June Osborne and Embracing the Darkness in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

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> June Osborne and Embracing the Darkness in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the original novel and season 5 episode 4. 

The philosopher Plato once told a story about a group of prisoners who had been trapped inside a cave their entire lives. All they could see were the shadows dancing on the walls. Those shadows were their reality. They represented the ideas and objects that humans use to define everything around them. According to him, that was all most humans were capable of seeing. 

Should a prisoner venture outside the cave, the light would hurt their eyes, and they would be blinded by it, unable to perceive the outside world. The pain would be too much and they'd retreat back into the comfortable darkness. 

This story, commonly referred to as the Allegory of the Cave, is mostly meant to outline our limited perception. We don't understand the world around us, and we certainly can't look inside ourselves and perceive our own nature. 

The public would never accept the science behind why we do things and the way we think. It goes against our most ingrained beliefs about who and what we are. That is a light we cannot withstand. It's like when someone insults us. We get defensive and shield ourselves from the truth because it hurts.

Fiction reflects that. There are all sorts of rules that writers follow to avoid the darkest aspects of human nature and the world around us. Some truths are too uncomfortable, so they we skip those parts, focusing instead on beautiful lies. 

Margaret Atwood doesn't gloss those things over. She grabs a mirror, shoves it in our faces, and demands that we look. That's why so much of her work seems outlandish and counterintuitive. It's real. 

She refuses to give us anything other than an objective view of what we are and what we're capable of. She doesn't write about heros or heroines. She doesn't do happily ever afters. She gives us probable conclusions--decades of Gilead, no hope, and very little chance of escape. She lives in our world, not the world of fiction. 

'The Handmaid's Tale' series reproduces Atwood's blinding objectivity, and it can be overwhelming. They challenge our notions of what it means to be good and evil. They go to places fiction doesn't go. Sometimes it's uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but that's because it's realistic. If we take a step back, focus our eyes, and see it for what it is, we can begin to understand it better.

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Her Fault

June is at the very center of this effort. As a character, she confronts all of our old notions about fiction and the ways it mirrors the real world, giving us a portrait of a human being that is often all too realistic for our tastes. 

We first see that in season three, when she finally had enough of Gilead. She got Commander Lawrence to agree to transport her across the border, and she was able to speak with Hannah's martha Frances about bringing Hannah with them. It almost worked. 

Her pious shopping partner Natalie realized what was going on and reported back to Aunt Lydia.

Lydia decided it was time for a good 'ol fashioned salvaging. Some might have forgotten the tactic they use at salvagings to work the handmaids up into a frenzy. They would lie and say that a handmaid was forced to have sex or hurt to put them in the state of mind necessary to kill a person. It was Fred's idea. He wanted to make them feel like they were all working for the collective good. He thought it would relieve some of the tension from the regime's abuses. 

In this case, Lydia decided to tell everyone that Frances had attempted to harm a child. She had a series of ropes connected to a gallows. When the handmaids pulled on them, the gallows would drop, hanging the poor souls standing on the platform.

June bought the lie. She was so upset that she put her back into it when she pulled the rope. 

When the handmaids started to walk away, Natalie confessed to what she had done. June all but blacked out from fury and nearly killed her. It was a wonder she didn't face a correction for her outburst. The other handmaids followed June's example, bullying her in every way they could. It got to the point where Lydia had to intervene. 

She forced June to endure one of their signature blame circles, but it didn't work. When they were done, June rose her hand and told Aunt Lydia that Natalie, who was pregnant, didn't want her child. It was pure revenge. They stuck Natalie in the middle of the circle and told her it was her fault until she was reduced to tears.

June knew that Natalie was fragile. When they met, Natalie couldn't cope with Gilead so she put on a facade of piety. It was desperate, and it wasn't really working. Natalie would cry and there were times when she'd drift off into space, contemplating the horrors of the regime. June took advantage of that. She did everything she could to break the poor girl. 

Natalie reacted so strongly that it was hard not to sympathize. But June didn't care. She could see Natalie starting to unravel, and she'd laugh about it. When Natalie finally did go crazy, June loved every second of it.  

June's attitude didn't fit into our view of how a protagonist should behave. She was sadistic. But she had just learned that she might never see her daughter again. They transferred Hannah to Colorado. A mother in that situation doesn't act like a protagonist. She punches below the belt. 

We have to accept that June isn't the blameless heroine of the story. She was written to be a real human being, which means she's going to respond like a real human being: flawed, vengeful, and sometimes a little sadistic. It makes perfect sense. But in order to understand her actions, sometimes we have to look past the shadows and take examine the reality of the show. That's not something the audience is used to doing. We usually have the right impression handed to us, soundtrack included. Instead, 'The Handmaid's Tale' gives us a first impression, burying the rest beneath emotional imagery.

