The Handmaid’s Tale and the latest royal wedding couldn’t seem to be further apart in their pop cultural sensibilities. The former acts as a hellish glimpse into our possible dystopian future — that is, if the country’s most misogynistic, back-sliding impulses continue to infect the national discourse. The nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who is now officially Her Royal Highness The Duchess Of Sussex, however, were a look at what kind of feminist, racial barrier-breaking beauty can be created through love, compassion, and a Black choir. Essentially, Hulu’s Emmy-winning drama is mired in the worst of humanity, while the year’s biggest wedding grew from the best of it.
Yet, one tiny, little ideal has quickly connected these two cultural juggernauts. That detail is the call to “obey your husband,” which the Duchess Of Sussex famously decided to drop from her May 2018 marriage vows, following in the footsteps of sister-in-law Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and late mother-in-law Princess Diana. On the other hand, that traditional, patriarchal demand unmasked the greatest hypocrisy in the world of Gilead, the authoritarian government of Handmaid’s Tale.
As this week’s Handmaid’s Tale instalment, “Women’s Work,” proves, all the human-trafficking, body mutilation, rights snatching, and, yes, even seemingly state-forced knitting, has nothing to do with ensuring more births and healthy, safe babies, as Gilead claims. No, all the self-fashioned “Commanders” of this insurgent government wanted from their successful coup d'état was indisputable control over the world, and the women’s bodies that inhabit it, once again. It was about making women “obey” whatever husband they are given.
Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), a creep, an abuser, a rapist, and a Gilead political leader, admits just that, word for word, by the end of Wednesday’s episode, which centres around a sick baby. Fred’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) begins “Women’s Work” getting reacquainted with the hard-working and hard-writing woman she was before Gilead, all with the help of her “handmaid” (read: abductee) June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), a former book editor. She's able to do this because Fred is laid up in a hospital. With Fred immobilised, it's up to Serena to keep Gilead running by ghostwriting her spouse's political memos. So, when Putnam infant “Angela” falls ill, Serena feels emboldened to do whatever is necessary to save the child, even if that means flouting Gilead’s strict rules, along with those of her husband.
That’s why, towards the end of the episode, a current “Martha,” and a former leading neonatal specialist named Dr. Hodgson (Karen Glave), is back in scrubs, examining little “Angela” and ordering what sounds like one dozen tests for the baby. Serena faked Fred’s signature for the doctor’s temporary transfer, despite the fact that he forbade her from allowing a woman to practice medicine. Still, Serena' gamble works. As “Women’s Work” closes, Hodgson’s diagnosis — that there are no medical causes for “Angela’s” apparently deadly illness — helps save the child, whose real name is Charlotte and whose real mother is tragic handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). Janine does as Hodgson recommends and unhooks Charlotte from her hospital machines. She makes her feel safe, warm, and loved. By morning, Charlotte is a happy, bouncing baby. Mission accomplished.
“I did it for the child,” Serena says in defence of her wifely defiance of Fred’s precise demands. “What greater responsibility is there in Gilead?” It’s important to remember for all of Serena’s monstrosity, she truly does mean what she is saying. In the “old world,” Serena had all of her Gilead-creating ideas because she viewed pregnancy as a moral imperative and possible national commodity in a crumbling world. Serena truly believes babies are the most important thing in the universe. She helped craft Gilead because of that.
Fred, who once revered his wife’s outlook, has a different answer to what Gilead’s greatest “responsibility” is: “Obeying your husband,” he responds flatly. While Dante’s Inferno only had nine rings of hell, this proclamation brings Handmaid’s Tale to another, new level of nightmarish sadism in an infinite number of levels of nightmarish sadism. Riding the belief that obeying one’s husband — even if it means allowing the easily avoided death of a baby — is a wife’s paramount duty, Fred beats Serena for her supposed sins with a belt, using cherry-picked quotes from the Bible to justify his domestic abuse. None of this has anything to do with protecting the survival of humankind. No, it’s about soothing Fred’s ego because his wife went against his murderous, misogynistic wishes. The song and dance about the importance of babies only allowed Fred to attain the kind of power where he can do whatever he wishes, without anyone telling him “no.”
As with anything in the Handmaid’s world, it looks like the writers are using this latest descent into darkness to push their characters' journeys forward. In the last we see of a battered and silently sobbing Serena Joy, the Wife seems far less enamoured with the rules of Gilead as she strips down to inspect the bruises and lesions her husband inflicted upon her body. For the first time in 18 episodes, it appears Serena is finally forced to understand the true horror of this new world order — and the fact no woman is safe from it, not even she, The Mother Of Gilead.
All of a sudden, just like The Duchess Of Sussex, it looks like Serena Joy may no longer be interested in all of that obey your husband nonsense.