The Handmaid's Tale: After

What just happened? Did this series finally turn a corner?

That funeral scene in the snow was absolutely stunning, exceptional photography even on this show which has consistently featured amazing photography. The procession of faceless handmaids in red and black was one of the creepiest things I've ever seen on film. Aunt Lydia officiated in the center of the uneven circle of red coffins, saying with unbelievable, unacknowledged irony that "I wish I could give you a world without violence, without pain." It was even more infuriating that those handmaids died nameless, acknowledged only by those hateful patronymics.

And that was the obvious, and possibly even belabored, point of this episode. In the red van afterward, June asked the other handmaids if anyone knew what Ofglen's real name was. No one did.

Ofglen's explosives killed 31 handmaids, which is just too bad. She also took out 26 commanders, including the big kahuna, Commander Pryce. (So much for Nick's transfer.) But Fred Waterford is still with us, damn it, clinging to life in a dark gray hospital room, a stark contrast to the bright white hospital room that June just vacated.


Pryce's death left a power vacuum which was immediately filled by Commander Ray Cushing. Was that character deliberately named for the actor famous for crushing the Rebellion with one swift stroke? Because Cushing was indeed unreasonably terrifying as he and the Eyes searched for someone to blame for the bombing and left many bodies in their wake, hanging people from the eaves of their houses and the trees in their yards, and shooting innocent Marthas in the street. (When June saw the neighbor's Martha shot for simply reaching for her street pass, I thought at first that it was Rita. Thankfully, no.)

When Cushing showed up at the Waterford house to interrogate June, she was expecting the worst and tried to hide how frightened she was. (I actually laughed out loud when Cushing told June, "Offred, you can trust me.") She told him twice that she was taken against her will – technically true, although not in that particular instance.


I'm sure Cushing would have decided eventually that torturing a pregnant handmaid would be fine and dandy. That didn't happen because of Serena. I was completely blown away by the two key conversations between Serena and June that appear to have finally changed their relationship.

First, the one in the kitchen when Serena came home from the hospital and found June sitting at the table trying to satisfy her Twinkie craving without Twinkies. The Waterford house looked even darker than usual and the two of them were practically whispering as June told Serena about Cushing's visit, and the danger to the entire household became clear.

June: "They executed Commander Deeds and his whole household for what Ofglen did."
Serena: "Ofglen was a terrorist."
June: "Commander Cushing would do the same to any house connected to the Underground. And there's no way he'd leave a baby to grow up in that house."
Serena: "Fred would never allow that."
June: "He isn't here... Serena."

June was smiling just a little because she was aware of her power. What does she have to lose? June could tell Cushing a tale, and the Waterfords would be executed.

Instead, Serena and Nick also had a quiet conversation in the dark, and together they forged "security orders" from Fred that charged Cushing with apostasy and treason. (I had to look up the word "apostasy.") Serena decided to risk her life to save her own household and to try to restore her initial vision of what the Republic of Gilead was supposed to be before all those men got their hands on it.

Serena still seems to believe in the concept of Gilead, but she couldn't resist jumping into that power vacuum; it's really interesting that she decided to take June along with her. Serena sat behind the desk and took over Fred's job, and June picked up a pen to edit the forgeries, clicking on the red button at the top in a deliberate echo of Ofglen clicking on the detonator because yes, the cliché is true, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. It felt like a first step out of bondage for both June and Serena. If Serena ever decided to join the resistance, she could be unstoppable. I would love to see that happen. Please tell me that's where they're going.

The two other stories in this episode felt as if they were intended to fill plot holes. But you know, I'm okay with that.

I've been wondering what they could possibly do with Emily and Janine trapped in the Colonies, sentenced to a slow death with escape seeming impossible. It was unexpected, but it actually did make story sense for the Republic of Gilead to tap unwomen to replace the dead handmaids in Boston.

The scene in the market was something special. I absolutely loved how the exuberant Janine ran up to June and hugged her, and June's reaction (she shrieked "Jesus Christ!" which is something you could probably get executed for in Gilead). Followed by June telling Emily, "June. That's my name. I never got the chance to tell you that."

Which inspired June to do the same with each of her handmaid friends. That entire scene in the market with the handmaids whispering their real names to each other was an intensely powerful moment for me, a perfect bookend to the opener where the mourning handmaids had no faces and the dead handmaids no names. The only sour note was the fact that Nick's wife Eden was there, clearly aware that there was something going on that had nothing to do with lemon chicken.

As the handmaids whispered their real names, the refugees in Little America were shown slides of the dead handmaids that also included their real names. Ofglen the Second never had a name of her own in this series – not even Ofglen, since that was originally Emily's name. Ofglen the Second's real name was Lillie Fuller. Rest in peace, Lillie Fuller. I wish you'd killed the Commanders without taking out so many handmaids at the same time.

