Moments after finding Eden’s annotated Bible, June confronts Serena with a question about their shared daughter that will come to define this episode: “How are you going to keep her safe?”
The birth of Holly/Nicole has led June to rediscover her motherly instincts and awakened Serena’s. It’s no longer enough to power through Gilead’s oppression, because they have more to think about than themselves. While June has been in mama-bear mode for a couple weeks now, Eden’s death has a sobering effect on Serena. Here is a girl who drank the Kool-Aid, believed in God to the fullest, and was killed for interpreting His word for herself and daring to love (a true asshole, but that’s beside the point). If this pure product of Gilead can’t survive, then what does that mean for their daughter?
Up to this point, misogyny has hidden behind the idea of producing children in a barren society or following a strict religious doctrine. Of course, lots of people recognize it for what it is, but in “The Word,” that veil is broken for even its most devout followers. It’s telling that, early on, Fred’s Bible quote (Proverbs 22:14) omits a key word. Instead of referring to “immoral” women as a dangerous trap, he claims that all women are dangerous and evil, betraying the fact that Gilead is always more interested in keeping women down than it is to following the word of God.
It’s a lesson that Serena has been taught before, but hasn’t learned — until now. She gathers the wives of the other commanders to appeal to the council that both sons and daughters of Gilead should read the Bible, but the other women quickly abandon her once she opens Eden’s Bible and quotes it to support her argument. She loses a finger, and June looks at her with a face that says, “Welcome to our world.”
It’s a touching moment that says so much about June. Her willingness to forgive Serena for holding her down as she was raped only a few episodes before is some real Jesus turning-the-other-cheek stuff. This whole season (and series) has focused on what women can accomplish together and the dangers of being divided. To June, it seems that she has finally learned the same lesson that every other woman has been learning for years. While what Serena did is still unforgivable in my book, they must work together if they are to overcome Gilead, and Serena is not June’s main enemy, the society that pits them against each other is, embodied by Freddy “Krueger” Waterford.
At times this season, Fred has seemed like a bumbling fool (leading to me calling him Freddy), but now it is clear that beneath it all, he is the purest evil (so I added Krueger). While he and Serena are cut from the same cloth, she has sought to bend the rules make things better for her daughter and for women. In his mind, the rules can only be bent so long as it keeps women in an obedient role. He has no mind for his daughter, he’s already thinking about how “fun” it will be to make June give him a son. He uses all of his leverage to offer a deal to June: be my sex slave, and you can stay close to your daughters. While Serena’s Gilead may not have started out this way, Fred represents the real will of Gilead: an unrelenting patriarchy that views women not just as subordinate, but dehumanizes them to their usefulness. As June notes in the opening voiceover: “All we leave behind is the uniform. Wife. Handmaid. Martha.”
Joseph Lawrence stands out in stark contrast. He has a friendly relationship with his Martha, and has more interest in Emily as a human than a handmaid, talking with her at length last episode and refusing to participate in the ceremony this week. He even chooses to help Emily escape after she attacks Aunt Lydia. By the way, I am fairly certain that Lydia is going to survive, because that would be an incredibly unceremonious end to a character that has been so central to this story. I can’t imagine the show burning one of their most compelling characters with no consequences whatsoever. The Joseph/Emily storyline doesn’t quite fit in with the theme in this episode of motherly sacrifices, but, at the very least, it is an entertaining way to set up the difficult choice that June makes at the end of the episode.
But before that one, Serena’s choice is potentially even more difficult. Her journey, and Yvonne Strahovski’s performance, are a culmination of a season’s worth of work. Serena has sold her soul left and right to become a mother in the first place, without fully knowing what that would entail. Now, being a mother, she understands the terrible world she has forced upon her daughter and how powerless she is to change it. It is all there on Strahovski’s face as she sits on the bed with her severed finger. It’s more than just pain; it’s remorse, hopelessness, and shame that not only did she fail, but that this is all her fault.
Serena loses everything in this episode — her finger, her pride, her daughter. But all of those are lost because she was doing what was best for her daughter. Letting her go is more than just a mother’s sacrifice, it’s an admission that she was wrong — that this hell that she has created isn’t fit for raising a child. When she lets June take Holly/Nicole away, she is giving up everything we’ve known her to be, and becoming everything she wanted to be: a mother. It’s a sacrifice that June recognizes symbolically by calling her daughter Nicole, the name Serena picked.
This partnership of our two main women again calls back to the arc of the season and the theme of women working together. Serena and June worked together to save a child’s life, June relied on her memories of sisterhood to get her through her pregnancy, and now a team of Marthas helps June and Nicole escape. The scene was agonizingly tense, in no small part because we’ve come to expect the worst possible outcome in this world. But at every turn, another woman is there to pick them up and carry them along. Even with the deck stacked against them, these women can succeed together.
And I think that’s what runs through June’s mind as she hands Nicole off to Emily. She owes it to Hannah, and now Serena, to stay and help them. It’s not just narratively convenient for June to stay in Gilead (which it most certainly is), but it also makes sense for her character. After witnessing so many women put her daughter before themselves, she knows that it’s her turn now, even though she knows what kind of sacrifice that entails, as she dons the red hood of a handmaid once again.
- So many great lines. Some of my favorites —
- Rita: “Your girlfriend is a badass”
- Janine: “Oh tequila, I miss you most of all”
- Joseph: “How am I supposed to motivate employees if I can’t leverage salaries?”
- Everything Joseph did in this episode, from telling Emily to “Keep away from drugs!” to dancing along with the windshield wipers was amazing, and I hope we get way more of him next season.
- Each map we get of Gilead confuses me more than the last. The most recent screencap:
- The council to Serena: “That is a radical proposal.” Dude, you live in a radical fascist state that she is the architect of. Do you realize how weird that sentence is in that context?
- This season went so far in ditching the end credits cheesy music and then we get “Burning Down The House.” Ugh.
- The guardians don’t make any sense.
That does it for my season 2 recaps of The Handmaid’s Tale! Thank you so much for reading, this was a great experience for me and my first attempt at recapping a series episode-by-episode. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Let me know what show you’d like to see recapped next!