The Handmaid’s Tale “Heroic” was written by Lynn Renee Maxcy, who moves up from executive story editor, and was directed by Daina Reid. The episode is a tour de force for Elisabeth Moss (June) who is on camera for essentially the entire episode, except for one short scene, and we watch as June slowly spirals. June’s punishment could have been considerably worse, but forcing her to wait, praying, with OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) until her baby is born almost costs June her sanity. The episode is slow from the standpoint of being static, but it’s the perfect way to give us a taste of what June is going through. The episode also represents an important turning point for June.
As always the episode is carefully and beautifully shot, making use of its primary colors of white, red, and blue. And once again music plays an important role in the episode. June kneels at the foot of OfMatthew’s bed. The shooting has left her brain dead, but the baby is still alive, so they are keeping her on life support until they can deliver the baby. The rhythmic beeping of the machines in an otherwise silent room has a song running through June’s head: “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle.
The music starts over the title card – just the first verse – and stops, replaced by just the beeping as the camera focuses on Ofmatthew in her hospital bed. Is this a tiny bit of heaven on Earth as Ofmatthew’s body may be here on Earth with her still viable fetus, but her mind – and soul – are already gone. June has already been here for a few weeks. We only get the first verse repeated by June as she tells us that we’ll hear it too… eventually, and we get a tight closeup of her face and it’s clear that she’s already starting to lose her grasp on reality. Moss conveys so much through just her eyes and facial expression, it’s simply a wonder to me that she doesn’t win every acting award. It’s simply another amazing performance.
June kneels at the end of the bed and the window behind her is like a blue triptych picture. The Doctor (Gil Bellows) comes in with assistants who check on the baby. June tells us that they don’t give Ofmatthew anything that will hurt the baby. Even if she wasn’t brain dead there would be no future for her. All they care about is the baby. Again, the shot zooms in to June’s face – just her eyes move as she watches the Doctor. She tells us she’s been there for 32 days – others may come and go, but she will be there until there’s a baby because she is Ofmatthew’s walking partner – Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) cruelly designed punishment.
The only thing that June can see other than Ofmatthew is the window behind the bed. She watches as several young girls – all dressed in their pink uniforms are lead past and as June sings “They say in heaven, love comes first.” I love how this underscores the fact that for these girls, there will be no love first in Gilead. We learn later in the episode that the girls are at the hospital to determine when they are able to bear children. Later in the episode, June will point out that it is when they will be physically able – not mentally. It also underscores that they aren’t being treated any better than the brain dead handmaid. Their value is just as much as incubators – and only that. These girls will never have a chance to fall in love before marriage and motherhood – let’s not forget Eden…
At first, June still seems to be cognizant of the passage of time, and we get some beautiful shots of the light from the window moving across the floor as the days wear on. In addition to the hospital staff, the wives come and pray for the baby. It’s hideous as they lay their hands on Ofmatthew’s belly, looking only at her belly. Again, this is a beautiful shot as the blue of their dresses frames the red of June’s dress with the blue windows in the otherwise white room.
Like anyone deprived of stimuli, June’s other senses go into overdrive. In addition to her hearing, she is distracted by smell. She tells us that the wives all smell of powder and soap – they smell like the ceremony to her. Smell is a powerful memory stimuli – and they remind her of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) holding her down – and it makes her want to gag.
The handmaids, on the other hand, smell like sweat – like onions and oranges and fish. Let’s not forget that they only get to bath once a week. It’s also another indication of how little their comfort or even humanity is considered. Aunt Lydia brings them all to pray. June also smells pus and tape from Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) wounds. When Brianna (Bahia Watson) reaches out to take June’s hand to comfort her while they pray, June doesn’t react and she’s confused and hurt – and earns a smack from Aunt Lydia for her trouble. June has retreated.
June also muses on the smell of the room: citrus and ammonia. I love how they use something this mundane to once again ground us in reality. June tells us the smell would have been in spray bottles – before – at the grocery store or Bed, Bath, and Beyond – drawing that contrast between her world and ours. When there were those things – before the Internet raids, and the Decency Code, and all the hangings… All of which sound horrible!
June also remarks on Ofmatthew’s smell – a kind of sweet decay, like wet leaves or a dirty scalp. And I love the imagery and word choice here. Sweet suggests innocence – and decay suggests the way in which they are letting Ofmatthew slowly die. Wet leaves suggests the process of leaves returning to the earth to replenish it or memories of fall days, maybe spent raking or jumping in leaves – but then contrast that with dirty scalp – again, how they aren’t taking particularly good care of Ofmatthew except in how it impacts the baby. And just the word scalp has terrible connotations with the American past.
