Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: A surprising alliance between Serena and June (and Nick, I guess) saw off a psychotic new Commander. Emily and Janine were brought back from the Colonies due to the new handmaid shortage. And we cried at Moira’s Amazing Face. Oh, how we cried. Here’s my recap for episode 7 if you missed it.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Daddy. Daddy Who? Daddy’s home, and he’s mad. He saw some spoilers and he’s pretty sure he knows whose handwriting that is, so run away from scary spoiler man before he calls you into his office for a scolding! Or, uh, a standard spoiler warning or something. Look, I make bad jokes when faced with horror, OK?
The episode starts with a ‘new normal’: Serena and June, partners in crime, their uneasy alliance having blossomed into a mutual respect and almost warmth. They hide away in Fred’s office in the evenings, working on new policies, listening to music, even chatting. Chatting. The power dynamics in the house have altered, but just as Serena and June have established Team Waterford Women, we get the news that Fred is coming home. The ‘new normal’ has come to an end. Will their bond survive Fred’s return?
His arrival at the house is played as ominously as possible. As the women of the household line up to greet him, there is frostiness and tension. It’s like he can sense that things have changed, but he’s not sure how just yet. But as soon as he can, he marks his territory. No, not by peeing everywhere. Within moments of arriving, Serena is shut out of the office again. Once more, she finds herself on the fringes.
For June, it’s like the full weight of the regime has come back. But it’s embodied by Fred, not Serena. No longer is Fred the one who can offer her something personal, something tangible. It’s Serena. Because saying so in words would be too much of a challenge, Serena shows her gratitude in presents: The music box from last season, which was presumably taken back as punishment for June’s great betrayal — and a white rose. Serena knows her roses and what they signify. The white rose is a symbol of great esteem and love, according to Google, as well as hope, innocence, honour, loyalty and trust. She didn’t choose this one by accident. It’s a simple gesture on the one hand, but loaded with meaning on the other. June understands the message. “It was nice working with you too.” And she means it. She’s been treated like a person with a brain, as has Serena, and it’s been groundbreaking for both of them.
Unfortunately, the rose and the music box, along with some careless housekeeping issues, are their undoing. When Fred goes to pay a creepy little visit to June’s room, he doesn’t find her. She’s off with Serena, doing some more rule-breaking for the greater good. Instead, he finds the gifts. And to him, they mean betrayal. Not in any real sense of course; Serena’s been doing his job for him, and he was right to thank her for it. (Of course, she’s been doing more than she was told to do, but more on that story later.) The gifts in the room show the bond between his wife and his handmaid, a bond that excludes him. They don’t need him to mediate any more. They don’t need him any more. They never really did; this pregnancy has had precious little to do with him. And it’s this loss of control and the reminder of his irrelevance that infuriate him the most. When all communication went through him, he could control it. Now, he’s outside. He’s outnumbered. He’s the third wheel. Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. He must divide and conquer.
So Fred becomes an obstacle, looming like a shadow over the developing relationship between Serena and June, who take their cahoots to new levels. Both of them see the benefits to working in partnership, and touchingly, their biggest plot isn’t one that directly serves either of them; it’s in the service of saving a life. There are indirect benefits of course; this could easily be happening to them, and so there is a vested interest in modeling compassionate and supportive wife/handmaid dynamics. June can show how to respectfully include a handmaid in the baby’s life, and that she can be trusted. Serena can show that she is compassionate and cares more about the child than Gileadean politics, to reassure June that a baby would be safe with her. But there’s something more going on too. Serena wants to save the baby, not because she likes Naomi Putnam or thinks that she’s a great parent, but because Serena believes her rhetoric and because she wants to protect a baby. It’s the most human and maternal we have ever seen her. June is motivated by the love for her friend, and by that same primal drive that we saw when the handmaids beat a man to death in season 1. If the baby dies, then what was the point of all their suffering?
Poor sweet, broken Janine. There is always a temptation to find her exasperating, and believe me, I often do. She never knowingly underreacts, and she’s not one for caution or stealth. She absolutely cannot be trusted with any sensitive information. She has been putting a positive spin on everything since her suicide attempt — both in the Colonies and back in her new posting. (“It’s just the Ceremony! No blowjobs! Such a blessing!”) But the news about Angela/Charlotte cuts right through that. She is desperate. When June tries to calm her down and keep her quiet, Janine is disgusted. “You sound just like one of them.” It speaks to June’s fears; is she a subversive or a collaborator? By working both sides, is she rejected by both?
Perhaps this is an extra motivation for June to show that she is on the handmaids’ side. Serena’s surprising idea to recruit a Martha to help shows how hypocritical Gilead is; in a nation obsessed with birth, to relegate one of the world’s top neonatologists to domestic service is short-sighted to say the least, but it was done on principle. To abandon a principle because it’s convenient shows how shallow that principle was in the first place. But it gives us the title for this week’s episode, ‘Women’s Work’, with all its politically charged implications. Gilead’s women were demoted and reduced, so women’s work became a slur. But Serena turns that around. Everything else is failing. The (male) doctors don’t have a clue what they are doing. Fred won’t do anything to help. It’s women’s work that will save the day, quietly, behind the scenes, so that Gilead can go on as normal. Behind every man… and all that jazz.
So the doctor/Martha gets reunited with her work again, and like June and Serena working merrily in the office together, it’s a huge moment for her. She weeps as she dresses in her scrubs. She’s not just treated like an equal — the other doctor is desperate to see her because he knows she is better than him. She trained his mentor! It takes just a moment for her to gather herself, and start issuing orders, like a total boss. He hands over his stethoscope to her — a practical and symbolic gesture. The sight of a guy deferring to a woman of colour was soooo satisfying.
