Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: We spent much of the episode with a broken Offred, until June came back to us in the last few minutes. We also caught up with Emily and Janine in the Colonies. In case you missed it, my recap for episode 5 is here.
Spoilers follow, and trust me — you don’t really want this one spoiled for you. If you are reading before you watch, for content warnings, this episode is more awkward than traumatic, and I don’t want you to miss out on having a moment like this:
This episode goes out to anyone who is a bit scared of public speaking. Next time you have to do a presentation or speech, and you ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, I want you to remember this episode and feel comforted. You probably won’t get called a “Nazi c*nt”, or shot, or blown up. Feeling better?
It’s another promising title this week, with ‘First Blood’ suggesting the first strike in a battle. And we need a little battle right now. We need something to counter the incessant bleakness of season 2, something more active and tangible than the glimmers of hope we had last week from Janine.
Our first warrior? June. She’s back, y’all! The bleed from last week was a subchorionic hemotoma; the baby is fine, and so is she, though she will need to rest and avoid stress and sex. (Thanks Dr Google, for the spelling and the advice. However, now every advertiser assumes I’m pregnant. The sacrifices we make for scientific accuracy in TV recaps…) Avoiding stress in Gilead, huh? OK. Good luck with that.
Serena seems to take this on board, and with gusto. Serena has two modes: active cruelty and suffocating, condescending nurture. She might swear that she is going to be a good mother, (or more ambiguously, the best mother she can) but neither of those modes is particularly maternal. However, she is determined to ensure that the pregnancy proceeds without any further drama, and this manifests as some potential bonding with June.
Last week, Offred was in no position to engage with this bonding. June can make the most of it; even Rita advises her to “milk it while you can”. She refuses Aunt Lydia’s Vomity Vitamin Veggie Smoothie (patent pending) and is allowed to do so. Serena gives up her sitting room — her principal territory in the house — for June to eat and sleep in. She talks about buying one of those huge pregnancy pillows to make June more comfortable. She invites June’s ‘friends’ round for a little lunch party as a ‘treat’. We talked about excruciating moments from reddit last week; how about Serena’s gaffe with Ofglen? I seriously think that’s Serena’s most relatable moment yet.
June endures some of the more suffocating behaviour with grace, because she senses an opportunity. She balances obedience and friendliness carefully at first, and invites Serena to touch the bump, which is definitely progress from the late night bump snuggling ambush from episode 4.
But she has no patience, and she tries to play her hand too soon. Not only does asking Serena to see Hannah remind Serena of that epic fight they had last season, but it means Serena can see that every single gesture of ‘friendship’ was a façade. June loses all those gains in a second. No more fancy room, no more ‘kindness’. But it’s not the full-on rage we might have expected; there are actual tears from Serena. Later when talking to Fred about it, she trails off at a critical moment:
Fred: I know she can be difficult.
Serena: She’s devious. Always wanting more. (…) I thought we could be—
Was she going to say “friends”? Or at least “close”? “Allies”? “Partners”? It’s typical of this show that characters you thought had no redeemable qualities suddenly surprise you and almost make you sympathetic. (Almost…) Serena’s back to her icy cruelty immediately though, teaching June and Eden a lesson about domestic hierarchy by dropping her knitting needles. She’s back to calling June “the handmaid” again as well. It doesn’t look good. June needs to remember that the only alliance that ever worked with Serena was when they were relatively honest with each other and both breaking the rules — when they engaged the ‘services’ of Nick. ‘Playing her’ isn’t going to work; they need to be in cahoots. I’m not suggesting that they will ever be on the same side, but where there are gains to be made, it will only ever work if they are co-conspirators. Serena is the enemy, but she is smart, underestimated, and lonely. She wants a baby and she wants power. They will never trust each other, but they could find each other useful. Looks like that’s not an option for the immediate future. Come on, June — play the long game!
