WORDS BY THOMASIN MCCUAIG
Episode Four is outstandingly menacing and horrific as the director, Kari Skogland, explores the psyche of June in depth, introducing a new mode of freedom. Throughout both seasons, June has consistently demonstrated a strength of mind, will and determination. Her character embodies the power of women and their love for not only their family but of themselves. It is this aspect of June that sustains the audience’s engagement with her character as there is a continued sense of hope in regards to her mental wellbeing and anticipative escape. However, this episode is ground-breaking in the way that it shatters these ideas, replacing strength of mind with weakness of will. The episode begins with June’s deliverance to Gilead and her impending return to the Waterford’s home. Both June and the viewer are back to square one. The opening scene demonstrates an image of imprisonment whereby she must either remain in the dark room, confined to a bed, or choose to return as a Handmaid. This theme of entrapment is symbolised by the familiar red dress that hangs before her. The dress represents two mindsets: Freedom for Offred or imprisonment of June.
The title of this episode, “Other Women”, is central to the themes that unravel. Throughout the episode, the director deals with the nature of women and the way in which their emotions manifest. The baby shower scene is important as it shows that women choose to ritualise something in order to normalise the situation. The ritual of the baby shower is set up to normalise the fact that it is not Serena’s biological baby. June decides to take control of the situation and breaks the ritual by stating, “I felt the baby kick for the first time last night.” The women are hesitant to respond as the rhythm of the ritual is disturbed, yet eventually reply with “Praise be”. This particular scene is essential to the depiction of women as it shows that in order for them to cope in this environment, they must simply forget and normalise new conditions of being.
The nature of women’s sentiments is explored further with the introduction of another female character. In this episode, it is revealed that June and Luke’s relationship surfaced during Luke’s previous marriage to Annie. It is clear that Luke’s feelings for June are sincere, however, the director chooses to sympathise with the pain and hurt that Annie is experiencing. From an audience perspective, neither June nor Annie seem at fault. June cannot change the fact that she is in love with Luke and Annie is not afraid to speak up and say how she truly feels. It is the interaction between these two characters which demonstrates the notion that women are not designed to bottle up emotions. However, in the dystopian Gilead, the strategy of suppressing one’s feelings appears to be a coping mechanism that goes against women’s true nature.
June’s interaction with other women in this episode also has a great impact on June’s psyche. Guilt is a major theme in Episode Four and this manifests through June’s dealings with Annie, the other handmaids and ultimately Aunt Lydia. The use of flashback to show her and Annie’s dispute is employed to depict the guilt that she felt, despite not being able to change her feelings towards Luke. Further to this, when June notices the burns on Ofrobert’s hand and discovers that Ofglen’s tongue had been cut off, she instantly feels guilt as it was her who instigated speaking up for Ofwarren at the end of last season.
Throughout the episode, June’s feeling of guilt is developed and reaches a climax when she is confronted with the hanging body of Omar, whom she persuaded to help her escape. It is this scene that is the most harrowing as June finally hits a wall. Aunt Lydia’s character in this scene is extremely complex as she embodies a mother-like persona by kissing June on the forehead and hugging her, yet uses this technique to manipulate and indoctrinate June. This relationship also alludes to Big Brother in 1984 and the way in which society was brainwashed into viewing this figure as a father that they should love. From the start of Season One, Aunt Lydia tried to get rid of June by changing her name to Offred. In this episode, she is attempting to get rid of June altogether: “June did this… not Offred… Offred is free from blame… Offred does not have to bare June’s guilt.”
In both seasons, the inner dialogue of June is always about survival, rebellion and hanging onto her identity. She understands that the moment she loses her sense of self, she is gone. The flashbacks therefore keep her grounded to her identity, whilst reminding the viewer of who she was. However, in the final scenes of this episode, we see her sense of self deteriorate as she mutters “my fault” repeatedly to herself and states “I am not worthy yet” to the commander and his wife. She has discovered a new form of freedom and escapism and that is to lose herself. Freedom from Gilead infers freedom from herself. The meaning of freedom has shifted and this shift is demonstrated in the last low-angle shot as she looks blankly at the camera with the repeated line “We’ve been sent good weather” accompanying the image. Her inner dialogue has also shifted. She is now Offred.
Image credit: Hulu