CULTURE & ARTS

'The Handmaid's Tale’ Brings Us The 'World's Most F**ked Up Baby Shower'

In Season 2, Episode 4, June becomes Offred again. Also... where are the men?
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is finally broken in season 2, episode 4 of "The Handmaid's Tale." 
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is finally broken in season 2, episode 4 of "The Handmaid's Tale." 

Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!

“We’ve been sent good weather. We’ve been sent good weather. We’ve been sent good weather.”

These might be the most terrifying sentences uttered on “The Handmaid’s Tale” ― not necessarily because of the content, but because of the delivery. This is the episode where June (Elisabeth Moss), a free-thinking woman, reverts back into Offred, a woman whose primary role is as incubator, whose identity is subsumed by the powerful man whose house she’s forced to refer to as home. 

In an episode centered around the guilt we carry, viewers also got a glimpse into June’s past, specifically her relationship with Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and with his ex-wife, Annie (Kelly Jenrette). As the episode’s title suggests, “Other Women,” all of the women in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are made to be the “other” to someone.  

Emma Gray: Praise be! Welcome back to Gilead, Laura. You’ve been missed.

Laura Bassett: Blessed day. We’ve been sent good weather.

Emma: Episode 4 was a doozy for me. We watched June revert into Offred ― via extended psychological torture. And the episode seemed to pose some tough questions: What guilt should we bear for the “bad” things we’ve done in our lives? And if we do accept guilt, how does that guilt consume us?

Laura: I think the episode also confronts what makes behavior “bad” ― the intention or the result. Is it bad that June started the rebellion because it resulted in her friends having their tongues cut out and hands burned on a stove? Is it bad that she sought refuge at the home of Omar [the Econo family man who provided June temporary refuge in Episode 3] because it resulted in him getting hanged? And of course, the more modern question ― is it bad that June fell in love with Luke while he was married (and separated) because it destroyed his wife’s life?

June has to reckon with this guilt, and the viewer can understand why. I was surprised at how angry I was at her when I saw Omar’s body hanging in the street and learned that his wife had become a handmaid. And ultimately, though she meant no harm in these situations, it’s the overwhelming guilt that breaks her.

June (Elisabeth Moss) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). 
June (Elisabeth Moss) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). 

Emma: Yes, exactly! And this show never makes its moral quandaries clear cut, which is why it’s so engaging to watch even as it is anxiety-provoking and brutal. All human beings do morally questionable things sometimes ― and our complicated, self-interested choices can have really negative consequences.

Of course June feels guilty when she sees Omar’s body hanging by the river ― it’s absolutely horrifying! My own stomach turned! And I believe it makes sense for her to bear some of that guilt. But Aunt Lydia pushes her to the edge. Not only does she want June to feel guilty about putting this family in harm’s way, she wants her to feel as though she murdered Omar directly, ignoring the fact that June is an actor within a deeply flawed system. Gilead didn’t just spring up out of nowhere ― it required many individuals making many intentional choices that had negative consequences for the majority of the population. This show focuses a lot on the way women are complicit in Gilead, but let’s not forget that the greatest driving force behind the society ― in which driving a fertile woman from a warehouse to your apartment is a crime punishable by death ― was white, straight, rich men.

I also want to bring up the title of this episode, which is “Other Women.” I’m curious who you think it refers to. Is June the “other women,” first to Luke’s ex-wife Annie and then Serena Joy, or are those women the “other women” to her? Perhaps it goes both ways.

Laura: Personally, I would have titled this episode “The World’s Most Fucked Up Baby Shower.” But since they went a different direction, I do have a few thoughts.

“Other Women” has many layered meanings ― as you mentioned, June has been the other woman twice in affairs with both Luke and the Commander. But what I find more interesting than that is this season’s almost myopic focus on the women in Gilead and how they are oppressing each other. Serena is an incredible villain, and the rivalry between her and June is, I think, the most interesting aspect of the show. Of course, we also see a lot of June’s interactions with the deeply holy Aunt Lydia, and the show hammers the point home that June’s actions have led directly to the torture of the other handmaids.

I never thought I’d say this, but WHERE ARE THE MEN? This is an extreme patriarchal society ― why do I feel like Commander Waterford is left completely off the hook, positioned as the guy who simply mitigates his wife’s worst impulses? Why are the male characters so underdeveloped? Why is Nick so incredibly boring? In the first season, we saw men raping women in the monthly ceremonies, but in the absence of those scenes this season, the male characters come off as relatively kind and compassionate and harmless next to the women running Gilead. Did you notice that? Why would they do that?

The men! They exist! 
The men! They exist! 