June then muses on Ofmatthew’s unformed and innocent shit – and that she smells like a baby. She is both innocent and helpless.
As time wears on, June starts to lose time, and the time jumps take place as she blinks – from day to night. She continues to see the young girls, trying to assure herself that they aren’t real, but they are as fascinated by her as she is by them. After all, how different will their lives be from the handmaids’?
We know that it was winter when Ofmatthew attacked Janine, but soon the tree outside the window is clearly in full summer foliage. June tries to get up and her knees are gigantic sores from kneeling. She wonders if she is crazy and this is her “therapy.” Maybe if she gets better, this will all end. Alone in the room at night with Ofmatthew, June pinches off her breathing tube. Naturally, the machines go nuts and attendants rush in – June hobbles back to her cushion. She decides that “this has to end.” Is she trying to spare herself or Ofmatthew?
June is lost in the music again, and this time Alma (Nina Kiri) reaches out to her to remind her to pray – she calls her stupid, so clearly the other handmaids have lost some of their affection for June. Aunt Lydia leads the prayer, but stops to chastise Janine for be unkempt – she has her hair over her eye – which really does look hideous. Aunt Lydia tells her that nothing is uglier than vanity, but for once Janine isn’t comforted. June actually shakes herself out of her stupor enough to try to comfort Janine that it’s not so bad, but again, Janine isn’t convinced.
The prayer circle is interrupted by the alarms going off. Aunt Lydia dismisses the handmaids but remains behind with June. Ofmatthew’s blood pressure is up – but the fetus is fine. When Ofmatthew has a seizure, June explains it to Aunt Lydia. It’s clearly not the first time as June shocks Aunt Lydia by telling her that if she’s lucky, she may get to see Ofmatthew shit herself. Aunt Lydia tells her that she’s heartless – completely missing that what June is, is losing it. Aunt Lydia prays to God to save the child, and June prays to God to let them both die.
The Doctor cuts into Ofmatthew’s leg – and Aunt Lydia asks – very respectfully – what he’s doing. Does she have some residual feelings for the handmaid? He’s putting a line in Ofmatthew’s femoral artery to get in more fluid – it will cut down on the seizures – maybe he is also keeping Ofmatthew in mind? – but will also give the fetus more fluids. Aunt Lydia is in awe of the miracles God lets the doctors perform. Mutilating a dead woman to preserve her fetus for someone else… yep. That’s great. Again, June just moves her eyes.
When Aunt Lydia goes to leave, June calls her back. She very meekly asks if she may go home. Aunt Lydia calls it ridiculous and says of course not. June can go home when her walking partner can. June apologizes – after a fashion – for being shitty to Ofmatthew. Aunt Lydia comments that all the “girls” were. June tells Aunt Lydia that she doesn’t feel well, and at this point, she is starting to look distinctly unwell. Aunt Lydia tells June that she believes in her and that God never gives us more than we can handle. A lovely – and ridiculous platitude – which June questions – “Are you sure?” Aunt Lydia tells her to pray. And then June watches the technician put a scalpel in the waste disposal box.
Eventually, we see that there is a bed in the room for June. She gets up in the middle of the night and goes to retrieve the scalpel. At first, she gets a needle jammed under one fingernail – was anyone else waiting for this to become infected? She’s not deterred, however, and does get the bloody scalpel out. Will she kill Ofmatthew and the baby? Herself? We know that death is one way to escape Gilead. The depth of June’s mental spiral is underlined as she leans over Ofmatthew and says, “You don’t fool me… I know you’re gone already.” I was sure that June was saying Ofmatthew had already escaped – and June would use the blade on herself. But then she moves toward Ofmatthew’s neck with the scalpel – was she simply absolving herself? You can’t murder someone who is already dead…
She is interrupted by the surprising appearance of Janine, who is back in hospital because her eye became infected and needed to be fixed again. It’s a nice parallel to June pulling Janine back from jumping off the bridge and killing her baby – Janine saves Ofmatthew’s baby here. Janine thinks that not praying, because she couldn’t forgive Ofmatthew caused her seizure. Janine tells Natalie, she forgives her and hopes she gets better. It’s interesting that Janine uses her real name. June points out that she won’t get better, so Janine settles for Natalie finding peace.