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Natalie would wander around bawling, visibly aching for forgiveness. It was obvious that she was going to do something wild. When she finally did snap, she beat up Janine with a can of fish, killed a Guardian with a mason jar and took his gun. She would've shot Aunt Lydia, but the Guardians were able to shoot her down first. 

She was brought to the hospital, where it was determined that she was in a state of constant pain, and she was never going to recover. But her fetus was still alive, so they decided to put her on life support until the child could be harvested.   

June watched it all go down with glee, and to many viewers that would make sense. This woman kept her from escaping with Hannah. But it's still brutal. 

Aunt Lydia decided to teach June a lesson. She forced her to kneel down in front of Natalie's bed until Natalie had either died or recovered. Natalie had barely entered her ninth month, which meant June would be there for quite some time.

It was a form of torture, but not the kind of torture we're used to seeing on film. There was no water boarding, no whipping, nothing--just June sitting on a cushion with the camera zoomed in on her face. 

To this day I still can't watch this episode, and I won't. It's long and grueling. We feel confined like June, because we barely see outside the space where she's knelt down. It feels like torture, but they never explicitly say that it's torture. 

Instead, we watch the damage take hold. June goes white. Her eyes water. We can hear the desperation in her tone, and she talks about being sick--mentally, not physically. Sometimes both sides of her mouth would sag. Her eyes opened wide, and her eyebrows rose like two giant arches. We see this expression a lot over the coming years. I call it toad face.

It was unsettling, partially because I was worried that this woman who I loved would never come back from that state, not if the show was being accurate. The hospital doctor in that episode explained that the brain atrophies in these kinds of situations. 

Essentially June was undergoing a form of brain damage, and I was right. She never came back from it. We still see the pain, the guilt, and fury etched into the lines on her face. There's madness, a sense of manic dread. She cannot control herself. She's so tormented by everything that's happened to her that she can't sit still. There's no peace, and the truth is that there probably never will be. This is who she is now.

The Sacrifice June Makes

Toad face became a symbol for whatever had changed inside June. It was damage and trauma, and an unhinged state of being. It unsettled members of the audience. At first, I thought it was a mistake. The writers should never have put June through that. That episode was too hard to watch, and they were forcing themselves to walk down a path I wasn't sure I could stomach.

But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, toad face was bound to make an appearance. In fact, it probably would have come on a lot sooner in real life. June lost her country and everyone she loved. She was turned into breeding stock. 

If that wasn't enough then Fred's particicutions and Lydia's propanganda should've pushed her past the brink. Sometimes they did. 

In the first season she helped tear a man to shreds in a salvaging after being told that he forced himself on a handmaid. In truth, he was a dissident working with Mayday, one of their best. 

In the second seasion, Lydia took June to visit the Muslim man that tried to help her escape. He risked his life and brought her into his own home, and he was killed for it. June she believed it to be her fault. 

This was after she had been awestruck by one of Gilead's rituals, meant to connect Serena to her unborn child. By the time Aunt Lydia got ahold of her, and her wicked magic had taken hold, she was in a pious daze. She couldn't say anything other than quick, servile responses. 

It was so bad that she had to fall out of a window to be knocked out back to reality. But she did come back. Even after all of the things she'd experience, it still took three weeks in the hospital with Natalie to break her. That's extraordinary, and it made it easier for me to stomach June's deteriorating mental health.

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June Is Not Blameless But She's Not Evil

After her 3 weeks in the hospital, June decided that not only was she leaving, she was going to kidnap Gilead's children and bring them with her. Whenever she told anyone that, they looked at her like she had lost her mind. They were right to think so. 

She'd have to be suicidal or completely out of touch with reality to even talk about her plans. Lawrence's martha Beth said it best. 'You'll get put on the wall just for thinking that.'

The truth is that June was angry. She's still very angry, and that's really what was driving her. She wasn't psychotic. She had seen the light. She understood something that nobody else did: They were all trapped in the cave. 

Their prison was real, but in many ways it was a prison of their own making. Gilead's slaves were scared so they stayed subservient. Once they ignored the consequences and refused to give up, they could accomplish more than they thought.

June's resolve made Angel's Flight work, but her refusal to give up allowed her to justify something terrible. Eleanor, Commander Lawrence's wife, was experiencing what appeared to be a delusion. She tried to leave the house to find a bunch of kids to take with them to Canada. She also talked about Angel's Flight in the presence of two of the wives. 