Moving on to the second attempt to repair a plot hole, it turns out Moira did have a baby once, but wound up with the obstetrician instead.

As season one was airing, I had wondered why Moira was a handmaid when all of the others seemed to have been chosen because they had once given birth to a living child. This episode's flashbacks were about how Moira became a surrogate mother for a quarter of a million bucks way back when.

I'm not sure this particular thread blended seamlessly with the rest of this episode – we probably should have gotten all this background in season one – but I feel that Moira, Janine and Emily are as important to the series as June is, and I thought Samira Wiley did a terrific job. She made me feel how alienated Moira was from the rest of her childbirth class as well as from June, her best friend, whose experience with her first pregnancy had been so, shall we say, traditional. After giving up her baby boy Gavin to his new parents (who thankfully took him to England so we don't have to imagine him living somewhere in Gilead), Moira ran into her obstetrician Odette by chance, they started dating, and got engaged. Odette was "rounded up" before the war. Was that before or after Moira was taken to the Red Center?

It didn't make a lot of sense that Moira hadn't looked for Odette up until this point. Or maybe she had, and the binders full of photographs of unidentified bodies were a last resort. But the moment when Moira found Odette's photograph was heartwrenching. At least Luke was there for her, and that was nice to see.

Bits:

— I always like June's scenes with Nick, even though every time they're together, I worry that they'll get caught. This time, as they were kissing in a corner of the hospital, I was looking around them for security cameras.

... Although how could Nick decide to transfer away from the Waterfords while June is still there?

— I am assuming that Emily was removed from the Colonies before she was permanently affected by the radiation? The Republic of Gilead is obsessed with pregnancy, so that would make sense. It wouldn't have hurt for them to say so, though.

— A barely conscious Fred and an intimidating Cushing both touched June's baby bump without permission.

— When the woman at the refugee center was announcing the real names of the handmaids who'd died in the explosion, the last one was Odette something. I'm assuming that was a coincidence since Moira's Odette had died awhile ago?

— When Cushing was terrorizing June, I thought maybe it was a good idea that she burned those resistance notes from Jezebels after all.

— The closing credit music was "Venus." Better.

Quotes:

Handmaid: "I didn't even know most of them. Ofzev was really nice."
Another handmaid: "Ofedward was kind of a jerk and she never washed her hair. God rest her soul."

Serena: "Guardians shooting Marthas in the streets, and it's supposed to make us feel safer? It's asinine."
Well, and it's murder, too, Serena. 'Asinine' doesn't feel like quite the right word there.

Serena: "Go to bed. Baby needs rest."
June: "Right now, baby needs Twinkies. But we're compromising."
Serena nearly smiled.

Janine: "God saved us. He has a plan. He has a plan for both of us. Well, it might not be the same plan, it could be different plans..."

This was my favorite episode, at least so far. Four out of four Twinkies,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

4 comments:

Lisianpeia said...

Last chapter gave me hope of June and Serena somehow escaping Gilead together. This chapter Like you say, "If Serena ever decided to join the resistance, she could be unstoppable." Maybe she needs something more... strong or bizarre to break away from the concept of Gilead?

When June says "And there's no way he'd leave a baby to grow up in that house" I actually think she has something to lose. If her baby is asigned to a different household, she won't be abl to "track" the child.

I think it's interesting how both June and Serena get into and out of their roles in Gilead. Whenever June calls her Mrs. Waterford it feels completly rerearsed, and when the conversation is real she calls her Serena. I'm still blown away by Moss's facial expression. Her whole demeanor changes in subtle way when Serena says "You are an editor".

I agree that Moira's flashbacks were a bit "lost" in the episode, but it makes sense for me that Moira would delay looking for Odette as a way of delaying the inevitable heartbreak. I've been wondering why they are showing us so little of Moira and Luke... Are they saving that for season three?

I also laughed out loud at "Offred, you can trust me" and that market scene was incredible. I mean, it's obvious the contrast there were trying to make between the bombing and the name sharing, as both being ways of resistance (specially with the pen and the detonator, as you highlighted). But it still worked, at least for me.

I'm worried about Eden. It feels like she's going to do something negative and stupid. I have to remind myself that she's what, 15? She doesn't know better.

Billie Doux said...

Thanks, Lisianpeia. Yeah, I'm also worried about Eden. With Fred gone, it feels like Serena, Rita, June and Nick are allied, and Eden has the power to endanger them all.

Juliette said...

This was my favourite episode so far as well, really beautifully put together. Also, my partner was really confused when I laughed out loud early on, because the two top dog Commanders we've seen have been Pryce and Cushing - which to me suggests Vincent Price and, like you, Peter Cushing, two actors famous for playing horror movie villains :)

Billie Doux said...

Juliette, I didn't catch the Pryce as Vincent Price, but it absolutely works. Thanks.