A scene from “First Blood.”
Someday I’d like to see a cut of The Handmaid’s Tale where everyone’s backstories are chronologically rearranged and timestamped, if only to learn precisely how all of their lives orbited around one another in the pre-Gilead days. During the lull in conversation at the awkward “surprise” brunch that Serena hosts for June, June quells the silence by piping up about a local restaurant that’s now been shut down. (Guess the brunch haters are finally happy in Gilead.) She waxes on about the “liberated omelette with eclectic potatoes,” when Serena interjects with the name — Magnolia’s. “Who knows, maybe we were there at the same time,” Serena adds in a weird bid at affinity. The idea is too real for anyone at the table to handle: They probably were once tucking into eggs Benedict within 20 feet of one another. Before, you know, one of them plotted the murderous overthrow of the government and then enslaved the others. But, yes, please pass the quiche.
This episode, centered around Serena, is one I’ve personally been hoping for. She’s just so wonderfully complicated, and the question of how the hell the Waterfords and their comrades pulled off such an insane coup is so tantalizing. At what moment did enough Americans embrace such undemocratic policies that the entire nation was knocked off-kilter? What turned simple religious zealotry into a complete decimation of the American way of life? How do fringe activists accrue such power?
The answer is outsize attention, mixed in with an already divided populace, and a wee bit of martyrdom tossed in. Sound familiar, fellow Americans?
In earlier episodes, we’ve seen how Serena was eventually banned from participating in the government that she’d had a hand in designing. (The perils of being a woman who wrote a book titled A Woman’s Place that demanded housewifery and factory farm-like reproductive methods, I suppose.) She must have believed herself necessary to the cause — and above it — but last season, she was quite literally shut out of a meeting of Gilead’s founders at the exact moment that she was expecting to step into power. Her book was tossed in the trash. Now she floats in limbo, desperate for a baby because it cements her status in her community, but clearly wishing she could utilize her intellect. If you can ignore her theocratic tendencies, a lot of women might find that they have a lot in common with Serena.
Temporarily knocked off of her evil axis by the thought of losing June’s baby, Serena is the picture of courtesy when June awakens in the hospital. She slides the barriers open so that June can see the baby on the ultrasound monitor, helps June with her cloak, offers her soup after June turns down the wretched green juice. (What is it with this show and pregnant women and soup? Are there vital nutrients in soup that I missed out on?) Serena sets June up in her own sitting room, with its ornate marble mantel and stiff-backed, 19th-century furniture — a far cry from June’s squeaky twin bed and barren walls. Her shift to comforting mistress is so sudden that it has June suspicious, but the moment when Serena sweetly reaches out to touch her pregnant belly feels like it could be a tipping point to pseudo-friendship for the two women. Serena even promises June a pregnancy pillow.
In the flashbacks, we see more of Serena’s wavering. She isn’t some sociopath who tortured baby bunnies as a child, but a woman who swam with the current when it picked her up. She’s hesitant to take the stage and scream over the taunts (“Nazi cunt,” “fascist bitch”…) of those damn coastal elite college kids. She wants to be heard, but doesn’t want to upset anyone in the process. Her ideas are abhorrent, but she’s no Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer eager to bask in the pandemonium.
It’s Fred who practically forces her to step up. While Serena is no victim, it’s important to note that this is yet another instance of a woman being pressed into service by a man. It’s Serena’s book, but these are the couple’s shared ideas, and a crowd would be far more receptive to a woman offering up her own rights than to a man insisting that those rights be seized. The irony, of course, is that after Serena is ushered off the stage, Fred insists, “She has a right to speak … this is America.” Gotta love a man who is so keen to trample on the rights of everyone else, but screams out “FIRST AMENDMENT” when some college kids yell at his wife.
When Serena screws up her courage and screams to the crowd, “You’re spoiled, you’re privileged, and you’re living in an academic bubble,” it’s hard to deny that she is … kind of right? The startling statistic she shares — that “the rate of healthy births has dropped 61 percent in the last 12 months” in America is scary enough to explain why some people follow fear, and not logic. And the shot that takes down Serena’s PR person and hits her right in the groin turns her into an icon of persecution. This, my friends, is how you subvert America. You get close enough to the truth that sensible people catch the contagion of your fear.
When Serena takes June to see the baby’s (rather elegant) room, she sees herself as the beneficent mistress — never mind the fact that it’s actually torturous to show a woman the crib where her soon-to-be-stolen child will sleep. Her sincerity when she tells June, “I want you to know I’m going to be the best mother I can be to my child,” is what pushes June to ask to see Hannah. Knowing that Serena already loves this unborn child, June figures that she can find common ground and exploit that weakness. But Serena has been molded like Play-Doh by far too many people to be manipulated so easily. Instead of allowing June to see her daughter, Serena ends up pettier than ever, dropping a knitting needle on purpose just to make June pick it up.
Meanwhile, there is détente between June and the Commander, whose meeting in the kitchen suggests that a far more equitable relationship than we know exists. (“Are you mad at me?” is a line for your boyfriend, not your master.) Despite her role as the victim in all of this, June has to carefully tend to the Commander’s feelings because, well, she’s a woman. She ends up consoling far too many people in this episode: telling Eden that she’s sure Nick will end up as the man of her dreams, reminding Nick that it’s just too bad that he has to screw someone he doesn’t want to (although dear heavenly father, that scene where Nick and Eden consummate their marriage — sheet-with-a-hole and all — is enough to turn the heartiest of stomachs), and then offering Commander Waterford the lame excuse that she doesn’t want to hurt the baby by having sex with him as thanks for the picture of Hannah that he brought her.
Commander Waterford is feeling extra on edge these days because of the opening of the Rachel and Leah Center, a new “Red Center” where, Aunt Lydia gleefully boasts, they can now “process” even more Handmaids. Judging by that glassy architecture, they can do it with the most modern of amenities, too — no more camp beds in a former gymnasium.
Just like last episode’s “Prayvaganza” (still can’t get over that terrible name), Commander Waterford has designed the opening ceremony to have a little extra sparkle. When he hits the button on the electric shades, dozens of Handmaids stand outside, rather eerily peering in at the man they are meant to serve. When Ofglen — who had her tongue removed — breaks away from the group and starts to head inside, it’s obvious that the other Handmaids aren’t expecting this. They’ve been trained, remember, to keep their heads low and eyes down. When Ofglen makes her way inside, the Commander points at her like she’s a pesky fly and reminds her that it isn’t time to parade in yet. But when she pulls out the trigger of an explosive device from under her robe (honestly, kudos to her for making use of that cruel garment) and runs toward the stage, time slows down until … BOOM.
The episode is called “First Blood,” which I thought was merely a distasteful reference to the loss of Nick’s wife’s virginity. But by the end, it’s clear that this is just a taste of what’s to come. The resistance is on the rise.