I thought Serena might have been in on setting Lawrence up, but she seems unhappy at what he is clearly doing. We also see Rita (Amanda Brugel) looking concerned in the background.

Fred mentions that Lawrence has had four handmaids. He suggests that they might have to set an example. Winslow hesitates – it’s not easy to challenge someone like Lawrence – so he still has some power – or is it a holdover from the golf buddies days? Fred suggests that they just need to make sure that the household is abiding by Gilead’s most important tenets… Fred reminds Winslow that there are mechanisms in place to ensure virility. Serena suggests that is a little extreme. Serena is clearly not happy with the way the conversation has gone.

June has been sitting in the basement long enough for it to have gotten dark. We get another one of the beautiful overhead shots that work on a circle in red and white – June surrounded by the dossiers. She tells us that it’s been five years since their children were torn away from them. “An eternity.” She remarks that they’ve missed everything – including the tragedies. She learns that Janine’s son was killed in a traffic accident four years ago. June is interrupted by Beth saying June is wanted in the sitting room – she’s carrying the ceremony pillow, so June knows that whatever is happening, it isn’t good and this night is not going to end well for her. Beth looks shocked and uncomfortable.

June can hear Aunt Lydia and Lawrence. She enters the sitting room and painfully kneels on the pillow in front of the fireplace. She tells Beth and Sienna where to stand. Then June hears Serena remark what a lovely room as she leads in Eleanor. Serena says “I pray that nothing will impede God’s will tonight.” At first, I thought this was just Serena being a bitch again, but in retrospect, I think it is the only way she has to warn June to simply comply – this is a very dangerous situation. When there’s a knock on the door, Serena lends strength to Eleanor by laying her hand on her shoulder, to say come in.

Winslow comes in and goes straight to Eleanor who asks after his wife and children. Fred apologizes for intruding. Fred tells Lawrence that they are just there to pray with them for the fruitfulness of the outcome. In voiceover, June tells us that they used to do this in the beginning of Gilead to the houses that resisted the ceremony. Eventually, they declared it unnecessary.

Eleanor tries to put them off by saying they’d been checked on by the Aunts. Fred tells Eleanor that they are simply shoring up families who have had difficulties with handmaids. Aunt Lydia explains that bearing witness ensures that every member of the family is performing their role. It certainly seems like Aunt Lydia may think that Eleanor is the weak link. But of course, we’ve seen that the love the Lawrences have for each other runs deeply – to the point where they’d risk their own life to save the other.

Lawrence asks if Aunt Lydia is also going to sit on the bed with them because that would definitely make things more interesting – and June smiles. Winslow cuts off the levity – it’s time to get started. Lawrence complies. He goes to get the prayer – but of course has no idea where the key is – but Beth does. He tells her not to move his stuff. Whitford is simply brilliant in the remaining scenes in this episode. Moss is also exceptional here as we see June take new meaning from the ritualized words: “give me children or else I die.” June is taking the children from Gilead.

June notices the doctor (Eric Craig) in the hallway, and questions Aunt Lydia. She tells her the doctor will be quick – afterwards, she will be checked. She limps up the stairs a look of determination on her face. The Lawrences are waiting, and June closes the door. Lawrence says that they’ll just sit there quietly for 20 minutes and suggests canasta, but it’s June who takes control of the situation. June is the strong one.

June tells them the doctor is going to check. Eleanor starts to lose it – Lawrence had promised that they’d never have to do it. Lawrence insists that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want – and June insists that they do. She tells him that he created this world – and asks how long he thought it would be before it came for him…. Lawrence insists there are exceptions. June tells him it ends with both of them on the wall. Eleanor muses that maybe they deserve it, and at least it would all be over. She assures June that she’ll be fine, but Lawrence points out that handmaids are required to report deviance, and June adds that the Marthas are too – they’d all be punished. It's clear that while Eleanor is prepared to die, she won't sacrifice the others - she still has her humanity.

Eleanor completely loses it when she realizes that there is no way out for all of them – except the one. Lawrence holds Eleanor while June also comforts her and tells her that she can do it. Lawrence puts her in the other part of the room and closes the doors. He tells her that it doesn’t mean anything, that whatever happens, he loves her. And June has to listen to that too. And then she also comforts and guides Lawrence. She tells him to just treat it like a job. To detach himself and see it from the outside. They aren’t themselves – it’s just a transaction and then it’s over. This is clearly how handmaids learn to cope – and is no doubt what they tell each other. Whitford’s face is a mask of devastation. He asks June if she’s sure. She nods, and tells him that it’s easier if you close your eyes. Moss is also wonderful as June fights not to lose it. Lawrence turns off the lights – and we aren’t forced to watch and become complicate as voyeurs.

