Episode 8 of The Handmaid’s Tale has some cathartic moments, some good character building and a whole lot of irritating contrivances that really ought to be beneath a show of this caliber by now. I’ll start with the good stuff and we can dovetail from there.
June testifies in the pre-trial hearing of Fred Waterford and her testimony is not only cathartic for June, it’s both cathartic and helpful for viewers. It serves as a surprisingly tidy recap of some of the atrocities June faced in Gilead, largely at the hands of this despicable couple. Moss once again brings her A-game (serving as both star and director once again) and manages to convey her testimony coherently and emotionally without coming off as hysterical or overly aggressive. She sets the perfect tone in many ways, which makes Fred’s response (and later events) all the more preposterous. Then again, Fred is preposterous. So is Serena. More on that in a bit.
I also thought the emotionally charged interactions between June and Luke were quite good. We set the record straight on last week’s episode, for one thing. There’s been a lot of debate over whether or not June raped her husband in last week’s episode after she came home from telling Serena off and woke Luke up for sex. He tried to touch her, she pinned his hand down, he said “wait” and she clamped her hands over his mouth and proceeded to ride him until climaxing. I’ve discussed this at length and you can see my latest discussion on YouTube below:
You can also read about my interpretation of this scene—and why I don’t believe it’s rape, even if it isn’t very intimate or romantic either—here and here. Suffice to say, I have given this a great deal of thought and many readers/viewers have debated and discussed this issue with me. Some have written off my take as terrible and monstrous. I’ve been called a “rape apologist” for it—though why I’d wait until this scene to take up rape apology when we’re four seasons into a show about rape and torture and sexism and all the rest is beyond me.
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This episode, however, clarifies a few things—though no doubt people will continue to disagree with me. For one thing, we see Luke after June clamps her hand on his mouth lay back with a frown on his face but not say anything. He makes no further protestations. One argument that was made about this scene is that he was unable to say “stop” or “no” because her hand was over his mouth. Clearly that was not the case.
Later, after Luke and June get into a fight, Luke talks to Moira about his struggles. He says she’s like a stranger when they talk about things and in bed. Clearly his discomfort during the sex scene in question was not because he didn’t want to have sex, but because he felt like he was having sex with a stranger. This was not the June he knew. He clearly doesn’t understand how she needs to take back her own sexuality after years of having sex forced on her.
Finally, there’s a scene after the trial where the two are having dinner and he wants to talk but she doesn’t. She says as much but he makes it about him (understandably, if selfishly) and gets emotional and says he doesn’t know what to do (therapy, probably) and she starts kissing him and goes for his belt and he recoils and says “stop!” very forcefully and tells her he wants to talk, not just go straight to sex.
This makes it even more clear that if he had truly not wanted to have sex in last week’s episode he would have simply said so. He has no problem whatsoever rebuffing her advances this week. He is much larger, much stronger and easily pushes her away. Logistically, June actually raping Luke would require sedatives or restraints of some kind.
The actual point of these scenes—last week’s and this one—is to show how difficult returning to normal life and to a marriage is for people who have so much trauma, shame, guilt and unresolved emotions to contend with. By the end of the episode, June finally starts to open up to Luke and to tell him the truth rather than spare him out of a misplaced sense of mercy. This is good, this is hopeful. The episode, for all its flaws, ends on a really positive—if still incredibly saddening—note.
Everywhere else in this episode, contrivance rules the day. After June’s testimony, Fred makes an impassioned speech defending his and his wife’s rape of June by proclaiming that “it works!” and that he and Serena have been “rewarded by God” with a baby of their own.
I guess the entire thing is televised because later, as the two leave the building (with no guards or police escorting them for some bizarre reason) a crowd has gathered, not to protest the Waterfords but to cheer them on. I guess the American and Canadian governments decided that allowing them to walk without an escort in broad daylight in public for all the world to see makes lots of sense. So much sense.
What I don’t really get here is why there weren’t these pro-Gilead crowds before. People knew who Fred was, what he represented, what Gilead stood for and its “accomplishments.” Why no adoring crowds until now? Why wait until after the (also apparently publicly broadcast) testimony of June, in which she repeatedly describes the rape and abuse the Waterfords meted out to her, to rally? Accepting that there are awful people out there who will use religion to justify their awful notions, it’s still weird timing. Fred’s “impassioned” speech wasn’t that passionate. He sounded flimsy and ludicrous next to June, though her ultimate comeback—“I’m done!”—wasn’t particularly riveting either.
I find the idea that there are pro-Gilead sympathizers in Canada quite believable and just as troubling, but this moment felt like the wrong one to introduce them, and the entire scene felt perplexingly staged.
I may have defended June against charges of rape, and I did think her testimony was powerful, but her involvement in a support circle run by her dear friend Moira is where I draw the line. June is right to say that these women ought to be angry, and that they ought to let their fury guide them. The world should see their rage, their pain, their furious condemnation of all things Gilead.
She’s just such an ass when it comes to how she does everything. June, you see, is always right. She is always the arbiter of truth. No matter how she handles a situation—however reckless or selfish she may be—she is the boss. Queen June lording over her court.
In yet another absurd contrivance, Emily’s former Aunt shows up at June’s first meeting, trying desperately to speak with Emily who wants nothing to do with her. At this point we don’t know it’s her Aunt from Gilead, but we find out soon enough. June picks up the piece of paper the woman drops in the first confrontation and discovers the truth. Later, she demands to know who the woman was while Emily is over for dinner, as though it’s her business to make these kinds of demands. Both Moira and Luke are uncomfortable with her pushiness.
