The Handmaid's Tale: 2x08 Women's Work.
So far, we have seen many implicit and explicit ways in which Gilead uses violence against women. It tortures, maims, kills. It works them to death. It steals women’s children and partners. It robs them of their names.
The more subtle and heinous ways in which Gilead is sheer violence against women is how it steals purpose from women under the pretence of returning them to some original, higher purpose. So far, the most direct way in which we have seen that violence is in how Emily was robbed of her ability to teach at her university, how she had to stop being a teacher, how she was asked to hide away in a lab. And in the end, in the colonies, the poisoned soil does not care about the previous occupations of those that are digging it up, and putting it in bags. Neither does being a Handmaid, or being a Martha. All these women had lives before they were forced into these lives. All of them had occupations, passions, talents, intellects.
It’s the idea of work – independent work, work freely chosen, work that matches talents, passions and intellects – giving meaning and purpose, and grace. Providing fulfilment. How powerful that concept is becomes obvious early into the episode when June regards this new, different Serena, being utterly changed by the ability of shaping Gilead to her liking. This isn’t the same unhappy Mrs Waterford that was such a threat to June. June’s way of perceiving Serena changes through editing her works, through seeing her as a writer, and someone who is finally returned to something that she is good at. The episode never really mentions that this same purpose that she is so good at led to Gilead in the first place – because it would seriously dampen the sheer joy that is the first three minutes of June seeing Serena, for the first time, like that, like a woman who had a profession and a talent for something beyond knitting and tending a garden. It’s a mutual joy and a shared one because Serena also returns June to being an editor, and so far, June hasn’t even realised that she missed that work. “In another life we could have been colleagues. In this one we are heretics”. And how does Serena feel about falling, about sinning against Gilead? “She seems pretty fucking happy”.
It’s a happiness on a timer though, because Fred Waterford has recovered, and is returning home to a place in which the women are changed. His return becomes, rather than the joy that everyone is required to perform, a dreadful event that puts an end to Serena’s influence and power, and to June’s surprising connection that she found with her. Fred is a stranger in his home now, because nothing will ever truly return these two women to who they were before they saw each other like that, before they held each other’s secrets.
For a moment, maybe because they used to be like that, a team, Serena thinks things could be different now. That she has proved her ability to hold her own, even if it means acting against one of the codes of Gilead. Fred will finally see her as an equal again, and the intimacy only possible between equals will return to their marriage. It doesn’t happen that way. Frank thanks her for her sacrifices and then closes the door to the office on her, and once again, Serena Waterford is locked out of Gilead, banished from power. But she’s had a taste of it now, and she will never stop wanting to write the rules herself.
This episode is about the emptiness and loneliness of being robbed of purpose. It’s at its most palatable with Eden, who is forever on her own in Nick’s apartment and doesn’t know how to fill that hole, because nothing in her life has ever prepared her that the marriage that is so central to everything in Gilead could be unfulfilling. There is no connection, no intimacy, no attempt to share from Nick. She tries everything at her disposal – making the place more homey, guessing at his needs – but in the end, this will never work, because they do not share a life. Eden isn’t loved. Their apartment will never be a refuge, or a nest, or even a home for both of them.
The most horrible moment comes when Nick returns to find that she has gone through his trunk, and retrieved the letters that he saved from June’s attempt at burning them in the Waterford’s kitchen sink. She has just left them out, and swears she didn’t mean anything by it, but Nick doesn’t have the ability to tell naivety and a subtle threat apart. He doesn’t have any way to discern if Eden is genuine or fake, if she was sent to spy on him and destroy him, or if she is a scared fifteen year old girl who was raised to be exactly this – a wife who would never question her husband, or go through his things to find something that is incriminating. In the end, it doesn’t even really matter if Eden is real or not (I think she is) – it matters that Nick has no way of trusting her, that the way Gilead works is to make that trust impossible. And without it, marriage can’t work, and leaves nothing but empty shells of human beings behind.
Gilead steals babies from their mothers. It took Janine’s baby away from her, and then punished her dearly when her mind fell apart after all the torture it made her endure. This is her episode – an episode in which Madeline Brewer owns every single scene she is – and it is the most unexpected ending that any episode of this show has ever served up, because it lacks the usual dread and violence.