June smiles and tells Janine that she knows how they can help Natalie and shows her the scalpel. Janine is appalled. Her first thought is for the baby, and she wants to know what they ever did to June. But June insists that they have to do something. Janine insists not that and reminds June that Natalie is one of them. June says ok but won’t give up the scalpel – and drops the smile.
Janine asks June when she got to be so selfish – something that I’ve been asking for several reviews!!!! Janine echos my sentiments – everything is about June now and all her problems. June tells her to leave, and Janine says that she’s different – and she doesn’t like it. It’s June’s first wake up call. But she’s still got that scalpel.
Matthew (Jonathan Watton) and Mrs (Vanessa Burns) Calhoun get an update from the Doctor on the baby. Matthew is concerned that the sick girls who walk by might come in the room, but the Doctor tells them they’re just there for their menarche exams. Mrs Calhoun remarks that they’ve flowered – and her jealousy is easy to read on her face. June thinks that this will soon be Hannah! But the Doctor does have the decency to say that it will be a few years before they’ll be ready to have children – but it’s dependent on their pelvic development, not their mental development.
June considers turning the scalpel, which she’s holding behind her back, on the Calhouns or the Doctor, but she’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Serena! She apologizes for taking so long to visit – and one has to wonder why she’s back from Washington and what happened there. As Serena is about to leave, June calls her back.
Mrs Calhoun tells her “you don’t want to bother with THAT” – thoroughly dismissing June even on a basic level as a person, using that instead of her. But Serena does turn back – and actually seems sympathetic to June. June tells her to come closer, it’s a secret. When June tries to stand and stumbles, Serena grabs her shoulders and tries to steady her, immediately remarking that June’s not well. Serena has seen June descend into darkness before, and seems to realize that this isn’t a physical ailment.
June shakes her head and says no. She seems almost sad, but then quickly turns vicious and slashes Serena’s arm, but she’s no match for Serena after spending months immobile on a floor. Serena rips the scalpel though June’s hand, opening the palm of her hand. Should we see the wounds on her hand and knees as some sort of stigmata?
Serena tells her that she’s out of her mind – and she is! June tells her that “this has to end” – and of course, if she took out Serena, that would likely make Nichole safe. But June wants all the suffering to end. Serena is appalled and says that June was supposed to be one of the strong ones. But anyone will break given enough torture. June tries to crawl after her looking like a wild animal and sees Serena talk to the Doctor through the window. Serena looks concerned rather than angry. What did happen in Washington???
The Doctor comes in, and again, like a wild animal, June shrinks back against the wall. He speaks to her gently, telling her that it’s alright, like a small child or a dog. He tells her she needs stiches. After he puts the scalpel in the waste container again, the dog imagery continues as he tells her to “come” and “sit.”
The Doctor gently sews up her hand. She tells him he shouldn’t bother to fix her as he’s just going to report her. He says she’s right, he shouldn’t. Is this an indication that he’s not going to report her? June thanks him. He tells her that he took an oath – June knows it – “do no harm.” June tells him that he’s torturing Ofmatthew, and he says she’s not his patient – the baby is – and that’s how he justifies it to himself.
June calls bullshit and tells him her mother was a doctor and always put her women patients first. Again, he excuses himself by saying things were different then. He asks if Holly got out – he’s clearly hoping that she did. June tells him no, and he says he’s sure she misses her. The Doctor knew her and says she was scary – and it explains why June took the swipe at Serena. June tells him that she doesn’t actually know if her mother is alive or dead. She then confesses that she was going to kill Serena and then Ofmatthew – who she simply refers to as “her” – also de-personalizing her. And she tells him that she was going to kill him too.
The Doctor isn’t angry – he’s clearly unhappy. He tells June that he told them that they couldn’t leave June in there for months on end, praying. He knew what it would do to her mental state. It makes me hope that when he does examine girls, he delays approving them for childbirth until he feels they might be ready for it…. He tells June that the brain atrophies in isolation and breeds despair. June is clearly surprised at his sympathetic reply rather than anger.
He asks June how long she’s had suicidal thoughts. June denies it, but as he points out, she knew that doing any of the things she’d planned would land her on the wall – it’s a slow death by cop. June finally realizes what she’s been doing and tells him since she realized that she’d probably never see her daughters again. The Doctor realizes that she feels hopeless. June asks how should she feel, and then points out that Ofmatthew is somebody’s child too. The Doctor tells June that he honors the handmaid by saving her child. It’s all he can do, and it does mean that what Ofmatthew went through isn’t for nothing. But then he challenges June – how will she honor her daughters? I’m still not sure how to take his smile as he leaves the room, but neither he nor Serena seem to report June.
