The Handmaid’s Tale may have fully veered from Margaret Atwood’s OG narrative, but Hulu has certainly ensured Season 2 of the series is no less punishing. Following a devastating attempt to free herself from Gilead’s clutches, Offred loses what’s left of June Osbourne, her identity before she became a Handmaid. If there’s anything we know about this authoritarian regime, it’s that atonement is certain. But can the trauma be undone?
Spoilers for Episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale follow below.
“Baggage,” the third episode in this somewhat meandering second season, left plenty of questions unanswered as they pertain to June’s escape. What happened to those Handmaids she left behind following her daring Mayday escape in the middle of her pregnancy exam? What happened to Omar’s family, the Econopeople who provided her a brief safe haven but then disappeared? And what would happen if June, who is pregnant, was recaptured by Gilead officials? “Other Women” answers all of these, culminating in June’s psychological breakdown as her captors returns to the Commander’s home.
Aunt Lydia’s dissociation of the actions of June and Offred — as indeed, she informs June, her actions were and are committed by two distinct persons (June being the chaos agent) — will, if effectively enforced, be near-impossible to rehabilitate on her own. And as viewers know of Janine, a Handmaid’s arguably unavoidable breakdown(whatever the scope) is a very real threat to anyone in June’s position. Her mental break also presents a repeating narrative problem: Is there any redemption afforded these characters? Or will we continue to watch them be broken?
Given an ultimatum upon her capture — return to the Commander and Serena Joy and assume her place as a Handmaid, or birth her baby in shackles before being executed — “Other Women” sees June reconciling with the apparent cost of her decisions by way of a series of pointed psychological tactics by Aunt Lydia. It’s an event that pushes June beyond her human and moral limits. She’s shown Omar’s body dangling from a wall after being murdered for his involvement in her escape and is informed that his son has been given to another family, as his mother was forced into servitude as a Handmaid for her crime. Surely for June, there can be little more damning than her own pleas for safety leading to the destruction and abuse of a family not unlike her own.
“The boy will never see his mother again,” Aunt Lydia tells Offred as she kneels before Omar’s bloodied corpse. “Of course if you asked them, this would not have been the path they would have chosen. But you didn’t ask them, did you? You chose for them. Such a selfish girl.”
June’s response that it is “my fault” that he was implicated in her escape, and therefore is now dead, is the point at which the scope of her trauma is put on full display. With little to lose, but perhaps more so wishing to be responsible for the pain of no one else, what’s left of June’s will to persevere appears to fracture. Perhaps it’s this particular set of experiences that pushes her over the edge. It could be her sexual slavery and the prospect of losing yet another child to another woman, or perhaps it’s all of these things that finally leads to her bending to Gilead. Her atonement, Aunt Lydia tells Offred, is designed to “teach June a lesson.”
So will June — or Offred, for that matter — get better? For the time being, her future in the Republic of Gilead looks grim.