Episode 9, Heroic, is probably one of The Handmaid’s Tale most controversial episodes. Almost the entire episode takes place in Ofmatthew/Natalie’s hospital room, where she is brain dead after being shot by a Guardian in episode 8. Natalie is comatose, but kept alive as an incubator for her baby for as long as possible in order to give the baby the best chance of survival. Little care is given to her comfort and none to her potential wishes. She is now blatantly referred to as a vessel for the baby and nothing more, ultimately the only role that matters for the women of Gilead.
It was shocking enough to watch as a pregnant Black woman was shot by the Handmaid’s Tale version of the police in the previous episode. In this episode, we watch as her body is treated like an inanimate object by almost all of the many people who file through her hospital room. Natalie is reduced to frequently malfunctioning life support for her womb, an obstacle in the way of the healthy baby boy they want to eventually harvest from her, just as they’ve stolen her previous three children.
Season 3 aired in the summer of 2019, long before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths in May and March of 2020. It’s a reminder of the long history of racism, medical mistreatment and violence in the US; of the continued commodification of women’s bodies, especially those of women of color; and that everything in The Handmaid’s Tale novel/S1 has already happened somewhere in the world/history. It’s all still happening in the US and globally. The series continues to be grounded in reality, no matter how extreme it seems.
It’s a genius move for Aunt Lydia to punish June for her harshness toward Natalie by sentencing her to remain kneeling in the room 24/7 until Natalie gives birth. Natalie was annoying, but after 5 years of Gilead’s abuses, she was also mentally fragile. She did what she hoped would allow her and others to survive, just like the rest of the handmaids. June’s constant presence in Natalie’s hospital room, swathed in handmaid’s red, reminds those who enter that Natalie is a human being, not just a vessel.
June bears witness to the medical procedures and the attitude with which they are done. She also serves as a bodyguard/chaperone. June may not have liked Natalie, but there’s no way she would let anyone sexually assault her for kicks. As an OB/GYN’s daughter, June carries herself with an extra bit of confidence in a hospital that none of the other handmaids could have mustered.
This intense character study is a transformative episode for June, with lessons learned for other characters as well.
The episode opens in Natalie/Ofmatthew’s hospital room, where she lies brain dead and comatose but still pregnant. She’s hooked up to several machines and closely monitored as her medical team attempts to keep her alive long enough for her baby to have a good chance of surviving outside the womb. Ironically, now that she’s simply a vessel, modesty is no longer required of her. Her hair is down and exposed and she’s wearing a skimpy, short-sleeved hospital gown. No matter who comes into the room, no one bothers to cover her up.
They aren’t even pretending to see her as a person who matters anymore.
June kneels on the floor in front of Natalie’s bed. She’s been there for 32 days. After a while, she started hearing Belinda Carlisle’s song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” on repeat in her head. It’s a good song with lyrics that are meaningful for June. She probably listened to it as a kid. But hearing it in your head for weeks when you’re practically in solitary confinement would be rough.
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth
They say in Heaven, love comes first
We’ll make Heaven a place on Earth
June tells us that the doctors are careful not to give Natalie any medication that would hurt the baby. Since Natalie can’t complain and will be dead soon, they don’t worry about hurting her. June will be by Natalie’s side until the baby is born. Aunt Lydia told her to stay with her walking partner.
June is there in body, but like Natalie, her spirit wanders. The hospital room is plain and white, with nothing to keep June engaged most of the time. She learns to doze and dissociate while kneeling, losing long periods of time. The mental and sensory deprivation take their toll on her mind in other ways, as well. She becomes an observer of her life rather than a participant- like Natalie, she’s on her way to the Sunken Place.
Mrs Calhoun, the Wife who’s waiting like a vulture to steal Natalie’s baby, brings some friends along with her to pray over the fetus. Natalie is there too, but irrelevant. Their hands are all on her pregnant belly. June’s thoughts about the wives are free associated- from the prayers, to the way the smell of the wives’ soap and powder reminds her of the Ceremony, to the way Serena Joy held her down so that Fred could rape her. That thought still makes her ill.
