Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June tried to play both Serena and Fred, with mixed results. Then there was a huge explosion… Here’s my recap for episode 6 if you missed it.
As always, all the spoilers in the world are imminent, so run away if you want to keep your eyeballs untainted!
As I sat down to write up my (not kidding) 12 pages of notes on this episode, trying to compile it into a coherent recap, my lingering impressions were of two things: 1) How much I cried, and 2) Samira Wiley’s face.
Moira’s my ultimate favourite character from the book, so being Team Moira was inevitable. Wiley has been consistently brilliant in the role, but this week, she utterly broke me. Now, this cast is stacked with phenomenal performances and everyone is bringing their A game. Elisabeth Moss has unbearably intense and evocative micro-expressions; Ann Dowd fully inhabits Aunt Lydia; Madeline Brewer has a wide-eyed broken sweetness that never gets pathetic; Yvonne Strahovski occasionally lets the icy veneer slip ever so slightly to convey the depth within. But no-one’s face breaks me like Wiley’s does. She shows a flash of vulnerability with her eyes and retreats into tough cynicism with a slight clench of her mouth. When she’s happy, her entire face lights up. And when she submits to her grief, it’s like a dam bursting. So, this week’s recap is dedicated to Samira Wiley and her Amazing Face.
Last week’s KABOOM moment was a landmark in the show, so much so that episode 7’s title, ‘After’, needs no more detail. Everything changes at this point. There are two ages of Gilead now: BB (Before Bomb) and AB (After Bomb).
If I were a punning person, I would I totally am a punner, albeit an occasionally apologetic one, so I’m going to go ahead and call it the show’s Anno Bombini moment. (SORRY.)
Everything has changed for Mayday. We know that their mission statement has changed; they’re not helping handmaids anymore, they’re doing THIS instead, and so those old networks — the ones that helped June escape —- have probably gone forever. No more Underground Femaleroad. Even if any of the people behind it survived the terrorist purges, it’s not Priority 1 anymore. No more quiet resistance in the shadows.
Everything has changed for the regime. It’s the era of Commander Cushing, thanks to the departure of Nick’s boss, Commander Price. And Cushing’s much, much worse. This was the guy I thought was going to be the show’s version of Big Bad Commander Judd, from the Historical Notes. And it seems like he is the new Chief Psycho in town — for an hour anyway, until he’s seen off by the unholy trinity of June, Nick, and Serena.
Everything has changed. Nick, who I’ve affectionately dubbed ‘Nearly-Pointless Nick’, lost his handler and an ally when Price died. Was Price the only one who knew Nick was an Eye? Either way, any protection Nick might have secured for June goes up in smoke (BOOM!) with Price. As June’s getting pressured by Cushing to reveal who helped her escape before, it looks like Nick might sacrifice himself to save her. But June won’t let that happen, and there’s only one person she can go to: No, not Fred. He’s somehow in one piece, though maybe his skin’s the only thing holding him together. He doesn’t look well, but the machine that goes PING is keeping him alive. No, she goes for the mostly-honest play, with Serena.
It’s a risky gambit, but considering her line of argument is basically ‘do you want this baby or not? Because Cushing will kill us all’, and Serena a) isn’t an idiot and b) really does seem to want a child, it works. I said last week that the only way to get anything out of Serena was to be co-conspirators, and HEY! LOOK! IT WORKED! Because June and Serena’s aims align, they form one of the strangest alliances we’ve seen yet. But we needed that. We needed something new to drive the action. And it’s satisfying. It’s about time the women ganged up on the men.
And when you sic Serena on someone, she doesn’t hold back. She doesn’t just ‘intervene’ — she frames Cushing for apostasy and treason, having him arrested by the Eyes just as he tries to strut into her house. Remember that she knew him and his wife from before. She didn’t like them, but she knew him well enough to have been on holiday with him. And she’s just set him up for a capital offence. Don’t mess with Serena, folks. And look! She needed Nick’s help! NEARLY-POINTLESS NO LONGER!
