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The Handmaid's Tale Discussion: 'Heroic' leans in on the season's troubling trend

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Jul 18, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale has been struggling this season to justify its existence, and that has spilled over into June's character motivations. While the production quality and performances are still first-rate, the writing and subsequent message of the show has floundered. The treatment of women of color has been negligent at best and irresponsible at worst, and the killing of Ofmatthewl to change June's selfish motivation is just the latest in a series of missteps. 

This week, June finds herself face to face with the consequences of her reckless actions, and while she has her "come to Jesus" moment, it all feels like too little, too late.

We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, and we're here to call bullsh*t on June's latest revelation. 

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Credit: Hulu

June’s Vigil

Alyssa: I will admit that I wasn’t particularly open-minded going into this episode after last week’s disaster, but The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t win me over this week either. After the tragedy of Ofmatthew, I am totally sour on June, so opening with her inner monologue and lack of guilt was a bad move. I really felt like she believed that she was justified in her cruelty, focusing on her own misery instead of the dying woman in the hospital bed who was basically being used as an incubator. However, I do have one question: if the world as you know it has ended, do Bed Bath & Beyond coupons expire?

Jessica: In the name of Abbi Jacobson, I refuse to believe a Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon would ever let us down, even in a theocratic postapocalyptic society like Gilead. But June’s got bigger problems than tired knees and the need for a good room freshening spray. Mainly, blood clots. Does no one worry about the lack of circulation to this poor girl’s extremities? No, but seriously, June’s biggest enemy this episode (and really this season) is herself. She’s slowly losing her mind in that room and what’s truly terrifying is how apathetic she seems about the whole predicament. She put Ofmatthew in this room, she’s the reason she’s dead and the baby’s life is in danger, and her response is, “Woe is me, I have an '80s pop ballad in my head and these fluorescent lights are taking a toll on my complexion.” Self-reflective, this handmaid is not. In the last episode, I worried the show was turning June into a villain. This episode, I’m sure that’s what they’re doing, and I honestly don’t know what the endgame of this series is now. 

Alyssa: Here’s the thing: June has seriously needed some self-reflection all season, and this just felt like too little too late. She doesn’t care about Ofmatthew, she doesn’t care about the role that she played in putting her in that bed, so she’s just going through the mental motions that she needs to in order to make herself feel better. “Gilead is terrible! Isn’t she better off dead?” We know that June didn’t lash out at Ofmatthew to save her, so this just feels self-indulgent. Plus, the way that this sets up other even more problematic characters to be the voice of reason, and that’s a no from me, dog. Please stop setting up Aunt Lydia to be the voice of reason and decency, please and thank you. 

Jessica: Here’s the thing: Aunt Lydia and June, in my mind, share some common traits. If the show wanted to explore that connection by comparing and contrasting them, maybe showing how June’s descent mirrors Aunt Lydia’s, as some kind of meta-commentary on how easily even well-intentioned feminists can fall into that white savior trap and lose sight of the intersectionality of it all, okay. But that is not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is a woman, questioning her sanity but not questioning the utter selfishness of her past choices and the effect those choices have on innocent bystanders. What makes this all worse is that Ofmatthew is a woman of color.

And before people start harping about bringing race into the criticism of this storyline, I’d like to point out that it was a conscious choice on the part of the showrunners to have Ofmatthew be a young black woman. Someone knew that June was going to treat this character terribly, that she would be abused and used even in a comatose state, that she’d be reduced to a pawn in June’s larger battle against Gilead and they still chose to cast a Black actress. So they’ve earned the ickiness they’ve inspired with Ofmatthew’s arc. 

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Credit: Hulu

Homicidal Thoughts

Alyssa: In her weakened state, both mental and physical, June lashes out wildly. First up is Janine, who was collateral damage in the Ofmatthew scuffle. This poor woman. She had to undergo yet another procedure for her eye, and yet she is spending her time in the hospital worried about Ofmatthew and her baby. No one handles trauma the same way and shouldn’t be expected to conform to a specific way of being, but I am constantly in awe of how this world has beaten down Janine and yet she is still kind. Her concern is still for others despite all of the utter sh*t she has had to deal with. June preys on her weakened state and maternal tragedies to get her to kill Ofmatthew outright, and while it may be the most merciful option, that is not June’s reasoning or motivation, and Janine can tell. 

Jessica: I for one am all in on Janine taking up this mantle and leading our revolution. The way she called June out on her bullsh*t was one of this episode’s few highlights. And you’re right, Janine has been through more than most on this show and her continued compassion for others is worthy of our awe. I’m not saying we have to show love and forgiveness for all the a**holes of Gilead, but Janine has never lost sight of the importance of sisterhood in this f*cked up place. June cannot say the same. And after Janine thwarts June’s homicidal plans for Ofmatthew, homegirl decides to hold onto her scalpel and play a game of “Who Should I Kill Instead,” with the doctor, the Commander and his wife, and of course, Serena Joy. Now look, I’m not supporting June here, but I did not mind seeing her go after Mrs. Waterford with a sharp blade. I did not mind it one damn bit. 