It’s been a few months since she was raped. Already her normal responses to it are coming back, replacing the dull, despairing tolerance developed by handmaids who are forced to go through ritual rape during the Ceremony every month.
The wives return to pray a second time. Now the other handmaids kneel on the floor praying, surrounding June. Their smells are earthier, from the foods they’ve eaten and their bodily odors. Brianna holds June’s hand for a moment to steady her, but stops when Aunt Lydia whacks her in the head.
June is alone again, musing on the citrus and ammonia smell of the cleansers used in the hospital room and the disappearance of the places she would have bought cleansers before the war. Natalie smells like both decay and babies, like an innocent who can’t help causing chaos and bringing death.
June periodically looks up to see lines of 10-15 year old girls being led down the hall, like pink ducklings in the scariest Easter Parade ever. She’s certain they are hallucinations born out of her desire to see Hannah.
She loses more time. It’s dark out. She forgot to stop kneeling and go to bed in the cot in the corner of the room. She’s so stiff after so many hours and weeks of kneeling that it’s easier to stay in place. She actually has trouble standing up and discovers her knees are badly bruised.
June: “Maybe I’m crazy and this is some new kind of therapy. I wish that were true, then I could get better. And this would go away. I could leave this room. This would all end.”
Desperate for this to be over, she limps to Natalie’s bed and examines her breathing tube, experimenting with bending it to cut off the air flow. This sets off an alarm. She’d probably be doing Natalie a favor by hastening her death, but Gilead isn’t going to let either of them off so easily. June rushes back to her kneeling pillow while the nurses take care of Natalie and the baby.
June: “This has to end.”
Then she loses more time. She’s once again at a breaking point, driven to the edge by the loss of hope for being reunited with Hannah combined with what the despair and isolation of this punishment are doing to her mind.
Aunt Lydia broke her this way once before, when she was pregnant with Nichole and almost escaped in the plane in S2. Everyone in that plane but her was shot when the plane was stopped. The Mayday operative who helped her, Omar, was put on the wall (S2Ep3). June was only left alive because of the baby, but Lydia and Serena tortured her physically, mentally and emotionally for it (S2Ep4).
June realized that she couldn’t bring herself to leave Gilead without Hannah. She eventually gave in to the guilt Lydia was pushing on her, but she began miscarrying and was so beaten down she didn’t tell anyone. Nick found her bleeding on the patio. It’s not clear if she jumped or collapsed from blood loss and hid in the bushes hoping to die before she was found. Whether it was passive or active, it was a suicide attempt (S2Ep5).
June doesn’t break by giving in to the system. She either decides to destroy the system, no matter the cost, even her own death, or she goes straight to destroying herself. Lydia should know this by now.
The most consistent sound in June’s universe is the rhythmic dripping of Natalie’s urine from the catheter into the storage bag. June hears it as the rhythm to Heaven Is a Place on Earth.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Aunt Lydia and the handmaids have returned to pray with June. Alma knudges June out of her trance so she’ll listen to Lydia and pick up on her cues in the call and response prayer they’re reciting. Janine is distracted with keeping her hair over her missing eye, which is still healing from the wound inflicted by Natalie in the grocery store. Lydia tells Janine to push her hair off her face and stop fidgeting. “Nothing is uglier than vanity.”
A rule she’s become firm about since being led astray by her sinful friend the single mother, as we saw in her background flashback.
June tells Janine that her eye isn’t that bad, but Janine doesn’t believe her. An alarm on Natalie’s life support rig goes off, so the handmaids move aside to let her medical team in. June and Lydia both listen closely to
Natalie’s the baby’s doctor. Natalie’s blood pressure is spiking, a potentially deadly situation in pregnant women. The doctor prescribes medication, then turns to his patient, the fetus, who appears to be stable.
