Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu
In the Handmaid’s Tale season-two trailer, pairs of black-clad handmaids — identifiable by their now-ebony wings — marched down a snowy path, obviously bound for a funeral. We knew that someone important would die, or else why break out a special mourning uniform and cover their faces with chiffon red veils? But oddly enough, the women weren’t lined up for Commander Waterford — who lives on! — or Aunt Lydia, or a Wife. They’re marching to bury the 31 handmaids who have died as a result of Ofglen’s explosives.
The funeral itself — complete with red caskets, liturgical dancelike arm gestures, and some extra hypocrisy from Aunt Lydia, who declares “I wish I could give you a world without violence, without pain. It’s all I ever wanted” — is more than I expected handmaids would receive. History has proven that Gilead’s ceremonies are reserved for the “worthy” classes, so this must be propaganda of the highest order, intended to show the handmaids that there is still order in the tenuous nation-state, that the autocracy is a well-oiled machine. Gilead loves a good ceremony; after all, tradition is what people staring into the abyss of meaninglessness have fallen back on for millennia.
The ceremony is meant to show the utmost respect to each handmaid who died, with Aunt Lydia calling out each woman’s name — Ofryan, Ofduncan, Ofsomedude — and the handmaids bowing to the caskets and holding the veils to their faces, like professional paid mourners. But to bury these women with their Gilead names slapped on them is like reading out the tattooed number of a Holocaust victim as if it is her true identity.
“Do you know Ofglen’s name?” June asks as the handmaids’ van speeds away from the cemetery. She’d never asked on any of their shopping trips, and it would have been pretty difficult for Ofglen to relay that information after she’d had her tongue cut out for recalcitrance. But June feels like she needs to know, that she has to supply Ofglen with her real identity so she can be mourned properly. The handmaids’ glances around the van indicate a sudden general awareness that they don’t know each other all that well, despite their months spent suffering together at the hands of the Aunts and the Commanders. After all, enforced isolation by way of anonymity keeps the handmaids from bonding, and potentially from uprising.
Even in Little America, the identities of the dead remain unknown, tucked away in drawers and drawers of files. Luke knows in his heart, he says, that June is still alive. But Moira needs proof that her own partner — the glamorous OB/GYN who helped Moira through a surrogate pregnancy — is gone, and so she combs through page after page of photos of dead bodies, looking for the familiar face. It’s great to give Samira Wiley more screen time — I’d watch her watch paint dry — but this backstory felt shoehorned in. Why haven’t we heard more about Moira’s relationship? How did the refugee center get ahold of all those photos of dead bodies that lay strewn across pavement in another country with closed borders? Why is Moira’s surrogacy handled by the OB/GYN, and why is the baby handed over at 3 months old in the doctor’s office? Yes, this story line helps us understand how Gilead knew Moira was fertile, and yes, it adds an intriguing dimension to see a woman willingly give up a baby, but beyond that the story feels like mushy filler.
Commander Pryce, the man who recruited Nick and who promised to have him relocated last episode, is dead as well, which leaves a gaping power vacuum at the top. Pryce ran the Eyes and chaired the Council, which made governing decisions in Gilead. And as an early member of the Sons of Jacob, the religious fringe group that carried out the coup against the American government, he held an unmatched place at the top of the pecking order. With Commander Waterford injured, dipping in and out of consciousness in yet another hospital room that appears ready for its Dwell cover shoot, Cushing (who is, as you might remember, a real dick) steps into Pryce’s old role.
The bodies the handmaids see hanging from trees, along with the Marthas being shot in the street, and the speeding Guardian vehicles blaring down the streets, are Cushing’s handiwork. Not much one for subtlety, he sees an uprising and — having apparently never read a thing about how NOT to run a dictatorship — tries to quash it with sheer brute force.
His tactics are probably effective at scaring much of the populace into submission. Gilead has always been a violent place, where “gender traitors” are hung from a wall for the whole town to see and civil disobedience results in third-degree burns. But now the violence is random. Judging by the view out the van window, someone from almost every household has been strung up, not necessarily because they knowingly committed a crime or abetted Ofglen’s act of subversion, but just to remind everyone of the government’s might.
It’s telling that Cushing doesn’t get very far with June and Serena — two women, both of whom he underestimates. Cushing is on a fishing expedition when he questions June — what he really wants is to pin her disappearance on Waterford, and to push him out while the Commander is (physically, emotionally, politically) weak. The docile, lamb-in-the-woods expression Elisabeth Moss employs as June deals with him is just right. An innocent victim like her couldn’t possibly have plotted anything, now, could she? Cushing doesn’t fall for it, but she doesn’t need him to. She just needs to bide her time.
It must have been tempting to roll on Waterford, to declare that this man — who has raped her, groped her, punished her, humiliated her, and intellectually belittled her — is a terrorist, that he knew about the explosion, that he tried to smuggle her out of Gilead, that he let her play Scrabble! But June would rather the devil she knows, and isn’t willing to risk losing the slight advantage she’s gained in the Waterford house (the photo of Hannah, some adoration from the Commander, the leverage of her pregnancy).
So she promptly reports the conversation to Nick and Serena.
Serena too is less than pleased about Cushing’s power grab, and she’s savvy enough to play the game in return. Plus, she sees this opportunity to reinsert herself into the community she created, but that rejected her, and is now on the verge of slipping even further into madness. Serena not only sees herself as rescuing Gilead from a man who will kill indiscriminately and let tanks patrol the streets, she’s reclaiming her version of what their religious utopia was meant to be.
It’s an unsettling moment of female empowerment when Serena waits for Nick to come home and uses his expertise as the Commander’s right-hand man to forge a warrant and submit it to “the Consular of Divine Law.” To see a woman, any woman, rain down such fury on a man like Commander Cushing is redemptive, especially after 17 episodes of dick swinging. But Serena’s motives are patently convoluted. She’s happy to usurp her husband’s role after he’s allowed the Sons of Jacob to dismiss her from their ranks. She’s eager to play out the version of Gilead she’d envisioned, rather than the one that’s come to fruition. And let’s not underestimate how alluring the written word must be for a highly educated, intelligent woman who’s been forced into a life devoid of intellectual rigor.
So while it might be tempting to cheer when she hands Offred a pen and a draft and asks her “You’re an editor, right?” this game of Let’s Improve the Dictatorship isn’t, in itself, a net gain for the women of Gilead. Just like Commander Waterford brought June into his study and invited her to Scrabble duels, Serena is using June for her own purposes. Only another woman can act as Serena’s helpmate — or else she risks a trial for her own crimes of reading, writing, forgery. June is still a pawn.
What will be most interesting to see is if the tightening of this relationship and the potential respect that accompanies it will open Serena’s mind to the idea of helping June escape. June needs a powerful person with access to Hannah. Would she perhaps be willing to give up the baby in her womb to flee with the daughter who was wrenched from her arms?
While the click of that pen lit a small match, the whispers of the handmaids at the market set off a huge blaze. Buoyed by the sight of Janine, and determined to share something of herself in reaction to Ofglen’s nameless burial, June whispers her name to Emily, whom she so fiercely dismissed and doubted in the beginning of the first season (and who, it must be said, is most likely radiating toxicity and probably shouldn’t be trying to get pregnant).
It sets off a chain reaction. Now, with one small act of subversion, they’re a united front, ready to take back more than their names.
Unfortunately with Eden in their midst, they aren’t alone.