"A Woman's Place" is Serena Joy's episode. Until now, we've known very little about the Commander's wife, other than the fact that she has great eyebrows, and seems pretty devout, if sexually frustrated. This week, we get insight into her life "before," when she and Fred were just another yuppy couple with a granite counter top — albeit one plotting to overthrow the government. Serena Joy, a conservative activist in her own right, was instrumental in developing the structure of Gilead, only to be pushed aside by the very policies she promoted.
But that doesn't mean we've forgotten about our main girl. If last week's sex scene with Nick gave you feelings, you'll be happy to know that this episode picks up where we left off, with Offred in the middle of an orgasm.
It's a memory, one Offred is holding onto as she and the other handmaids are put to work washing blood off the hanging wall by the river. Foreign diplomats are about to pay Gilead a visit, and seeing the deadly toll of the regime just won't do.
For Offred, this means being on her best behaviour. Serena Joy calls her into her bedroom to remind her of what's at stake should she decide to act out in front of the trade delegation from Mexico. "Our visitors may have some questions, they're curious about our lives here. I know that if spoken to, you'll speak wisely," she says. The power struggle between these two has definitely amped up. Offred is barely keeping up a pretence of meekness in this scene. Is that wise?
Here, we get our first glimpse at Serena's life before. She and Fred had great sex! They still prayed before the act, but it was passionate, nothing at all like the sterile ceremony. It's easy to see why she feels as frustrated as she does — imagine not only foregoing good sex, or any sex for the rest of your life, but also having to watch your husband penetrate someone between your legs every month.
Now, the closest she can get is a throwaway, "You look very handsome," before getting shipped off to the kitchen with the other wives, while the men meet. He, by the way, doesn't even return the compliment.
Offred on the other hand, is enjoying some very illegal flirting with Thirst Trap Nick, while waiting to enter the Commander's office to greet the diplomats. Everything about this scene is great, but here are my main takeaways:
1) It's amazing how quickly you get used to your surroundings. Offred immediately assumes that the man in the room is in charge, but no! The ambassador is a woman — and wearing a pantsuit no less.
2) Watching the Commander squirm as he explains that the man is the assistant here, is something I would like to GIF and re-watch on a loop.
3) Am I alone in thinking that the ambassador's interest in Offred is kind of phony? If she really wanted a straight answer, why would she ask her to describe her experience while all the commanders are in the room? This seems perfunctory to me.
4) Everything about Gilead sounds so insane when explained to people not from this world. Remember how crazy everything seemed in the first episode? Now, like Aunt Lydia warned, it almost seems normal — until you hear the details described to an outsider.
5) "The Handmaids are having children for the entire nation. Offred knows how grateful we are for her choice in this." THE AUDACITY.
6) I have never been so happy to see Serena Joy interrupt to announce hors d'oeuvres.
Before they exit, however, the ambassador asks Offred one last question: "You have chosen such a difficult life. Are you happy?"
The camera pans across the faces of all the men in the room here. This is genius because It's easy for the Commanders and Nicks of the world to pretend that women love their new place when it's just them pontificating. But when someone actually asks a woman point blank, the look of deep panic on their face proves that they know it's all bullshit. The women are unhappy, and no amount of yammering about"sacred positions" will change that.
"I have found happiness, yes." Offred barely chokes out the words. With that, they walk out, leaving Offred to bask in her own self-loathing.
In the living room, the Commander continues his clumsy promotion of theocracy. Gilead has transitioned to a completely organic agricultural model! They have reduced their carbon emissions by 78% in three years! Yes, they basically enslave their women, but they care about the environment!
Ambassador Castillo isn't really buying any of it, and instead turns her attention to the wives. Get out your sweaters because it's about to get shady."I'm curious. How does the quiet half of the room feel about Gilead?"
The answers are what you'd expect, basically #blessed. But Castillo doesn't give up. "Never mistake a woman's meekness for weakness," she says, quoting from A Woman's Place, a book which turns out to have been written by Serena Joy in her past life. (Fred's reaction here is interesting: He is both really uncomfortable and very proud.)
But there's more! Serena used to speak at rallies! She got arrested! (Again, pride and discomfort struggle for dominance on Fred's face. ) "Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this?" asks Castillo. By this, she means: "A society in which women can no longer read your book, or anything else."
These people seem so powerful in their own universe, and so foolish and backwards when viewed through someone else's eyes. The commander knows this, which is why he chastises Serena Joy after their guests leave. Gilead is broke. If they don't solidify trade deals, the whole system will collapse.
