This has been an ambitious season of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s like award-winning Hulu show left the parental nest of Margaret Atwood's book and is now a freshman in college, out exploring the wide world (and doing some weird stuff, too).We’ve ventured to the Colonies, we’ve blasted to the past. We’ve gotten a sense of the vast distance between Then and Now.
What set this week’s episode apart so is that it forgoes that ambitious scope for narrative intensity. The episode is set over the course of three days, and stays in one location. No more Little Canada, no sun-drenched flashbacks to June’s (Elisabeth Moss) domestic bliss. Instead, we see June, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), and the other characters flail in extreme discomfort when disaster strikes.
The action is centered around one problem: Ten-month-old baby Angela, Janine's (Madeline Brewer) biological daughter, is sick. Really, really sick. All anyone can do is wait and pray, wait and pray. As much as Gilead has done to ensure the birth of babies, they still can’t protect them from everything. More broadly, this week dealt with the overwhelming discontent of Gilead that afflicts even its most devoted citizens. I’d venture to say that this is the episode in which Serena Joy, ardent architect of this whole society, finally loses her faith.
When the episode begins, Serena and June are essentially starring in their own girl-power heist movie (the Gilead-set installment of the Ocean’s franchise). They’re still the voice of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who’s confined to a hospital bed. Serena uses a pen (a pen!) to write speeches and documents, then hands them to June for editing. Earlier in their relationship, relying on June for help would be a concession of power; But now, their relationship has evolved. They’re equals. Admittedly, June gives strangely vague editorial guidance. If my editor said something as passive aggressive as, “Adjust the opening if you want,” I might be sent into a tailspin — If I want? What does that even mean?
This picture of domestic bliss is shattered when Fred limps back from the hospital and literally bars the women from his book-lined study. Even I felt for Serena when he shut the door on her, and sent her back to a lifetime of knitting — an activity that she recently, finally admitted to June she hated (no offense to the knitters out there; I think knitting’s great!).
After months of rebelling against Gilead’s structure, June and Serena struggle to slump back into their old, passive roles. When Baby Angela gets sick, each takes a different tactic to remedy the situation. They're doers now.
June is at the grocery store when she finds out just how dire the situation is. Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) are talking about their new posts as handmaids, and casually showing off how different they are. Case in point: Janine thinks it’s a blessing that her new commander doesn’t ask for blowjobs; Emily is acerbic and biting because “being raped is not a blessing.” All she’s grateful for is the bomb.
That conversation is brushed aside when the ambulance comes. The handmaids all get on their hands and knees to pray (it’s like a fire drill, but for prayer). Once Janine realizes it’s her baby that’s sick, all hell breaks loose. To keep Janine calm, June promises she’ll help her see the baby – even though June knows how difficult (read: impossible) it is to reunite with your birth child in Gilead.
Serena’s on her own mission. She discovered that the top neonatal doctor in the world is working in Gilead – as a Martha. She comes to Fred with a request: Bend the fundamental rules of Gilead, and allow the Martha (Karen Glave) to be a doctor again for a day. Fred denies her request, telling her to put her faith in God instead. This one concession directly goes against the founding tenets of Gilead; there have already been enough cracks at the structure of the society (see: bomb).
Serena doesn’t listen. Writing on Fred’s stationary, she drafts up a permit for the Martha to visit the hospital. June has done her part, too. She persuades Serena to get Naomi (Ever Carradine) and Warren Putnam’s (Stephen Kunken) permission for Janine to visit the hospital. After Serena and June pull off their feats, everyone’s in one spot, rallying around this baby girl whose only future is a bleak one of servitude and repression (and she won’t have known anything else). Look at Eden (Sydney Sweeney). For the duration of her brief appearance this episode, she tried to be the perfect wife to Nick (Max Minghella). It’s all she knows. That is not how it should be for a 15-year-old!
Brief aside: We have every right to be worried about Eden. She found Nick's Mayday letters. While she said she didn't read them, I don't believe her — and neither should Nick.
There’s an important moment in the hospital. Serena, she who wields a pen, hands the doctor a stethoscope. During this episode, women briefly possess the tools of their empowerment and profession (Serena a pen, the doctor a stethoscope). They’re still just as capable as they had been; From this vantage point, Gilead's restrictions seem so, so farcical.
As it turns out, there’s nothing objectively wrong with Angela. The doctor says the only option is taking her off the machines and – gasp — praying. In Serena's mind, she’s about as useful as the Commander, which is to say: Not useful. The Putnams take Angela home, along with Janine and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
Serena and June face another set of consequences at home. Fred finds out that Serena deliberately disobeyed his orders. Quietly eager to assert his authority, Fred calls the women into the study — the setting of their quiet rebellion — and reprimands them. Then, he takes out the Bible and reads a passage about punishment for wives disobeying their husbands. Is this going where we think it’s going? It is. Fred unzips his belt and beats Serena in front of June. It’s utterly humiliating and disturbing. While this happens, June sneaks in a meta reference to Margaret Atwood. She quotes Atwood and says, "Someone once said, 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.'"
In the past, Fred and Serena had been equals. On a mission to destroy the fabric of liberal society, sure, but nonetheless equals. Now, Fred is officially a power-hungry patriarchal monster, poisoned by Gilead. This betrayal breaks Serena. She weeps, later on in the episode. I wonder if this will make Serena more or less rebellious. I hope more.
Meanwhile, a miracle is occurring at the Putnams. Janine is sitting on the window ledge in the living room, cradling her cooing daughter and singing a pop song. Angela’s a-okay, and making those noises a happy, healthy baby makes. The Putnams and Aunt Lydia wake up exuberant. The show seems to suggest that this is the natural order of things: A mother with her baby girl. That Angela belongs with Janine. Going forward, this could have implications for the Putnams’ household. Maybe Janine will be given access to the baby (maybe all handmaids will). Maybe she’ll teach her how to harness her curly hair, how to go through the world. It’s all she really wanted. This scene looks painfully contemporary. In another world, Janine would just be a young mother showering her daughter with affection.
This episode is called “Women’s Work.” It’s about women’s roles in the world, really — the value they add as mothers, doctors, thinkers. And it’s about how significantly the world is lacking by depriving itself of that value.
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