Something had to be done. Eleanor would have gotten them caught and thrown on the wall. June finds Eleanor in her room passed out after taking an entire bottle of pills. June starts to call for help, but she realizes that in order to help those children she was going to have to let Eleanor die. Considering all of the trouble that Eleanor caused, she was probably right. But it still made June look like the villain.

In truth, it was probably the right thing to do. Angel's Flight would save multiple lives. Sometimes when you're working for the greater good, people get caught in the crossfire, and they have to be sacrificed. These are the kinds of decisions that we have to make.

That's hard to accept. Eleanor was sweet. She was kind. She had a firm moral compass, and she was so close to getting the treatment that she needed for her mental illness in Canada. Seeing June refuse to help her made us second guess her morals. 

The show could've made it easier for us to accept that, but they didn't want to. They do this a lot. They put the characters in scenarios where they have to do terrible things, and they focus more on the pain their action's cause than why they were necessary. 

It's because they're not trying to entertain us. They're trying to teach us a lesson. They are pointing an uncomfortable spotlight on the choices we have to make when we go to war. They want us to see what it's really like and the consequences that come from hard choices. 

This all happens in the context of June's insanity. She is unraveling. She is starting to feel like it's all too much for her. She's overwhelmed, and we can see it every time the camera zooms in on her face. The entire fandom now talks about her facial expression. It makes it harder for us to accept her, and in a way that's unfair. 

I am not a psychiatrist, but it's probably safe to say she has PTSD. We cannot reasonably expect anyone to maintain their sanity after what she's been through. But we're also not used to seeing this side of the human psyche on screen. The characters we know from other franchises are cool and calm when they do these things. They're extraordinary, capable, and powerful. They always seem know what to do, so they can be trusted. 

But June is not Charlize Theron, doing flips, and killing inscrutably. That's not how people act in real life. She's vengeful and flawed. So it's easy to lose sight of the fact that she's doing what needs to be done. 

We see another example of this in the final episode of season three when she finally gets the kids on the plane. She's chased down by a Guardian who shoots her in the stomach. She manages to hold him at gunpoint, and she convinces him that she's not going to kill him. She tells him it's OK. It's gonna be fine. 

Her goal is to have him tell the other Guardians that it's all clear. This will keep them from going after her. He finally does what she asks, and she kills him. She seems to like it. That's unsettling, but don't forget, this is a former slave who had men forcing themselves on her. She was locked up, tortured, and everything else. That man shot her. He was firing at them when they were trying to get the kids on the plane. He was about to kill her. 

The show's creators framed the scene to make her seem ruthless, because they wanted us to see that choices have consequences. They also wanted to show us sadism, and they wanted us to recognize that it's not pretty. Murder is never pretty.

Shining a Light in the Uncomfortable Places

When characters are killed in 'The Handmaid's Tale,' we're forced to confront the darkest aspects of the human psyche in a scathing display of realism. Our best example of that is Fred's death, a massive turning point for June, especially as far as the viewers are concerned.  

Fred was a modern slaveholder who had no problem forcing himself on anyone he wanted. He proposed the slaughter of the American government, and he helped kick off a holocaust. 

But when he was brought to No Man's Land, they zoomed in on his shock, his desperation, and his complete refusal to accept his own fate. He kept telling them that it was wrong. He begged. He ran, and June still ripped him apart. The show made every attempt possible to showcase the sactity of this monster's life, and they did an amazing job of driving the point home. 

They even made us forget that he was the one who invented salvagings. He had millions of women tearing dissidents apart across the country, and that is how he died. It was fitting.

Nobody would blame the man that shot Hitler or Stalin. Fred Waterford made those men look like Mickey Mouse. He had at least ten times the amount of blood on his hands. Yet, there were many fans who were horrified by what June did to him. That was intentional.

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June's Road to Redemption

In fiction, when a good guy kills the bad guy, they shrug it off, rescue the princess, and go live happily ever after. They don't get flashbacks. They don't walk around covered in Fred. They definitely don't run to the police station and try to turn themselves in. It's just not done. 

It's too uncomfortable. We're supposed to find peace once the antagonist is out of the picture, or at least some sort of conclusion. That offers the audience the relief they need after hours of following the protagonist through a bleak world. It makes them happy to see a moment of relative calm. But sometimes that moment doesn't come. Sometimes things get worse. 

After a murder or a particularly brutal experience, the protagonist might have trouble leaving the conflict behind. They'll feel like it's waiting for them around every corner. They'll expect it. They might even try to make conflict for themselves just because they're so restless that they can't handle normal life. The audience can't endure that. We need things to get better. 

