The Handmaid's Tale: 2x06 First Blood.
Where to begin, with this tour de force of an episode?
Maybe with Serena Joy, this central miracle of the show. A woman who is despicable, who treats June horribly, who is the prime example of what world emerges if women tear each other down, rather than building each other up, if they become culpable in the same system of patriarchy that is limiting their own freedom. Serena Joy helped built this world, and didn’t even realise that it was a cage for herself until it was too late, that she would never have another conversation with her husband where he took her seriously, or where they would see eye-to-eye. Imagine being Serena Joy, a ball of righteous rage, or articulated ideology, and not being able to shine anymore, of being confined to the domestic sphere, with nothing left to do but to knit and oversee your Handmaid’s pregnancy .
It’ all about the failure of making a meaningful connection. She fails to do it with June, as much as she tries, because as much as she attempts to become part of that pregnancy (how she travels from you to us to me, only to run into a wall), she never will be part of it. She failed to make a connection years ago, when she tried to deliver a passionate speech about conservatism at a college, and was shouted down by protestors. And then someone shot her, and took any possibility from her to ever give birth to a child of her own (and, if you consider what the strategies of the Sons of Jacob were this whole time, would it be too far to imagine that they planned all of this?). Serena Joy is a tragedy, a woman constantly raging, only containing that rage momentarily to try and make an effort for the child she thinks she will have, to realise that all that June wants is a moment with her first child, with Hannah. She will never experience a true connection again.
And yet she is so eager for it, because it would justify the claim that she is the mother of June’s child. It’s what the doctor orders, a true connection between the wife, the Handmaid and the child that the Handmaid is bearing, and yet, within the specific constellation of the Waterford household, this connection is utterly impossible. It’s not that Serena isn’t trying: at the height of the episode she invites other Handmaids over for a tea party, an event that is just as awkward as you would expect it to be, especially when June starts talking about this old brunch place she used to go to and Serena is the only one who remembers it, and says they might have crossed each other’s path, before. All the while, the new Ofglen sits there incapable of contributing anything to the conversation since the Aunts have taken her tongue, and everyone else only comes together once they’re given an opportunity to touch June’s belly, which is another thing that entirely excludes Mrs Waterford.
If this episode is about alienation, or how awful it is to share space with people you neither trust or know in any meaningful way, Nick is at the height of it. He is married to a fifteen year old girl who subtly threatens to June that she will report him as a gender traitor if he doesn’t have the god-ordered sex with her soon, and June doesn’t hesitate to order him to perform, if it means saving his life. It’s horrid, in every sense of the word, because Eden is no longer capable of even conceiving of a world where that would be considered rape, which it is, while Nick is still very much of that world.
Nick is trapped, not as much as June is, but still. He has to have sex with someone that he considers a child. He has to become the person that would do that, because it’s what Gilead is making him become. It’s similar to that moment when the Handmaids start killing convicted criminals – the whole system thrives on people not getting out of it clean. Everyone is made responsible for the terrible acts. In the end, he ends up asking for a transferral away from June, from Commander Waterford. He asks for June’s safety but how would that ever be guaranteed?
And June, June promised this new child she would grow up in freedom, but she is also still fighting to see Hannah again, and maybe save her, because the one thing she couldn’t forgive herself for was giving up on her when she tried to cross the border. Serena will never give her anything, but Mr Waterford does, because he has no concept of how far June would go to free her daughter. Fred constantly underestimates the capabilities of the women he is surrounded with.
And then, the event that Fred has been working towards so hard: the opening of the Rachel and Leah Centre. A place that looks as far removed from what we know as the Red Centre as possible, a corporate façade for socially justified rape. All glass and concrete. It will maybe earn him his space as an envoy to Canada, where he is so eager to go, it is the ultimate pinnacle of his career, now that his home life is falling into place and he is expecting a child. He has given June a picture of Hannah, because he has no idea how far she would go to get her back, and she sees his weakness, his vanity, from miles off. But it doesn’t even take June to bring him back – it’s one Handmaid, one woman, walking into the building, sheer revenge on her mind for what Gilead has taken from her. Ofglen, the new Ofglen, robbed of her speech for trying to save Janine, blows this shit up. And then X-Ray Spex refute loudly that little girls should be seen, not heard.
This is just a periodic reminder that Serena Joy as a character wouldn’t work if it weren’t for what Yvonne Strahovski accomplishes, which is enormous.
Great work also in showing how passionate Serena is in her gardening, because she is barren and can no longer bear children.
What a time for Fred Waterford to say, This is America.