[Spoilers and trigger warning for sexual assault.]
If The Handmaid’s Tale has taught us nothing in the last eight episodes, it is that in the Republic of Gilead there are only two kinds of women: the Holy Mothers or the Whores. A trip to Jezebel’s last week made that explicitly clear last week, when we finally learned exactly where all the women too questionable and disobedient to be Handmaids end up living out their lives, still at the sexual beck and call of the men of the Republic, but at least with a semblance of freedom for themselves when the Commanders all go home.
But in episode 9, things are starting to change as the role of the Handmaids is finally revealed in its most basic components, not as a blessed offering to help bring children into the childless families of devout followers of a powerful and punishing God, but as women stripped of any sort of power, threatened and physically and emotionally intimidated, and then repeatedly sexually assaulted and held in captivity by their rapists until they give birth and hand over their rapists’ babies. And when it is finished, their reward is to be moved to a new home to do it all over again.
There is probably no backstory that could be created for Janine that could have been as compelling as her story arc this season, and from start to finish this episode was all hers every minute. It makes perfect sense that the woman who finally breaks down the illusion that the Handmaids are God’s gift to worthy Christian households was the first of the group at Offred’s training center to break under the requirements of the new regime. First she lost her eye, then her mind, then her baby, and then her life. But at every scene her character systematically toppled the façade of a godly Gilead.
“She’s tougher than you think. Let her be an example to you, to all of you,” Aunt Lydia declared (an Aunt Lydia whose own veneer of cruel godliness appears to be cracking), and truly, Janine was. She proved herself far more worthy of being a mother than her Commander’s wife, who complained about the baby incessantly. Once placed in a new Commander’s home she rebelled against the ceremony in a scene that more accurately depicted the act as the sanctioned sexual assault that actually is. And she was an example of strength in naming the way that she was used and manipulated by her Commander, Warren, into sex outside of the ceremony, to provide the non-procreative outlets that his wife was forbidden from offering or simply refused to do. She exposed how he used his power secretly to assure her that they would “be a family,” telling Janine that he would let her raise their baby, and that she would be more than a Handmaid but an actual mate and mother.
Janine broke down the Gileadean division of Madonna and whore by showing that even in the theocratic dreamworld of the Republic, when given the opportunity the publicly devout Commanders who worship women for their gift of fertility really will lie and snag a blow job if given the privacy and power. For that, she lost her life, but she also gained her freedom—freedom from deceit, freedom from assault, freedom from the Republic because they could no longer hold anything over her, including the baby they stole from her.
Freedom is the most important theme of this week’s episode. Janine found it by exposing her Commander’s abuses and by throwing herself off the bridge and into the river. Moira, we hope, is on the verge of it, as we see her potentially murder a client at Jezebel’s, stealing a guard uniform and car and driving away. Even Serena Joy and her Martha have a moment of it when they share a drink together in the kitchen, against the strict rules of the Republic, and they share their personal losses just a little.
Unsurprisingly it is Commander Waterford who doesn’t grasp exactly what true freedom is in this new regime. “Did you like that?” he asked Offred cluelessly after she endured another round of sex with him in order to get to Jezebel’s and attempt to obtain a package for May Day, the underground resistance movement. “You can let me know,” he continued, begging her to make more noise the next time he fucks her. “You don’t have to be quiet here. You can be free.”
Of course even if she wasn’t having intercourse under duress, being “allowed” to have passionate, vocal sex in a brothel isn’t freedom in Offred’s book. “Come with me,” Janine begged just before she took her step off the bridge, trying to convince Offred that death is the only freedom there is for a Handmaid. But Offred refuses. There is no freedom anywhere for her until she knows her daughter is safe.
With just one episode left and the series renewed it is unlikely that anyone will find any form of peace by the end of this season. Still, hopefully the small cracks that Janine put into the foundation of Gilead through her accusations and suicide attempt will continue to reverberate, and Janine will truly be an example to everyone, just as Aunt Lydia prophesized.