Alyssa: June putting Serena in her place is always welcome, but at the same time, this felt like a moment to point to Serena as the cooler head, the wiser woman. Again, I understand moral complexity in my characters, but I am not digging their attempts to rehabilitate Serena. She doesn’t deserve it. June’s conversation with the doctor was the most interesting part of the episode to me, though. I know that in this day and age, I shouldn’t be surprised by normal people going along with horrific things just because it is easier to adapt than resist, but man, seeing the doctor be all in on Gilead one minute and the next reminiscing about what a great and terrifying doctor June’s mother was jarring. 

Jessica: True. Even more disturbing than seeing Serena Joy as the saner woman was seeing this perfectly normal man, this doctor who’s taken an oath to save lives, casually implying a woman was a vessel and her unborn baby the patient felt eerily familiar and yet, at the same time, wholly alien. I think this conversation with the doctor proved this show knows how to give us rounded characters, even morally compromised ones. I didn’t need to see this guy’s heartbreaking backstory or hear him rant about his lack of choices in this new regime to understand almost immediately that he was once a good, moral person who had to compromise bits of himself to survive this harsher world. It doesn’t redeem him or condemn him in my eyes, it just adds another layer to the world-building and story-telling of the show. I wish they’d take the same approach with characters like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy. Sometimes, less is more, ya know? 

Alyssa: Exactly. With the doctor, it felt like an explanation without justification, which is usually the issue with the backstory for Aunt Lydia or Serena Joy. This season has been a bloated mess of repetitive storytelling, so you are 100% correct in encouraging the writers that less is indeed more. At the very least, this conversation pushed June to admit something that the viewers have known for ages now: June feels guilty after staying behind and subconsciously wants to die. I’ve wondered for a while now how June has avoided hanging this season, so it was satisfying to see that addressed on the show. I think that June stayed behind on motherly impulse, and hasn’t been able to move beyond that choice in a meaningful way, leaving her in an utterly wrecked mental state that isn’t serving her or Hannah. Will that change now that it’s been acknowledged? Did it really require nine episodes to get to this revelation?

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Credit: Hulu

A New Mission

Jessica: That’s a hard no from me, but here we are. After Ofmatthew’s child is delivered, June is free to go home, but a revelation of sorts has happened while she watched the baby fight for its life so she decides to stay behind and be with the woman she’s wronged in her dying moments. Again, I wish this choice could feel as well-intentioned as I’m sure the writers believed it to be, but it felt like this moment was more cathartic for June than respectful of Ofmatthew’s spirit and suffering. The whole push to have June realize she must free as many children of Gilead in Ofmatthew’s name felt rushed and just hollow to me. You sat for about five minutes with this guilt and shame you’d ignored for months as you wished for this woman to die and all of a sudden you have a new mission inspired by her and her newborn son? The connection is lost on me. It’s like when movements or people attach themselves to events as a way to gain some kind of moral superiority and justify their cause. Susan, you aren’t baking those cookies to honor Holocaust victims. Do less, girl. 

Alyssa: It was very hollow, and honestly, not to get all Woke Stereotype here, but it was offensive. Ultimately, Ofmatthew wasn’t a fully realized character. She was an object lesson for June. Black bodies being used to convince white women that they should give a sh*t about things beyond themselves is one of the worst ways that the show has mirrored real life, and it’s just wrong. I’m sure the writers thought that she was honoring Ofmatthew in her decision to work to free all of the children in Gilead instead of just Hannah, but it comes off as alarmingly tone-deaf. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been harrowing, but this season, I swear to god, is the most tiring yet, and not for the reason they planned, I think. But beyond that, June has finally solidified her purpose. NINE EPISODES IN. While she may finally have a bit of resolve now, I don’t see how expanding her goal is going to help her at this point. She’s bungled saving Hannah so badly that I can’t imagine going bigger is going to go well (or at least go in a way that makes sense and isn’t just a byproduct of plot necessity). 

Jessica: It’s a strange choice to be sure. You’ve spent nine episodes hammering home how incompetent and ill-equipped June is at leading this revolution and now, suddenly a switch is flipped and she’s going to, I don’t know, try? Was she not trying before? Will the absence of a personal stake in the game in the form of Hannah suddenly make her better at helping other kids escape the system? Where’s the logic there? I swear, if this show turns June into a Mother Theresa on steroids, a Vin Diesel-type nanny helping these children flee to Canada with just her wit and baby blue eyes, I will write a strongly worded email to someone. I will not mince words, Alyssa. We can’t put in so much time showing a character’s faults and failings, to simply ignore them for the spectacle of a satisfying finale. It’s just not right. 

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Credit: Hulu

What’s Next

Alyssa: Honestly, I am hoping for a little break from June. This episode was pretty much a bottle episode, so I am ready to get some outside perspective. I want to know what the Waterfords are up to. I want to know how Emily and Moira are doing in Canada. Hell, at this point, I’d even welcome an update from Luke. If they are really going to give June some purpose after a season of being a meandering asshole, they’re going to have to earn me back, and I’m not sure that they can. 

Jessica: More Emily and Moira is a good place to start for sure. Less Aunty Lydia would also be lovely. At this point, I’d even spend time with Bradley Whitford in that shuttered up Victorian mansion (that we all know is haunted, right?). Just no more June. Please. Show us mercy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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