The Handmaids are cleaning the blood off the walls where the corpses used to hang. A trade delegation is coming from Mexico to meet with the Commander, and it’s important to keep up appearances — to literally hide the bodies when company shows up.
“We have to make the right impression,” Serena Joy tells Offred, her voice pointed. “Our visitors may have some questions … I know that if spoken to, you’ll speak wisely.”
It’s a threat, because everything Serena Joy says to Offred is a threat. That’s what abusers do. That’s how they protect themselves. They teach you to keep their secrets. There’s a forbidden sort of acknowledgment at the heart of the imposed silence — that what they are doing is wrong, that if exposed to air, it would combust. You are the evidence of the worst and most shameful parts of themselves, and so your job now is to conceal them, to be both the crime scene and the cover-up. Anything less would be a betrayal, of course.
There’s a strange sort of intimacy to abuse. It becomes a dark, terrible confidence shared between the person who gives it and the person who receives it. Often, they don’t even need to tell you to stay quiet, to wear long sleeves, to never tell. It’s instinctive, almost — you curl around the knife in order to protect it, sometimes because it feels like the only way to protect yourself. It fits into you, like a hook into an eye.
Once Offred is introduced to the delegation, it becomes clear that she is here as a sort of curiosity, a strange animal from a faraway land. The Mexican ambassador, Mrs. Castillo, has all sorts of questions about why she chose this life, which is apparently the party line the government is selling about Handmaids. “Gilead: We gouge out women’s eyes if they don’t let us rape them!” somehow didn’t pass muster with the tourism board.
Mrs. Castillo has one more question for Offred before she leaves, one more inquiry for the visibly traumatized young woman: Are you happy? The lie comes out almost as a whisper, a false confession at gunpoint: “I have found happiness, yes.”
While the commanders and wives retire to snack on hors d’oeuvres and discuss boring agriculture shit, Mrs. Castillo keep poking the beehive, asking what the “quiet half of the room” (read: women) think about Gilead. After a long pause, Mrs. Waterford leaps in with her megawatt smile and usual pablum about being #blessed, but Mrs. Castillo isn’t done yet: She’s been reading a little book called A Woman’s Place, which we discover was written by Serena Joy herself, back in the days when women could touch books without having their hands cut off.
Turns out that back in the day, S.J. was a fiery “domestic feminist” who spoke passionately at rallies about why women belong in the home. Rallies, you might note, rarely take place in the home, but don’t worry — that particular logical inconsistency will bear itself out in time. There’s a sad, hesitant flicker of pride in Serena Joy’s face when the ambassador mentions the book, one that instantly goes cold when Mrs. Castillo asks her next question.
“Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this, a society in which women can no longer read your book, or anything else?” There is a strain in her face before she answers, a hint of what we see in Offred before her lie, except that remarkably, Serena Joy tells the truth. “No, I didn’t,” she says. It’s a revelation of sorts: Whatever world she thought she was making, it wasn’t this one, but now the cell door has snapped shut and she is as trapped inside it as surely any other woman.
We also learn that the Homemaker to End All Homemakers once got arrested for inciting a riot, and she admits that she “had a temper in those days.” If that makes you want to see what Serena Joy was like before her wardrobe was restricted exclusively to a shade of green that belongs on a fast-food restaurant uniform, then you’re in luck! Because in this episode, the flashbacks belong to Serena Joy, Our Lady of Self-Inflicted Sorrows.
It begins the same way that Offred’s flashbacks do: with love. She and Fred racing up the stairs on a sunny afternoon to make love, reciting racy scripture to each other as foreplay while they tear off each other’s clothes. Back when God was love, when the Bible was something more than a grave they could rob to justify atrocities in His name.
Like Offred’s flashbacks, the hardest part is the contrast: the sheer delight in her face the moment she hears him at the door, the deep sense of intimacy that infuses all of their interactions, held up against the backdrop of their sterile, distant marriage where the closest she gets to intimacy is watching him fuck another woman five feet in front of her. The way he barely seems to see her, barely seems to hear her, closes every door behind him as he moves through his life and never lets her in. How much she misses him even when he’s right in front of her.
