‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Recap: What, No Orange Jumpsuits?
Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June’s Great Plan hit a few logistical snags, but nevertheless, she persisted. Then we rejoiced with merry abandon when June killed Commander Winslow, the Chicago Five did some seriously impressive cleaning, and Fred was arrested. Here’s my recap for last week’s glorious episode if you missed it.
This week: HUZZAH, it’s the return of Luke and Moira! We see exactly what Serena got out of her deal with the Americans and how Gilead reacts to three VIPs disappearing at the same time. There’s also a tragic reminder that loose lips sink ships… (Why did I pick a favourite? Sigh.) Spoilers are ahead for episode 12. Quick, go watch it! Did you not just see that Luke and Moira are back? This is not a drill!
This week’s title is ‘Sacrifice’, and it’s another neat title that reflects a range of characters. Some sacrifices are gladly made, some more reluctantly; some are noble, some less so. Some characters martyr themselves for a cause; some are prepared to sacrifice others in order to get what they want. Some sacrifices are rational; some are not.
June is willing to kill for the cause. By that note, she is also willing to die for it. The doctor made that clear for us in episode 9. June opens the episode brandishing the gun Joseph gave her last week, but she doesn’t need it yet; it’s not the Eyes that have come for her at the start of the episode, just your garden variety Guardians, uh, guarding some Commanders: Warren Putnam, and Matthew (of Ofmatthew fame). They are contemplating attacking Canada but Joseph calms them down a bit. Serena seems to have (inadvertently) done June a solid favour by selling Fred out when she did, because everyone assumes Winslow’s disappearance is connected to theirs. This makes no sense at all, because Winslow is a bigger coup than Waterford the PR guy, and the Americans and Canadians would be crowing on TV if they had managed to nab a High Commander, but hey, it gets June off the hook, so we’ll allow it.
June’s laughter is full of relief and triumph. She has got away with murder, and her nemeses are finally facing some comeuppance. She’s not the only Waterford-House-Alumnus feeling this way either; despite sharing a few relatively-sweet-I-guess moments with Serena this season, Rita is giddy at the thought of the Waterfords in prison. She’s also signed up for the Great Plan. “You’re such a boss now. I’m proud of you.” Protect Rita at all costs, please. My favourites are dropping like flies at the moment.
Nearly everyone involved in the Great Plan is making a sacrifice. They are (to varying degrees) sacrificing themselves for others. Few imagine that they are going to escape themselves, and they know that the consequences will be awful. Gilead’s not going to get nicer when they lose 52 children. Insurrection leads to purges. With so many people involved, the chances of keeping the secret become slimmer. They could all die for this. It’s a price they are willing to pay, and they know they will have to pay it personally. It’s a rational, selfless sacrifice.
In contrast, Serena sacrifices Fred, not herself. What has she given up, really? A husband she despises? Symbolic power? A wardrobe full of teal? Big whoop. She didn’t have any friends. She’s not even really a prisoner in Canada — she is just temporarily “detained” while they figure out what’s going to happen to Fred. She has more freedom in Canada than she had in Gilead — she can wear what she likes, read newspapers, eat pizza… She can literally let her hair down.
Is her sacrifice irrational? Depends on the motive, right? If she was selling out Fred because it was the right thing to do, and there was the added bonus of seeing her daughter, that would be one thing. But that’s not the case here. Fred is the price, not the goal. She tells Fred that Nichole needs her, but that’s emphatically not true, and if she believes that, she’s deluded. No, she was closer a little earlier in the scene, when she said “I want to be with my daughter.” I want, I want, me, me, my, my… That’s Serena.
“It’s always been about you, what you want, what you need.”
But even then, she’s kidding herself that this is the answer to her problems. Because the deal she made was very precise, and she’s in the land of Truth Bombs now. The biggest personal sacrifice here is giving up that protective shield of Wife-dom. Here, she’s just another monster, and she’s finally around people who are free to tell her that to her face.
Was that enough of a pay-off for Luke and Moira’s sacrifice? I wonder how much of a say they had in this deal. They both hate Fred, so I can see them allowing Serena to spend some time with Nichole in exchange for Fred’s imprisonment. Luke says it’s “worth it to see them in here,” but it’s unclear whether he’s making peace with a call he didn’t make, or trying to persuade Moira that he made the right choice. They have some good terms though; Serena only gets an hour, supervised, and she isn’t allowed to refer to herself as Nichole’s mother. TRUTH BOMB! She also has to face Moira and get (figuratively) slapped in the face with some shame in the process.
“Just because you got some new clothes doesn’t make you any different. You are still the same woman who held my friend down so your husband could rape her.”
American Agent Dude really plummeted in my estimations when he told Moira “That’s uncalled for”; this had a definite whiff of “don’t be mean to the pretty white lady.” I hope he’s just playing a game and pretending to be friendly to see what else he can get out of her. Hmmm. Dare to hope. If so, maybe I will actually use his name… (Nah. It’s tradition now!)
