Welcome back to Gilead! Things are still as much fun as ever, as you can see from the photo above. June is on a roller coaster ride this episode, going from punishment for standing up to Aunt Lydia during last season’s finale, to special treatment because she’s pregnant, to barely being tolerated by Serena (so, back to normal), to a sudden chance at escape. As always, June is never sure where any of this is leading, but she’s not the kind of gal to stay home and knit sweaters, so she jumps into every opportunity, feet first.
“Whether this is my end or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing, and so I step up into the darkness within. Or else the light.”
Season 1 ended as the main part of the book ended, with these words, and June being taken from the Waterfords by the Eyes in an armored van. Was this an escape or an arrest? In the book, we assume it’s a ruse to get Offred out of Boston and then out of Gilead, since we’re reading the words of a handmaid who made it at least as far as Northern Maine.
But the TV series has a much bigger story to tell, and, as the appendices in the book note, there is no evidence that the handmaid Offred made it to Canada, only that she made it as far as Maine and recorded her story at that time. She could have gotten out, she could have been recaptured, she could have stayed in hiding where she was until the fall of Gilead, or she could have become part of the Resistance.
What was discovered may not even have been everything she recorded or experienced. As an archaeological find, it may have been incomplete for any number of reasons. So now, we lucky viewers get to see a version of the rest of Offred’s story.
There appear to have been hundreds, probably even thousands of handmaids, each with a different story. June’s story is one way Offred’s story could have continued, but there are many other ways it could have gone, and it would have gone for others. We’ll see those other potential outcomes illustrated with the other handmaids.
The great thing about the extra time that the series has to extend the story beyond the book is that we get to follow all of the characters to see how they’ll change and what direction their lives will eventually go in. People living in such extreme times are sure to make interesting choices. War and extremism bring out the best and worst in people, sometimes in the same person at the same time.
The episode opens with June still riding in the back of the van alone, in the dark. When they arrive at their destination,an industrial looking parking structure, she’s roughly dragged out, muzzled, her hands bound in front of her, and forced into a group with the rest of handmaids from the district. They are forced to walk down a dark tunnel, with dogs barking at them. The tunnel lets out onto a baseball field (Fenway Park) with multiple gallows set up. The handmaids are each taken to stand in front of a noose, then their heads are roughly shoved into the rope circles. They are left to stand there a minute and contemplate their crimes and fate, then a black-hooded executioner pulls the lever to send them to their deaths.
But they only drop a jolting few inches. The message is clear. We hold your lives in our hands, and you’d better not forget it again.
Of course Aunt Lydia appears from the shadows quoting a bible verse. Devising this punishment was probably the highlight of her year, after the way they embarrassed and defied her at the stoning.
“You will love the Lord thy God with all your heart. Ye shall walk with him, and fear him, and cleave unto him. And you shall obey his word and the word of his servants here on Earth, or you shall feel the pain of his judgement. For that is his love. Let this be a lesson to you.”
June: Our Father who art in heaven…Seriously? What the actual f**k?
So…That went well. Lydia got her point across, and the handmaids are suitably chastised. Everyone can get back to the normal routine of rape and oppression now, right? Who’s on the wall this week? Which mystery animal’s (previously considered inedible) organs will be at the butcher this time?
🤣😂🤣 Yeah, I didn’t think she’d let them off with just that little scare, either.
But first, let’s have a flashback to just before Gilead took over. Hannah’s a touch under the weather, but still probably okay for school, or so June thinks. As June navigates getting Hannah ready, she also needs Luke to sign her permission slip for a birth control refill. Luke, as clueless as always, is surprised to discover that the new laws that require that very thing are being enforced. June is slightly annoyed by his insensitivity to her rights being taken away.
But she quickly moves on to the next thing, which is wondering if she should skip the birth control so they can try for a second baby. Who has time to worry about the slow erosion of rights when you’re late for work? She and Luke have a mostly silent conversation about it, then he agrees that they should go for it.
Back to the present day, where June doesn’t have to worry a bit about birth control. As a matter of fact, Aunt Lydia is giving the handmaids a speech about that very thing. The handmaids are on their knees, with one arm extended straight out, holding a heavy rock, in the pouring rain. If this were real life, I’d be shocked if they didn’t all catch a chill. Lydia whacks anyone who doesn’t keep their arm high enough or hold the correct posture. It’s clearly been hours already.
