June Osborne is a character I’ve had a lot of – sometimes unjustified – patience for. Even when she acts horribly, The Handmaid’s Tale makes it hard to judge her for her actions. What can I say? I do find it tricky to hold a woman responsible when she has been repeatedly raped, tortured, silenced, and generally abused by an authoritarian regime for years.
Still, June’s actions, especially as she has grown as an agent of the resistance in Gilead, have consequences that extend way beyond her own existence. This week’s episode, “The Crossing”, brings our attention to this aspect of her character. What has June’s fight against Gilead turned her into, and what does it mean for the people whose lives intersect with her own?
Last week’s episode ended with June being captured after her Commander-poisoning mission at a local brothel. That mission, we find out from Nick in the first few minutes of this week’s instalment, has resulted in the young Mrs Keyes being captured, while the other Handmaids who were hiding out on her property are still at large.
Allow me one 1984 reference
Not to fall into the trap of comparing every dystopia to George Orwell’s 1984, but you know the torture scenes in George Orwell’s 1984? This episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is very much like that, but with June Osborne instead of Winston Smith. Gilead wants to know where the missing Handmaids are. June knows, but she won’t tell. And so they bring her to some sort of brutalist torture facility, where she’s strapped to a table and waterboarded by an abnormally cheery lieutenant. (Seriously, this guy does the classic villain thing where he stays calm and polite on the surface instead of letting out the aggression he’s very clearly experiencing, and it’s just so, so creepy.)
The torture escalates with June being brought onto the roof of the facility, where two young women – no doubt also defectors – are standing on the edge of the roof. The deal is cruelly simple: either June talks, or the women get thrown off the building to their deaths. “June, don’t tell them anything,” says one of the two women, with deadly consequences. The second woman barely gets through “June” before that horrible torturer-in-chief shoves her into the abyss.
This is a brutal sequence. All the torture scenes are. Handmaid’s has caught a lot of flak over the years for how frequently it depicts physical and mental violence. That criticism has never fully resonated with me. The violence in Handmaid’s is an allegory for all sorts of cruelties that come with misogyny. Yes, it’s pushed to the extreme here, because that’s what a dystopia is: an imaginary environment in which our worst instincts are magnified.
What makes June tick
June endures Gilead’s torture, until she doesn’t. “June, you have to tell me where [the Handmaids] are, or they will hurt Hannah. They will hurt her,” Commander Lawrence tells her. (In that same conversation, he reveals the tally of June’s actions at the brothel in last week’s episode: nine commanders in the hospital, six dead.)
June doesn’t believe the regime would hurt a child, but they do, in fact, get their hands on Hannah. She’s not hurt, exactly, but she’s held captive in a kind of see-through box, separated from her mother by glass walls.
And here comes the moment that breaks June: Hannah doesn’t recognise her. In fact, she seems to be scared of June, shrieking and recoiling in the opposite corner of the box upon seeing her mother. Hannah is the whole reason for June deciding to stay in Gilead even after getting a chance to escape. For more than three seasons now, June’s goal has been to free her firstborn from the regime and get out with her. This was never going to be an easy task, but the fact that Hannah has apparently forgotten all about her mother (whom she was separated from at a very young age) is going to make it all the more difficult.
The mental toll on June is too much, and so she speaks. She gives up the location of her fellow Handmaids. It’s not long until the camera cuts to the women being awoken by the sound of men storming their safe house. The scene is tense, heartbreaking, unfair on multiple levels. It’s also a bleak, uncompromising illustration of the consequences of June’s choices.
Speaking of June’s choices, the Handmaids aren’t the only ones who have to reckon with them. Luke, too, is struggling to make sense of his wife’s decisions. “She chose to stay in Gilead and she knew she’d probably get caught,” he tells Moira. “She knew she’d probably never see me again. She knew she’d probably never see either of us [he and Nichole] again. That’s the choice that she made, and I’ve got to respect it. I’ve got to respect her.”
This is one of the aspects of Handmaid’s that has given me the most anxiety, ever since the show’s earliest episodes. There are obviously no lines of communication between Luke and June. It’s not like they can have conversations in which she explains to him why she chooses to do the things she does and gives him the necessary assurances (that she still loves him, that she’s only staying for Hannah, etc). There has to be an unspoken trust between the two of them, and it’s not hard to imagine that trust would falter after a while.
Luke comes around, though. Earlier in the episode, a government liaison tells him about her own grandmother, who “used to bury a green persimmon in the backyard for luck”. By the end of “The Crossing”, Luke observes this same ritual: he takes Nichole to bury a green persimmon in their own backyard. Almost against his better judgment, he doesn’t lose hope.
And just when you thought things were over...
After June tells Gilead where the other Handmaids are hiding, the women are captured and thrown in the back of a van with June. They’re headed, Lydia, tells June, to a Magdalene colony, where they will “labour in the fields” and still be subjected to the “ceremony”, aka the ritualised rape of a Handmaid by a Commander, when they are “ripe”, which I assume means after they ovulate each month.
But June still has some fight left in her. In the van, she overpowers Lydia, allowing the other women – and herself – to escape. But this is Gilead, meaning all six Handmaids are chased by Guardians. Two of them are shot, presumably to death. Two others – the scene unfolds in slow motion, to the sound of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” – are struck by a train while trying to cross a railroad.
It’s a brutal, unexpected yet completely realistic development. It’s cruel, yes, but we know by now this is how Gilead works. The only two Handmaids left out of the original six are June and Janine, who are now separated from the Guardians by the same train that just killed two women. They don’t have time to process anything. They need to run.
What an intensely bleak episode. This is something Handmaid’s can sometimes struggle with to some extent – it’s just so dark, and Gilead routinely piles one cruelty on top of the other. But such territory comes with the show’s premise, and it fits with its storytelling. Gilead was born out of cruelty and has consistently used it as its driving force. Of course things are bleak. That’s the whole point.