The Handmaid's Tale Heroic review

After The Handmaid’s Tale‘s arguably most scattered and exasperating episode in last week’s “Unfit,” “Heroic” is straightforward with tracing its narrative goals while also testing its audience’s patience. “Heroic” opens on boredom and the tune of “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” After the shopping incident, June (Elisabeth Moss) is forced to keep vigil for a comatose Ofmatthew/Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop) for weeks, maybe a few months on end – “until there’s a baby,” according to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).

Lydia has essentially condemned June to a dull clinical whitescaped purgatory to cleanse June of her sin. Time lapses reveal more bodies coming and going to occupy the white space around the stiffly poised June and Natalie’s body, whether it’s the Wives praying over Natalie’s womb or the Handmaids forced to pray for the baby inside it. As Gilead souls pass in or out of the hospital room, June’s mental state deteriorates under the stagnancy of events and the coma patient’s repetitious heart monitor.

During the soul-sucking vigil, June’s bored voiceover ruminates with purple prose to the point of parody, contemplating things like Natalie’s shit or singing in her head. I was afraid it was just going to be Moss’s voiceover purple prose-ing the whole time, but pulses of (attempted) action build to an emotional revelation that prevents the episode from dissolving into a cycle of tedium, grappling with June’s unsavory behavior last episode and providing a revelational turn for this season.

June Goes Mad, Then Receives a Therapy Session

Observe how June stares at Aunt Lydia in a bargain to leave the room, wrecked in a light that illuminates her atrophying countenance. Her decaying sanity leads her to steal a scalpel from the medical bin to end Natalie’s life. By miracle, Janine, who is in the hospital for her infected eye, interrupts June’s attempted murder with a visit. June tries to shanghai poor Janine into “helping” Natalie by ending Natalie’s life, but luckily, Janine calls June out on this shit: “She’s one of us.” So June decides to aim the scalpel at someone else.

The bottle episode weeds out black comedy in the bleakness, but the biggest dark laughs comes from June scoping out her potential stabbing victims to the beats of “Eenie, meenie, miney” – then, when Serena Joy walks in – “mo.” Then June does what many viewers wanted her to do: try to stab the Wife for the Gilead she has designed and the times she held June down to be raped. But even the flurry of catharsis against her abuser/former shaky ally does not result in anything desirable, except June injuring herself in the process and risking a hanging.

Luckily, the doctor doesn’t report June to Gilead but instead stitches up her wounds. Turns out, the doctor is surface-level dutiful to Gilead not out of conviction but out of survival – and coincidently, he knew June’s mother. He had tried to talk the authorities out of not confining June to the room, but was overruled. What ensues is a confessional and a therapy session for June, in which she confesses she wanted to kill him and Natalie. The best he can offer June is conversation, counsel, and the burning question, “How do you want to honor your daughters?” 

The Children of Gilead

June watches adolescent Gilead adoptees (stolen from parents) escorted down the hallways. She learns that the pink-clad girls are receiving exams to determine their childbearing capacity. June knows young Hannah will be next in the years to come.

When a baby is successfully procured from Natalie’s womb and June is allowed to leave, she encounters a pink-clad girl in the hallway. She finds that the young girl bears the deferential blank slate disposition, not unlike the late 15-year-old Eden. The child seems fine with the idea of marrying and bearing children young (though she does hesitate at June’s question). 

“I’m Sorry I Was Such a Shit to You”

After a taste of the sun, June chooses to return to Natalie’s bedside to make amends with her. June comes around to honor Natalie, not because Aunt Lydia inspired newfound loyalty, but because she is able to re-process survival in Gilead. She acknowledges Natalie as a “fighter.” She no longer views Natalie as a burden and a “pious little shit,” but more as a fellow survivor who deserved better. Then June swears upon the dying Natalie that she will commit this little kicker: she will liberate children stolen by Gilead.

You Have To Sit Through White Woman Centricity

Even though this episode calls out June’s shitty behavior against Natalie last episode, you have to sit through a lot of the ill effects of the show’s White Woman Centricity. As par for the course for a writers’ room unequipped to flesh out racial dynamics in Gilead or reckon with the show’s optics of its casting choices, the white woman-centricity will always be injected into the proceedings. “Heroic” concerns a white woman orbiting an unspeaking black woman’s body, a black woman who is a source of tautological spectacle through the gaze of a white woman, an object on which a white woman takes out her resentment before her body becomes a mute muse for a white woman’s purpose. It’s telling that when June looks in the eyes of a Gilead child, it’s the signs of abuse on a white child that served as the template for June deciding to honor a black woman’s suffering.

Final Thought

June’s harebrained scheme to save Gilead’s children may as well be a rebellious outlet for her suffering more than a pursuit of nobility. But at least this wild undertaking is a more productive rebellion than resenting your fellow sufferer. 

Tidbits

  • Aunt Lydia’s total patronizing “I believe in you” is hilarious.
  • Lydia visiting Janine to give her a red eye patch felt superfluous. Finding sympathy for a monster like Aunt Lydia is a bit much, even if it’s intentionally framed as twisted. “Aw, look – the monster is having a moment with the person she’s abused.”
  • Of course, for tonal consistency to keep June confined to that one space, they won’t show June going to the bathroom or eating. But what sort of crappy hospital food are they feeding June?
  • Hooray, Serena Joy gets a cookie for seemingly not reporting June’s stabbing attempt to Gilead authorities and letting the medical professional handle June from there in confidentiality.
  • If Natalie’s pulses on the heart monitor fade into buzzing ambiance in the end credits, then we’ll never see her again. Still: Janine goes comatose in the first season then comes back, but Natalie can’t?
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