The Handmaids Tale, the dystopian novel that hit bookshelves across the world, set in a patriarchal and totalitarian state, known as Gilead. Analysing themes of female subjugation, loss of agency for the women, suppression of rights and punishment for any women who try and retain individuality and independence for their life, it is complexity at its finest.
The central character of the novel and the series that followed, is June Osborne. June has been assigned to a posting with Fred Waterford and given her new name. Of-fred. She is his Handmaid and forcibly assigned to produce children for him and his wife.
Before Gilead: June
June and her best friend Moira are inseparable and spend their spare time talking, relaxing and laughing together. June is a compassionate woman who has time for friends and family. She has a beautiful temperament and heart to match. It’s evident from her actions, her expressions and language, that she relies on faith to get her through situations, something her mother reminds her never to rely on.
While ordering at a food van, June and Moira talk about her dating life. Moira, not being impressed with the picture she’s chosen for the dating app, grabs the nearest man in the queue and asks his opinion. The three chat together, flicking through June’s photos and coming to a decision on the best one to use. The man is Luke. Luke is married; however, he and June meet up for innocent lunches and chats. Those innocent lunches lead to a full-blown affair and Luke tells his wife Annie, leaving her for June.
A confrontation ensues. Annie accuses June of sabotaging her marriage, the vows they made before God and asks her to ‘give them time to fix things.’ June tries to encourage her to talk to Luke about her concerns, but June is clearly overwhelmed by the encounter. Luke tells June that she must stop worrying as he will make her happy, and they will marry.
June and Luke marry, welcoming daughter Hannah to their family. When her daughter is at school, June is called away to collect her. The hospital, not happy to simply hand over a child to a parent, begin questioning June about her fitness to parent. This is the start of the new laws, but it’s so subtle that no one picks up on it.
America begins to change
When she gets home from the hospital, Luke is waiting with the news that there have been acts of terrorism and the world has begun spinning in a direction neither of them could ever anticipate. Explosions at The White House as well as Congress have occurred. Martial Law has been declared.
“When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
– June Osborne
After the takeover
As martial law takes hold, it becomes clear to June, Moira and other women, that changes are happening that cannot be controlled. Women’s bank accounts are frozen. Credit cards suspended. Women are made redundant from their jobs due to the new laws stating women cannot work or hold property.
Luke and June quickly realise that they must take their daughter and escape to Canada if they are to remain safe and survive. Their car crashes as they make their escape, and Luke and June split up. June takes Hannah and heads through the woods. The last thing June remembers before being knocked unconscious is her daughter screaming as she is ripped from her arms.
Gilead: “My name now is Offred”
With blonde hair, blue eyes, and an expressive face, June/Offred stands at 165cm tall. In the old world, modern clothing would have accentuated her figure, encouraging a keen eye from the males around, but here in Gilead, her figure rests behind red robes and white head coverings that all Handmaids are ordered to wear.
The robes and headwear of the handmaids are symbolic. Handmaids are ‘fertile’, here to supply children, so the colour of the robes represent the blood of the woman. The white wings are two-fold. The first is to prevent the handmaid seeing anything around them, to take any temptations from their view. The second is to limit them being seen. I would also suggest that there is an element of purity to the white. The purity that says, “I belong to one person and one only, pure to him only.”
While the June of pre-Gilead was more softly spoken with an underlying compassion, Offred knows that in order to survive Gilead, she must toughen up and potentially be outspoken and rebellious. Offred has to learn how to be a different person now, that change manifests each season.
Declining birth rates have given rise to a form of domestic feminism in the world. A religious group, ‘The Sons of Jacob are the fundamentalist group responsible for the military coup and law changes in the world and are calling for women to understand that it is their responsibility to rear children and repopulate the earth.
Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena, are prime facilitators of the movement. Commander Fred Waterford is himself already in the higher echelons of the group, The Sons of Jacob.
