It helped that the torture was bracketed by two-handers between some of this show’s most valuable players, with dialogue from showrunner Bruce Miller that got to the heart of character and theme. Against the hallucinatory setting of that lavish candlelit meal, Commander Lawrence summed up the regime with the line “Gilead doesn’t care about children. Gilead cares about power.” The piety, the godliness, the rituals… it’s all hypocritical window dressing, a means to an end.
Not though, for Aunt Lydia, who until now, hasn’t just drunk Gilead’s Kool-Aid but bathed in the stuff. It’s worth asking just how strong Aunt Lydia’s belief is at this point. She’s brutal, obviously, but not without caring instincts. The momentary pause as she cross-stitched her way through June’s waterboarding screams hinted at a character struggling with Gilead’s more barbarous tactics. Compare her full wheel of emotions in this episode to the two-dimensional evil of June’s smiling gee-whiz torturer and it’s possible to believe Lydia’s foundations could be weakening. She already admitted to having had reservations about Gilead’s Magdalene Colony innovation.
Put Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd as June and Aunt Lydia in scenes together and the result will always be worth watching. Give each character the means to destroy the other in those scenes, and that goes double. The way June rounded on Lydia when she realised what a nerve she’d struck by accusing her of failing her “precious girls” was a thrill. Watching Lydia turn the same accusation against June later on was neatly done. Those two have developed into distorted reflections of the other – both leaders devoted to a cause, both fulsome in their conviction, both with blood on their hands. June’s latest escape attempt didn’t come without a cost.
Thanks to the use of Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’, the escape scene was so emotionally dialled up that it felt like a finale – which it obviously was for Alma and Brianna. As the Handmaids ran towards that track, you first had to wonder if they weren’t aiming at the other side, but, Thelma and Louise-style, running towards the release of death that June had begged for earlier. No, this was another escape, one that reduced their number from six to two. Of the original Red Centre group, only June and Janine remain alive in Gilead. The flashback to the group’s early sisterhood (using the opening lines of Margaret Atwood’s original novel in voiceover) was a tribute to those characters, who’ve been here since the start.
How far a shackled June and Janine will get on foot in the time it takes for that train to pass remains to be seen. They’re certainly going to need help.
Could Nick provide it? His character’s is-he-isn’t-he ambivalence remains a frustrating rather than tantalising tease. Until Nick told Commander Lawrence in that cosy fireside drinks session that he wasn’t able to move on from June, we still didn’t know where he stood. Was he manipulating June just to get her to talk? Seeing their romantic goodbye on the bridge so soon after watching Nick deliver June to her torture chamber, even if he was trying to keep her alive, felt overly simplistic. Perhaps they were just doing like the song said – immersing themselves in love.