The differences between the Moira/Serena scene and the Luke/Fred scene were really interesting. Where Serena is shaken and uneasy, Fred is smug and taunting. Luke and Fred are permitted to talk privately, whereas Moira is supervised, scolded and then escorted out of the room. Fred acts like he’s the great host of the fancy jail, whereas Serena attempts sweetness. Serena seems ashamed, whereas Fred is doubling down, defending his “values”. They are both skilled manipulators, but in Fred’s case, he has nothing more to lose. Serena has to be on her best behaviour. Both Moira and Luke land a blow — Moira with a Gileadean insult, and Luke with a punch. Fun fact! Both Mr and Mrs Bankole have smacked Fred in the face now!
Even though there is some enjoyment to be had in witnessing the Waterfords’ discomfort, neither Luke nor Moira would freely and willingly allow a monster like Serena anywhere near Nichole without there being a greater good at stake. And so this is a sacrifice for them too. They will take it for the team, and get in a jab if they can. It doesn’t mean they will like it.
But the greatest sacrifice of the episode is in the death of Eleanor. In the ‘Inside the episode’ featurette, it’s suggested that this is June’s sacrifice, but I don’t like that reading. Sure, June lets her die, sacrificing her for the cause and losing part of her soul in the process. But that takes Eleanor’s agency away. She didn’t do this because June yelled at her. She did this to save the plan. She is an active agent in this sacrificial act, not a lamb led to the slaughter.
All that Eleanor wants to do is help. When she is struggling, her condition makes her a liability, so when she is lucid, she is underestimated. She almost ruins the Great Plan in front of Naomi Putnam and Mrs Winslow, and then she gets a little over-excited when she plans to rescue even more children herself. In the first instance, Joseph and June desperately cover for her, and in the second, June loses her patience and yells at her, then Joseph sends her to her room. Before she goes, she is upset, but she knows that June is right and that she wasn’t thinking clearly. She is lucid again. And painfully aware of some difficult truths.
The absolute best case scenario for her is that she and Joseph escape to Canada with the children. He will be a war criminal attempting a redemption arc, and she will have healthcare. But she will be living with the man she knows is a monster, the man she wanted to execute last week because he raped June in front of her. That’s not a happy ending. So the future doesn’t look great. What about the present? As she has just proved, she is a very real risk to the plan. Without meaning to, she could doom everyone involved. What’s more important to Eleanor: self-preservation, or rescuing those children? She makes her choice. She sacrifices herself. And it’s a rational choice. It’s tragic, but selfless.
When June finds her, there is still a chance to save her, and that’s June’s first thought, if only for a moment. Then she decides to let her die. June sees this as her choice, as her sacrifice. But that does Eleanor a disservice. The last thing she would want is to be brought back and then give away the plan accidentally.
Both June and Joseph are consumed with guilt, but they are underestimating her again. Joseph describes her as “so fragile,” but what she did was a moment of strength, not weakness. In a world that took away her power, she made a choice and she went out on her terms. Joseph and June don’t give her credit for making that choice; they are too busy feeling guilty — whether that’s for yelling at her and leaving her to die alone, or for making her life so unutterably miserable with their actions.
Eleanor dies to protect the conspiracy, but she also inadvertently fixes another logistics issue with the Great Plan. Since the disappearance of George, Fred and Serena, the Gileadean hardliners wanted to close the border. Joseph has been fighting these efforts so that the plane can land and take off again. Now, “It’s hard to argue with a man who’s in mourning,” and he wins the argument by default.
And so, the episode invites comparisons of Eleanor and Serena — Wives who are disgusted by their husbands and motivated by maternal instincts. Serena is “only nice when she’s up to something,” whereas Eleanor is “very kind.” Serena tolerated Gilead as long as it could give her what she wanted; Eleanor hated it from the start. Serena pretends to love Fred and betrays him; Eleanor openly berates Joseph but protects him. Serena is subversive when it suits her; Eleanor is liberated by rebellion. Serena will destroy others in order to possess a fraction of Nichole; Eleanor destroys herself in order to set 52 children free. RIP, Eleanor. You were too precious for this world. You weren’t someone else’s sacrifice; you made your own.
Odds & Ends
Hi there, Big Ticking Clock! There’s one week until the plane comes. And one week until the next episode. How about that?
Billy uses the International Baked Goods Code to signal that he is definitely committed to the plan. Best start packing up that artwork now, June.
Serena’s amputated finger is now evidence that she was a victim. Ugh. Sure, she was a victim of Gilead too, blah blah blah, but COME ON! She’s a monster!
Does Joseph suspect June let Eleanor die? That was some lingering side eye at the funeral. Loving Eleanor was Joseph’s only redeeming feature, and this could push him over the edge.
Eleanor’s choice throws up some questions about what will happen to June once it’s clear she isn’t pregnant. I’m guessing she’ll be reassigned pretty quickly. Will Joseph be required to re-marry? Does he still want to go to Canada with the children now that Eleanor has gone?
I love that when June heard about the Waterfords, she immediately guessed that Serena plotted to betray Fred. She figured it out much quicker than Fred…
“I am who I am, and I have sinned plenty, but you? You are the gender traitor.” WOOHOO, MOIRA! And HEY! I called her that AGES AGO!
“I should put a bell around your neck.” You’re not funny, Joseph.
Next time: Prepare yourself for the season 3 finale! Like, prepare yourself, emotionally and physically. Stock up on some
herbal tea bourbon, because the game is afoot! And season 3 still has a few surprises up its sleeve…
Header Image Source: Hulu
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