“I wish I could give you a world without violence,” Aunt Lydia says as she breaks from her scripted eulogy, “Without pain. It’s all I ever wanted.”
She is, of course, speaking to the violence witnessed at the end of last week’s episode, when Ofglen (real name Lillie Fuller) delivered a devastating suicide attack on the newly minted Rachel and Leah Center. It’s a testament to superior acting of Ann Dowd that this statement can come off as tone deaf (in the context of the show) and completely sincere at the same time. She’s repeatedly cattle prodded the handmaids, executed their friends, and forced involuntary surgery to make them better babymakers. If that’s not the definition of violence and pain, I’m not sure what is. But in her own f****d up way, Aunt Lydia cares about “her girls.”
No matter which way you slice it, Lillie Fuller’s attack came at great cost. Even Zoë White’s beautiful cinematography of stark reds and blacks against the backdrop of snow can’t gloss over that fact. While the attack did kill 26 commanders (all rapists, a detail that’s been lost a bit in the weeds), it also caused the tragic deaths of at least 31 innocent handmaids. As each handmaid peels away their imperial-guard-esque masks, we see the tears running down their faces. This was not what any of them had hoped for (even if Ofedward was kind of a jerk and never washed her hair, God rest her soul).
We often think of revolution in these violent terms, but “After” argues that there are many more subtle – and more effective – ways to undermine the system. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, new leadership in Commander Cushing is brought in to replace the deceased Commander Pryce (Nick and Commander Fred Waterford’s superior). He leans over the near-comatose Fred to promise him that he will “find every person involved in this barbaric attack, and they will be punished.” Dozens of people hang from trees in their yards, and still more are executed in the streets. Commander Deeds and his family were massacred for their association with their handmaid Ofglen. Cushing is not messing around.
The irony of Gilead’s leadership finding this attack particularly barbaric is not lost on the editors of the show, as they immediately cut to the concentration camps in the colonies, where Janine and Emily are rounded up to replace the lost handmaids. As it turns out, God’s vengeance is important, but healthy wombs are more so.
Up in the Little America neighborhood of Canada, Luke and Moira receive word of the attack. Moira instantly worries about June, while Luke tries to go about his life.
Moira: You don’t want to know that she’s okay?
Luke: She’s not okay. She’s alive. Have faith that she’s alive.
The episode transitions into Moira’s flashbacks, which show her having a baby for another couple – there was a lot of money in that before Gilead – and meeting her fiancée. While I’ve championed the flashbacks as the best part of the show this season, Moira’s backstory feels inconsequential. The best flashbacks are the ones that shed light on being a woman before Gilead, develop characters, and draw parallels to the current story. Moira’s flashbacks in “After” do very little to achieve any of those goals. At best, it is a separate story that reminds us that Moira is a character on this show. At worst, it is a marginalization of the most prominent woman of color on the show.
Back in Gilead, Cushing steps up his search for the terrorists and interrogates June on her connections to the underground. You see, he doesn’t buy the flimsy company line that June was kidnapped against her will that Serena and Fred have been peddling. The scene is expertly directed as the camera moves ever closer to Cushing and June, even as the physical distance between them remains constant.
Each line reveals a more dangerous enemy, from his jokes about how Ofglen must not have talked much (her tongue was cut out) to his not-so-subtle accusation that June lives in a house “infected by terrorists.” He so rattles June that she immediately turns to both Serena and Nick: we are in danger and there is no one to protect us. Cushing will not stop.
Of course, Nick and Serena are far from helpless. In fact, they’re both off the leash. Nick appears to be completely free from repercussions since his boss died in the attack. He walks around ordering guardians and eyes, all but forgetting that he’s supposed to be undercover. With Fred in the hospital, Serena is finally free to channel her inner Cersei, sipping wine and talking trash.
“Ray [Cushing] was a blowhard even then,” she muses to June as she remembers a vacation they took together once. While understandably worried about his investigation into the Waterford home, Serena must be silently savoring the chance to take down one of the dumb men put in charge of the country she designed.
Together, Serena and Nick forge documents from Fred that implicate Cushing in treason and thus remove the threat. It’s a move so swift and brutally effective that it makes me wonder if Cushing ever really stood a chance. After all, when Nick and Serena team up, they have always been able to get exactly what they want, whether they are protecting June or conceiving of a baby behind Fred’s back.
The decisiveness of this sabotage almost distracts from Serena’s true play here. Collaborating with Nick is more than just a way to protect her baby, it’s an opportunity to become the leader of Gilead she has always deserved to be, a climb of the ladder that is especially fulfilling given the development of her character from last week. This clever deception ends up being a far more successful rebellion than Lillie’s attack on the Rachel and Leah Center.
Another act of bloodless rebellion takes place at the market where June, Emily, and Janine reunite. Remembering a conversation from earlier in the episode where June lamented not knowing Ofglen’s real name, she decides not to waste any more time and formally introduces herself to Emily. This starts a ripple effect and soon all of the handmaids are exchanging their real names. At first the scene feels like too small of a win to be worthy of the time and the weight it receives, but it is followed immediately by the Canadians reading of the names of the innocent handmaids who died in the attack, which lies in stark contrast to the funeral scene that opened the episode, where each was buried under their handmaid names (Ofduncan, Ofcolin, etc.). However, these parallels are left to be made by the audience, rather than ones made by the writing or editing of the show, and as a result, the scene falls a bit flat. If the episode had ended here, I would have been a bit disappointed.
Instead, the real win for the rebellion comes at the end of the episode when Serena calls June into Fred’s study and asks June to be her copyeditor. Having gotten a taste of real power, Serena is no longer interested in simply flexing her muscles to protect the Waterford home, she’s ready to step out of the shadows of incompetent men who have distorted her vision and run the country the way she always wanted. While I think that Serena has always appropriately been classified as a villain on the show, we don’t know exactly what her vision for Gilead was. We know what it became, but we also know that didn’t line up with Serena’s vision as she was forced to burn her own book. Now is the time to see what she’s truly made of, and what her rebellion of soft power can truly become.
She hands June a pen and takes her seat behind Fred’s desk, a sort of throne of Gilead. June clicks her pen in the same way Lillie Fuller did at the end of last episode when she set off her suicide vest. It’s a gesture that is perhaps a bit on the nose – a physical manifestation of “the pen is mightier than the sword” – but one that is effective all the same. Violence is not the only path against oppression. Little rebellions can be just as effective as the bombastic ones.
- I know this recap is about The Handmaid’s Tale, but hearing Iris DeMent’s voice at the open of this episode gave me some crazy strong nostalgia for The Leftovers season 2 opening.
- Nick to June: “It’s okay. It’s over.” Neither of those statements is true. They also are the complete opposite sentiment expressed by the man June actually loves (Luke). As much as Nick has been a liferaft for June, it’s not a relationship that can possibly last. When will it all come crashing down?
- Also. Nick, buddy, what are you doing? Straight frenching June in the middle of a hospital?? Not exactly the discreet approach I would expect from a secret agent. And why isn’t June under crazy tight security? Last time she was unattended in a hospital, she disappeared for three months!
- Pour one out for Commander Cushing. He was a heartless bastard, but a villain who struck true terror into the heart of our plucky June.
- “That pathetic land of bad hats and hipster scruff?” I think Moira is personally attacking me.
- I kept waiting for Eden to pop up and crash a conversation between some combination of June, Serena, and Nick but her only appearance in the episode was at the market when she watched the handmaids as they exchanged real names. How she’ll use that information seems to be a bullet the show is saving for next week.