Just when I think I have learned the outer bounds of torture, The Handmaid’s Tale 2×04 “Other Women” steps in to remind me that when it comes to suffering, the sky is the limit.
“Other Women” zooms in on June’s, nay, Offred’s perspective in the aftermath of her capture and the result is the delivery of veritable (and likely actual) panic attacks for us viewers. The Handmaid’s Tale consistently manages to reach beyond the screen and grab us by the throat. We feel with the characters.
It makes for uncomfortable, but profoundly affecting, viewing.
Illusion of Choice
A core motif to “Other Women” is the mantra June sings to herself in the closet:
“My fault, my fault, my fault.”
The motif of fault is less about what is actually June’s fault and has far more to do with survival. Throughout the episode, we see June defiant in the face of her captors. June’s chin juts up, a sick smile on her face as Serena and Mr. Waterford welcome her back with a false story of kidnapping. It’s masterful acting. Full of tension, fear and just a hint of humor, it reverberates to all the edges of the Gilead universe.
But, it is a selfish perspective. And June will never survive with it, especially now when she has had a taste of freedom. When June had the cover of Offred in Season 1, she could plot and plan in secrecy. Her defiance wasn’t known- now it is.
With her cover blown, June is exposed. By the end of the episode, June has had to rid herself of her identity, her pride, her very worth, in order to become Offred. She pleads:
“Please God, let Hannah forget me. Let me forget me.”
And she does. In the final shot on “Other Women,” Offred looks down, covered by the wings of her imprisonment. June is gone.
The only way she is able to do this is by convincing herself, letting herself be brainwashed, that it is ALL HER FAULT. She uses the memory of her great sin, adultery, to fuel this. Alma’s burns, Rita’s beating, Ofglen’s ripped out tongue, the van driver’s hanging, the young child’s orphaning – all of it is her fault.
In perhaps one of the most horrifying messages The Handmaid’s Tale will ever deliver, June takes all the blame for Gilead’s deadly oppression in order to be able to bear that same oppression.
It is disgusting and terrifying. When I look at the real world, I see how this message is borne out, which is why the episode cuts so very deeply.
Aunt Lydia – My New Fave
Aunt Lydia is my favorite character this season. She is an instrument and a true believer in the system. But, she is not a simple villain. She may not even be a villain at all.
Aunt Lydia is in June’s face, shoving guilt down her throat in order for her to swallow her independent identity. It is gruesome. But it also may save June’s life. Whether Aunt Lydia knows that, subconsciously even, is completely grey.
But the interplay between these two is endlessly and deeply fascinating. It sounds strange to say I love their chemistry because there is nothing cute or romantic about them. However, each scene they are in together overflows with meaning and power.
When Mr. Waterford says that he is so glad Offred has been rescued from her kidnapping, June looks over at Aunt Lydia with the most incredulous face. I actually burst out laughing. They are funny together, which, however twisted, is needed to to make it through the absurdity.
June taunts and provokes Aunt Lydia by salaciously cleaning her vagina while Aunt Lydia watches. Aunt Lydia’s patience is incredible. Everything about the scene is incredible. Ann Dowd being able to fully embrace the scene is incredible.
The thing is, we know that Aunt Lydia is not unfeeling. She is impacted by June. We know this because of her emotional episode in “June.” It is true that Aunt Lydia cares less for June than for the unborn child, and it is also true that Aunt Lydia is a brutal torturer.
But, it is a layered thing, survival. Aunt Lydia has had to make psychological moves to survive, just like June. We have not seen her history, but I think we will. And I think we’ll learn how she has had to die to herself in order to save herself.
“Other Women,” reminds us that no person is blameless and no one person carries all the blame, including Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia gets this in a way no other character seems to. She singes Serena with her admonishment, showing that she is not doing what she is doing because of the wives.
It also shows, I think, an awareness of the great sacrifice and brutalization handmaids face. It shows that Aunt Lydia, to a certain extent, respects handmaids and thinks wives like Serena are whiny, weak women.
Wow, she’s complex. Just part of why she has become my favorite character.
What did you think of The Handmaid’s Tale 2×04 “Other Women”? Join the conversation in the comments below.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale stream Wednesdays on Hulu.