It wasn't always like this though. In a flashback, we see the very beginnings of the idea that would give birth to Gilead, when Fred comes home from a Sons of Jacob meeting clad in WASP uniform 101: A sky-blue polo and beige slacks. When he complains about the lack of cohesion within the group, she suggests an outing. Even better, when he complains, she shuts him down: "I wasn't asking."
I learned a lot from this flashback: Serena Joy once loved movie popcorn and wrote articles. She was planning a new book, about "fertility as a national resource." (Now where have I heard that before?) Her husband was nice, and supportive. But then, fate comes knocking, via text message. The decision has been made: The Sons of Jacob will strike in a three-pronged terrorist attack: Congress first, then the White House, then the Court. It's amazing to see them just sitting them in the middle of all these people, knowing that they will forever upset everyone's lives. Is this really how terrorists casually discuss murder? With movie popcorn?
Knock knock. It's Nick. Nick who? Nick who wants a casual make out sesh before escorting you to your rapist's office for a late night meeting. No Scrabble tonight, though. The Commander needs to vent. He is pissed that the Mexican delegation was so clearly judgey. Offred is distracted though, which only serves to annoy him more. He gets fussy. ("Being in here is a privilege.")
About to exit, she realises she can't leave things like this. If she wants to continue to enjoy her power over him, she has to pet his ego. Tonight, that means engaging in his need for masculine sexual dominance. He owns her — he wants to feel like he does. And so he forces her to kiss him, "like she means it." Ugh. I too, would brush my teeth until they bleed.
The following night, there is a gala to honour the dignitaries. Poor Janine, who was so excited for dessert, is excluded at the last minute because, as Serena Joy puts it, "you don't put the bruised apples at the top of the crate."(A big reason why I love this show so much is that every character gets the chance to be complex. Note the tender side to Aunt Lydia as she tries to stand up to Serena Joy, arguing that all these girls deserve to be honoured.)
This is the only power Serena Joy has left. Once, she had the respect of her peers and her husband. We see how slowly, her influence diminished as other women's rights were taken away. The world she helped build ultimately destroyed her. And her husband, once supportive, has simply turned away, despite his promise that he "won't give up trying." (Nothing makes that more clear than the moment when we see her book atop the trash heap outside their new home. The message isn't subtle: A woman's place is literally in the garbage.)
(I have so many questions about the political structure of Gilead: Is there a president? Who makes the decisions? Do they vote? Is it a fake democracy where only men have a voice? Or is it openly totalitarian?)
Ultimately though, it's Serena Joy who saves the day for Gilead. To impress their visitors, she has prepared a little show and tell of all the kids their handmaids have given birth to over the years. While the cruelty of parading these women's children in front of them is kind of unfathomable, the ambassador totally falls for it.
And here we learn the truth: It's all a front. This isn't about trading oranges from Florida. It's about trading handmaids. As Offred's handmaid friend (who seems surprisingly well-informed, a Mayday member, perhaps?) puts it: "Gilead only has one thing to trade that anyone wants. Red tags. They want to trade us, dummy." Oh, dear.
Later that night, Serena Joy is getting ready for bed, when her husband comes in. "You're an amazing woman," he tells her. "I forgot." Gee...thanks? I have to say though, I was rooting for them in this scene. Serena Joy deserves to get some. And the Commander? Well, I do believe he loves his wife, even if he is a spineless weasel. (Much cheering for Serena Joy climbing on top, just like Offred with Nick.)
Speaking of Offred, she is very distraught when she goes to see Thirst Trap Nick that night."I said I was happy," she laments. Thirst Trap Nick, unsurprisingly, is not helpful. "What choice did you have?" he asks, before trying to imply that he too, knows what she's going through.
Offreds sets him straight though: "They don't rape you, do they? He doesn't come in here once a month and read you a little scripture, and then stick his cock up your ass." No, he does not. They eventually make up, and Offred shares her real name with him, but I really can't tell if he's falling for her, or if he's playing a long game to trap her.
The next morning, the ambassador and her assistant show up at the house to say their goodbyes. And look, they've brought chocolates! How thoughtful. Offred uses a moment alone with them to blurt out the truth: She is not happy. She is a prisoner. She is a slave.
Except the real truth is that this woman couldn't care less. She came here to assuage her guilt about handmaids' lives, not to change her mind. And the scariest part is that it doesn't seem that implausible. As she explains, there hasn't been a child born alive in her hometown for 6 years. What is her alternative? The human race will not go extinct without a fight. If faced with such dire circumstances, what could we be capable of?
But hope comes in the shape of Mr. Assistant, who informs Offred that he can get a message to her husband. WAIT, WHAT?
Yes. Luke is alive. Please join me in freaking the fuck out.