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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 4.03 – “The Crossing”. An episode that keeps the vicious circle going…or does it?
Boy, does this show love itself a good pattern. June is in captivity, then she rebels and escapes. Then she fights, gets captured, and is put right back into that Handmaid’s outfit by Aunt Lydia faster than you can say “functional uterus”. Cue catchy pop song, June stares angrily into the camera, and she escapes again. Going on four seasons now, we have watched this pattern play out multiple times – same thing with different faces. But, this time feels different.
Though this would not be The Handmaid’s Tale if it didn’t find ways for June to either not get tortured too much, or the people around her continue to be killed. Water boarding over a cross is certainly an option for the Gileadean(?) torture masters, but when it finally comes down to doing actual physical damage to June (see: pulling out her fingernails from the root) the show shies away from doing too much damage to it’s main character. It’s an odd sequence that allows a truly terrifying Reed Birney (from House of Cards fame) to play a devastatingly sadistic and charismatic torturer, but it seems to end because it just needs to end. June lies, The Gilead Loyalist (as Birney is credited) believes her, the torture stops, and then it picks right back up with no consequences to June.
The torture porn continues with June having to watch the Gilead Loyalist push her fellow Handmaids off the ledge of a building in really harrowing scene. But it culminates in the worst case scenario, one that is simple, and the danger is wildly implicit – Hannah is stuck in a clear box and June has to watch her daughter cower in fear — not from the Guardians or even the Gilead Loyalist, but from June. At that point, June gives up the location of the other Handmaids and the rest of the episode continues down the familiar spiraling structure of THT — everyone gets caught and put back into Gileadean society. But wait, I just said this felt different. Right? Yup.
Perhaps it was because this episode was written by Bruce Miller himself, or maybe because this was the first directorial effort from the show’s star Elisabeth Moss, but this outing felt a lot more personal to June. There has always been a natural push-and-pull of what motherhood entails in THT – whether it was to carry a child only to give it away to another woman, or what a woman has to sacrifice to obtain a child in Gilead. In this case, however, June’s forward position of “Resistance Leader” has forced upon her a motherly responsibility for all her handmaids. Just like a child in a nuclear family, the decisions June makes affect her handmaids in ways that are both positive and extremely negative. Granted, June has done literally everything she can to protect her surrogate children, even going as far as nearly giving up her life at the beginning of this season, but her decisions also have grave consequences.
Stuck between her adopted motherly love of the handmaids and the pure maternal instinct to protect her actual child, June doesn’t hesitate to relinquish the handmaids whereabouts. This may seem like an obvious choice, one that is merely a plot reaction, but it’s the style with which this choice is handled that makes this episode feel different on the whole. Elisabeth Moss wisely chooses the frame June’s interactions with tight closeups of her face and her opponents face. The episode is wildly hectic — waterboarding, people tossed off buildings, a frantic escape from a van, and the implicit threat of child torture – but Moss sets an eerily calm tone that counterbalances the frenetic events.
In between what would normally be frantic pacing, Moss slows the camera down, allowing the visuals to dominate the experience. This deliberate slowing is, in my opinion, the key to this episode – because it must be an EXPERIENCE we follow with June. Instead of telling us how we should feel, there is genuine terror as we patiently walk down the corridors with June to be waterboarded, or when we are sitting in the van with the thick leather covers tied to June’s face and restraining her neck. Moss also smartly chooses to only focus June’s reaction when the handmaids are pushed off the ledge the dead handmaids on the ground. We are stuck just in June’s POV – we see what she sees, and we feel her anxiety as she tries to reconcile the value of her information against the lives of her handmaids. Not only that, the writing and the directing allows for the personal stakes which drive June’s choices home.
Aunt Lydia, with nothing to really do since season 2, has been somewhat of a lost character on this show but her actions stick the perfect landing for the personal conflict between she and June. “This is all your fault” says Aunt Lydia to a dejected June. The odd part is, we know that Aunt Lydia is right. Everything that has happened to June’s surrogate children really IS June’s fault, and I think June also knows it too. Just as easily as Lydia knows how to strike June where it hurts most, June is also very well aware of Lydia’s sensitive points – noting that Lydia let her girls down. “You said you would take care of them if they followed the rules” June loudly exclaims, “but you didn’t.” These assertions are valid points, but that doesn’t mean one is more morally superior to the other. In a true battle of antagonist vs. protagonist – they are competing for the same thing – righteousness. The Handmaid’s Tale has suddenly shifted into a conflict between motherly figures, and they are using that motherly nature against each other.