As Gilead settles into its patriarchy, we can see that roles are assigned and anyone deviating from them pays the ultimate price. June/Offred, following her Red Centre indoctrination, is posted to the Waterfords house. We see changes in June throughout season 1. We see a cautious flirtation with Nick, the Commanders driver. We see agitation from Rita Blue (the house Martha) as she gets to know Offred and understands her. We see Scrabble played in the private study of the Commander between himself and Offred, remembering of course women aren’t allowed to read. We see Offred taken for a night out to Jezebels with the Commander. We see confrontations between June/Offred and Serena Joy
While season 1 started with a soft-spoken June/Offred., keen to do whatever she needed to do in order to survive and stay close to Hannah, the end of season 1 sees something different. June/Offred has changed. We have seen a direct, ruthless, brave and protective handmaid in Offred. We have seen her not afraid to take risks. We have seen June/Offred get pregnant through her time with Nick and ride waves of emotion and fragility at times. But at the heart of it all, there has always been an underlying cause. Hannah. While she is complying with requests and orders, remaining in Gilead, she knows that she remains near her daughter. June/Offred is playing the long game, however long it takes.
Season Two opens brutally. Aunt Lydia arranges for the Handmaids all to be bundled into vans and brought to her. A monstrous, heinous act is playing out with the soundtrack of Kate Bush, This Woman’s Work, playing in the background.
The haunting lyrics of
I should be cryin’ but I just can’t let it show
I should be hopin’ but I can’t stop thinkin’
All the things we should’ve said that are never said
All the things we should’ve done that we never did
All the things we should’ve given, but I didn’t
Oh darlin’, make it go
Make it go away.
Lyrics – Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work.
play as the Handmaids are taken to the gallows. The lyrics are the perfect soundtrack to June/Offreds thoughts about everything she feels she missed out on with Luke and Hannah. Offred looks up, the expression, the minimal tears and the closing of her eyes, demonstrates a form of acceptance. When the lever is pulled, and they are not hung, June/Offreds expression changes. The acceptance now changes to one of absolute defiance and sheer anger.
We next see the handmaids kneeling in the pouring rain holding stones in-front of them. Aunt Lydia’s punishments continue to border on the cruel and vindictive. It’s during this ‘punishment’ that it comes to light that Offred is pregnant. She is taken to the gynaecologist to make sure that the baby remains well and through Nicks connections with Mayday, the underground network an escape plan is hatched. While June/Offred manages to stay hidden for 92 days, the escape plans are thwarted at the last minute, and she is returned to Gilead.
June/Offred and Aunt Lydia are now in a battle of wills, a form of psychological warfare aimed at bringing her back in line and into her subservient position. Serena and Offred are also negotiating a fraught relationship as dynamics shift. June/Offred is trying to find the middle ground. She is desperate to ensure that she stays alive in Gilead for Hannah. She is also trying to manage the relationship between Handmaid and Commander’s wife, using her own experiences and influences to become an ally to Serena.
Nicks marriage to Eden, who is a true believer, has been arranged. While neither June/Offred nor Rita trust her, they make sure that Nick is ‘tipped off’ of Edens concerns. June/Offred is again raped. This time, while 9 months pregnant. The brutality of it is not lost on her as she sees Serena has planned it.
June/Offred is taken out by Nick and guided into a house. She does not know why but spots her daughter Hannah. The mother and daughter have a short reunion. While she is there. she gives birth, alone, naming her daughter Holly in a touching memorial to her mother. In a sacrifice that she recognises as vital, she fires the gun in the air for assistance, knowing that she will be taken to the Waterfords and the child removed from her.
June/Offred discusses with Aunt Lydia about returning to the Waterford residence to be able to see her child and pump milk properly for her. The house is in uproar as Eden has eloped with the guardian allocated to the house. They refuse to repent their sins and are executed publicly. It’s discovered that Eden has been reading the bible, striving to make sense of the religious words and meanings. Serena and the wives of Gilead, realise that while they can’t help Eden now, they can do something for the daughters of Gilead. Serena asks the husbands at their council meeting to consider allowing their daughters to read. Gilead law does not allow this and the men, Fred, Serena’s husband included, are appalled at the audacity of her. Her finger is amputated for the crime of reading.
