The Handmaid's Tale: 2x07 After.
Well jesus fuck.
After is about remembrance. About grief. About what it feels like to lose a person that you can’t live without. And it’s one of the strongest episodes of this show so far.
It all starts with a perfectly choreographed procession of grief for the Handmaids that perished in Ofglen’s attack. They didn’t make it out of there alive, and maybe Ofglen thought that this was an easier way out for them in any case. The Handmaids wear black, and a red veil, and the whole thing looks like someone came up with it conscious of what it would look like, the faceless Handmaids mourning their own, letting their face veils flatter away in the wind, Aunt Lydia wishing for a world free of violence. It’s an act, a government-issued ritual, lacking of feeling and authenticity. The true moment comes in the car, on the way back, when those same Handmaids realise they never even knew Ofglen’s real name.
How can you authentically grieve for someone whose name you didn’t even know? It’s a whole procession, throughout this episode. For Gilead, the main thing that happens is that Commander Waterford is disabled for the moment and replaced by a true hardliner, Commander Cushing, who is exactly like the kind of person that gets swept to the top in moments of emergency. Someone who goes into households and kills Marthas, just for the sake of it, to cause fear and anxiety. He is a threat, not just to those who cannot defend themselves, but also to Serena, once June shares with her that Cushing doesn’t believe she was kidnapped, and wouldn’t allow her child to grow up in a house that sheltered a terrorist. It’s a terrible prospect, especially with Fred in a hospital bed – it falls to Serena to protect her house, and god how very able she is to do so. How she maybe waited for that very opportunity, to prove herself. She asks Nick if he can show her how to draft warrants, like the Commander did, and in the end, does it matter who signs the warrants? If she is perfectly capable to do so, to make decisions well in line with Gilead’s ideology, which she drafted. She’s been waiting this whole time, to take her righteous seat at the table (behind Commander Waterford’s office table) and the moment is all the more awesome (in that horrible way) because it includes June, finally armed with a pen, going over her drafts like the editor that she used to be. What a moment, Serena recognising who June used to be for the benefit of her leadership, keeping her vision of Gilead safe and sound, after Cushing caused all that death and destruction. She has him arrested and removed in Fred’s name, and nobody blinks an eye.
At the same time, Ofglen’s act was grandiose enough to reverberate to Canada, where the American provisional government announces that a terrorist happened which caused the lives of Handmaids. Luke gives up straight away on finding out if June was among the dead, but Moira sneaks her way into a library of the anonymously dead that is as terrifying as it is a perfect mirror for what Gilead represents. It’s picture books of the dead who were never identified, who have pieces of information attached to them that never quite add up to a full life. Moira sinks into all of that information, and we think she is, somehow, maybe, looking for June, except as the story unfolds we realise, it isn’t really June she is looking for. That this whole time that she has been so fiercely protective of June, and maybe truer to her than Luke is capable of being, in the background, there was always something else, and maybe, looking for her girlfriend/fiancé wasn’t a cover story after all. It all unfolds – the story of how Moira decided to be a surrogate mother for a baby, for the money, how a doctor guided her on the way, how June was always there, with her knowledge about pregnancy, but how in the end, after she had given birth and given away the child, the only thing left to her was learn the doctor’s name. How that doctor wasn’t her doctor anymore, when she introduced herself as Odette, and how all these worlds opened. It’s like – a tumbling, almost, this idea that for a split second, Odette was Moira fiancé, until the world took that away from her, until Gilead decided that those words had no meaning anymore. And then she finds her again, in those picture books, pictures of a dead body, of a whole person that meant so much to her, eradicated meaninglessly and without explanation. And the horrible irony of it, that Odette basically provided the same services that Gilead is now forcing upon the Handmaids against their will, and paid with her life for it.
Grief. While the names of the Handmaids that perished are read, including the name of Ofglen, whose name nobody knew before: Lillie Fuller. Who was angry enough to kill herself and her sisters, even though none of them ever learned her name. But now, everything has changed – including the fact that there are now only 27 handmaids serving more than thirty Commanders, which means that they are forced to bring back the unwanted fertile women in the Colonies. Which means that Emily, and Janine, return into life, and the distant possibility of escape. It’s like Janine says – god has a plan for all of them, but it isn’t clear if it is the same plan for them all.
In any case, and finally, June tells Emily her name. And tells another handmaid her name. Who tells her name, to someone else. Eden stands in the middle of all of that, not realising what she is witnessing, what it means to finally be able to bear full witness to someone else’s identity beyond being a Handmaid. It only took a few hours for Serena to realise what power she held – how much longer will it take for these women to fully realise what power they hold in their togetherness?
It is truly impossible to overstate what both Yvonne Strahovsky and Samira Wiley accomplish in this episode.
For a horrible millisecond I thought that Cushing was executing Rita. I really hope Rita makes it out of all of this alive.
Nick’s plan to get extracted from his current mission dies with his master Commander Price, who perished in the attack. He’s instrumental in this episode in enabling Serena to draft her documents and do Fred’s work, which is interesting – he’s well aware of what a danger Cushing, unchecked, would be.
I like that the show always leaves so much ambivalence in Moira’s and June’s relationship. It’s fairly clear that Moira loves June, and is maybe truer than her than Luke could ever be, but in this episode, the same Moira who complains about June always throwing her marital bliss in her face (one that June reveals to be a fake, untrue, as she is married to a literal manchild), Moira starts on her own course with Odette. It is a similar accusation to what June’s mother made, that June is becoming like “those assholes”, like those married people, and June is refuting it, but then, Moira is sort of doing the same thing, until it is ripped away from her so brutally. And the fact that Odette up to that point is nothing more but an anonymous corpse in the provisional government’s archives, until Moira, a person who loves her, stumbles across her. That point, that we are who we are, that we are full human beings with hopes and dreams, in the eyes of those that love us, and this is precisely where Gilead is at its most inhumane and bestial.