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The Handmaid's Tale: First Blood

The use of color in The Handmaid's Tale, or the lack of it, is fascinating. While there was some important use of Handmaid red mostly at the end, I kept noticing that this time, our characters were nearly all in black and white.

The shoe was finally on the other foot for June. Her creepy obstetrician, the one with the round face that generously offered to impregnate her last season, prescribed plenty of rest as well as harmonious surroundings. In response, Serena Joy showed a lot of her kindly side before reverting to type. She not only donated the use of her formal sitting room so that June wouldn't have to climb the stairs to her barren Cinderella attic, she offered to buy her a pregnancy pillow and allowed her to pass up the horrible green smoothie that made her vomit. She even set up an awkward handmaid lunch party so that June could hang out with her friends, like their situation was normal and June was, like, her best bud or something. It's interesting that the only lunch conversation they seemed to be able to drum up was about a restaurant where they went for amazing omelettes before the revolution took all that away. Not to mention that Serena Joy didn't seem to be aware of the fact that Ofglen the Second didn't have a tongue anymore when she tried to prompt the conversation with a reference to previous shopping trips.

Yvonne Strahovski has been doing such amazing work as Serena Joy. We're always aware of what Serena Joy is thinking and feeling, and how difficult it is for her to hide her soul-deep unhappiness. Determined to comfort June, Serena Joy refused to absorb June's hints about privacy and hovered, to the point of sleeping in a nearby armchair as June tried her best to get comfortable on the stiff, fancy sofa. When Serena Joy showed June the nursery, she said with great emotion that she intended to be a terrific mother as if she was doing June a huge favor, not seeming to realize that she was referring to the baby she was in the process of stealing from her.

And of course, we all knew Serena Joy would once again go for the cruelty, because that's her default setting. This time, it was because June had the temerity to gently beg for a chance to see her daughter Hannah. Can't have that. Serena Joy, with tears on her cheeks, refused and once again banished June to her attic prison. Later, Serena Joy chose to reinforce her power as she ordered her pregnant handmaid to pick up the knitting needle she had dropped. June managed to get out of that one, too, a bit of unnecessary defiance since she could have simply chosen to do it and avoid conflict. (Serena Joy's ever present knitting needles always make me think of illegal, self-inflicted abortions. I'm certain that's an intentional choice by the writers.)

But hey. At least Serena Joy gave June her bedroom furniture back.

This episode's flashbacks took us back in the day when Serena Joy was the object of protests on a college campus where she was scheduled to give a talk about her book, A Woman's Place. Even here, where it was supposedly all about Serena Joy's ideas and viewpoint, Fred (in black) was right there telling her exactly what to say. As protesters were screaming that Serena Joy was a Nazi cunt and a fascist bitch, she was screaming at them that "this is America!" (well, it was then) and "Embrace your biological destiny!" before she was shot in the stomach, her blood clearly visible because she was wearing a totally white outfit.

It's obvious now that the Republic of Gilead was an outsized and unexpected response to the sudden, extreme plunge in the birthrate, sort of like what happened to the United States after 9/11 only more so. It would have been logical if women had acquired more power in this situation; instead, they lost it all. Fred acknowledged that Serena Joy's shooting was all his fault because he let her speak in public. And when the shooter was found, Fred murdered the shooter's wife in retaliation. The woman suffered for what the man did, because that's how they do things in Gilead.

Poor Fred. He has a lot on his plate these days, setting up that huge new Rachel and Leah center to "process" handmaids. I loved that they gave us a scene where Fred literally had a lot of food on his plate. I really wish I could have found an episode photo of that scene: Fred seated at the kitchen table (again, wearing black) with his full plate and a huge knife in his hand, which was pointed at June's pregnant belly (with her again, like Serena Joy, wearing white).

June did her best to re-establish their Scrabble-in-the-study relationship while trying to avoid their illicit-sex-at-Jezebels relationship, and she was successful. Fred came to June's room with a photograph of Hannah, expecting some nooky in return for his generous gift. June did a masterful job, pun intended, in talking him out of the sex while still giving him verbal strokes for the photograph. During that scene, I kept thinking about Aunt Lydia teasing Fred about how his wife and his handmaid were both just sooooo willful, as if it was simply a cute little human interaction, and life and death consequences, specifically for June, weren't involved.

