The title of this episode, “Other Women,” tells you everything you need to know about its focus. The fourth episode of this season of The Handmaid’s Tale is about the many meanings of the phrase “other women,” as it applies to June’s (Elisabeth Moss) life. There are the oppressive characters in the Waterford household, like Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). There’s her own status as the “other woman” during her affair with Luke (O-T Fagbenle). Then, there’s the other woman within June: Offred. Offred is submissive and free from the struggles that come with fighting against the Gilead machine. Will she choose to be June, or to be Offred? This is the battle she faces this episode.
For 92 days, June lived without her handmaid uniform. June was free to be June. This episode begins with a stark revocation of all that. June is captured, retagged, and forced back into her role as a handmaid.
The first time we see June after her capture, she’s chained to a bed in an empty room in the Rachel and Leah Center. As Aunt Lydia explains, June has a way out from months of torture by boredom. The Waterfords are willing to take June back for a “trial run,” as if she were a dog that wet the bed too many times. June’s other option is to stay in that room, counting flowers on the bedspread (there are 71). June chooses to return to the Waterfords, tail between her legs.
When June returns to that beautiful-boned, ivy-covered house, the Waterfords greet her stiffly and formally. Fred (Joseph Fiennes), being the egomanaic he is, speaks of the tremendous effort it took to save June from her “kidnapping” at the hands of “insidious terrorist networks.” Ah, so that’s how they’re spinning it: Not only do the Waterfords get their baby back — they show off how far-reaching their influence is in the process. After Freddy’s big-boy speech, Serena greets June coldly. She and June will spend the rest of the episode clenched in a battle of wills, so don’t expect Serena’s furrowed brow to go away anytime soon.
Let’s keep track of Serena v. June, shall we? Serena gets the leg up when she dashes into June’s drafty bedroom and pins her into a chokehold. Despite being choked, June keeps smiling creepily. Her smugness deserves an Emmy. “Serena, remember. As long as my baby is safe, so is yours,” June says, once she catches her breath. We’re gonna clock that in as a tie. Serena 1, June 1.
June also has to deal with Aunt Lydia, who is a helicopter parent. Lydia watches June bathe and makes sure scrubs the “nasty bacteria” in her vagina (I don't think that is a thing). Clearly, Aunt Lydia is being kept on hand to make sure Commander Fred's girls don’t fight, and the baby is safe. I wonder if aunts get a commission per successful baby delivered.
On June’s first morning back in the Waterford house, Rita (Amanda Brugel) smuggles June a package of letters from Mayday that she’d been saving for the past 92 days. Rita insinuates that things were bad in the span that June was “kidnapped.” June, not knowing what to do, hides the letters behind the tub.
Then, June goes downstairs and finds the house in a state of commotion. Everyone’s preparing for the party that afternoon, and June must prepare by drinking a specially prepared shake, which she spits up. We don’t blame her. It is green and yuck-central.
Now that June is home, Serena is free to brag about her baby to the other Wives during the strangest baby shower ever. Serena opens up a bunch of old-fashioned handmade presents from the other Wives. Inevitably, the subject of June’s absence comes up when Wives console Serena by saying that at least she didn’t miss the first kick. June, who’s supposed to stay silent, has to pipe in by saying that the baby kicked for the first time last night. Serena 1, June 2.
Serena retreats to the yard with a cigarette. Clearly, our blonde friend needs some coaching in team spirit. And what do you know? Auntie L. is there to help. Lydia consoles Serena by saying that this is always the hardest part — but that she has to pull her weight, too. Basically, no more cigarettes, girl.
After her hissy fit, Serena and June are bound together in a strange ritual. A green and red string are intertwined, one symbolising the wife (green string) and the handmaid (red string). Serena gets super into the prayer. June looks like she’s going to barf, an expression that has been plastered on her face since earlier in the party, when her handmaid friend informed her that a) Ofglen had her tongue cut out after the Janine protest, and b) Mayday isn’t helping handmaids anymore. She truly is marooned.
As Serena opens presents and ties strings, Commander Fred is out shooting with the boys, aka the other Commanders. He insinuates that he’d like to move to Canada and spread the good word about Gilead. Fred is gently shut down by his boss, Andrew (Robert Curtis Brown). The Commander has to focus on getting his house in order.
Once the Wives leave Waterford Central, Serena sits in her beautiful and underutilized living room, playing with a xylophone. I truly doubt this woman has a musical bone in her body. June offhandedly remarks that she gave away half of her gifts after her shower. At the mention of June's past child, Serena looks stung: June 3, Serena 1. First, this is a reminder of pre-Gilead days, which is a no-no. Second, it rubs in the fact that June is super fertile, and Serena is not (I wonder if there are any fertile Wives).
After that comment, Serena’s done with June. She goes to Fred and says the equivalent of, “Get this harlot out of my house!” But for whatever reason, Fred vetoes her desires (I think the reason is that he has a crush on June). He says that Serena deserves to witness the pregnancy of her child. June doesn’t matter — she’s a non-entity.
Meanwhile, June is being reprimanded for her rebelliousness. Under the guise of a friendly walk, Lydia takes June to the river, where men are hanging on The Wall. Lydia identifies one as Omar, the van driver who helped June escape. Lydia informs June that his wife became a handmaid (her worst nightmare, remember?) and the son was given away. By overwhelming June with guilt, this is Lydia’s chance to bury June forever, and allow Offred to take her place. Lydia emphasizss that June is responsible for Omar’s death, not Offred. Offred is free from June’s guilt. Become Offred — become a handmaid — and you’re liberated, she seems to say.
That evening, June begs for forgiveness in front of all the members of the household. There’s an emptiness in her eyes. You think, for a second, that she’s succumbed to the emptiness, as Aunt Lydia wanted. She doesn’t even fight back when Serena crawls into bed with June and caresses her stomach.
But not so fast. When Serena leaves, June goes into the closet, the only place where she’s alone. She repeats to herself: “My fault. My fault. My fault,” as if to reclaim her identity as June. If she lets go of the guilt, she lets go of June.
This is an episode about guilt in more ways than one. Running through the episode are June’s flashbacks of her affair with Luke. Annie (Kelly Jenrette), Luke’s first wife, confronts June after a yoga class. She accuses her of sabotaging a vow made before God. June is clearly affected by the encounter, and almost breaks up with Luke. Luke, being Luke, brings June back to herself. “She doesn’t matter because we’re going to get married. I’m going to make you happy,” he says. Their relationship is so convincing it hurts. Years later, Annie runs into Luke, June, and baby Hannah at a coffee store (I wonder if it was coincidental or if she has been lowkey keeping her eye on them). She and June make eye contact, and then Annie slips away.
So, what will June do with her current guilt? Will she become Offred, or stay June? By the the end of the episode, it seems the scales have tipped toward Offred. The morning after her official apology, June won’t engage in conversation with Nick (Max Minghella), and instead says only: “We’ve been sent good weather” to him. She repeats. “We’ve been sent good weather” three times to herself, as if undoing her previous change in the closet.
This ending leaves us with two options: June is pretending to be obedient, because she realises the only way to survive is through pretending to have internalised the Gileadean message. Or, something darker: What if June has internalised the oppressor, and become Offred? What if the winner isn’t Serena or June, but Aunt Lydia?