Season 2 ends with Nick containing Fred in his house while the Martha’s facilitate June/Offreds escape with her daughter. Emily is getting out too. While season 1 saw June finding her feet in a new world, this season, sees June/Offred using those feet to carve a path for what is right. June/Offred hands Holly to Emily and says “call her Nichole. Tell her I love her” June/Offred is defiant. She knows she will pay for what she’s done but she knows she did the right thing.
Seasons one and two were about June/Offred becoming a survivor of Gilead, understanding Gilead, doing what needs to be done to get through. It was about her enduring the brutality but not breaking down. Accepting the radical treatments and getting on with it. Season 3 is something else completely. Survivor is now fighter. It’s now sacrifice not saving. Now, it’s simply about ‘doing the job’ and getting through each day.
The season opens directly after the end of season 2. June/Offred is stood in the street as Commander Lawrence who facilitated her escape, heads back to her, incredulous that she stayed. Offred persuades him to take her to the McKenzie house, where Hannah is with her ‘new’ mother. Mrs McKenzie updates her on how Hannah is doing. Why? Was it to show June/Offred that Hannah was fine or was it as simple as a mother-to-mother recognition.
June/Offred attacked a handmaid and reported to Aunt Lydia that same handmaid had ambivalent feelings towards her unborn child. The handmaid was shot after stealing a gun and attempting to murder Aunt Lydia. June/Offred is forced to pray for her at her bedside, which in some ways this brought on a rebirth for June/Offred. She started to realise what needed to be done.
June/Offred is moved to a new household and finds herself with Commander Joseph Lawrence. Lawrence’s ideas were used in Gileads creation but if the truth be known, he opposed it. June/OfJoseph knew that. She picked that up very quickly due to the fact that he did not carry out the ‘ceremony’ and ignored the Mayday operations running from within his home.
June/OfJosephs ruthless nature continued to increase through this season. The Waterfords visited the Lawrence’s and forced the ceremony as they had suspected something was wrong. June/OfJoseph coerced and manipulated the Lawrence’s into the ceremony knowing full well the punishments they’d face if it didn’t happen. June/OfJoseph told Commander Lawrence to “treat it like a job.” The trouble was, Commander Lawrence was beginning to see June/OfJoseph as a friend and potential ally.
June/OfJoseph manipulated Eleanor Lawrence into going out for walks, leading her to Hannah’s school. But the biggest sacrifice that occurred was at Commander Lawrence’s expense. It was Eleanor’s death. Eleanor took an overdose. June/OfJoseph viewed her as a liability to her plans for Gilead, and so watched her die. June/OfJoseph priority was the children she planned to rescue and remove from Gilead.
In order to secure the plane for the children, a trip to Jezebels was required. Seeing June/OfJoseph there, Commander Winslow took her to a room, attempting to rape her. For June/OfJoseph, this was another sacrifice for the greater good. She killed him.
The plane was secured. The children were loaded aboard with June/OfJoseph providing the distraction. The distraction was her being shot. As season 3 ended, June/OfJoseph was being carried away by her friends while the children were greeted in Canada as ‘Angel flight’ landed. Those immortal words from Rita to Luke “she did this. June. Your June.” While those words did not in any way make up for his wife not being on the plane, what they did do is give Luke a message. Luke now knew that there was nothing that his wife would not do, whatever the cost.
Over the seasons we have seen June/OfJoseph move through her own seasons of change. Season 4 is no different. June/OfJoseph along with Janine, Alma, Brianna and others are hiding out at the Keyes farmhouse. Wife Esther Keyes, after being married to an elderly man, was being regularly assaulted by local men. One of which, Guardian Pogue, was found at the farm. June/OfJoseph encouraged Esther to kill him, which she does. The disappearance of the Guardian instigates a raid and June/OfJoseph is captured.
