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.
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