She’s droning on about what spoiled girls they are, when He gives them everything, and only asks for their unwavering servitude in return, and how stupid they are to think they know better than God about things like slavery, rape and stoning friends to death. After all, He’s saved them from anarchy and the freedom to commit sins. Now they have freedom from
everything good in their lives sin, so they’ve been saved by God and Gilead.
Lydia is interrupted by another aunt, who whispers in her ear that June is pregnant. She becomes joyous and makes the other handmaids chant enthusiastically about this wonderful development. June is led inside, while the others are left in the rain. She’s taken to get dried off. Lydia, filled with religious fervor and joy, goes to the Red Center’s bell tower to ring the bell, announcing the new pregnancy.
Once Offred is in dry clothes, Lydia brings her a healthy, hot lunch, which she promptly refuses to eat. Lydia tries to be patient at first, explaining that Offred needs to try to eat, even though her stomach might be upset. Then they get down to the real issue, June’s defiance. Lydia tells her that they will provide everything that the baby needs, and she expects that there will be no more silly theatrics. All of that nonsense amounted to nothing anyway.
June says that Janine isn’t nothing. Lydia agrees that she isn’t. She’s also on her way to the Colonies, where she’ll die a slow, painful death rather than the quick death surrounded by friends that Lydia was trying to give her. Lydia thinks she’s proven that June wasted her time and energy on something that made things worse for Janine. But, where there’s life, there’s hope. June says, “Friends don’t stone friends.”
Lydia also takes the opportunity to belittle June for rebelling when she was pregnant and should have known that her punishment would be minor, while the handmaids who followed her would receive more severe punishments. I don’t think June thought about that at all, but people like Lydia always assume the most self-serving motive applies, probably because it would apply to them.
June still refuses to eat, so Lydia takes her for a walk to the basement, where another pregnant handmaid, Ofwyatt, is chained to the ceiling and kept in the dark. She drank drain cleaner and endangered her child, so she’s kept under lock and key where she can’t get into any trouble.
June agrees to eat.
While June’s eating, the wet, cold, starving handmaids are paraded in and lined up in front of her. Lydia is doing her best to make sure that the others hate June. Lydia takes Ofrobert/Alma to the kitchen with her for the next phase of the punishment. As soon as Alma sees the stove, she starts to scream and beg, but Lydia has no sympathy. She even says this is painful for her as well. She holds Alma’s hand over the burner flame while Alma screams. The rest of the handmaids are forced to listen from the next room, knowing their turn is coming, and June is forced to keep eating.
In flashback, June has gotten caught up in her work and missed the school’s phone call letting her know that Hannah is sick with a fever. By the time she calls the school back, they’ve transported Hannah to the hospital because her fever was at a moderate 101.1 degrees. June says that Hannah was a little warm before school, so she gave her Tylenol to bring it down. The school administrator becomes upset, informing June that children must be illness and fever free for 48 hours before returning to school. She says it like Hannah was about to spread a deadly plague.
June is questioned by the caseworker who’s with Hannah at the hospital. The caseworker refuses to use June’s last name instead of her husband’s name, and assumes that June is negligent because she’s a working mother. She strongly implies that June is an unfit mother who used Tylenol to send a sick child to school. She also questions whether Hannah is June’s biological child, and makes disapproving noises about it.
Next up, present day June has an ultrasound, with Fred and Serena in attendance. Serena takes a moment alone with June to lecture her about being obedient and submissive. June replies that Serena shouldn’t get upset. It’s bad for the baby. So that would be a no on the obedience and submissiveness, then. Serena stares at June until the baby’s image comes up on the monitor.
Fred calls Serena over to see, and they’re both moved. Serena’s demeanor changes, as she blesses June for being the vessel who will bring her a child.