As the doctor turns to leave, Natalie has a seizure. June tells Lydia that these have been regular occurrences. Lydia chastises June for not speaking about Natalie’s slow, semi-public death with enough respect, then loudly prays for the child. June silently prays for Natalie and the fetus to die.
She wants them out of Gilead and in their own Heaven, just as she wished for herself and Nichole when they were in the hospital while she was pregnant.
The doctor makes a deep slice in Natalie’s thigh for an IV tube. He explains to Lydia that Natalie needs more fluids to prevent seizures and to get more fluids to “our little miracle”. Before he leaves, he tells his med student to close up the wound, but says not to worry about the scar.
I’m not a doctor, but it sounds to me like Natalie’s body is shutting down. She’s having high blood pressure combined with signs of dehydration, the kinds of contradictory symptoms that mean the body is desperately fighting to stay alive but entire systems are failing.
As Aunt Lydia leaves, June asks to go home. Lydia tells her she’ll “go home” when her walking partner does. June tries to tell Lydia that she’s at the end of her rope, but Lydia assures her “God never gives us more than we can handle.” She instructs June to continue praying. When the med student finishes with Natalie, he makes sure that June sees him throw the scalpel in the easily accessible sharps container.
Later that night, June raids the sharps container for the scalpel. She hovers over Natalie’s bed with it, saying out loud that she’s certain Natalie’s body is now an empty shell, because her spirit has already departed. Before she can act on that thought, Janine enters the room, with a bandage over her missing eye. The empty socket got infected, so she needs to have another procedure.
Gilead is so corrupting that even emptiness eventually becomes putrid there. Given the isolation she’s enduring and the horror she’s watching Natalie go through, June can perhaps be forgiven for thinking the only solution is to set the spirit free from the corrupt material world.
Janine tells June that she feels guilty because she hasn’t been praying for Natalie and now the other woman is having seizures. She asks if Natalie can hear her, but June isn’t sure. Janine tells Natalie that she forgives her for the assault and wants her to get better. June reminds Janine that physically, Natalie can’t get better. Janine wishes for it anyway. She tells Natalie that she wishes her peace and asks June if that makes her happy.
June says she knows how they can help Natalie, showing Janine the scalpel. Janine recoils from it. June is glassy eyed but smiling through this conversation. She and Janine switch their usual roles, with June becoming the one who is childlike and on the edge of a breakdown, while Janine patiently talks sense into her.
This is a quiet counterpart to June talking Janine into handing her Angela on the bridge in S1Ep9, The Bridge.
June is intent on ending the suffering going on in that hospital room- Natalie’s, her own, the baby’s, and the suffering the baby will endure and inflict as a citizen of Gilead. Janine doesn’t think it’s fair to take away the baby’s chance at a life or to end Natalie’s life early. She reminds June that Natalie is one of them. None of this is what she wanted or her fault.
I love Janine’s warmth and optimism, but she’s off base here. She’s right to stop June in this moment, but Natalie was done pretending she was okay. She didn’t want Gilead for herself or her children. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to continue the life she has right now, as an incubator, any longer than necessary, though I think she would want to give her child the best chance to survive, and then die once the baby is born.
Janine tries to take the scalpel from June, but she refuses to give it up. She promised that she wouldn’t kill Natalie, but not that she wouldn’t kill anyone. Janine asks “When did you get to be so selfish? Everything is always about you now. Your problems.”
Aunt Lydia made Natalie June’s problem, compounding June’s own issues. It’s not so long ago that Janine was the one who wanted a permanent escape plan with a revenge component. In this scene, she shows June much less compassion than June has shown her during crises.
June throws her out of the room. Janine tells her she’s changed and not in a good way, then leaves.
Janine also isn’t the same person she was before her eye was cut out. Gilead changes people. It’s sort of the point of the oppression. But she’s also noticing that June’s mental health has deteriorated to a worrisome degree since she found out that Hannah was moved to an undisclosed location.
Does Janine take her concerns to anyone who could help June? Of course not.