June had more success elsewhere in the house, re-cultivating an old alliance with Fred. She’s keeping her options open, then. One would have thought that option was gone for good, as Fred knows that the baby isn’t his, but he’s a simpler person to manipulate than Serena. Her first foray into re-building that relationship takes place in the kitchen, and he appears wary initially, but following his discussion with Serena in the greenhouse, he feels the “need to step in and keep the peace”. Aunt Lydia gave him The Talk about how dynamics between Wife and Handmaid can be difficult, even jokingly noting that Fred has a particularly “wilful pair”; playing the role of mediator appeals to his delusions of power, and he’s pleased to take the opportunity to play the Good Guy. Especially if he also gets to play Handmaids With Benefits. He’s trading treats for sex again, but this time, June gets a photo of her daughter and doesn’t have to sleep with him in exchange. He wants to, of course. But she’s worried about the baby, and that exempts her from having to endure it. (That bump really is a ‘get out of jail free’ card, isn’t it?) When Fred calls this partial-exchange “our little secret”, he’s allying himself with her again, pretending that it’s a partnership of equals, but believing it only exists to benefit him. That’s how you play the game, June: Make someone feel like a co-conspirator, even a lead-conspirator, and “milk it while you can”.
That’s not the only horribly awkward bedroom scene this week, though. The new Mrs Blaine, Eden — who is 15 years old — raises concerns about Nick’s reluctance to consummate their marriage. Seeking advice from June is a strange thing to do; is she trying to bond with June, or is she threatening her? It rests on how we perceive Eden’s question:
“What if Nick’s a gender traitor?”
It’s a loaded question and a terrifying one for June. If that accusation went to anyone else, the only way to save Nick would be to condemn herself. But was it asked in true-believer ignorance? Or is Eden more aware of Nick and June than she seems? Either way, there’s only one way for Nick and June to save themselves, and that is for Nick to ‘do his duty’, which June orders him to do without delay. Of course Nick doesn’t want to; she’s 15 YEARS OLD and he didn’t want any of this, but if he thinks he’s getting sympathy from June, well, he’s mistaken.
“Oh, you have to fuck someone you don’t want to? Poor thing.”
And that is how the show leads us into the scene with the special sex sheet. The less said about that the better, I think, apart from EWWW. I had a couple of bad jokes for you, about holy holey sheets, and, uh, ‘First Blood’, but let’s just whoosh past those and try to get that whole scene out of our heads as quickly as possible, shall we?
The flashbacks belonged to Serena this week, as in episode 6 last season, and the showrunners are having some fun using current affairs to shape the flashbacks and scare the bejesus out of us. This week, Serena’s channeling Milo Whatsisface, and facing hostile, baying crowds at a university talk. She’s super excited to get their ideas discussed in a mainstream context, and she’s expecting some resistance, but the boos and jeers from the crowd are rather more than she prepared for. She feels it’s a freedom of speech issue, which yes, I suppose it is, but just as she’s free to speak, everyone else is free to think that she’s a terrible human being.
“She has a right to speak! This is America!”
She is whisked away from the lecture hall, but outside, she finds her voice and a crowd more receptive to her rhetoric. Her accusation, that “you’re living in an academic bubble”, has more than a slight whiff of ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ about it, but her emotive appeal that “the future of mankind depends on what we do today” seems to land more successfully. She goes viral on Twitter. She seems to have achieved her goal after all; but then, it’s first blood in her own battle to ‘save the world’ — her assistant/agent is killed, then Serena gets shot in the abdomen.
When she wakes in hospital, she is more determined than ever:
“We will not allow a terrorist to silence us. The truth can be hard to hear. But only the truth can save us.”
It’s pretty hard to see Serena as the victim of terrorism, after we saw the rise of the regime as a terrorist coup last season. But there can be terrorists on all sides, and it’s a useful reminder of that before the episode’s climax.