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This, too, is why the ending of this episode feels different than previous iterations of THT. Now that the conflict has evolved into a “June vs. Lydia” fight, they both have to accept and deny their maternal instincts. As good protaganist vs. antagonist relationships are supposed to do, we see how both of these women are so very alike in their convictions and their end goals – but they try to materialize those end goals through very different means. June believes in the righteous cause to set the handmaids free, whereas Lydia believes her job is to maintain the well being of the handmaids in the name of the state. Is it not righteous to protect and foster these women for the the preservation of the human race? This brings us back to the very real, very specific, and very personal tactics both June and Lydia use to hurt each other – June’s actions have caused her “children” to be hurt, and Lydia was supposed to protect and take care of the handmaids but failed them when she couldn’t.
In believing they are just in their pursuit of righteousness, both Lydia and June are proving how very wrong they are. Neither is wholly right, and neither is wholly wrong. This is a perfect choice for us as viewers because we have to choose which side we want to be on. Lydia may be a representation of all that is wrong in the patriarchal world of Gilead, but people keep dying around June. I think we, as Americans, feel an inner pull to accept death and freedom over life and subjugation — but the choice is real for the handmaids, and we have to accept that choice as reality as viewers.
As such, the closing moments of this episode are visceral and it ties everything this episode explores together. As the handmaids are all reunited with Lydia, and they are on the way the breeding farm, Lydia notes how it’s so nice they are all back together. June wordlessly communicates with her surrogate children and the entire show slows down to a dread – filled pace. It’s not a question of if the handmaids are going to escape — you can tell that something is about to go down as soon as you see June eye the shock stick — but it’s just a matter of when and how. After she gave up their position because she was doing her motherly duty to save her actual child, will the other handmaids join her in another ill advised rebellion and possibly die? Or, will they remain steadfast with their choice to remain a cow for the breeding at the Magdelan camp?
Will I look past the logic of this situation and how it goes down? I mean, c’mon – the Guardian just happens to get out and go pee because a train just happens to cross the tracks at the exact right moment? And hold on, he doesn’t hear this struggle in the van once the fight between Lydia and the handmaids goes down? How far away did he go? Given the nature of this rebellious group, and June — being public enemy number 1 — there wasn’t a second guardian in the van to provide back up? These women weren’t chained down in the van? And wait, the door wasn’t LOCKED?
All of this issues are real, and they are legitimate criticisms for a scene that seems to lack detail because the narrativium needs the handmaids to escape. But I can honestly look past the gaping holes in logic because of thematic significance and excellent directing. Once again, the fight is between June and Lydia, and while June allows Lydia to live, I LOVE the visual of the handmaids running in slow motion away from Lydia in pursuit. It’s also fitting that a Guardian starts picking off handmaids from behind as they fall one by one. Remember, life and subjugation or freedom and death. Once again, Lydia fails her children, and June leads her children to dire consequences. This scene continues with June and Janine watching as Alma and another handmaid die from an oncoming freight train.
Ultimately, this ending feels different because June is alone with Janine and nowhere to go. Because it happens so early in the season, this escape feels pretty final – and now June has to be on her own with Janine as a surrogate child in tow. Lydia will have to prove her worth after ANOTHER failure, and that will calcify this personal conflict even further. For the first time in a long time, I don’t know where this show is going to go and that is extremely refreshing.
APROPOS OF NOTHING
- The kiss between Nick and June is so odd. Why is this happening? Why would he tip his hand about his relationship to June so publicly — especially if all he is trying to do is keep her alive? It makes zero point zero narrative sense.
- I really do love the dinner scene between Lawrence and June – it’s a little over dramatic, but I believe that’s Lawrence’s character. He has a flair for the drama, and the whimsy. And I honestly do believe him when he says the Guardians would hurt Hannah and he didn’t want it to come to this.
- It’s also refreshing to hear Lawrence say that Gilead doesn’t care about children, but rather they only care about power. It’s not that we didn’t know this already, but it’s good to hear it from someone on the inside. And it makes you wonder if that’s how Gilead has always been, or if things changed once they felt the power.
- Notice the song June is singing in the box? Heaven Is A Place On Earth – the same song she was singing while she prayed (and went nuts) in front of Ofmatthew last season. Once again, touché, Bruce Miller. Touché.