The next day, or a day soon after- time gets away from June- during an ultrasound, the doctor explains to the baby’s bio father and adoptive mother, Commander Calhoun and his wife, that the baby’s lungs need a few more weeks before they’re fully formed, but that can be dealt with in the NICU if necessary.
This is a meeting in preparation for a very premature birth. They’re worried about how much longer they can keep Natalie going.
As the doctor is speaking, another line of young girls dressed in pink walks by. Commander Calhoun asks if the sick girls will be kept away from Natalie. The doctor informs him that the girls aren’t sick. They’re at the hospital for a menarche exam to determine if they’re physically mature enough to have babies and get married yet.
While June panics, realizing that Hannah is only a few years from the same fate, Mrs Calhoun thinks it’s lovely that they’ve flowered. The doctor states that they have a few more years of maturing to do before they’re ready to have children.
June, in voiceover: “He doesn’t mean emotionally ready. He means they track their pelvic development.”
As she contemplates child brides and statutory rape, June also examines the necks of the other conscious adults in the room, deciding which would be easiest to kill first, or whether maybe she should choose her victim according to status. Then Serena walks into the room, making the choice easy.
As the others leave the room, June asks to speak to Serena. Mrs Calhoun says, “You don’t want to bother with that.”
By “that” she means a handmaid, a fallen woman, like the one in the hospital bed who is currently experiencing painful medical procedures and being kept alive by machines instead of being allowed to die peacefully, so that the infant the Calhouns plan to raise as their own has a better chance at life.
Pride goeth before a fall, Mrs Calhoun. Proverbs 16:18.
Serena stays behind to speak to June, who is kneeling on the floor. June calls Serena closer. She’s been kneeling so long that she has trouble getting up. Serena catches her as she almost falls and says, “You’re not well.” June says that no, she’s not, then she slices at Serena’s arm with the scalpel. They fight over it. Serena is taller and better rested, so she wins this fight. The scalpel slices June’s palm as Serena takes it.
Serena: “You’re out of your mind.”
June, writhing on the floor: “This has to end. This has to end.”
Serena: “You were supposed to be one of the strong ones.”
June crawls toward her, leaving bloody handprints on the white floor. Serena
runs leaves. She runs into the doctor just outside the door and sends him in to tend to June.
Anything in this episode that can be assigned micro and macro meanings should be. We aren’t watching what amounts to a futuristic puppet show on a pure white background for nothing. June’s trances have practically turned her into an oracle for messages from the beyond. She’s also become a blank slate, her previous self erased, with a new self waiting to emerge.
One of the few things June knows for sure anymore is that she wants the suffering in Gilead to end. Gilead itself has burned that into her brain.
If June is supposed to be one of the strong ones and she’s cracking, what does that mean for the ordinary people of Gilead who are all treated just as badly as she is? Does Serena understand what she just said? Does she understand how it applies even to her?
June can’t hear what Serena tells the doctor, so she’s afraid when he enters. She huddles against a wall like a frightened animal. The doctor isn’t phased by her behavior. In fact, he has his “feral handmaid” bedside manner down, as if this is a normal occurrence.
I suspect it is. Imagine how upset some of the parents-to-be must get when they assume a handmaid hasn’t managed her pregnancy properly or when a suicide attempt occurs. It’s probably normal for the wives to punish the handmaids for everything that goes wrong, just as Serena did when June was pregnant with Nichole.
The doctor walks and speaks softly, telling June she needs stitches. Without a word, he puts the scalpel back in the sharps container. Then he invites her to sit with him on her cot so he can treat her. As he works, he chats. June tells him that he’s wasting his time if he’s just going to turn her in. He agrees with her, implying that she’s safe with him. June thanks him.
He replies that he took an oath, which June quotes- “First do no harm.” June says that he’s not harming her, but he’s torturing Natalie. The doctor says that she’s not his patient, which June calls him on.