Serena got a taste of breaking the rules, and SHE LIKED IT. She’s been in the shadows for too long; In the BB years, she was bored and resentful, but AB, she’s got some power back. An injured Fred is really the best thing that could have happened to her; his death would have made her vulnerable, but as he’s (conveniently) alive and (conveniently) stuck in a hospital bed, she has the protection of his name, and access to all his stuff. Getting rid of Cushing wasn’t enough; she’s drafting Executive Orders now. And she’s brought in June to help, courtesy of her editing skills. (You cannot underestimate the importance of an editor. Yes, I’m sucking up.) They are all in this together. Is it hypocritical of Serena? She’s stepping up to do work to preserve a society that won’t allow her to work… But she’s in a position to subvert it, and that’s pretty awesome. She might not be burning it all down, but she wants to cut back some of the terror. Is that enough? Is it good enough for June? Has June corrupted Serena, or is it the other way round? Is June helping women, or participating in their oppression? That’s a worry for another day. For now, the June/Serena storyline has given me two sources of joy: Serena’s little smile, and June’s luxuriously deliberate clicking of the pen.
The rest of the episode was about the role of names in how we remember the dead and how we interact with the living. The episode opened with a handmaid funeral — we find out later that 31 handmaids were killed in the explosion, compared to 26 Commanders. (Way to go, Mayday; Gilead is built on the oppression of women’s bodies, and you’re built on the destruction of them. Which one’s worse?) When we saw the first shot of the handmaids in their black and red outfits back in the trailer, I wondered if this was just a new, even more oppressive uniform (or maybe some sort of Handmaid Praetorian Guard In Casual Wear situation), but it was a far simpler explanation. The face coverings drew out the suspense as we wondered who had survived. Then Aunt Lydia spoke:
“I wish I could give you a world without violence. Without pain. It’s all I ever wanted.”
Yes, she’s a massive hypocrite, but Aunt Lydia means every word she says. It’s part of what makes her captivating to watch and the stuff of nightmares. “In their names, we remember them,” she says. But she uses their patronyms. They will never be remembered with these; new handmaids will wear those identities like the wings on their faces. The patronyms obscure; they do not illuminate. These are essentially unmarked graves, for unremembered women. The coffins are red. Even in death, they are not free. Gilead’s red marks them by their function, forever.
The fact that no-one can remember Ofglen 2.0’s real name upsets me more than anything. I’m starting to feel bad for calling her Ofglen 2.0.
Compare Gilead’s reaction to Canada’s. There, the immediate reaction is to find out the names. I have no idea how they even planned to do that, or how they accomplished it by the end, but because this show may as well have been sponsored by the Canadian Tourism Board, they do. They even make a PowerPoint presentation reuniting the women with the names they used to have. Lovely Canadian Woman got choked up reading it. (I think she did, anyway, I was too busy crying to be certain.) But Lillie Fuller is Ofglen 2.0’s real name. Gilead took her name and her body. They took her tongue, but she gave one last roar with that bomb. Canada gave Lillie her name back.
There is power in a name. Moira’s storyline focused on her quest to find out what happened to her fiancée, Odette. In the first episode, she told June that Odette had been rounded up early in the rise of Gilead, in one of the ‘dyke purges’. Now she is in Canada, she is given access to all the John Doe/Jane Doe files to see if she can find her again. There are so, so many folders, packed full of documents. It’s a mammoth task, an onslaught of misery, looking through binders full of murdered, nameless people — adrift, untethered, alone. Forgotten.
As she searches, she remembers how she and Odette met. Moira made a choice to become a surrogate for an English couple for the princely sum of $250,000, and she’s going to “Scrooge McDuck that shit”.