He respected her, once, cared what she had to say, even felt pride in her accomplishments. We see them at the movies, as he asks her about an article she’s working on, and she floats the idea of “fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative.” Oh, shit. Did Serena Joy invent Gilead? Is the deepest, most brutal irony of this world that it was inspired by the ideas of a woman who was never given credit for them, and then imprisoned inside them? It’s almost too perfect, too terrible, too true.
There have always been women who evangelize the doctrine of feminine submissiveness, of feminine deficiency. Women who battled against women’s right to vote, to have equal pay, to control their own bodies. If you spend your life in a cage, your view of the world can get warped to the point where the only kind of power you know how to claim is saying, I belong here, I should be here, I want to be here. As though that were choice.
And then there is the specific tragedy of women who bootstrap their way to power through male supremacy, who find a way to achieve power and fame by promoting their own inferiority, by repackaging it as glory. Because what happens when the glory comes? Serena Joy is the endpoint of the particular brand of “feminism” that says getting yours is more important than ideology, that says a woman at a pulpit is always worthy of applause, even when she is preaching her own abasement.
And so we see Serena Joy in the halls of power in the newly formed Gilead, shuffling her note cards and waiting to speak to the men in power. She won’t, of course; they will not have her. At the time, Fred was indignant. He still saw her as a person then. “I won’t give up trying,” he says. “You should be a part of these decisions, and I’m going to keep telling them that.” Moments later, when a man in a suit drifts outside talking about how all the book-learning made women get uppity and forget their real purpose, Fred says nothing. Because if there’s any hallmark of patriarchy, it’s a man saying something disgusting about women, and another man — a “good” man — saying nothing.
Back in the present, ultimate hostess and stealth political operative Serena Joy has engineered an opulent, feel-good dinner for the trade delegation. On cue, all the Handmaids file in and get applauded at length for their “devotion” and “contribution.” Then there is the coup de grace: a procession of all the children who have been born in this district of Gilead, which in the context of a world in which the birth rate is negative zero is basically a procession of magical unicorns. This is also a procession of children who have been forcibly ripped away from their mothers in front of those mothers, who are being showered with hollow cheers about how wonderful it was for them to choose this — to choose this! — so it’s a pretty fucked-up evening all around.
It’s also a very effective one. The Mexican ambassador is enchanted by the babies, so it looks like the trade deal is on. Oh, and one more thing. It turns out that the trade deal isn’t about shipments of oranges or widgets, but rather about the one thing of value that Gilead has to offer: Handmaids. Yup! Despite all the lip service about respect and glory and virtue and blah, blah, blah, they’re just going to straight-up trade women as sex slaves for money. It’s almost like the pseudo-religious gloss that powerful men put on their decisions to control women have nothing at all to do with God and everything to do with power and profit! What a bizarre speculative fiction story!
In the end, the Commander “remembers” that his wife is a human being because she helped him politically for a second, like that’s a bold accomplishment, and Offred does an end run to the Mexican ambassador with one final, dangerous admission: “I lied to you.” She tells her everything: the torture, the rape, the maiming, the forced births. But none of it matters, because it has never been about that. The ambassador says she is sorry — truly sorry — but she cannot help her. She says that there hasn’t been a baby born alive in her hometown in six years, that her country is dying. That turning women into an actual commodity to be bought and sold is just one of those compromises you have to make at the end of the world, when the alternative is death.
Offred cries, and rages for a moment, and then she stops. How often does she think about dying? Is it really so hard to imagine that there are worse things than death? You don’t learn less about yourself when you lose everything. When everything is at stake, you learn more. Armageddon clarifies. And what are the men, or even the women in power, willing to do for women? What are they willing to do for their “values,” for “freedom,” when they actually have something to lose, when they have everything to lose? Look around you: nothing.