Speaking of life and death consequences, let's talk about Nick's brand new wife, Eden. While she is as much a victim as any other woman in Gilead, it's hard to feel sorry for her when she is channeling Hitler youth. The poor thing drank the Kool-aid, mostly because she has never had anything else to drink. That didn't make her any less creepy, though.

So eager to please that it was outright painful, she wasn't even conscious of the fact that Nick's reluctance to touch her was how a decent man would react in their situation. She was way too eager to leap to the conclusion that he was a "gender traitor," as she confided in June, who was visibly pregnant with Nick's baby. Which reminded me that Nick initially had impersonal sex with June because Serena Joy ordered him to do so.

The interpersonal relationships in the Waterford household are simply batshit crazy. In what sort of demented world does a pregnant slave tell her lover that he must have sex against his will with a fifteen-year-old girl or he might be executed? "What, you have to fuck somebody you don't want to? Poor thing." It was so painful, with the rape on the other foot, that Nick chose that moment to tell June that he loved her.

Nick and Eden praying before sex reminded me of a season one flashback to Fred and Serena quoting scripture to each other as they succumbed to passion, only completely without the accompanying emotion, because this is what Gilead is doing to its people. All Eden talked about, before and after the act, was pregnancy. And the white coverlet with the hole in it so that Nick could deflower Eden without actually touching her anywhere else? That reminded me of the Ceremony, with the Commander raping the Handmaid as his Wife held her down.

The title of this episode is "First Blood," and it wasn't just about Eden's virginity. Serena Joy cut her finger in the dark, dank greenhouse as she was transplanting seedlings. (Please insert the appropriate pregnancy metaphor here.) Serena Joy's white outfit was splattered with blood when she was shot during the flashback.

And in the final scene, the muted Ofglen the Second spoke up in a great big way. It didn't escape my notice that I cheered when Ofglen ran down the aisle like an avenging red angel and blew up the Rachel & Leah Center and a bunch of the commanders of Gilead along with it, while in the same episode in flashback, a terrorist shot Serena Joy in the very same building. What's the difference here? The shooter in the flashback tried to stop Serena Joy from expressing her opinions, and yes, I believe that was wrong. Ofglen bombed the new red center that would enslave more women like her, while killing the men that had enslaved and maimed her. It seemed like a pretty clear difference to me.

Who died? I can't wait to find out. Certainly Ofglen, but will any of those black-braided fascists survive? Please tell me Fred died. That would be awesome.

Bits and quotes:

— During the flashback, Serena Joy was not only wearing white, like June did during much of this episode, but pants. I think the only other woman we've seen on this show wearing pants was the Mexican ambassador.

— Is Serena Joy sterile because she was shot? That would make sense and not just in a hoist-with-her-own-petard way. That hoist-with-her-own-petard thing seems to come up a lot with Serena Joy. Or maybe I just see it that way.

— Before the explosion, Nick begged Pryce to reassign him, and said that there was a lot he hadn't told him about Fred. The last thing he asked Pryce was to "protect the handmaid." Nick can't handle what's happening to him but unlike June, he can get out of it. Or can he? Wouldn't Eden go with him? She's his wife now. He can't just dump her.

— Rita saw June and Nick together in the living room in somewhat compromising close proximity, even though they weren't kissing or touching. She walks in on them a lot, though. I don't think Rita would say anything. Would she?

— They often choose music for the close credits that is pre-Gilead and jarring. Mostly, I like them. This time I didn't.

June: (re: Serena) "She made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
She certainly has her sense of humor back.

Fred: "The green thumb strikes again."

I'm finding it difficult to rate this show, mostly because it's so complex, so well-done, but sometimes goes too far. Maybe I should just leave it up to you guys. How many green thumbs out of four?

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


  1. I just realized I never said a word about Rambo, which in this episode was Ofglen.

  2. I meant to leave a comment on this episode before After aired. I just wanted to say, since you were having trouble with the rating, this was actually one of my favorite episodes. I love watching the dinamics between June and the household, especially with Serena.

    "Serena Joy's ever present knitting needles always make me think of illegal, self-inflicted abortions." Same here!

    I actually laughed out loud at Fred's "This is America!"


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