Can we all just agree that when the most mentally unstable character on a series calls out the lead for being unwell that things are bad? Like, scalpel-wielding, crazed-eyes, death-wish kind of bad? That was pretty much the entry point to the newest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET, Crave), when June (Elisabeth Moss) took her darkest turn to-date.
The entirety of “Heroic” took place inside the hospital room of Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), who is now on life support following that awful shooting at Loaves and Fishes last week. The bottle episode, (which means an episode that takes place in one location), picked up about a month later with everyone scrambling to save the baby that was still in utero, as June was made to stand (or more accurately kneel) vigil and pray for her former walking partner.
A DECAYING MIND
Naturally the solitude of the task left June’s mind to fray, a fact we all picked up on from the opening moments when, in her voiceover, she sang “Heaven is a Place on Earth” to the tune of the vital monitors in the background.
“Do you hear it? Do you hear it? … You will,” she said as the cameras came in closer to showcase every single last detail of June’s face, which was brilliantly lit against that sterile white, hospital backdrop.
Although we’re plenty used to close-ups at this point in the series (on-set everyone calls the effect the “Lizzie cam”), it was slightly startling to see such a bright episode—probably the brightest-shot episode the notoriously dark series has shot to date. It’s an ongoing testament to just how visually beautiful the show is, but it also helped us to hone in on one of Handmaid’s most important themes: how Gilead takes everything from a person.
For weeks now the writers have been setting us up to not love June’s actions. She’s recklessly endangered other people’s lives while acting as though she’s invincible. Her Mean Girls treatment of Ofmatthew last week was so out of character that we knew something had to give. It turns out this episode was it.
A VOICE OF REASON
As the doctors fought to save the unborn baby, a slew of visitors, including handmaids, aunts and wives visited, some of whom prayed with June. However, the crowds mostly left her alone with her thoughts, causing June’s mental resolve to crack as she dealt with visions (and the reality) of little girls being groomed to breed. Meanwhile the kneeling and lack of fresh air left her with physical ailments as well, mainly the inability to properly walk.
It all became too much for our lead, who came to believe she had to kill Ofmatthew and the unborn baby to spare them both from this world, sacrificing herself in the process. (There’s no other fate for a baby killer than the wall in this world—whether you’re fertile or not.)
As June plotted murder—even going so far as to procure that aforementioned scalpel from the medical waste bin—it was genius to have Janine (Madeline Brewer) back in the hospital to share scenes with her. If anyone has a right to be angry at Ofmatthew it’s that battered handmaid, whose shredded eye is now even more so thanks to that beating she took at the store. But Janine was there to forgive and to remind June of a pretty important fact: Ofmatthew is one of them. And the way June and the other handmaids treated her was not only not okay, but it was also why she broke down the way she did.
“When did you get so selfish?” Janine asked. “You’ve changed… I don’t like it.”
Isn’t it funny how sometimes the most notoriously loopy characters on a show can say the most astute things? Now if only Janine hadn’t left June alone with her thoughts… and that blade.
A DEATH WISH
Enter one Mrs. Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), who visited the hospital to lend her own prayers to the unborn babe. As soon as June saw her she decided to target her former mistress in a half-hearted attack, which Serena immediately stopped. Scratch off another one of June’s cat-lives in that moment, because miraculously, neither Serena nor the kind doctor reported her.
So June got some stitches and an important heart-to-heart from the doctor instead, who explained that his “do no harm” oath still applied and that he was honouring Ofmatthew’s life by saving the baby.
“How will you honour your daughters?” the doc, who also happened to know June’s mother in a pre-Gilead world, asked her.
It was a huge turning point, not only in the episode but in the season, because it led to some big realizations from June. To Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) pure joy, June finally found her heart again and stayed by Ofmatthew’s side despite actually being allowed to go home, and she came up with a whole new vow: she’s going to save as many children from Gilead as she can.
Don’t get us wrong, we’ve been on the edge of our seats this season and all, but it’s about time June had a higher purpose than just saving Hannah. Now that she’s decided to be a real rebel (and potentially a part of Margaret Atwood’s famed Mayday resistance), we can get to the good and hopeful stuff that we saw outlined earlier on this season. That means less brooding about with fruitless plans where Hannah is concerned and more of the bigger world stuff that we love to see on the show. TBH, we can’t wait.