Hold onto your muffins: June’s child-liberation plan looks like it might actually be a thing.
This week’s The Handmaid’s Tale finds our heroine gaining support from two important factions: Commander Lawrence, who is freaked out for reasons we’ll get to in a moment, and the marthas, who signal their approval of her intentions by sending massive amounts of breakfast cakes to the house.
Any journey that begins with baked goods is a good journey in my book. So let’s see how June’s dream slowly begins to become reality in “Witness.”
‘SCONES MEAN NO’ | We catch up with June as she returns to the Lawrence home after all that time kneeling at Natalie’s bedside. She’s hobbling, and Aunt Lydia tells her to take a nap. “But I don’t want rest. I don’t want to rest ever again,” the newly energized handmaid voiceovers, thrumming with purpose.
She notices that the house looks different: The books and art are gone from most of the rooms, an answer to some new regulations Commander Waterford has put forth since returning from Washington, D.C. But before she can delve too deeply into that, Lydia chirps that they’re home just in time for this month’s ceremony. Whee!
In the kitchen, Beth the martha is surrounded by baskets of scones. “Scones mean no,” she curtly tells June, adding that it’s code signifying they won’t be able to get any more black market mood-stabilizing medicine for Eleanor. And that’s a problem, because Mrs. Lawrence is getting worse. June’s all, “That’s cool. Do you know anyone who could help me move children out of this deadly hellscape in which we find ourselves?” The martha can’t believe what she’s hearing. “You’re gonna get yourself killed,” she warns. June nibbles on a scone and doesn’t seem to mind.
Upstairs, Eleanor certainly seems more combative than usual as she and Joseph argue loudly. She kicks him out of her room and he retreats to his study; when June finds him there, she realizes that most of the books have been stuffed into his inner sanctum. She momentarily ignores this to propose that he become part of her exit strategy: “Get a truck. Get her out. And get her the help that she needs,” she urges. He’s dismissive, as usual, but she realizes that he’s scared. This is good news, she voiceovers, because “Fear can be a great motivator.”
THE ROPES TIGHTEN | Fear also can cause normally brave people to retreat into the relative safety of doing nothing, which we see when Alma denies June’s request for help during their next visit to Loaves and Fishes. Before they can discuss it too much, however, some chimes sound. “Inspection?” June asks. “Another one,” Alma confirms.
All the handmaids are marched out into the cold while Aunt Lydia prepares them for “our very special visitors”… who turn out to be Fred (eh, he’s not so special), Serena and High Commander Winslow. Fred makes a beeline to June the moment he sees her, and they have some weird small talk about her being a Boston girl. He floats the idea of arranging a transfer for her to D.C., an idea June shuts down by noting, “Your wife is here.” Meanwhile, Winslow is irked that Janine is wearing a non-regulation eyepatch and that none of the women are wearing the mouthrings and veils that the D.C. handmaids do. Fred notes that they’re rolling it out slowly. That is NOT good.
A LUCKY FIND | At home, Lawrence is out — “He goes to meetings now,” Beth says — so June sneaks into his office and starts poking around in his files. She’s caught by Eleanor, who knows that the handmaid is “up to something again” but doesn’t seem to care. And eventually, June confesses that “I’m looking for other people’s children. My friend’s children.” Eleanor intuits that she means handmaids’ children, and cheerily leads June to the Red Center dossiers, which Joseph just happens to keep in the basement.
Downstairs, June sits on the ground and starts sifting through several boxes of the handmaids’ files. She eventually finds her own. Eleanor keeps her company, flitting about and acting like the whole thing is a girls’ shopping trip or something. June uses the time alone with her mistress to float the idea of Eleanor leaving Gilead, but the older woman isn’t stupid: “Joseph is a war criminal. He can’t cross the border. He would be jailed for the rest of his life, or killed. And he would deserve it,” she says. But then she gets distracted by some other dusty box, and with a happy observation — “Things are always so much more exciting when you’re here!” — she leaves June alone with the files.
As June leafs through the papers, she learns that Janine’s son, Caleb, died four years earlier in a car accident. And when she remarks that it’s been five years since she and the other handmaids were forced into servitude, I’m shocked: Was anyone else surprised that that much time had passed?