That’s quite a big rule broken. The next one is the arrival of Janine. It’s done fairly officially, with Aunt Lydia escorting her on to the premises. The very idea of this was initially written off as “stupid” by Serena, but she’s on a roll, and she’s thoroughly enjoying being the boss. (I kind of want to say that she would be better in charge than anyone else, but I also don’t, because Gilead would work too well and let’s face it, we want it to fail miserably, so…it’s complicated.)
Aunt Lydia thinks this is stupid as well.
“If this breaks her, I will hold you personally responsible.”
“I will too.”
Janine’s visit is ostensibly a compassionate opportunity to say goodbye. Book readers will have been preparing themselves for this. Baby Angela in the book was described as a “shredder” and her fate was unclear — perhaps she died, perhaps she was hidden away. Either way, it didn’t end well. So when the doctor’s prognosis comes in, it’s not a surprise, but it still hurts.
The doctor has got one suggestion though: “Help her feel safe and warm. And pray.” The poor little mite must be terrified. No-one comes near her without a mask on, and she’s isolated. It’s for her protection, but it’s cold and clinical. When Janine is allowed to hold her, to “kiss her goodbye”, she follows her instincts and removes her mask and gloves. Janine can’t offer medicine, but she can provide warmth and love.
Serena and June leave them there, and go home. They thank each other for their help. It’s touching. And then it all goes to absolute hell. Fred has decided to wave his dick around in the name of patriarchal authority. He feels emasculated by Serena taking charge. (Don’t be so crap then!) He gave his consent for her help, thinking she would be his “conduit” not his “voice”. (Really, Rapey McRaperson? You want to talk about consent?) He blames himself for “burdening” her with too much responsibility. (Whip yourself then, you patronising git!) He’s going to “make amends” by punishing her. “Forgive me, darling.” (NO, YOU UTTER BASTARD.) He whips her with his belt, forcing June to watch. At every strike, she flinches. He thinks June is bearing witness to his masculine authority and Serena’s degradation. He thinks Serena will be too mortified to be nice to June ever again. He thinks this makes him look powerful.
It looks like it worked.
Serena hides in her room, crying with pain, and it’s telling that June’s instinct is to look after her. She calls her by her name. Serena orders her to go back to her room, and they both cry, either side of the door, knowing that their alliance and all it meant is probably over. Where does that leave June?
She had thought she could carve out “nooks” and “crevices” in Gileadean life, that were “peaceful, quiet, safe, at least bearable.” But it seems like this has failed. So she hedges her bets again, and goes to Fred.
I know my alliance to Serena is fairly recent, but this felt like a massive betrayal and another mistake. Putting on her little demure voice, apologising and asking for forgiveness just felt like abandoning Serena — the woman she rebelled with for productive reasons — for a man who only ever breaks the rules for himself. It might be a useful long-term strategy, I suppose, but come on, who looks like they’re going to be around for longer? Fred can barely stand up. Come to think of it, June collapses almost immediately after this as well. That commitment to self-abasement took a lot out of her.
But just when you were ready to throw something at the screen for its NEVERENDING MISERYYYYY AHHH-AHHH-AAAHH — WE DID IT! We finally found a line that the show wouldn’t cross!!! And that line: Dead babies. Huzzah!
Now, please don’t roll your eyes at the magical power of love saving the day, because WE DON’T GET CHEERFUL MOMENTS VERY OFTEN.
Aunt Lydia wakes up to the sound of Janine singing. Her handmaid garments lie on the floor, and we can’t see or hear the baby yet. I will confess: I thought the baby was dead and Janine had gone completely crazy with grief, singing to a tiny cold body. I never was so happy to hear a happy baby gurgly noise, honestly. The shedding of the handmaid paraphernalia is symbolic: Janine is acting like a mother, not just a surrogate, and it’s her warmth and love that have saved the child. Aunt Lydia doesn’t care about the clothing or the heathenish singing — she is just overjoyed that Angela is happy and alive. IT’S A MIRACLE! Or more accurately, HOORAY FOR WOMEN’S WORK!
Serena may have been whipped for her troubles, but working with June saved a baby. A doctor was allowed to practise again, and she, a WOC, was right — that child did just need to feel safe and warm. Janine’s instincts kicked in and she provided that care. Women’s work saved the day. But those women are expected to give up their work again immediately.
It’s beautiful and haunting as Janine carries on singing over the credits. Like her, her song is sweet and unaffected. But it’s sad; being with her baby is literally all she wants. Will it break her when she has to say goodbye again? We’ll have to wait to find out…
Yeah, Eden’s definitely trouble. Now Nick has to decide whether to scare her into keeping quiet, or be nice to her so she doesn’t want to betray him. She’s going to get him killed, isn’t she? Oh, Nick. Just when we’d decided you were only nearly pointless.
“May the force be with you.” Janine! That’s not Gilead-appropriate. It was good though.
Serena meekly submitting to her punishment was a surprise. And…it looks like this has happened before, because she knew what was coming and what to do. I know I regularly yell about Fred here, because he DESERVES IT AND MORE, but honestly, the role of Waterford must be a horrible one to play. Joseph Fiennes: You’ll always be Shakespeare to me. You are doing a cracking job of being the world’s most terrible bastard.
“Someone once said: Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Yep, that someone was Margaret Atwood.
“The only blessing was the bomb.” Emily has gone from shocked to livid since last week’s episode. If Mayday need another trigger-woman, Emily would volunteer in a second. And anyone caught in the crossfire would just be collateral damage. That’s the difference between Emily and June: Emily is ‘BURN IT ALL DOWN’ and June is still motivated by her desire to get out alive. Fully on board with Emily burning it all down, but can some nice people get out alive first? Pretty please?
Next week’s episode is called ‘Smart Power’ and oh boy, that’s a promising title!