Fred takes the shooting as a sign that he “should never have let you start speaking in public”, because of course he does. But then we see a different side to Fred when he tracks down the man responsible and executes that guy’s wife in the woods. It’s another warning to us that there is more to Fred; he’s not just the pathetic guy that June can manipulate. He’s got blood on his hands too. Was this the first time? It didn’t look like it; he didn’t seem hesitant or troubled by it. I can’t imagine anyone watching the show feels terribly sorry for Fred and needs to be reminded that he is not a Good Guy, but given what follows, perhaps it was necessary to make him more actively bad?
But the final battle is the one that we all really want to talk about, right? The new Rachel and Leah Center is properly huge, and will “process more girls” than its predecessor. It’s like a giant symbol of Gileadean fecundity; it may as well look like this:
Remember when Ted worked for Hammond Druthers, I just took a picture of the "Penis building" pic.twitter.com/5saWza6h— Barney Stinson (@AwsomeStinson) April 11, 2012
Opening the center is a big deal. Commanders from every district will be there. It will be a sign of the developing success of the handmaid program. And so, it becomes a target: First blood in Mayday’s new offensive strategy. Battle lines have been drawn. Mayday aren’t helping handmaids anymore ; instead, they are cutting off Gilead’s resources. Have handmaids become expendable for Mayday too? If Gilead can’t perpetuate itself, it will die out, after all. Plus, it’s an opportunity to take out some high profile targets. But were we really expecting The Handmaid’s Tale to go all Battlestar Galactica season 3 with a suicide bomb? Is the show forcing us to look at the ethics of that? Because it is, forgive me, a minefield. Can I just be lazy and say that there are very bad suicide bombers and, uh, less bad suicide bombers? Can it be morally troubling, shocking, and yet still satisfying? Can we agree that those Commanders had it coming? Can my Unofficial Handmaid’s Tale Musical have a Chicago number?
The bomber was Ofglen 2.0 — in many ways, the ideal candidate for Mayday’s plan. Now mute, she is the perfect keeper of secrets, she is rightfully furious, and she has nothing left to lose. As she breaks ranks with the assembled handmaids, it takes everyone quite a while to feel worried. There is a complacency about Gilead that is surprising at times — and a focus on such small acts of aggression that they have created a blind spot for themselves. When they ‘go in hard’ over minor offences, like somebody saying something they don’t like, they leave themselves with few options for more drastic actions. Did they think that cutting out her tongue had ‘fixed’ the issue? Sure, she couldn’t speak any more, but did they think that they had terrified the thoughts from her mind? Because in reality, they just silenced any warning signs.
Ofglen waves the detonator in the air to show her fellow handmaids, who start to run. But the explosion is massive. Who has survived? Nick was in there. Fred was in the middle of his speech, and she got quite close to him. (Serena never should have let him start speaking in public, huh?) How will Gilead respond? Has Ofglen symbolically castrated Gilead? Can I make a joke along the lines of ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody balls off’ in next week’s recap? Why must there be a cliffhanger right there? WHY?
That doctor is the same one we saw last season, the one who made me mad before. Still don’t like him.
Do you think that it would have been better or worse if the handmaids had been named for the Wives instead? Does the patronym threaten the Wife’s own place in the household? Is ‘Offred’ that different to ‘Mrs Waterford’? Would ‘Ofserena’ have an easier time than ‘Offred’ — or would a matronym be too much like muscling in on more of the Wife’s territory?
Serena’s gardening hobby doesn’t crop up very much in the show, but BEHOLD THE SYMBOLISM! Book fans rejoice!
Has Nick told Commander Price some more dirt on Fred? He has asked to be reassigned, but wants Price’s word that “the handmaid” will be protected. Just as Nick tells Price that there is a lot he doesn’t know about the Waterford house, we cut to another scene. Price was at the speech as well, though… DAMN YOU, CLIFFHANGERS!
Here’s a PERFECT title I didn’t get to use because of spoilers — featuring a Moira pun from the book: “There Is A Bomb In Gilead”. You’re welcome!