The Handmaid’s Tale
The last time we saw Serena Joy Waterford, she had thrown open the doors of her husband’s study and gone looking for trouble. The trouble is you usually find it. It ends up the way you think it will: Serena Joy clocking June so hard that her head gashes open on a nearby door frame, and then tossing the gold-sequin dress from Jezebel’s on the ground beside her.
“I trusted you,” Serena Joy spits at June, her face twisted with rage. “I tried to help you!” This self-righteousness very conveniently ignores the two weeks when she put June into solitary confinement and the precise nature of the “help” she offered, coercing June into yet another rape that could have gotten her the death penalty. But hey, she also gave her a music box or something, so clearly June has betrayed their sacred sisterhood! This requires the convenient fiction that June somehow had a choice, when Gilead was engineered specifically to take her choices away. Serena Joy knows that better than anyone anyone; she helped engineer it, after all.
When you feel like you’ve lost everything, you want someone to blame for it, and the other woman is always the easiest target to hit — especially if you own her. Although the racial politics of The Handmaid’s Tale (or rather its desire to sidestep racial politics entirely) remain a glaring weak point, there’s an undeniable echo here with the experiences of enslaved women throughout history, trapped between the desires of their masters and the jealousy of their mistresses.
“You could have left me with something,” Serena Joy says, as though anything June got was something she wanted, as though anything has been hers or for her in a very long time.
Despite all the lip service about godliness and traditional values, the true doctrine of Gilead — and patriarchy, full stop — is men having their cake and eating it too. It’s a pretty amazing sleight of hand if you think about it: trumpeting a return to feminine “virtue” as the pretext for turning women into sex slaves.
God is perhaps the most reliable fig leaf for misogyny in all of history, because it’s easier to point at the sky and say the creator of the universe demands that the world revolve around your boner than it is to admit that maybe you’re just an asshole. As cover stories go, it’s a pretty good one. If it’s God’s will that men have all the power, then turning half the human population into accessories designed to hold your beer, your dick, and your babies is simply doing the Lord’s work, praise be. Remember the men snickering in the limo when they found the perfect scriptural subtext to justify turning fertile women into profitable commodities? “The wives will eat that shit up.” Although Serena Joy may have served herself this particular shit sandwich, she doesn’t seem quite so hungry for it anymore.
And so she drags June to the bathroom and hands her a pregnancy test. Surprise! It’s positive. They sit next to each other on the bathroom floor in quiet resignation, two women twisted into nightmarish versions of themselves and hating each other with every fiber of their being. Patriarchy!
When June makes it clear that this pregnancy is more curse than blessing, Serena Joy decides to take out some insurance in the cruelest way possible. After a long drive to a distant neighborhood, she locks June in the car, and then walks to a nearby house where a familiar face answers the door: June’s daughter, Hannah. June, predictably, loses her shit and starts screaming, clawing impotently at the windows, begging to see her daughter. But this isn’t a social visit; it’s a threat. “As long as my baby is safe, so is yours,” Serena Joy says coolly. “You’re a goddamn motherfucking monster,” screams June, so furious that that words barely hold together in her mouth.
Serena Joy manages to save some of her vengeance for Fred as well, heading back to the study to confront him about his extracurriculars. Remember: She thought she won him back; she thought he could finally see her again, that maybe their love hadn’t been completely obliterated by the ugly power imbalance between them. But nope. Instead of apologizing, he doubles down, going full cherchez la femme. “If I have sinned, then you led me to it,” he says with a faux-piety that makes it clear that even he knows he’s full of it. She responds with a triple whammy: June is pregnant, the baby isn’t yours, and you’re infertile because God thinks you’re a piece of shit.
Later, at Commander Putnam’s trial for indiscretions with his Handmaid, Fred’s tune changes considerably after he learns that Mrs. Putnam successfully approached the council to ask for the harshest possible punishment: cutting off his hand. “She loves her husband very much,” they nod, agreeing to the forced amputation. A dark expression falls over Fred’s face, one we haven’t seen on him before. He’s afraid. How hard would it be for Serena Joy to take him apart if she wanted to?
Moira, meanwhile, makes it across the border to Ontario, where a refugee center takes her in and offers her all the amenities of a civilized society: clothes, a phone, and, of course, medical insurance. As an American, there’s something shocking and almost beguiling about seeing health insurance get handed out like Tic Tacs, not to mention seeing immigrants get treated with respect and human decency. It’s a little eerie watching Moira flee a fascist America and cross a snowy Canadian border in hopes of finding freedom to the north, particularly when you consider that this dystopian trope isn’t anywhere near as subversive as it used to be.
When Nick finds out about the miracle baby, he and June have a tender moment where he kneels down and puts his hand on her tummy, because there are vague emotions swirling in the empty snow globe of his personality. Although Nick spent most of the season feeling like a cipher, now that we’ve learned more about his backstory it feel like he was never any mystery at all: He’s just boring.
And then there’s Janine. She survived the fall from the bridge, but she ends up chained to a stake at the center of the next Salvaging, where the Handmaids are ordered to pick up rocks and stone her to death. The poor, addled woman only seems partly aware of what’s going on, and for some reason Ofglen — June’s pissy shopping partner who is constantly yelling at her to toe the line — is the first one who steps forward to say no, earning a rifle butt to the face for her trouble. Maybe it’s supposed to feel more significant coming from a character this dedicated to playing by the rules, but mostly I don’t buy it.
All the Handmaids end up dropping their stones to the ground in some sort of Dead Poets Society collective protest. It’s clearly meant to play like some sort of satisfying triumph against the Man, but instead it seems off somehow, forced, even safe. From minute one, Gilead has always felt like a bear trap ready to snap shut on your foot, where every waking moment is filled with a constant hum of terror. Sure, the Guardians take out their guns and aim them at the Handmaids, but come on: Does anyone think they’re going to fire? The show overplays its hand here, sapping the terror and brutality out of this world at its most climactic moment.
The season ends the way it began: with the sound of a siren. After Aunt Lydia promises June “consequences” for her rebellion, a black van full of Eyes pulls up outside the Waterford residence. It’s exactly what she’s feared all season, but Nick comes through the door first and whispers in her ear: Just go with it, trust me.
The implications around Nick possibly saving June leave me feeling a little queasy. He was willing to abandon her to the living hell of Gilead when they were just banging, but now that she’s carrying his child she’s suddenly worthy of rescue? It isn’t that different from the way that Serena Joy, the Commander, and the rest of Gilead see June: that what matters about her, what makes her valuable is her body’s ability to make a baby, not who she is or her inherent value as a human being.
“I have no choice,” June says, as the men in black guide her into the van. She never has. This is also how Margaret Atwood’s book ends, with Offred disappearing into the van uncertain whether she is headed toward freedom, or the tender mercies of the secret police. Since Hulu has already ordered a second season, I guess we’ll eventually learn the answer to that question. Whether a new season with no basis in the book is actually a good idea is another question worth asking. I suppose we’ll learn the answer to that, too.