Do no harm means do no harm. We’ve seen him practice medicine on Natalie. To say she’s not also his patient is beyond dehumanizing. It’s splitting hairs to the point of turning Natalie into an inanimate object, as if she’s no more than an artificial womb. The doctor gets a little irritated, so June got through to him.
June: “My mother was a doctor. She treated pregnant women. And she always put her patients, the women, first.”
Doctor: “Things were different when she practiced medicine. Did she get out?”
Doctor: “I’m sure you miss her. Where did she practice?”
June: “Somerville, for the most part. Holly Maddox.”
June holds her head up high as she says her mother’s name.
Doctor, chuckling ruefully: “Well, now I know why you took a swipe at Mrs Waterford. Dr Maddox. Dr Maddox. She was scary.”
June smiles bravely: “Yes, she is. Was. I don’t actually know. You should know I was going to kill Serena. And her. [Natalie] And you, too.”
Doctor: “I warned them. I said, ‘You can’t leave that girl in here, praying, for months on end.’ The brain atrophies in isolation and breeds despair. How long have you had suicidal thoughts?”
Doctor: “Doing any of the things that you said will put you on the wall and you know it. So, how long?”
June: “I don’t know. Since I realized I probably won’t see my daughters again.”
Doctor, nodding with understanding: “You feel hopeless?”
June, tearing up: “How should I feel? Doctor, she’s someone’s child, too.”
Doctor, in an emotional voice: “Um, I honor the handmaid’s life by saving her child. How will you honor your daughters?”
The light comes back into June’s face. She begins her long, slow climb out of the abyss. The doctor has just shown her a way out of the worst of her despair. When you are in a hopeless situation, find a tangential goal that you might be able to accomplish and focus on that. June needs to find a new reason to live and dedicate herself to it in her daughters’ names.
He tells her to keep her bandage dry, then leaves her with, “Under His Eye”, a Gilead salutation that is non judgemental and not even particularly religious. All it really says is that someone male is watching, which is certainly the truth in Gilead. That someone could be benign or malevolent, human or divine. (I prefer “Blessed be the fruit.”)
The doctor smiles at her on his way out.
That night, Natalie’s alarms go off. June pulls back the sheets to discover she’s hemorraghing. Her medical team does an emergency C-section as June watches from behind a glass wall. Natalie’s baby boy is tiny, but survives birth. The doctor tells his med student that Natalie won’t live much longer. The med student might as well stitch up her incision as practice.
Now that Natalie has given birth, June is allowed to leave. As she limps down the hall with her suitcase, one of the young women in pink offers to carry her bag. The girl tells June that she’s at the hospital because she can have babies- eventually, after she’s married. She’s about 13. June asks if that’s what she wants. Without any enthusiasm, the girl tells June that of course it’s what she wants. “So much.” Then she’s called away by her mother, who’s dressed in teal.
June continues down the hall alone, then stops to look back in the direction the girl, Rose, went. Hannah really isn’t the only girl who needs to be saved.
Outside, June passes another row of mothers and daughters on their way to menarche exams. She’s staring after them when Aunt Lydia finds her. June tells Lydia that Natalie is still alive and asks to sit with her until she’s gone. Aunt Lydia is moved by June’s newfound devotion to her walking partner and grants permission.
June goes back inside. Aunt Lydia visits Janine, who’s ready to be released after her procedure. It went well, but Janine has a huge bandage over her eye and will still have an empty socket. Aunt Lydia pulls out a red eye patch for her, saying, “Nothing wrong with wanting to look your best.” She helps Janine put it on. They both happily agree that Janine looks like a pirate.
“Wanting to look your best” is a very subtle difference from “ugly vanity”. It’s possible that only Aunt Lydia can discern the line between the two.
June sits at Natalie’s bedside, assuring her that she’ll stay with her until the end. She believes she’s finally there for Natalie. She apologizes for treating Natalie badly, explaining that she lost herself for a while. She knows it’s not really an excuse, but Gilead takes everything from them.