IN WHICH FRED IS EVEN MORE HATEFUL THAN YOU REMEMBER | Remember when you thought The Ceremony couldn’t get any more icky? Guess again! In an effort to squeeze out Lawrence (and, of course, gain more power for himself), Fred convinces Winslow that Gilead needs to “set an example” with June’s commander. After all, he’s had four handmaids and no children, which might indicate a lack of discipline. And “if he’s unfit to lead his household, he’s unfit to lead Gilead,” Fredder notes, shocking even Serena with his suggestion that they attend The Ceremony at the Lawrence house that evening.
So June is surprised when Beth beckons her to the sitting room and the Waterfords are there with Winslow. “They used to do this, in the first months of Gilead, to the households that resisted the ceremony,” June voiceovers. “Bearing witness ensures that every member is performing their role,” announces Aunt Lydia, because of COURSE she’s there, too. And after some Bible verses are read, Joseph, Eleanor and June go upstairs to the bedroom.
Joseph thinks they can just wait 20 minutes, then go back downstairs. But June knows that won’t fly. “The doctor is going to check me afterwards for proof that there was a ceremony,” she says. Eleanor starts to rage. Lawrence maintains that they don’t have to do anything. “Sir,” June says quietly, “yes, we do.”
There are a lot of tears and yelling from Eleanor; eventually, she’s put in an adjacent room so she won’t have to witness her husband and the handmaid’s forced copulation. June cries a little as Joseph prepares for what he’s got to do — he’s having a lot of trouble with the notion — which then puts her in the ridiculous position of having to coach him through it.
“Just treat it like a job. Try to detach yourself, see it from the outside,” she says. “You’re not you. I’m not me. This is a transaction.” Afterward, Joseph goes down to his study without a word to their guests. The doctor checks June out and declares her well and truly boned, and Aunt Lydia announces that it’s been “a successful ceremony.”
“Are you alright?” Fred later whispers to June when they’re alone for a moment. “I mean, at least it wasn’t you,” she shoots back. DAMN. Also? TRUE. When the Lawrences are alone in their sleek… apartment? hotel room? Serena accuses her husband of getting distracted, pointing out that it’s been months since they’ve made any progress on bringing Nichole home. “You’re prioritizing yourself, and that’s enough now,” she says, pulling out the satellite phone Mark Tuello slipped her in Toronto. They can get their daughter back, she says. The catch? “You just have to offer your cooperation.”
‘MUFFINS MEAN YES’ | Later that evening, after everyone’s left, Lawrence passes June something in the kitchen: It’s a packet of birth-control pills. During her conversation with him, we learn another fun fact about Gilead: The punishment for contraception is being torn apart by dogs. Lovely. “That’s not gonna be the last time that happens. You know what, right?” June points out. Yeah, he knows June: That’s probably why he’s currently scarf-deep in a glass of Scotch.
“I’ll get you a truck. You get my wife out safely,” he says abruptly, surprising June. She excitedly says that he can escape, as well, as long as he brings something valuable with him: “Kids. The stolen children of Gilead.” He thinks about that for a minute. “I’d be a hero,” he says, then walks out, leaving June to sip his drink.
The next day at Loaves and Fishes, Alma still wants nothing to do with June, but she changes her mind when June brings news of Alma’s son, who is 5 and lives in Amherst with a commander and his family. The update takes Alma aback; it also hits me hard, when I realize that her son must’ve been an infant when he was taken from her, meaning he probably has no memory of her at all. June adds that her truck will fit 10 people, but she’s not going to be one of them: As we saw at the end of last season, she won’t leave without Hannah.
Janine also volunteers to help, saying that she’s brave. Then she asks about Caleb. “His family was transferred to California,” she lies. “His mom seems super nice.” Janine is comforted by the idea of her son playing on the beach, and her smile makes me ache.
When she returns home, June enters the kitchen to find every flat surface covered with muffin baskets. “Muffins mean yes,” Beth says, interpreting the martha network’s reply for a stunned June: They’ll help June get kids out of Gilead. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” June quips.
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