If I could point to one “saving grace” in The Handmaid’s Tale, it would have to be that the protagonists, the “good guys” are flawed. Even to degrees of selfish hypocrisy, all or most of these “good guys” are not that good. They’re not of the Mary Sue variety; elevated to impossible heights of perfection or bastions of virtue. Early on in the show’s first season, June was referred to as an “adulterer, a worthless slut” by Aunt Lydia. In this episode, we get that back-story. After she is re-captured and re-tagged like an animal, Lydia tells her “June” (perhaps the idea, not the name) will be executed and “Offred” will be re-born. Fred, who we’ve not seen practically hide nor hair of these first few episodes of the new season, enters proclaiming this to be a “happy day,” that the Lord saw fit to bring Offred back to his home. For June, there was a brief scent of freedom and then huddled captivity. I think freedom tastes like a chocolate shake, but June did not even get that taste. Somebody brought the chocolate shake into the room and she could smell it, but the shake was removed before she could get her taste. She returns to her room and her bed. Like an indoor cat, she sits on the window sill and looks out. Serena, the monster enters and grabs Offred by the throat and shoves her against a wall. This is Serena. This is what she is, and always will be. I’ve (like most people) never laid a threatening hand on anybody in my entire life, but this is Serena, a beast in a woman’s body. Maybe these people don’t like Offred’s face. You’d have to be completely tone-deaf to not be able to read the room.
Offred stares daggers and smiles wickedly at these people, as though she’s conjuring up scenarios of special torture for all of them. Which brings up another dilemma in all of this pageantry. You’ve enslaved more than half the population, forced them to do your bidding, but then you are shocked to discover you’re reviled because of this practice. This is not how you control people. You control people by giving them everything they want. Think Brave New World and Wall-E. That’s how you get the population to play ball. We all know the central hypocrisy of Gilead — that these people do not practice what they preach, so why do they play make-believe with not only their ideas but the collective reactions to their ideas? Nick is, at least delighted, to see that June is alive and reasonably well, but he can’t do much more than that, because everyone is fixated on her, even down to monitoring her beverage intake. The vitamin beverage makes her sick and she throws it up. No worries. Lydia will make another. So it goes. Serena has a half-assed baby shower of sorts with all her Commander-wife frenemies. I call them frenemies, because it’s obvious they hate each other, but they’re not permitted to show it. Meanwhile, Fred goes skeet-shooting with the other Commanders. Fred asks to be named “special envoy” to Canada. It’s cute that Gilead thinks it’s a Nation. It’s not though. It’s a terrorist dictatorship.
Lydia visits Serena while she sneaks a smoke. She gently advises Serena not to treat Offred so badly, if for no other reason than to insure the health of the baby. She also absconds with Serena’s cigarette. Bad for the baby, you see. More than halfway through the episode, we finally get flashback context. We know that June committed adultery with Luke because he was married. She is confronted by Luke’s wife, who tells her she’s destroying her marriage. She calls June a “selfish bitch,” which is absolutely true, but the dialogue is one-sided and does not engage or negotiate Luke’s infidelity. It was his choice to cheat on his wife. Luke is also a “selfish bitch.” When June returns home, she finds Luke screaming into his phone, presumably telling off his wife for approaching June. June feels terrible about this, as well she should. It’s interesting in that I don’t know the purpose of these scenes. Other than setting up an “anti-hero,” are we supposed to believe Gilead is a form of penance for June’s flaws? Is this a kind of solipsism or proof June is living in a simulation, possibly punishing herself for her actions? We get another example of Serena’s cruelty. When June speaks of her own baby shower (and having to give away half of the gifts), Serena turns and smacks the Martha Rita hard across her face. Why? This is Serena. Serena charges into Fred’s office and demands that Offred be removed from the house. Fred tells her to deal with it, that Offred is nothing. That this is her baby, not Offred’s. The show hates women this week!
Serena’s intensely personal hatred for Offred is never explained, and with every instance of violence perpetrated by her, she diminishes herself in my eyes and becomes just another mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villain. Lydia takes Offred for a walk and shows her the latest collection of bodies hanging from the walls. One of them is the Muslim man who tried to help her. She tells Offred the man’s wife will be given to another man and the child will be separated from her. This is such a nice place, isn’t it? Offred is made to kneel before Serena and Fred and beg to stay in their home. She tells them she is not “worthy.” I don’t have anything more to add to this except that no man or woman should be required to kneel before another, but this is Gilead, land of the subjugated, and home to the cowardly. Later, while Offred tries to sleep, Serena enters. She lays her body next to Offred’s and touches her pregnant belly, telling the baby “all will be well.” Yes, Serena speaks to the baby. I can’t tell if this irritates or nauseates June. Probably both. In the greater context of the episode’s “theme,” I don’t see the connection between the two stories, Offred’s impending motherhood and June’s affair with Luke, other than that choices lead to more choices and there are consequences to actions. June prays to God that Hannah will forget her. So here we are, and nothing has happened in this episode other than the consequences of the actions from the previous episode.
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