Then she tells Natalie that her son is beautiful and everyone is praying for him. But June is sure that he’s a fighter, just like his mom. She thinks he deserves to be free. All of the children deserve to be free.
June: “So, Natalie, I’m gonna get them out. I’m gonna get out as many children as I can. I don’t really know how yet, but I swear to you, I’m gonna get them out. Because Gilead should know how this feels. It’s their turn to hurt.”
As if she understood June’s vow to avenge her death and the theft of her children, Natalie’s heartrate speeds up, then slows down. June sings Heaven Is a Place on Earth to her as her heartbeat becomes more erratic.
Natalie’s heartbeat stops during the closing credits.
I hope you find your peace and your power, Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop). You deserved better from everyone. Few of us could survive kidnapping and the loss of our previous lives, so many rapes, so many pregnancies that were the product of rape, then the loss of 3 children. The fact that you were still trying to carry on and be a positive force in the world is a testament to your strength. There is no shame is losing such a fiercely fought battle. It’s just too bad you couldn’t take one of the Sons of Jacob down with you.
Though Natalie had a hard time with the loss of her previous children and wasn’t happy about this pregnancy, I don’t get the sense that she completely rejected the pregnancy, either. We haven’t seen handmaids reject the children they give birth to, even though they are children of rape. I find that moving and fascinating. It’s as if their children and their friendships with each other are the only positives the handmaids have to hang onto in Gilead, leading many of them to hold on extra tight. The Marthas also seem to become attached to the children they care for, rather than keeping a professional distance, perhaps because they have no other family left.
June’s mother, Holly, modelled many necessary life skills for her daughter, skills that help make her an effective resistance leader, but she dedicated her life to one overarching cause that she never abandoned. She was probably heartbroken and changed tactics many times, but her overall causes of feminism and improving women’s lives were never lost causes. (Until Gilead took over and arrested independent women, but by then Holly’s ability to fight back was limited and she was separated from June.)
The doctor (Gil Bellows) gave June a huge gift by telling her how he deals with lost causes, pointing out that she’s reached the point of hopelessness, but she can find ways for life to go on. You don’t have to throw yourself against a wall repeatedly until you die. You can move on and change focus or come at things diagonally for a while or just change your attitude and expectations. I suspect June has Holly’s voice in her head telling her that she hasn’t done enough and Lydia’s voice telling her everything is her fault. The doctor gave her an alternate voice telling her she can try something else instead of going down with the ship. The fact that he knew and respected her mother made him a more credible voice.
The metaphor of the Sunken Place from the film Get Out is useful for understanding how some people give up and go along with their oppressors and conquerors. But it’s only a small part of the story in a place like Gilead or in real life, where oppression plays out over years or during wartime. What happens to those who became collaborators because they couldn’t fight anymore and surrendered, after the war is over or when they come to their senses? How do they live with themselves?
When Natalie woke up and realized she couldn’t take it anymore, she tried to take some of her enemies down with her. I suspect this is a common scenario in Gilead- the explosively violent suicide. In this episode, as the doctor noted, June tried to kill herself by killing Serena and whoever else she could get to before she was put down. Natalie isn’t all that different from Lillie, the bomber from S2, who also said she was happy in Gilead, until they drove her to rebel, then made her life unbearable. Natalie just didn’t have anyone to make a bomb for her.
I wonder if the Commanders have grown tired of looking at mutilated women, so the use of multilations has slown down in favor of less conspicuous forms of torture and imprisonment. The mutilations are also human rights violations, which makes Gilead look bad in the international community. Better to use extreme punishments that don’t leave permanent marks, just as the US government did before them.
The girl who played Rose, Sadie Munroe, was perfectly cast as an everygirl who’s not remotely ready to think about marriage or babies. She looked like an American Pippi Longstocking or an idealized fresh faced country girl. Her line deliveries were also perfect, especially that “So much” at the end. The flatness that came over her spunky demeanor said everything we needed to know about how she feels about boys. In our world, she might devote herself to a physically active career and never settle down.
Images courtesy of Hulu.