Serena, Fred, and Winslow wait in the sitting room and Lawrence comes running down the stairs. He walks right past the room. Aunt Lydia and Serena enter the bedroom. Serena looks and sounds distressed as she asks where Eleanor is. June is still on the bed, one bare leg up – and it’s a pose that could be sexually fraught but in this context seems to be the exact opposite. June simply nods with her head to indicate that Eleanor is in the other room. Serena is faced with yet another woman whom she’s hurt. Eleanor does her best to pull herself together and apologizes for how long it’s been since they had dinner. But Serena is there to comfort her, not hold her to task. Serena is also feeling guilty for the world she’s created – finally.

Aunt Lydia watches as the doctor examines June. He clearly thinks of June as little more than a piece of meat, and Aunt Lydia doesn’t seem to approve completely. June seems to take herself out of this situation as well.

Aunt Lydia comes down with Serena and June and declares it a successful ceremony. Fred says praise be – but he was clearly hoping that Lawrence wouldn’t do it. Serena suggests that they should give the Lawrences back their privacy. This was pretty clearly a waste of time, but Aunt Lydia is also clearly aware of the danger posed by Winslow.

Fred stops and asks if June is alright. Of course, his solicitous tone is in complete contrast to the fact that he engineered the whole thing! June smiles and nods – and then drives the knife home. “Well. At least it wasn’t you.” I loved the look that Serena gave Fred – she thinks he deserved it too! Again, she’s made this bed and it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for her. June stops limping as she leaves the room – refusing to show weakness of any kind in front of Fred.

June goes to Lawrence who is drinking at the kitchen table. She asks how Eleanor is. He tells her that she’s very quiet – and that can’t be good. Lawrence offers June the morning after pill, but she reminds him that the punishment for contraception is being torn apart by dogs!!! June also tells him that that isn’t going to be the last time that happens – and he knows it. He’s clearly devastated. But he tells her that he’ll get her a truck. He tells her to get his wife out safely. As he leaves the room, June tells him that he can get out too – he just has to bring them something. Something valuable. The kids. The stolen children of Gilead. Lawrence thinks about it and says “I’d be a hero” – but he takes no joy in it. He knows it can never make up for what he’s already done.

At Loaves and Fishes, Janine is happy to see June, but Alma practically runs the other way when she sees her. June isn’t deterred and follows her to the fridges again – and still no one takes anything! Alma wants to know what she wants, and June tells her that she has a plan. Alma doesn’t want to listen until June tells her about her son, Dylan. He’s only five, and Alma didn’t even know that he was blond. He would have been a baby when he was taken. Alma’s ready to listen.

June tells her that she has a truck that seats about 10, but she’s not leaving without Hannah – so she hasn’t given up! Alma points out that they can’t do it alone, and Janine offers to help – reminding them that she’s brave. Alma knows the location of another child who is old enough and promises to ask around. June and Janine smile at each other. And then in front of the fish tank – and was it just me, or did those fish look like little sharks? – Janine asks about her own son. June lies and tells her that Caleb’s family was transferred to California and his mom seems super nice.

At the Waterfords, Fred makes a lame excuse for the night before and thanks Serena for her “resilience.” Serena points out that they have to present a united front. She also tells him that it’s been months and they are no closer to getting Nichole. She accuses him of prioritizing himself – which, of course, he is. Fred sits at the table, while Serena sits on the table above him – and she is clearly in charge of this scene in every way. She tells him that she thought that the Gilead channels were the only way to get to Nichole – but they aren’t.

I was a little shocked when she told Fred about her American friend – and even gave him the radio! She tells Fred that all he has to do is offer his cooperation. Fred looks the opposite of happy. Will he comply? Will he chop off more of Serena’s body parts?

This time when June gets home from Loaves and Fishes, there are no scones. Beth has done what she asked – the Marthas have sent muffins – they mean yes. She asked who would help get the children out – and there are muffins covering every surface in the kitchen! June says they’re gonna need a bigger boat – and for once the episode ends with a huge, genuine smile on June’s face.

This was another wonderful episode. Great performances from so many of the actors, but again, I have to give a special shout out to Bradley Whitford’s performance. I also loved how the title of the episode resonated throughout. It refers to Fred, Serena, and Winslow bearing witness for the ceremony, but it also reflects Serena and Aunt Lydia bearing witness to what’s happening to the women. It also weighs heavily on both Lawrence and Serena for having to bear seeing what their actions have directly wrought. What did you think of the episode? Is it possible that both Serena and Aunt Lydia could end up as allies for June against Winslow? Will Fred actually sacrifice the power that he’s clawed out for himself? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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