“Women’s Work” Gives Us the Power Duo The Handmaid’s Tale Needed

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“Do you miss working?” June asks Serena this loaded question after weeks of forging Commander Waterford’s memos under the cover of night.

June has already speculated to us that Serena seems “pretty fucking happy” and from everything we know about Serena from her flashbacks, we already know the answer to June’s question. But Serena – ever restrained – chooses her words carefully, paying lip service to what must be the mission statement on the Gilead website. June rolls her eyes; she should have expected as much from the uptight housewife.

Serena thinks for a moment though before adding: “I do truly detest knitting. To be frank.”

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In the background, Lionel Richie soothes: “..that’s why I’m easy like Sunday morning..” The scene is the most peaceful the two have ever shared, and it’s one of the first times we’ve seen Serena relax. She’s finally back in her element, writing orders from behind the Commander’s desk. June too, as her editor, finally back in the job that she loved. Their bending of the rules has been good for Gilead as well. They were able to remove Cushing and his execution block parties last week and if Serena’s softening demeanor toward June is any indication, Gilead is probably getting a little easier to live in.

But the vacation is about to be over: Freddy Waterford is coming home.

Still, Serena and June have built a new relationship. They respect each other now. When the Commander returns, Serena asks, more than orders, June to join the welcome party: nobody is that excited to have him back. And that’s because Freddy (yes, I’ve made the executive decision to call him that from now on) is too dumb of a man to be in charge. He thanks Serena for helping him out when he was comatose before dismissing her from his study forever, acting as if he’s doing her a favor by returning things to normal.

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At the market, Janine is in peak form and this might be Madeline Brewer’s best performance of the series. She answers June’s “Blessed be the fruit” with “May the force be with you” before playfully comparing pregnancy to the movie Alien. You see, Janine is pretty pumped to be back in Gilead. She’s not suffering from radiation poisoning anymore, working the skin off her hands, and she’s replaced guards with cattle prods for women who actually refused to stone her to death. This time around, she doesn’t even have to give blowjobs on the side. Things are looking up!

“Being raped is not a blessing,” Emily drops a wet blanket on Janine. In her eyes, Janine has nothing to be happy about. The real blessing was the terrorist attack. Anyone who helps Gilead deserves to die. June wonders if this includes her and the work she did with Serena.

It’s a wonderfully complicated idea of choosing between small victories and the greater war at hand, but it’s interrupted, and unfortunately will only be returned to implicitly. To me, this is a real missed opportunity, because of how directly it blends into the theme of bending the rules for the greater good. Throughout the rest of the episode, we watch how June and Serena both bend rules to help others, but June’s guilt about working from within the system instead of smashing it is an important thought to grapple with and one that deserves to be addressed directly.

What’s the interruption that breaks June’s profound train of thought? An infant ambulance blares as it rushes by the market and Janine’s perfect day is officially ruined. The feeling in her gut is confirmed by June: it’s Janine’s baby.

Serena is just as worried about the baby Angelotte (a combination of Angela and Charlotte because I’m not sure which to call her). The doctors on the case are good, but they aren’t the best. That title belongs to a Martha who is no longer allowed to practice medicine, because – you know – she’s a woman and Gilead isn’t too high on women doing things. To do what’s best for the baby, June and Serena are going to have to bend the rules again.

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They’re able to convince Aunt Lydia and the Putnam family that a mother’s love never hurt a baby and to let Janine visit. Meanwhile, Serena forges Freddy’s signature on some documents and brings in Dr. Martha. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Nobody can figure out what’s wrong with Janine’s baby and the best they can do is try to make her as comfortable as possible. As Janine holds her daughter close and kisses her goodbye, Serena and June helplessly watch on. Still, sometimes all you can do is pray.

Even though they failed, Serena and June proved that there’s a lot they can accomplish together. They took matters into their own hands and bent two major rules to do all they could for baby Angelotte: (1) letting a woman practice medicine and (2) letting a handmaid see her child. The outcome wasn’t what they had hoped for, but it’s clear that they are a formidable duo.

And that’s to say nothing of the performances by Yvonne Strahovski and Elizabeth Moss, both of which are superb. The Handmaid’s Tale is at its absolute best when these two share the screen, playing an invisible game of tug-of-war, as the camera lingers on their faces and we see each trying to will the other into submission with their eyes. And yet, the show found a beautifully different one-off story in this episode by giving us the rare treat of aligning Serena and June toward the same goal. It’s something that even the characters themselves can’t help but acknowledge when they return home.

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Of course, this is The Handmaid’s Tale, so things can’t stay peachy forever. While the women were out trying to save a life, Freddy Waterford went looking for a late-night booty call and figured out exactly what the two women had been up to in his absence. While Serena designed Gilead to save the human race and put children first, now obeying your husband is more important. The Commander reads from the Bible and whips his wife with his belt, hammering her back into submission. Now, Serena knows the same violence and torture as June, but she’s new to it, and retreats inward, buttoning up her personality right back up.

This is the closest we get to returning to the consequences of bending the rules from within. Serena’s work as an extension of her husband was an attempt to do just that, but at the end of the day, it’s still an oppressive nightmare for women, including her. Maybe Emily was right and the only option is to blow it all to pieces.

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June is just as defeated. She had let herself get hopeful. They could have been colleagues. They’d listened to music together. That same music drifts from The Commander’s reclaimed study, but now warped and distorted. June had let herself think that they could grow through the cracks of Gilead. But after everything that’s happened, all she can do is collapse on the floor. After all, despite all she accomplished with Serena, they still failed.

But wait – the baby Angelotte is alive! Janine, having snuggled and sung to her baby only the way a mother could, has brought her baby back from the brink. Angelotte is awake now, lively and smiling. It’s a miracle in every sense of the word.

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STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • The Handmaid’s Tale was on a real ‘70s kick this week. Alien was released in 1979 and both Star Wars and “Easy” in 1977.
  • On that note, good to know that the Alien vs. Aliens debate is something that even Gilead can’t kill.
  • I’m amazed at how many different ways “Praised be” can be delivered in this show. It’s become this blank slate that any emotion can be impressed upon.
  • Aunt Lydia’s soft spot for Janine is a perfect encapsulation of her character. She’s weirdly protective of Janine’s (she uses her real name) well-being, worrying that meeting the baby might break her, even though she sentenced her to be stoned to death by her friends and ripped out her eye.
  • How long has Gilead been a thing? The neonatal doctor Serena brings in is still sharp on all of her details, and her colleague is more than willing to defer to her. Even if there haven’t been any breakthroughs in medicine since Gilead started, how long would it take for a doctor to get rusty? A year? 2? 3?
  • Eden should worry less about curtain patterns and more about lighting. It’s dark as shit in her house.
  • Closed captioning at the market: “[Male voice over loudspeaker] Blessed day. We have citrus.”
  • The Bible verses Freddy reads are actually from two totally separate books (Starts with Ephensians 5:22 then moves to 1 Peter 3:7). They mostly say the same things, but I thought it was interesting that Freddy could pick and choose his lines.
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