The Handmaid’s Tale
In A Room of One’s Own — the seminal feminist text explaining that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own,” if she is to succeed as a writer — Virginia Woolf makes the persuasive (albeit classist) argument that “intellectual freedom depends on material things.” The room she is talking about is certainly metaphoric, but it certainly also tangible — it has walls, a door, an ability to keep people and distractions out, and it serves a purpose separate from housework. Most importantly, she makes clear, it has a lock: “A lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.”
The room she is describing might as well be the study in the Waterford house that Serena and June commandeered last episode and settle into during the months of the Commander’s hospital convalescence. It’s as traditionally masculine in design as you might imagine — fortified paneled wooden walls, an armory of books, and a carved, heavy desk like a parapet. But the two women slide into the space with ease. Restored to a room of their own, they can think, plan, write — and quite literally put their feet up. They can pop a record onto the turntable — some Lionel Richie, in this case — and feel their brains expand despite, or perhaps because of, the confines of the room.
Some sins, June notes in her opening dialogue, are far more easy to delude yourself about. How does Serena feel about “falling,” she wonders? “She seems pretty fucking happy.” And that’s because Serena is convinced that she is still doing God’s work, even while she defiles the very tenets she helped create — that a woman is a “helpmeet” for her spouse, a figure created under him so that he will not be alone. If she’s keeping Gilead propped up, Serena wagers, God will forgive her the small sins of reading, writing, thinking on her own. And Fred’s gratitude will supersede his own piety, leaving him indebted to her for saving the nation.
It’s not easy to feel bad for Serena, whose prior zealotry blinded her to common human decency, but seeing her happily enmeshed in her work again is almost as painful as watching June underline and scribble with the same relish she once applied to her publishing job. There’s a kinship here, too, that’s evident in the easy way they pass the work among one another. Although June may still head up to the garret at night while Serena retires to the silk-clad master bedroom, intellectual work has cultivated parity between the two women. Until the Commander comes home, and June has to line back up with the rest of the female underlings and pretend to praise God that the man who is keeping her enslaved is now walking — albeit feebly.
The Commander’s return isn’t easy on Serena, either, who tries to make inroads with her draft for an upcoming trip to Canada, but who is physically ushered from the room, the door clicking firmly shut behind her, leaving her cast out of the inner sanctum where she reigned freely for so many months. The praise he offers her for helping keep the trains running on time is the sort of praise far too many women will recall from their own offices — a thanks for “helping out,” for keeping things running smoothly, for doing the woman’s task of supporting a man in power. And the click of the door is very final — Fred may have needed her to keep him in power while he was weak, but now he isn’t taking any risks.
(As for that upcoming Canada excursion, there have been hints dropped all through this season that something major is brewing up north. Luke pointed out a few episodes back that it seemed likely that Canada might invade the U.S. sometime soon, and in last week’s episode the Canadian authorities themselves expressed some enthusiasm at the idea that the resistance was launching its own internal coup by means of Ofglen’s IED. Why is Commander Waterford planning a trip to Canada? Is it a ploy on behalf of the Canadian government to falsely convince Gilead that they are willing to work together? An intel-gathering operation? It would be fitting if Canada, Margaret Atwood’s home country, were to set in motion an invasion or insurgency that brings down Gilead.)
The entire quest with baby Angela/Charlotte (it’s worth noting that Angela is a common Christian name, meaning “angel,” but Charlotte, Janine’s preferred name for her baby, comes from a French root that means “free man or woman”) is a test of Serena’s newfound taste for freedom and desire to steer Gilead back in the direction she originally ordained. The fact that she reveals private information at all to June — that Angela is sick and there isn’t much hope that she’ll get better — is testimony to how their relationship has evolved over recent months. The last few times Serena came into June’s room were to strangle her and berate her, so knocking for a tête-à-tête on information vital to the heart of Gilead’s ethos is a huge step forward. “What do you think?” Serena asks, after telling June that she wants to involve a Martha who previously worked as a renowned neonatal physician. It’s probably the first time June’s been asked her opinion in years.
The question Fred asks in response to the same information from Serena is one that’s far too common in our own society, too. “Who is he?” he casually inquires, assuming that an expert of any kind would be a man. He isn’t shocked that the expert is a woman, just confounded that Serena — or anyone, really — would assume that a woman is required to do the work a man is blessed by the Lord to carry out. He’s also pissed that she’d even ask, and in the mood to deny her, just to remind her of who is boss.
What’s remarkable, then, is how gushing the physician is who consults with the physician-cum-Martha-cum-physician. In one of the episode’s most remarkable scenes, in a very moving episode, the male doctor exclaims, “I can’t tell you how excited I am to see you again,” and details how he studied under the Martha in her heyday and once met her. He’s obviously fanboying, and slightly forgetting himself, while inside the changing area Dr. Hodgson, who’s been escorted from the kitchen she’s been working in back to a hospital with no explanation, gently fingers a white coat just like the one she must have worn on a daily basis. Tears fill her eyes. A uniform again transforms her, this time back into herself, if only for a few hours.
Dr. Hodgson doesn’t have good news. We never learn precisely what’s ailing the baby, but there apparently isn’t much that can be done besides making her comfortable and offering her love. The scene in which the Putnams receive the news while Janine must only guess what’s going on by looking through the glass is so well executed that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the medical-mystery facet of this plot line feels dubious at best.
Then, in what has to be a Biblical allusion to the disciples falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before Jesus was crucified, at the end of the episode the Putnams and Aunt Lydia are strewn about on couches, with Janine’s voice lightly singing Dusty Springfield. By the way the camera slowly panned over to her, it seemed like we were being set up for Janine, holding a dead baby and singing to her with a crazed look on her face. But for perhaps the first time in Handmaid’s Tale history, the outcome for a woman is better than anticipated, and tiny baby Charlotte is happily cooing at her mother, who has stripped down to her underwear and holds her in the light like an ad for a hip parenting website.
Will evidence of the natural healing powers of a mother promote change in Gilead’s policies? It’s never quite made sense that Gilead takes its most valuable assets — fertile women — and treats them like garbage. Shouldn’t handmaids at least be treated decently (no faux hangings or tongue removals) to keep them whole and healthy and sane? Janine demonstrated the value of a mother’s involvement in her baby’s life, so there’s a possibility the Putnams, or even Aunt Lydia, could begin to see the merits of adjusting their tactics.
Janine’s singing closes out the episode, but it would have been stronger to bookend things by finishing with Serena’s game-changing punishment in the Commander’s study. He beckons June and Serena back into the room where, until a few days ago, they made decisions that affected the state of their entire nation. And he asks Serena to bend over, like a child in a Victorian morality tale, to have her bottom lashed by his belt. Fred is coming from a place of weakness and the whipping is his opportunity to remind Serena that he remains in charge. But it’s also meant to degrade her in front of June, an echo of the ways in which June was splayed out and humiliated in front of Serena during the monthly “ceremonies.” He delivers 13 lashes, a number that’s Biblically symbolic as a sign of rebelliousness.
But will his punishment have the intended effect? When June knocks on Serena’s door and implicitly offers her comfort and friendship, Serena recognizes the gesture but rebukes her. She sees that June may be the only person — literally, in the whole world — willing to offer her some understanding. Whether or not June is motivated by a desire to manipulate Serena, to offer her the warmth of humanity so that she can turn her away from Gilead, is immaterial to Serena. Fred has cornered and belittled two smart, strong women, and perhaps unwittingly driven them to turn against him, together.