America still exists in Gilead. It lingers in the minds of handmaids, Marthas, and Econowives. Hell, it even lingers in the mind of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), one of the primary architects of this rigid, punitive society, who remembers her favourite brunch place fondly. The episode “First Blood” focuses on the thin barrier between America and Gilead. How long will it take for memory of America to be wiped out? For all this to be internalised and accepted as normal? When characters like Eden (Sydney Sweeney) start having babies and raising them with religious fervour, then Gilead will truly take hold.
But so long as characters like June (Elisabeth Moss) whisper rallying cries to their unborn babies, so long as handmaids keep doing insane revolutionary stunts like the one at the episode’s end, then Gilead will have within it a thumping revolutionary heart. “First Blood” is a fight between old and new. And poor, poor Nick (Max Minghella) had to cross that line.
Before we get to the “did they really go there?” moment of this episode, let’s focus on Junebug. As we discover at the start of the episode, June’s profuse bleeding was the result of a haemorrhage in her uterine wall, not a miscarriage. June’s baby, which the doctor calls your baby to Serena (ugh), is alive.
When June returns to the Waterfords, she's treated like a queen, not like handmaid scum. Suddenly, June’s comfort is the top priority. June has agency (she abruptly turns down a smoothie in favour of soup), and plush living conditions (Serena moves her to her sitting room). Even though June is difficult, she's still carrying the baby — and that's what matters.
For the first time ever, Serena doesn’t seethe every time she looks at June. In fact, she makes moves towards establishing friendship, ignoring the fact that their relationship would always be fundamentally uneven. Serena invites June’s handmaid’s friends over for brunch. She plays Norah Jones, and they reminisce about the pancakes at an old Cambridge spot. Through their shared remembering, America seems so close.
Unfortunately, June makes the mistake of taking Serena’s warmth for kindness. After Serena shows her the lavish baby nursery — or relatively lavish, when compared to the rest of Gilead — June asks if she can see her daughter Hannah. Suddenly, a veil of coldness drops over Serena’s face. Despite June’s begging — and she does beg — Serena responds, “Absolutely not.” She makes June move back into the bedroom. She’s been demoted back to handmaid scum.
This is a disappointing moment for them both. Each thought they had "cracked" the other. Alas, they're still rigidly themselves; they still want what they want. Serena wants June's cooperation; she wants June to believe in Gilead like she does. June wants out, but not without taking her children with her.
Serena opens up to Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes). For all the imbalances of Gilead, they have a strong relationship — or at least they once did, as flashbacks show. In pre-Gilead, Serena was the face of the radical movement that formed Gilead. She toured college campuses spreading their basic message: The birthrate is dropping, and women need to fulfil their biological destinies to counteract the trend. In a scene almost reminiscent of college campuses today, Serena, a radical right voice, visits a liberal campus and is booed offstage. She manages to give an impromptu speech, rising above the sound of a riot. Serena is good at this — even though I am horrified by her sentiment, I’m also horrified that she has been reduced to a life of glorified lounging in a blue dress after all that monumental galvanising.
Fred and Serena’s political work put them in danger. After a fired up and enthusiastic Serena leaves the college building, she’s shot in the thigh by a protester, and her assistant is killed. Fred never forgot this moment. Years later, once he became a commander, he tracked down the killer and his girlfriend and brought them to a forest. He shot the man’s girlfriend in the head, so the commander, too, could harm what the protester most loved.
Given this history, we see another side to Serena and Fred's relationship. They were once equals. When Serena opens up to Fred about June’s behaviour, Fred responds with genuine respect for his wife. “Always so strong. I pray everyday, dear Lord: Make me worthy,” he tells her.
But how much does Fred really respect his wife, if he’s sneaking into June’s bedroom at night? June and Fred finally connect, after a long silence, one evening in the kitchen. Fred flirts with her while holding a big knife; it’s a bit too on the nose. Thanks to Commander Fred, June gets to see her daughter (sort of). Later on, Fred goes to June's bedroom holding a photo of Hannah in an all-white dress. In Fred’s mind, this is a favour. Now, she owes him one — and what he wants is sex.
Consent is nonexistent in Gilead. Clearly, during the ceremony, June cannot give her consent. Recognising her consent still doesn’t really matter, June manages to convince Fred to stop pursuing sex when she mentions the health of the baby. That is her one get out of jail free card. I wonder what her life will be like when the baby is born.
Whereas the Commander and Serena are able to be intimate, June’s relationship with Nick is pushed towards estrangement. June realises that she and Nick have to stop sneaking around after she’s approached by Eden, who is concerned that her husband hasn’t performed his marital duties yet. We don’t blame Nick! She is, I repeat, 15! Eden is dangerous, though. There is a narc in Gilead, and it’s Eden. She reveals her suspicions that Nick is a gender traitor. In order to convince Eden otherwise, June says, he’ll have to sleep with her.
This brings us to what I meant by “going there.” Yep: The Handmaid’s Tale shows Nick and Eden having sex through a hole in a white sheet. Nick is trapped. And poor Eden! She should not be brainwashed by Gilead. She should be the girl who sits in the front row of a classroom with a line of freshly sharpened patterned pencils, for goodness sake. She should have a colour-coordinated planner and dreams of becoming a vet. Instead, she becomes Serena’s pawn. Later on in the episode, Serena teaches Eden how to discipline a handmaid by making her pick up knitting needles she dropped on purpose. It’s a flimsy power play, but Serena takes what she can get.
Nick isn’t adjusting to his role as a Gileadean easily. No one is. That’s what the end of the episode showed. There are many revolutions happening in Gilead. We are just witnessing one woman’s. During the unveiling of the Rachel and Leah Center, a handmaid goes rogue and sets off a bomb on the Gilead Commanders and foreign dignitaries. We have so many questions. Is Fred dead? Are there other revolutionary movements playing out concurrently? How did the handmaids make a bomb? Who is this brave rogue handmaid? Will we finally meet the Mayday organisers? No matter the answer, this will be — forgive my pun – explosive to the future of The Handmaid’s Tale.