This does not deter June from inviting the Aunt up to the next support meeting so she and Emily can duke it out. The Aunt, we discover, is the tattle-tale who ratted Emily and her Martha-lover out to the Eyes, leading to that horrible hanging we saw way back in the first season. She begs for forgiveness and asks Emily what she can do to make things better.
“Nothing,” Emily replies, walking away leaving the Aunt in tears. Through much of this scene, June is the one doing all the talking. June is the one interrogating and berating the Aunt she has never met until recently. June is the one who is getting the satisfaction out of all of this, getting her little revenge fix, her anger-fueled catharsis. It isn’t at all about Emily. Not really. It’s about June continuing the work of overthrowing Gilead, one angry admonishment at a time.
The Aunt hangs herself and when the group discusses this later, many of the ex-Handmaidens express sadness at this. This is the influence of Moira on the group who has been encouraging the others to let go of their anger and embrace a healing path.
But Emily is not sad. She says she feels great and she hopes that it was her words that caused this woman to end her own life. June gets a big grin on her face at this. She is the anti-Moira. She wants the others to embrace their anger. “Your hate has made you powerful,” she very nearly says to Emily and the others. When Moira tries to end the session, June says she’ll stick around if anyone else wants to.
June is correct, of course. It’s way too soon to forgive and forget. Now is still the time for righteous anger and fury. Moira is right—but only for the long-run. Eventually anger will consume and destroy someone, but it can also fuel resistance and protest and right now the world clearly needs to hear more about the atrocities these women faced in Gilead, because we know that there are too many people willing to let those slide if it means more babies.
What bothers me is June’s arrogance. Her inability to work with anyone, even her old friend, and the way she just inserts herself as the leader and tramples over everyone in her path, including the person who literally saved her from Gilead. I’m also bothered by the convenient timing of this Aunt showing up right at this moment rather than, I dunno, the last couple of years when Emily was already free. What crazy timing that she’d show up just when June arrived, just in time for June to influence the outcome!
“Testimony” certainly had some powerful moments, and I’m very happy that we can put to bed the ridiculous notion that June raped her husband (matrimonial complexities are just that; we don’t need to find sexual assault in every corner) and even more so that it looks like at least June will finally be honest with Luke and they can hash things out. His selfishness—showing up at her trial despite her asking him not to, making the whole thing about his struggles, complaining that she’s like a stranger in bed etc.—is largely just a symptom of his ignorance and uncertainty. The more he knows, the more they grapple with these truths, the better they’ll be. Or not. Maybe they won’t survive the trauma, but at least they can fail honestly and move on if need be.
Oh, and why are defense lawyers so awful in TV shows? Bringing June’s affair with Luke prior to their marriage up as “evidence” is way out of line. Is it even admissible in a hearing like this? Suggesting that she had a “choice” (between sex slave and manual labor slave in a nuclear wasteland) is equally absurd and surely someone on the prosecution could point that out?
Lawrence and Lydia
The final subplot revolves around Aunt Lydia and Commander Lawrence. Lydia has a bad day at the office. She’s losing her mind or possibly her nerve, and to compensate she’s acting even more nitpicky and authoritarian than usual. When a Handmaiden tells her that a spot she’s trying to clean must be a stain, Lydia is enraged and uses her cattle prod on the poor girl. When a nearby Aunt intervenes, she uses the cattle prod on her as well.
This leads to an uncomfortable conversation with Lawrence, who is essentially her sponsor at this point, and he tells her she isn’t being fired. He needs allies in his quest to make Gilead better. The big reveal here is that Janine is actually still alive. She was found by Eyes in Chicago and captured. Lawrence sends Lydia to her, ostensibly so that she can take her abusive tendencies out on the girl, though it seems clear that he believes Lydia may be softened if she’s tasked with caring for someone she genuinely cares about.
In the following scene between Janine and Lydia, Janine seems genuinely happy that June escaped until Lydia starts to plant her seeds of doubt, implying that June left her behind. Janine begs Lydia not to send her back as a Handmaiden. She’d rather die than continue that life. Lydia seems truly moved here, embracing Janine and wiping tears from her cheek. Will she actually finally turn on Gilead? Is this really Lawrence’s plan? It’s hard to say. Lydia is a tough nut to crack.
Anyways, I’m looking forward to next week’s episode and the forward momentum this show has finally found. Overall, I’ve mostly enjoyed Season 4 even if a part of me still wishes this had been a limited series that hewed closer to the source material.
It’s fantastic, if unsurprising, news that Janine is alive. Nine times out of ten, if there’s no body the character isn’t dead. Exceptions to this rule are rare. Still, Janine is so likable and sweet it’s good that she’s not dead, though perhaps her fate will still be worse than death. Let’s hope not. I liked how she stood up to Lydia this week, even if her defenses started to crack a little.
How does one rate an episode like this? The good stuff was very good. The bad stuff was inexcusably bad. Surely they can come up with better material than the sudden appearance of an Aunt serving only as a vehicle for June’s takeover of her support group? The pro-Waterford crowds also felt ill-timed and that whole procession bizarrely staged. These things don’t ruin an otherwise good episode, but they don’t help, either.
Read My Previous Season 4 Reviews Below:
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