Once the procedure is finished, everyone leaves June alone in the room to get dressed. The staff guardian is the last to leave. As he does, he says, “Godspeed, June,” with a pointed look. June cautiously puts her cloak and boots back on. She discovers a key with a red label in one boot. Looking around the room, she notices a back door with a small red label over the lock. The key works, so she’s out the door and down the nearby stairs. She continues following the small red labels to the basement, where she finds a flashlight, then goes through a tunnel to another building. She comes out at a butcher’s refrigerator truck filled with pig carcasses and gets inside. As soon as the door closes, the truck leaves. She hasn’t spoken to anyone since the Guardian.
As Fred calls in as many Guardians to search for June as possible, and Serena sits in June’s room and worries, June remembers more of the day that Hannah had a fever at school, a day when everything changed. June brought Hannah home from the hospital just as Luke had gotten home and turned on the TV. He was watching real time coverage of the assassination of Congress by the Sons of Jacob, an event which was referred to in season 1.
June wants to stay in the living room to get more details on the attack, but Hannah is very tired and sick by now, so she wants her Mommy’s attention in the bedroom. Luke has already told June that 20 or 30 guys started shooting from the galleries in the Capitol building, meaning they shot at the Congresspeople in the House of Representatives and at the Senate. Luke says that the new reporters don’t know how many have been killed.
The galleries are the seats set aside for visitors to watch Congressional proceedings, which are situated well above the House and Senate floors. They’re a perfect spot for snipers to take out as many people as possible on the main floor. But first, the gunmen have to get past several layers of armed security and metal detectors, so either security was compromised in the Capitol building (likely staffed by embedded Sons of Jacob members), or they shot their way through security, killing innocent bystanders.
We can hear parts of the news reports:
“Sources are saying this is likely the deadliest attack on American soil since 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security has yet to weigh in on who might be responsible for this devastating act of terrorism. We are still waiting for comment from the NSA and FBI. There are still no claimants of responsibility… Breaking news from the Pentagon. Martial law has been declared in Washington…Reports from emergency personnel of even more casualties on Capitol Hill… As soon as we learn more from Security Forces and from eye witnesses on the ground and around the Capitol. We’re getting word now that the National Guard is being deployed… National Guard has been called in from Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Nevada, Oklahoma City…Wait, we’re getting word- Yes, we can confirm that there has been some kind of explosive detonated at the White House…As you see here we have smoke…We’re being told now that the President was moved to a secure location before the explosion…”
June and Luke grow increasingly worried about the situation, but with a sick child, there’s not much they can do. Hannah is insistent that June stay in the bedroom with her, though June really wants and needs to hear the news reports. They are in the situation of trying to figure out when “bad” has gotten to the point of “time to get out”- or have they already missed their chance? Was the day of the attack their last chance? But June had already been threatened with having Hannah taken away that day, so trying to travel with her while she was sick would have been a bad idea on those grounds, not to mention how dangerous the streets must have been. They put being parents before escaping from whatever is happening to the country.
June is jolted out of her memories when the truck arrives at its destination. The driver helps her out of the truck and into a building. He tells her to stay inside and someone will come for her. She gives him a big hug.
Moments after the driver leaves, Nick comes down the hall to greet her. She gives him an even bigger hug. Her pulls her to the back of the building because they’re looking for her. He says they’re in the Back Bay area of Boston.
Nick has brought her a change of clothes and wants her to cut her hair. They can’t get her out of the city yet, but there’s a place for her to stay until they can. It shouldn’t be too long.
June strips down to her underwear and contemplates her handmaid’s robes. Then she shoves them in the potbellied stove and sets them on fire. Next she cuts off her long hair and tosses the pony tail into the fire. She still has her livestock tag on her ear, so she still feels like a slave.
Never let it be said that June isn’t hardcore. She takes the scissors and cuts the tag out by cutting her ear along with it, one small, excessively bloody snip at a time. When she’s done, she throws that in the fire, too.
She’s fighting her war to be free of Gilead, and this isn’t the only time we’ll see her bleed this season.
“My name is June Osborne. I am from Brookline, Massachusetts. I am 34 years old. I stand 5’3″ in bare feet. I weigh 120 lbs. I have viable ovaries. I am five weeks pregnant. I am free.”
