In the beginning of “Heroic,” it appears as if The Handmaid’s Tale has recovered something which seemed irretrievably lost: a sense of humor. It’s certainly hard not to feel amused while Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays during opening credits. Such wicked games don’t last long though, as the song abruptly cuts out to reveal Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) in a hospital bed. June (Elisabeth Moss) silently assures us we’ll hear the song again. I did not, but then, that’s not really the point here.
After Ofmatthew’s harsh treatment at the hands of June and the other Handmaids, her resulting violent breakdown has left her a brain dead husk. Miraculously, her baby is still alive and unharmed, leaving Ofmatthew reduced to just what Gilead intended her to be – a vessel that will deliver the child she is carrying without complaint. And June has been forced to remain with Ofmatthew until the baby arrives, or Ofmatthew dies, as ordered by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Such a punishment is quite Lydia-esque, a kind of torture under the guise of piety and compassion.
June is mostly isolated in the hospital, forced to kneel on a pillow in front of Ofmatthew’s hospital bed, and as the days pile up, her sanity slowly begins to erode. We only know about a month has passed, but June’s deteriorating state of mind, emphasized by the abrupt cuts between various points in time, soon make it hard to say just how long she’s remained there. Other people may be occasionally present, but the doctor, workers, and various Wives all ignore her, ensuring that June’s vigil becomes a form of solitary confinement.
Much like the season two episode “Holly,” “Heroic” becomes an acting master class in conveying interiority, with Moss selling June’s increasing instability like the professional she no longer has to prove herself as. June was already in a bad place, what with having recently lost track of her daughter’s whereabouts and forced to participate in the execution of the Martha who cared for her. So the new pressure bearing down on her couldn’t have come at a worse time, and June escalates from praying for Ofmatthew and her child to die to actively attempting to speed up the process.
If it seems drastic, a casual reminder of what Gilead has in store for half its population comes in the form of various groups of preteen girls in pink who are making trips to the hospital. For their menarche exams. Yes, they’ve “flowered,” as a Wife puts it. A doctor mentions that it’ll be a few years before the girls are ready to have babies of their own, but June knows that whether they’re emotionally ready has nothing to do with it. He means they’re tracking their pelvic development. That’s when June begins to contemplate murdering anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path when she has both time and opportunity.
That’s about the time that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) returns. And she’s… nice again, showing concern for June’s health and even calling her by her real name. Well, why not? Seeing as how it results in something that could have consequences for them both if The Handmaid’s Tale follows through. June lures Serena in close, then initiates a struggle that ends up with them both getting sliced by a scalpel June has managed to steal. A genuinely shocked Serena marvels, “You were supposed to be one of the strong ones.” On some level, it makes sense. Hate can bond two people together as firmly as the closest friendship and perhaps it’s Serena’s inability to imagine life without the woman who has become her formidable foe/frenemy that she informs the doctor that June has cut herself and nothing more.
Once again, June escapes death and gets the help she needs, which mostly involves being treated like a human being and getting a bit of counseling. That such a brief conversation is so restorative underscores just how little June is able to sustain herself on, and how Gilead almost ground her down, this time without even trying. Not that we needed another reminder of this. What we really needed was LaThrop to be given even the smallest room or just consistency to work so her character could get to provoke some kind of emotional reaction. If that had happened, June’s decision to stay with Ofmatthew after she’s allowed to leave would have the impact. So would her apology.
Ofmatthew’s lifeless body would also become less of a prop and a more personal commentary on how Black women’s bodies are viewed and disposed of in contrast to other demographics. But she might as well have been any Handmaid whose body literally gets sliced up and disposed of once her appointed purpose has been accomplished. And June is also right back where she started this season, with the show pretending that her vowing to get as many of Gilead’s children out rather than just her own child is some sort of progress. Now that the show’s third outing is almost over, there’s still time for The Handmaid’s Tale to have a plot that doesn’t have to be salvaged by its actors or directors (or cinematographers), but old habits have a tendency to die very slow deaths.