Her flashbacks follow her pregnancy through to when she gives the baby, Gavin, to his adoptive parents. (THAT FACE!) She did this for herself, and for them, but following the monstrous birth of Gilead, this was what sent her to the Red Center rather than to the Colonies, so it shaped her fate in a way she couldn’t have imagined. It also introduced her to Odette, who was her doctor. And it was in the simple contrast of two scenes — Moira’s face beaming with delight while flirting with Odette, and her crushing grief when she found Odette in the binder — that the Amazing Face broke my heart. Such hope and happiness, and such despair. But she can restore Odette’s name. No longer is Odette a Jane Doe adrift in a binder. She once was lost, but now she’s found. (And I think Lovely Canadian Lady included her in the PowerPoint, because there was an Odette mentioned just as the scene changed to Moira leaving a picture in tribute. But again, mists of tears. Mascara everywhere.)
Names can restore dignity to the deceased, and they can do so for the living as well. After the shock of the bombing, the handmaids are quiet and subdued as they shop. But Janine’s arrival wakes June up. Janine practically bounces in like a puppy; from her perspective, she’s been saved again! It’s a miracle! Emily is less pleased. In fact, Alexis Bledel’s face is an honorable mention in the Amazing Face category this week; was there ever so much communicated in a single look of terror? For Emily, the Colonies were hell. But coming back to Gilead-central isn’t resurrection; it’s just a different kind of hell. She’s had to sacrifice her name and her body again. Janine has a simpler view: The Colonies were Certain Death, and being a handmaid is Possible Death. I confess Janine’s reaction did remind me of that bit from The Emperor’s New Groove where Kuzco is all, “Yay, I’m a llama again!”
But the return of Emily spurs June on. She never told Emily her real name before. It’s time. They don’t want to die un-named and unknown, like Lillie. The whispers spread, and it’s like they are all seeing each other for the first time. It’s beautiful. And yeah, I was crying again. A lot. (Once the tears start, they don’t stop easily. It’s a thing.)
In the book, Offred never tells the reader her name.
“My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like a telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”
Later, when she tells Nick her name, she feels that she is “known” — but she also sees a risk in this. It is a bond, but a vulnerability. Keeping her name a secret was part of her resistance, part of her hope that she would dig it up again one day and be herself again. But the name floating out of reach, “shining in the dark,” is reminiscent of Gatsby gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock — that tantalising hope that threatens to consume you because you can never quite get to it…
This moment on the show felt different. There’s bonding and there’s risk, but there is also a sharing of treasure. A pooling of hope. There’s plenty to go around. If a name is like a telephone number, then this is a transcendent group chat.
There is power in a name. With their names, they know each other. With their names, they are found again. Their names are a beacon, shining in the darkness. And in their names, we remember them.
I found the lynchings and the murder of the Martha on the street too upsetting to talk about in detail above. Then, when we saw the toilet paper nooses added to the memorial in Canada… Did I mention the tears?
Was anyone else scared for a long time that Rita was the Martha who’d been shot in the street?
Cushing’s another Uninvited Bump Toucher. Is he gone for good now?
Warren, of ‘Ofwarren’ fame, was at the hospital with Cushing. Hey, remember when he got his arm cut off for adultery? LOOK CLOSELY, FRED. THAT COULD BE YOU.
Luke just continues to be a beautiful sweetheart, right? “She’s not OK. She’s alive. I have faith that she’s alive.” He is just the friend that Moira needs — he brings her snacks to keep her going, and holds her hand when she needs emotional support. Cute. As. A. Button.
Mayday created quite a handmaid shortage then. So much so that Unwomen have been ‘Rewomened’ and redrafted. When the cars came for Emily and Janine, I thought they were rounding them up to interrogate them about Mayday, so I was also a little relieved to see them back in red. I hope they got thorough medical treatment though. Was there a code 2319 incident between the Colonies and Boston-That-Was?
It will be interesting to see how the June/Serena alliance develops, especially now that June’s first rebellious friend is back.
Eden’s going to be trouble, right? She’s witnessed the name whispering and she can’t be trusted… Are the handmaids getting sloppy?
Finally: Moira was looking for a nice bottle of Malbec to drink with Luke and June, when she bumped into Odette. This is the best red wine, fact. And I might just pour myself a glass. Or two. Cheers.