In the hanging scene, Lydia is participating in the popular Gilead sport of misquoting the Bible. As far as I can tell, the first half of the quote is meant to be Deuteronomy 13:4. I couldn’t find a verse that directly corresponds with the second half. If anyone has, let me know. It has similarities to the Proverbs and 1 Peter Chapter 4, but also has that Gilead flair for oppression that goes beyond even the Old Testament.
For example, the verse that directly follows Deuteronomy 13:4 speaks of putting to death false prophets who would turn you away from the rightful God who led the believers out of slavery. A God who’s against slavery certainly isn’t one that Lydia would want to quote, although she might somehow work it into a “freedom from freedom” speech, I guess.
This makes me wonder if Gilead has commissioned its own version of the Bible, a newer, truer translation and interpretation of the Scripture with additions from their own clergymen and religious scholars. Somebody in Gilead has to have been spoken to directly by God, the founder of the Sons of Jacob at a minimum. God probably has daily conversations with every single Commander these days, approving of their every whim. They may well have an entirely new Bible length book of their own Scripture at this point, with the books of Fred, Wyatt, Robert, and so on.
Luke’s inability to understand the ways that June’s rights are being taken away really bothers me, especially since he’s the father of a daughter. The fact that the line on the birth control form says “husband”, not just “responsible male party”, means only married women can even get birth control, and only husbands can make the final decision. Not fathers, brothers, sons or boyfriends, when the medication is needed for medical purposes by unmarried women.
This is before Gilead, in a supposedly free America. Similarly to Luke’s lack of outrage when the women lost control of their money, he just doesn’t get why people need control of their own lives and bodies, which is ironic, to say the least. Also realistic, though. Institutionalized and internalized misogyny means that we all just don’t notice or are blatantly told to accept most of the misogyny that we encounter, because it’s so normalized. Gilead would have been able to go a long distance toward its reversal of women’s rights, just by carefully treading that path, just like conservative America is doing today.
By taking the National Guard from all of the other major cities in the country to deal with the situation in Washington DC when Congress was assassinated, the rest of the nation was left wide open for the Sons of Jacob to move in on those cities. No comment from the FBI, NSA and Department of Homeland Security probably means that all of the country’s top crime fighting agencies were already compromised and either actively helping with the coup or in disarray. Declaring martial law would only help the Sons of Jacob, since that would allow them to run around unnoticed with their guns and uniforms, while keeping ordinary citizens inside instead of fighting them or escaping.
The report that the president was able to escape helps explain how and why the US government is still operating in exile and still recognized internationally. Gilead’s coup didn’t actually depose the head of state. He left the White House, but he wasn’t technically overthrown, and didn’t concede defeat. According to the US government, Gilead would still be a terrorist group who have occupied our territory. The Sons of Jacob would have been trying to kill the president and everyone in line for the presidency so that their claim to the country was undeniable.
Not executing the head of state was a huge failure for their military coup. With the US president still alive and the legitimate government still active, Gilead doesn’t have full, legitimate legal claim to the US unless a peace treaty between them and the US is drawn up giving them the land. Until then, the war isn’t over between the US and the upstarts who occupy its territory. For a historical reference point, Germany fully occupied Austria and Poland for the entirety of World War 2, but both became sovereign nations again when the war was over.
Whether June escapes this time or not, she’s existentially free. Season 1 Episode 1 was called Offred, because at that point Gilead had won her mind. Offred thought she’d lost everyone she loved forever, could see no way out, no way to fight, and saw everyone, including the other handmaids, as true believers and likely enemies.
Her journey in season 1 taught her that Luke, Hannah and Moira are all alive and possibly within reach. She knows that Luke got out of Gilead. She knows that there is a Resistance movement and that very few of the people around her are true believers. Most hate Gilead the way she does. She knows she’s not alone and that Gilead isn’t infallible.
Now she knows that there is some kind of Underground Railroad and that she can slip out of the Waterford’s clutches.
She also knows that Aunt Lydia and Gilead didn’t put the defiant handmaids on the wall, which they would have done in earlier days. They can only kill so many fertile women before they start to run out of their prized resource. Yes, Lydia scared them, but she also showed them that she can’t kill them, which means they have a certain level of safety, too. They aren’t safe from torture, but they are safe from death. That’s more than they had last season.
Images courtesy of Hulu.