Emma: YES! I wonder if the show assumes too much that we understand that the men are the ultimate arbiters of power here, so they’d rather explore other dynamics. I get that impulse, but it does feel as though Serena Joy has been positioned as more of an aggressor than Commander Waterford or the other leaders of Gilead. We get a scene where they’re off shooting and talking about Canadian sanctions, but that’s about it.

I love that this show doesn’t let women off the hook for colluding in their own oppression and the oppression of other women, but let’s not forget who is benefiting most from this society ― it isn’t the wives who watch their husbands rape other women each month, aren’t allowed to have careers or any meaningful power, and have to find joy in some creepy ritualistic baby shower bullshit. I mean, what the fuck was that?! (Also, this episode definitely made me even less excited than I already was to attend future baby showers, even if they are sans bible verses and binding of the hands.)

I also want to talk about the quiet brutality of watching the handmaids reduced so explicitly, yet again, to silent hosts. This baby shower is for Serena, not June, and it seems designed to validate the wife in her role as Mother over the Handmaid, who may be carrying the child but will never be its mother. Elisabeth Moss is such a master at subtle facial expressions, and every time the camera closed in on her face, I could feel her silent seething pain.

Laura: This baby shower scene was incredible, in part because baby showers are already pretty universally terrible for everyone who is not the mother. You can feel June’s pain here, but you can also feel Serena’s pain, because no matter how hard she tries to pretend like she is the mother in this scenario, she knows she is not.

It’s been frustrating to me this season that June can’t confront Serena in the same way that Emily confronted Marisa Tomei’s character at the colonies. I keep wanting June to say, “You held me down every month while your husband raped me! You’re keeping me as a slave! How do you live with yourself?!” But June’s lowkey passive aggressive jab at Serena, when she announces to the room that she felt the baby kick, is the ultimate way to make Serena really feel the pain of her infertility.

Honestly, I thought when they brought out all those yards of string, they were going to play the annoying baby shower game where you guess the circumference of the mom’s belly. But no! We got an incredibly creepy ceremony that cemented June’s role as merely an incubator for Serena, almost as if Serena was drawing the last traces of humanity out of June’s body. “Let the children come to me,” Serena chants in a way that lays bare her desperation. You really feel both women’s misery in this scene.

Which sets up what was my favorite moment of the episode ― where Serena actually climbs into bed with June and spoons her. 

The World's Most Fucked Up Baby Shower.
The World's Most Fucked Up Baby Shower.

Emma: That scene was so devastating. I agree that Serena also elicited some empathy this episode, which is why she’s such a fantastic character. And let’s not forget that we don’t even know if she *is* infertile, because last season it seemed pretty heavily implied that it’s Commander Waterford who’s infertile. (But of course, this is Gilead, so everything is the woman’s fault.)

But back to Serena spooning June’s stomach. It seemed so violating. Both actresses did an incredible job ― you could feel how deeply Serena wants to be a mother, how much she wishes she could experience pregnancy herself. But that fetus is currently part of June’s body! And you could see in June’s eyes after Serena leaves just how horrible it was to have her lower half embraced by her tormenter, as though she, June, didn’t even exist. That seems to be the thing that really breaks her. She’s already seen Omar hung, she’s a handmaid because she committed adultery, and now she’s back in this room she tried so desperately to get out of. We see her crawl back into her closet, and the spot in the wood where “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (don’t let the bastards grind you down) had been carved in, is now blank. The closet has been redone.

And for the first time, June’s inner voice is no longer snarky and defiant. It’s robotic. It’s not even June’s voice ― it’s Offred’s. “My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault.” June has been snuffed out.

Laura: The repetition of Offred’s thought loops ― “My fault” ― and later, “We’ve been sent good weather,” almost signifies her insanity. But has Gilead successfully broken her, or is it still June consciously repeating these things to herself to try to force herself to behave?

I’m interested to see where the show can go from here. We’ve seen a submissive Offred blossom into a fully rebellious and strong-willed and almost-free June, and then back again. Can the season keep oscillating back and forth, retracing this ground, and remain interesting? Will the battle between June and Offred continue to be the central conflict of the season? I’m not sure I can take much more of June’s evil smile at Aunt Lydia. Maybe the show has broken me.

Emma: I still have some faith that we will see forward motion, that June will be reborn once again. But, hey, at least we’ve been sent good weather.

Laura: Let’s go out and enjoy it until Gilead draws us in again.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mischaracterized a rebellion June started as the “Mayday rebellion.” 

To read more of HuffPost’s “Handmaid’s Tale” coverage, head here.

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