But we can't expect someone with June's past to just settle down again. Remember, traumatization was always inevitable for her. Something was going to break her down to that point. What she is going through now, the inability to move on, the flashbacks, and the self-doubt, they're all just the next logical step on her journey. A realistic portrayal of events would show that. 

The purpose of Fred's death was to force us to confront an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: Killing the bad guy is not as easy as it sounds. It could be Jeffrey Dahmer, Mao, or Ted Bundy, and many of us would still feel the weight of our actions. That's just how the mind handles it. We're not wired to hurt people in that way. At the very least, it changes us. 

Our families certainly wouldn't understand--not if we walked into the house covered in blood and picked up an infant. They might be worried for their safety, and they'd definitely wonder about the child. It's just where the mind goes. Murdering someone can come with a label. There are those of us who would even apply that label to themselves. 

June's feelings towards this were complicated, and a lot of it isn't explained. We have to try and take clues from what's happening onscreen. We see her relishing the moment after Fred's death, unwilling to wash his blood off her hands. She went to a diner and enjoyed a giant breakfast. She loved it, until she started to come to her senses. 

Some people would say that made her a monster. But after enduring five years of beatings and enslavement, her actions make perfect sense. When we consider who she killed, it might even be considered heroic. Some people would disagree. They'd say that she doesn't have a conscience. But the show took great pains to outline her guilt, and they work hard to turn our stomachs when she kills someone.

What good guy goes to all of that trouble to turn themselves in and scrub themselves clean? It doesn't happen. She even gets to the point where she can't fathom a world without consequences. Fred's death balanced the scales of justice, but not in her eyes. She killed. She had to go down. That should say something about her. She has a moral code. 

So yes, we saw the consequences of her crimes, but we also saw that she had a soul and a moral compass, and if we really take a step back and look, it's impossible to deny that.

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Embrace the Darkness

Humans take cues from the rest of the herd when they're trying to define standards of acceptable behavior. How many times have we reached out for validation asking, 'Is that bad?' or 'Should I?'

It's a part of who we are. 

A lot of June's guilt in the fifth season was based on Moira and Luke's reaction to the murder. June was questioning herself because Moira was horrified. Moira didn't feel comfortable with June taking care of Nichole, so June didn't feel comfortable with it. 

It was destroying June. She needed Tuello to come and reaffirm that she did the right thing, because she was torturing herself. She wanted to be locked away for life. But she can't live with that mindset, and neither can the other characters in the show. 

In the novel, Canada is in a bubble ignoring their vicious neighbor to the south. Moira thinks she's safe. She's in a world that looks like the time before. Everyone around her is focusing on healing and moving forward. They haven't accepted how much that world has changed. 

But if the novel is to be believed, Gilead will succeed at extending their influence into Canada, and they will use that influence to force the government to sign an extradition treaty. They'll end the refugee program and start sending people straight to the colonies. 

Moira, Rita, Luke, and June will all have to contact Mayday and go underground. If any of them refuse, they will die in a radioactive wasteland. Rita might be facing that fate. 

They should all learn to embrace June's darkness and so she would we. We need to be able to recognize true evil, the nuance in life, and the value of a good fight. Sometimes guilt can force us to question ourselves and keep us from doing what we need to do. 

There's nothing wrong with that. Luke understands. At the end of the fourth episode of the fifth season, he begins to admire June's fighting spirit, her ability to clean a gun, and her refusal to give up. Maybe that is a result of her wounds, her trauma, and her pathology, but she managed to pull off Angel's Flight. She killed multiple commanders at a Jezebels, and she killed a founding father of Gilead. She also knows how to lead, rally others, and build an army. People respect her.

Her wounds are beautiful. They're what make her so extraordinary. That's why we see Luke reach out to touch them in the darkness. That's why she touches his. They accept one another, especially their flaws. That's something we can learn from. 

After five years of absorbing June's trauma, we still can't see past toad face, or her sadism, or her guilt, or her lack of self-control. We are stuck in the cave. 

We saw her at her lowest. When she got off of that cushion in the hospital, she could barely walk but she still jumped out of the red van and ran up to Commander Lawrence's house. She was ready. Most of us would've given up by then. But not her. She came out swinging. She successfully pulled off Angel's Flight. She killed a bunch of commanders, and she got out alive. That kind of inner strength and resolve is an inspiration.

Diana Carvajal

EVERY single fan of this show should read this! I've read many rants against June, expecting June to act strategically, hating her desicions, being annoyed b... See More

Belinda Yandell

I admit i didn't read this article very carefully, because what I did read was just plain wrong in its assumptions. When the writer stated that June bought t... See More

Diana Carvajal

Well, the fact that you interpreted things differently doesn't mean the author didn't think things "well", as you say. About Francis, I have watched many ti... See More