Through Mrs Waterford, June finds out that Charlotte, Janine’s baby, is sick. She tells Janine, because she can tell that secrets are their own form of violence, that underestimating how strong Janine is is just as unfair to her as writing her off as a crazy woman without agency. June leverages her privilege as a pregnant Handmaid, someone who cannot be touched for as long as she carries this child – and she uses her newly found connection with Serena in a way that is so much more smarter than a few weeks ago, when she showed her cards too early and asked about Hannah. For one, she isn’t asking for herself – she is asking for Janine, a mother who is concerned about her baby. And she is asking a woman who has just learned what it means to have influence in Gilead, to have the power to change things for what she thinks is the better.
June: If Emily knew that I helped cover for the Commander with Serena, would she want me dead too? I can’t say I blame her. Stay in Gilead long enough it starts to eat you from the inside out. That’s one of the things you do. They force you to kill within yourself.
June does this because she watches Emily continue to rage not just against Gilead, but also against those who cooperate with Gilead to protect themselves, who become complacent and guilty. What does it mean to be a pragmatist, to bide her time, to wait for just the right moment? To play her cards right? Is she, is everyone else who is remaining quiet, enabling the system to continue?
She measures her words. She makes Serena go to Fred, and ask him to circumvent the rules to save the baby. Because the leading neonatologist in the world is a woman. Fred declines, and says they must not bend the rules, they must rely on the specialists that they do have, who are unable to save the baby.
Yet, somehow, all the gears are set in motion to save Charlotte. Janine is brought to the hospital, in spite of everything that happened. A Martha is almost entirely overwhelmed when she is asked to put the scrubs on, when a colleague refers to her as Dr. Hodgson, when she steps back into being the best neonatologist in the world after Gilead made her into a housekeeper. The whole process creates the most clear cut distinction – between us, and them – and for once, it includes Serena and June and Janine on the same side. It’s a distinction between men and women, a distinction between a Gilead that was genuinely built to save babies, and one that solely exists to cement the patriarchy under which all these pathetic, weak men thrive.
And even then, after Serena risked so much, it turns out that Dr. Hodgson can’t do anything to save the baby. She recommends prayer, an irony that isn’t lost on anyone in the room.
Serena’s bravery in this instance accomplishes nothing but to reveal the true nature of Gilead, which we and June already knew, but Serena has been wilfully ignorant about. This place does not exist because the birth rate was dwindling and sacrifices were required to save humanity. It exists because a group of men found a way to co-opt a global catastrophe to reinvent an ancient model of patriarchy and justified it all with a few select verses (which Fred has conveniently bookmarked in his bible). When it starts to slip from their hands, when they see their utopia of male supremacy endangered, they lash out – in this case, Fred literally does so, when he punishes his wife for transgressing, for faking his signature, for trying to claim something back for herself. He does it in front of June, to humiliate her further, to truly completely wreck the idea that a meaningful idea of a union between them still exists. Like Rita and June, Serena is nothing but a decorative fixture in the household, a role that could be played by anyone, an empty vessel to be given meaning by the man in the house. She still tries to pretend, when June offers her help after and tries to be kind, but her world is fractured beyond repair.
Women’s Work is an unusual episode because it doesn’t end on that note, or even on June, being turned away from Fred’s door. It ends on the miracle of Charlotte’s recovery in Janine’s arm, who, the next morning, after having discarded her uniform, is holding her baby and singing “I Only Want to Be With You” to her. June, before, questioned the idea that “there were still secret places, hidden in the cracks and crevices of this world, places we could make beautiful, peaceful, quiet, safe. Or at least bearable.” – but all this time, Janine has created a place just like that, and performed a miracle.
I mean I guess it’s bad to root FOR Serena, considering how much of a tool of oppression she is against women, but gosh does Yvonne Strahovski make it difficult. For a stupid second I actually wanted Serena to just ride off into the sunset with June before I checked myself.
Serena gives June her music box back and a white rose as thanks for her help. She seems like the kind of person who would be aware of the fact that they symbolise new beginnings.
Rita: I’ll get more honey. Eden borrowed it. I doubt I’ll ever see it again.
June: She is trying.
Rita: She is. God give me strength.
I’m so glad that Amanda Brugel is finally given enough space to shine in this role.
June: Blessed be the Fruit.
Janine: May the Force be With You.
Janine started this episode as almost invincible and she finished it that way too. What a performance by Madeline Brewer.
Finally in this episode, June quotes one of Margaret Atwood’s most famous quotes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”