It’s night again, and the alarms go off. June gets up and Ofmatthew has started bleeding.
Attendants finally come in, and then the Doctor performs a c-section. The baby is clearly very small but lives. The Doctor tells one of the attendants to sew Ofmatthew back up because he needs the practice – Ofmatthew won’t last much longer, however. Now she’s just a piece of meat.
June is dressed and her bag is packed. Ofmatthew has been removed from all the machines that were keeping her alive – there’s no feeding tube or iv or anything. She’s alone with just the monitors.
As June limps down the hall, a young girl, Rose (Sadie Munroe), offers to take her bag, clearly fascinated by the handmaid. She asks if June just had a baby. June tells her that she was visiting a sick friend. June doesn’t rebuke or contradict her when Rose says if she prays hard enough her friend will get better. Rose tells her that she’s there because she can have babies – later. After she gets married. June asks her if that’s what she really wants. Rose looks down and up and pauses before the required answer. “Of course. So much.” But it’s said with no enthusiasm. And suddenly, June starts to see her new purpose.
As June finally leaves the hospital, it’s pouring rain. It must now be fall – it’s a clever way for the show to explain the lack of seasons due to a shooting schedule! We get a beautiful crane shot of a line of wives with their blue umbrellas accompanying a line of pink umbrellas – their daughters. June is a red dot beside them. It’s clear why they’ve chosen pink for the daughters – a lighter shade of handmaid. Again, Moss’s face clearly shows her inner monologue and it’s clear that she’s found her higher purpose.
Aunt Lydia arrives to usher June into the Redmobile to go home. It’s also telling that she’s still calling her Ofjoseph – she clearly hasn’t been re-assigned. Perhaps part of what saves her is that punishment also acknowledges her power? Once June regrounds herself, she does find herself and her compassion again. She asks Aunt Lydia if she can stay with Ofmatthew until she dies. Aunt Lydia is clearly impressed. She tells June that that would be kind of her and to “go in grace.” June tells her that she’ll “try.” And it’s clear that she will. Aunt Lydia clearly has trouble in understanding her feelings toward the handmaids – grown women are a source of jealousy for her – but Aunt Lydia will do anything for the children. Is it possible that she and June could become allies?
Aunt Lydia is also there to see Janine, her other favorite, who is trying her best to find her optimistic outlook again. Her procedure went well, but Janine isn’t so sure. Aunt Lydia brings Janine a present and tells her that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look her best. She presents her with a red eyepatch – and the beauty of this is that poor Brewer no longer has to wear that really sub-par fake scar/missing eye. Janine is clearly touched and thrilled. The two laugh when Janine declares she looks like a pirate – and then she declares a space pirate. Yep. Perfect.
June meanwhile settles in next to Ofmatthew on a stool. She is now comfortable in both body and mind. She finally apologizes. She explains that she got lost – but also says it isn’t a good excuse. She tells Ofmatthew that they take everything from you. June clearly means not only her children, but also her humanity. She then comforts Ofmatthew by telling her how beautiful her son is. June tells her that everyone is praying for him, but she tells Ofmatthew not to worry because he’s a fighter like she is.
June then reveals her new purpose. She tells Ofmatthew that her son doesn’t deserve to grow up in Gilead. It’s Natalie – finally using her real name – that June tells that none of the children deserve to grow up there and she’s going to get as many out as she can. She has no idea how yet… but she swears she’s going to get them out because Gilead should know how she feels – they feel – it’s Gilead’s time to hurt. Interestingly, Natalie’s heartrate increases as June talks – maybe on some level she is still there. June soothes her until her heartbeat slows again.
June then tries singing to Natalie, and we return to the beginning. June asks Natalie if she remembers the song. In heaven, unlike Gilead, love comes first – and now Natalie would seem to be on her way to heaven. But then June finally gets past the first verse.
When the night falls down
I wait for you and you come around
And the world’s alive with the sound
Of kids on the street outside
Natalie isn’t coming around, but June is definitely in a dark place – and she’s determined to get those kids out! Instead of music over the end credits all we hear is breathing and Natalie’s heartbeat getting slower and slower until it stops. Truly, the soundscape of this series is as stunning as the cinematography and the acting!
This was another fantastic episode. Like previous seasons, we’ve seen June pass through a very low point only to have her resolve and her purpose strengthened. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!