This show has often been criticized for overreliance on torture porn to hammer home its point. But “Ballet” centers patriarchal brutality of a different kind: the wearying, psychological horror of being trapped in a world that values only what your body can provide to men and hides its violence beneath a thin veneer of chivalry in public. You know, the kind of pedestrian misogyny that might seem more familiar to you or me.
If you were bummed by a lack of time in Gilead in episode one, I’m happy(ish) to report that we spend the majority of episode two in The Handmaid’s Tale’s theocratic fascist homeland. The most important thing that happens in this episode is the return of Janine — who is back in her handmaid reds and cognitive dissonance — along with newly minted handmaid Esther, the erstwhile child-bride Wife who let June and the other escapees hide out at her house in season four. I’m glad to see this bitch alive, but it is killer to see her back in that bonnet.
The second most important thing to happen in this episode is the appearance of Hannah, now a preteen and dressed in purple rather than pink, who Serena features prominently in Fred’s televised and internationally broadcast funeral so that June will no doubt see her, which of course she does. Hopefully Serena enjoyed that little power move over June, because it’s the only one she gets all episode.
Like I said, there’s very little physical torture in episode two. There’s just a lot of women bumping up against the narrow, invisible walls that constantly restrain their freedom.
New to handmaid-dom, Esther is terrified to discover in one stomach-turning moment with her future Commander — which involves Putnam force-feeding her chocolate truffles bite by bite — that she is expected to be both broodmare and sex slave. She’s not physically restrained, there’s no Aunt Lydia present to smack her with a cattle prod or rip out a body part, but she’s helpless nonetheless. Esther also feels betrayed by Janine, who she first turns to as an ally. But Janine, out of self-preservation, has resumed her old attitude of willful ignorance and numb pliancy, which is impossible for Esther to understand. She can’t understand why Janine would submit to Aunt Lydia or why she’d counsel her to “make your commander like you” in order to get pregnant more quickly rather than help her plot an escape.
Poor Esther doesn’t realize that Janine has been subjected to too many physical horrors and one too many failed escapes. The way Janine sees it, the only way to survive is to survive, and that means finding a way to be content with the few brief hugs she’s allowed from her biological daughter, Angela. In another world, Janine might be making TikTok videos “joking” about her terrible husband who refuses to learn how to change a diaper.
Equally confused is Serena, who is still working under the expectation that she has some kind of power in Gilead. Girl, I know you’re not new here. You’re a woman. Not only are you a woman, but you’re also the unmarried widow of a traitor. Specifically, what Serena wants is a big to-do of a funeral for Fred. The Commanders had been planning a tiny, hushed-up affair on account of Commander Waterford betraying them. Serena insists that a giant, televised funeral full of military parades and ceremony and whatnot will send an important message to the world — evidently thinking of her small Canadian fan club. She tries to appeal to the High Commanders with logic and passionate rhetoric, which Putnam attributes to “your condition.” She even tries to blackmail Lawrence and Nick by saying she knows they helped June to murder Fred in the woods. A bold effort, but it flops.
In case any of this needs spelling out, Commander Lawrence explains, in dialogue, that the other Commanders don’t care about anything she says because she’s a woman. We’re all looking for the guy who did this, Mrs. Waterford. Eventually, Lawrence intervenes on her behalf, which works because he’s not a woman, and she gets her way.
It is finally time for the big event, for which Serena dresses in full Italian widow in its fascist heyday. Now, I’m not quibbling with the idea that there are people in the world who are genuinely nostalgic for the Third Reich — clearly there are. I’m just not sure about Serena’s calculus that visually invoking Nazi Germany at your war criminal’s hero’s funeral is a good way to convince the world you’re innocent of war crimes. And yes, her motivation was clearly to fuck with June by dangling Hannah in front of her, but she also seems to genuinely believe this will win hearts and minds worldwide. My main question is: Does the show think she’s right?
Either way, Serena successfully achieves her primary goal with this “international event,” which is for June to see Hannah take her place of honor next to Serena in the final moments of the processional. Back in Toronto, June (wearing white to contrast Serena’s funereal black) has just gotten out of a ballet performance with Luke, and the two of them are kissing romantically in Toronto’s version of Times Square. All of the screens have been broadcasting the news, I guess, which is airing this “rare look” into Gilead with Fred’s funeral. June looks up just in time to see a close-up of Hannah’s face on the big screen, thus undoing all the emotional progress she and Luke had just made in helping her move forward with her life.
Because June doesn’t actually have much to do in this episode, where she mostly just cycles through flashbacks, PTSD rages, and remorse. Moira, who really should know more about how PTSD and trauma works than this, is continually scolding. Once again, Luke, the world’s greatest husband and the only good man on this show (in the world?), gets through to her with a touching speech about how much her family needs her here.
So much for that.
• Nick and Tuello are meeting in the dead of night, and Tuello promises Nick he can actually see his daughter, Nichole, if he plays double agent for a while. Nick declines … for now.
• So about Esther poisoning herself and Janine with chocolates? One: Where did she get the poison? And two: Are they alive?
• Aunt Lydia is also back! With a new crop of girls, who look extra-sinister in black robes, worn as a sign of mourning for Fred.
• About sending Serena Fred’s finger, June tells Luke, “I wanted her to know it was me,” and I’m sorry to say I can no longer hear that line without seeing Lady Olenna.