The Handmaid’s Tale Trades Carrots for Sticks of Dynamite

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Serena has long been the character I’m most fascinated by on The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s a walking contradiction. Where Commander Waterford and Aunty Lydia are pretty obvious evil oppressors, Serena simultaneously holds the role of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” While she holds a seat of power over nearly any other woman she encounters, she’s still a second-class citizen to the men of Gilead. The cruel irony of the situation was revealed to us last season, where flashbacks in “A Woman’s Place” showed how she helped create this new government, before being immediately shut out of it. But she was more than just a collaborator in the creation of Gilead, she was its architect. Her book (also titled A Woman’s Place) argued for the biological duty of women to bear children in the rising pregnancy crisis.

In the flashbacks of “First Blood,” Serena does her best Charles Murray impression, speaking on campuses during her book tour in front (lots of) protesters and (not many) supporters alike. The scene has some strong imagery to tie it to the recent discussions of free speech on campus. Protesters hold signs saying “Resist” and yell “Fascist bitch” and “Nazi c***” at her before forcing her off-stage with a water balloon. As she’s rushed to safety, Fred exclaims, “She has a right to speak, this is America!” a sentiment that doubles down on the irony that they would eventually create a society out of the ashes of America in which women are not allowed to speak.

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Even still, Serena makes her voice heard, insisting that society do something to address the pregnancy crisis. She is still largely opposed, but some hear her and give hope to her cause. She resolves to add more stops to her tour before an attempt is made on her life, putting her in the hospital with a gunshot wound in her abdomen.

Back in the present day, Serena deals with her June problem. Seeing as hammering her into submission put June in the hospital and the baby at risk, Serena trades her stick for a carrot, finding little ways to foster friendship and bridge the gap between them. She invites June’s handmaid friends for lunch, talks to her about life before Gilead, and asks her for input on nursery decorations. It is appropriate that, for the first time, we watch Serena garden in her spare time, tending to her plants the same way she is tending to June – and her baby hoping to nudge her in the right direction.

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But no matter how superficially nice Serena is to June, the reality of the situation remains the same. Gilead is still an oppressive system and no amount of sugar coating will change its existence as a tool of violence. This disconnect is lost on Serena when June pleads to see her daughter Hannah, even if only for a few minutes. After all the efforts Serena has made in this episode, how could June possibly want more? She is unable – or unwilling – to see the system that looms over June’s head.

Serena is hardly the only oppressor willfully ignorant of the implications of Gilead. When Fred brings a picture of Hannah to June, he acts as though it is an act of true kindness, when all he really wants is to coerce her into having sex with him. Nick is equally unable to see beyond himself and his own torment. When June warns him that they must be careful and tells him that he has to pay attention to his new 15-year-old wife Eden, he complains. It’s so annoying to push dreams of himself, June, and their baby out of his head. He loves June, he doesn’t want to be with Eden. June responds appropriately, “Oh you have to fuck somebody you don’t want to?”

And fuck her he must once Eden openly starts to speculate that he might be a “gender traitor.” The scene is as painful a watch for us as it appears to be for physically for Eden, who clings to Nick’s arms with a white knuckle grip through the whole act. Still, her unwavering happiness in the marriage is an important reminder that if Gilead is not stopped quickly, it will indoctrinate the young and impressionable and become the status quo.

And that brings us to the explosive final scene, where Commander Waterford opens the Rachel and Leah Center in front of a crowd of other commanders. As he drones on about their vision to “restore a moral world,” Ofglen slowly breaks away from the rest of the onlooking handmaids. She slips into the room and brandishes a dead man’s switch before sprinting into the middle of the room and detonating. The damage is unknown, but it looks to be substantial.

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Of course, the parallels between this act of terrorism and the one against Serena are impossible to miss, and set up the borders of a complicated exploration of protest and violence. On the one hand, the aggression of Serena’s crowd and the violence of Ofglen’s suicide run feel justified. We know that the fears of the protesters are correct; calling the society that will rise from her movement “fascist” is a understatement. Likewise, Ofglen’s mission to spark a revolution feels like a fitting response to Gilead’s oppression.

At the same time, the episode seems to remind us that trying to silence these ideas can be messy. The attempt on Serena’s life not only left her unable to have children but drove Fred Waterford to violent extremes in the name of vengeance. That act of terrorism might have been what drove the Gilead movement into its next, and incredibly brutal, phase. While the suicide bombing run reads as an act of defiance (immediately followed by the credits anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”), it seems to be just the next step in a cycle of escalating violence. Are we supposed to kill what will eventually blossom into evil? Or is it that violence that weaponizes an idea in the first place?

The answers to these questions are as complicated as Serena’s status as a villain in the series, and both discussions are presented in a way that challenges the assumptions we bring to the table. Bringing up those questions is a fascinating new angle for the show, let’s see how they address them in the home stretch of the season.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • For the record, Magnolia’s on Boylston doesn’t exist.
  • I lowkey love how June ends up winning every argument with Serena by basically pointing to her whom and saying “but the baby.”
  • Maybe don’t assign any other handmaids to be Ofglen. This one was a suicide bomber and the last one ran a car through a crowd of people. What’s going on in that house?
  • Rita needs more quippy one-liners like when she jabs at Nick: “Ask your wife.”
  • The scene where Fred exacts his revenge on Serena’s would-be killer: For a show that seeks such a strong feminist message, it feels very off that it would resort to killing a woman in order to hurt a man. It’s such an ugly trope meant to give the audience a shock as the person we thought was going to die doesn’t, but it reduces women to mere accessories to the conflict between men. I understand that the show is trying to comment on these patriarchal tropes and ideas, but what was the commentary behind this scene?
  • The scene after June and Serena have a falling out places them at opposite ends of the dinner table in a shot that’s reminiscent of this one from Citizen Kane, which shows the distance that has grown between a marriage. In a lot of ways, June and Serena’s relationship is similar to dissolving marriage, where they need to find a way to work together but are such opposing forces that it creates a natural tension.
  • About halfway through this episode, I wrote in my notes “Imagine if this was Judaism or Islam or any other religion.” Five minutes later, Nick and Eden consummated their marriage through a hole in a sheet, which is a tradition of Hasidism. Later, Commander Waterford opens the Rachel and Leah Center a story from the Torah (and Old Testament). I’m no longer positive that this is a Christian dystopia, and if it turns out to be a Jewish one, may the Internet have mercy on us all.
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