Brought back to Gilead, she is held in a facility and tortured by “the lieutenant”. The torture takes many forms, from waterboarding to putting her in a small box. From physical threats to pushing other Handmaids to death from the roof. Having toughened up through the 4 seasons, June holds her own. That is until the life of her own daughter is threatened. The location is quickly given to the Lieutenant. The other Handmaids were gathered up but managed to escape during transport to a new location. Only Janine and June survived.
Janine and June make it to Chicago. When separated by an air raid courtesy of Gilead military, June is is found by a Canadian aid group. In that group, is Moira. Luke and June are soon reunited but Junes tearful explanation of ‘it’s just me. I don’t have her. I’m sorry’ is just heartbreaking. June feels a failure. She’s a wife and mother and she feels that she failed her child and husband. She feels she didn’t protect her child and she didn’t bring that child home to her father.
In a post-Gilead world, June begins to learn how to live life again, but finds it very hard. In every little thing, Gilead reminders are emblazoned, almost as a taunt to her. Angel wings on a food box reminding her of the Washington trip. Seeing someone between boxes on a supermarket shelf reminding her of shopping at Loaves and Fishes. Even finding her passion with her husband is difficult. There was some controversy when season 4 aired, that it was as if June forced Luke for sex. She covered his mouth and prevented him talking. Everyone had an opinion on this scene. June was claiming control back in this aspect of her life. Maybe not in the best way, but she had no control in this area of her life for some years.
Emily and Moira welcomed June to a support group. The group pledged acceptance and forgiveness. June was angry. She was physically, mentally, spiritually angry. Every fibre of her being wanted to yell, scream and get revenge. June visited Serena and a full circle moment was witnessed from season one. Instead of Serena yelling at June “Do you understand me?” It was the other way round. Poetic justice.
She visited Fred too. This visit came across more as a curiosity visit. It was almost as if June was wondering…what will he call me? Will he apologise? What will he say about Hannah? The visit was not enough. After her visit, came the testimony. Luke was in court for her testimony and for the first time, got to really hear and understand from his wife what she went through.
Enough was enough for June. She gathered ex-Handmaids for revenge. After Fred’s prisoner exchange, the handmaids brutally murdered him. June, cutting off his finger and posting it to Serena with his wedding ring. Proof to Serena of what had happened. Proof to June that she had her revenge.
Season 4 ends with June hugging Nichole while covered in blood. It’s during this scene that we see Luke finally come to terms with who his wife is now. His wife is not the soft-spoken woman he married and who gave birth to his child. She is not the woman he made memories with at the aquarium with Hannah. He now sees that she is a woman willing to do anything to get her way, even murder.
As Luke realises this, he slides down the cabinet that he is leaning on and ends up on the floor. He has slid into the light. The light of realisation. June hugs her daughter wondering what consequences she may face, but knowing as far as she was concerned, it was worth it.
This season draws its focus to two women. June and Serena. The dynamics of their relationship have changed. June is no longer subservient to Serena, so the level of compliance that they had, has been left behind. June knows that Serena was an architect of Gilead alongside her late husband and blames her for Hannah being taken. She wants her daughter, and revenge. June and her friends murdered Serena’s husband. June knows that Serena will know who did it and that she will be out for revenge. Serena is still close enough to Hannah to utilise her if needed and the thought of that terrifies June.
June starts the season straight after the murder of Fred. The handmaids walk away from the scene, all covered in blood and having assisted June in taking her revenge. The issue now is that those who assisted June now need her help too. They want their revenge and expect her to help them. Questions are fired at June from the other Handmaids. “Are you here for her?” “Are you here for us?” Another says, “he was your monster, and we tore him apart for you. Now it’s our turn.” While June’s bloodlust has been satisfied, does she have any fight left for those around her
Season 5 examines June’s rage and anger. (If you remember back at the start of season 2, there was a change in June. Her anger seemed to manifest.) This season looks at the continuation of that anger, her complete lack of forgiveness and if I am being honest in my appraisal here, I’d struggle to forgive too. After everything that June was put through, from losing Hannah to the rapes. From basic life skills being denied, to the beatings from the aunts, the lifestyle she suffered was horrific. Luke and Moira want to move on and want June to do the same. As far as June is concerned, she does try, but finds that she is struggling. She is consumed by a mother’s love to get to her daughter, and she is fuelled by the underlying anger at everything she’s been through. What doesn’t help is that a date night for Luke and June is interrupted by Fred’s funeral on all the screens. Serena, with a subtle grin, has Hannah beside her.
June and Luke head out to try and get some information about where Hannah is in Gilead. The mission is dangerous and puts them in serious jeopardy. They find themselves captured and put in cages. While Luke wants to fight his way out, June tells him that’s not how Gilead works. Survival 101 from June. Let’s face it, she’s been through it. June finds herself taken out to be executed while Luke is taken away. June realises as the gun is pointed at her, that someone else is there, like a 6th sense. Serena wants her to be on her knees and praying. With Serena being pregnant and knowing just the words to say, June prays for the children. Serena shoots her driver, and she and June make a getaway.
June finds herself in an unbelievable situation. She delivers Serena’s baby boy. After coaching her through labour, June has the child in her arms. In a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment, June debates whether to hand the child to her or not. She does and encourages Serena to go to hospital for her child to be checked out.
While Serena is at hospital, she is taken to be locked up and her child removed from her care. A full circle moment. Everything that happened to June is now happening to Serena. Thinking she has an ally in June for this reason, she asks to see her. Serena gets advice from her old handmaid. Advice that she follows.
June finds herself preparing for a rescue mission. Hannah has been located and a raid is being planned. The excitement of the family at the thought of Hannah returning is completely eradicated when they find out that Gilead knew they were coming.
Following a meeting with Mark Tuello and walking him to his car, June is run over by a car brandishing Gilead car stickers. She’s hit and then her arm is crushed. Luke drags the driver out and fights him. A few hard hits are traded, and the driver ends up in hospital in intensive care.
After the driver dies, June quite simply says “Luke, we have to run.” Her rationale being that last time they waited too long, lost Hannah and she ended up in Gilead. They pack and grab Nichole. The plan is Anchorage and then Hawaii. However, as expected, the airports are flagged so Tuello aims to get them in the refugee trains. When they arrive at the station, authorities are asking everyone if they have seen Luke Bankole. Now it’s Luke’s time to step up. June realises he never planned to get on the train. She does and it’s a final “I love you”.
As June walks the train searching for a seat, she hears another child crying. Heading towards the sound, she sees Serena and that immortal final line is delivered: “you got a diaper?”
Born in 1982, Elisabeth Moss entered the world to join her parents, father Ronald Charles Moss (British) and hermother Linda (American/Swedish). Elisabeth’s parents are musicians so the influence of the arts was all around from an early age. Elisabeth had an aspiration to be a professional dancer, and travelled to NY to study at the school of American Ballet. Her teenage years were a mix of dancing and acting. Add into that mix, her homeschooling and the arts had clearly taken their hold.
Elisabeth had several roles when she was young, but in 1999, Aaron Sorkin brought Ms Moss alongside a plethora of stars to join The West Wing. With Martin Sheen playing her father President Josiah Bartlett, Elisabeth gained recognition playing his youngest daughter Zoey. Following work on The West Wing , Ms Moss portrayed Peggy Olsen, in the drama piece Mad Men. Elisabeth Moss has worked on TV miniseries, as well as gaining much acclaim for her film performances. Notably, in The Invisible Man, Shirley, Girl Interrupted, Us and more. She has also been seen on Broadway in productions of The Heidi Chronicles and The Children’s Hour.
Over the years, the recognition for Ms Moss` work has been rewarded with numerous awards including two Golden Globe Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards, two Critics’ Choice Television Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards for her work on Mad Men (2007-2015), Top of the Lake (2013), and The Handmaids Tale (2017–present). She also earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in The Heidi Chronicles (2015).
Elisabeth Moss is an American producer, director, actor and has her own production company. Her talents seemingly endless.