Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: The mysterious Powers That Be (the writers) contrived to get June back to the Waterford house, in order to provide a steady stream of breast milk for Holly/Nicole. Eden and Isaac’s love affair lasted about 10 minutes before they went for a short swim. Here’s my recap for episode 12 if you missed it!
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was actually lots and lots of words, and they were all spoilers. The same as in all the other recaps. All plot points were spoiled by Her, and without Her was not anything spoiled. Here beginneth the spoiling.
We survived! We made it! It was a tense and brutal marathon this season, but I knew we could do it! As long as we made it out of the group stages and didn’t lose in a penalty shoot-out — no wait, that’s the football, the other unbearably tense thing on TV at the moment. My bad.
We’ve been praying for movement and we got some! Maybe not as much as we wanted, but let’s not be too picky! Eden’s death caused a ripple effect through the community, inspiring more than one uprising. At the end of season 1, we saw the power of a group when the handmaids banded together to save Janine. Season 2’s finale adds unity between Wives, unity between Marthas, and most crucially, unity between all three groups. We know that women’s work gets stuff done in Gilead; this finale shows us how much can get done when women work together, even if that is in the shadows rather than out in the open. And the cause of this was one simple question: When they come for your daughter, how are you going to keep her safe?
Thus Eden’s death becomes a crucial mistake by the regime. In dealing with her transgression in such a heavy-handed manner, they now face a mutiny in their ranks. What is all of this for, if not the children? I mean, this world totally just benefits the powerful men, but the PR campaign was based on the sanctity and scarcity of children, so they have shown their hypocrisy in neon lights. And it feels like the start of Gilead losing its control.
What does Eden’s death do for our main characters? It crosses a line for June. She could make peace with giving up Holly, but not if Fred was going to see her child as expendable. Rita feels guilty. She regrets not doing whatever was in her power to help. Serena has lost faith in the regime and is prepared to fight for change. And Emily sees inspiration, something dangerously and tragically liberating.
As with last week, no-one cares about Isaac. Meh.
Eden’s belongings hid a secret. Having spent her youngest years pre-Gilead, she learned to read before it was forbidden, and her annotated Bible becomes a poignant symbol. She was trying to understand God. For the normal world, this is one of the least rebellious things someone could do. But it’s a reminder to June and Serena that Eden had opportunities that Holly/Nicole will never have, and that no matter how good or pious a young woman might be, she can and will be punished harshly for the slightest ‘crime’. How are you going to keep her safe? How can a girl “obey His word” when she cannot read it for herself?
How are you going to keep her safe in a world where fathers betray their own daughters? How are you going to keep her safe when she will be punished with death while a man like Fred is rewarded for the same behaviour? How are you going to keep her safe when a man sees tragedy as an “opportunity” or a teachable moment? How are you going to keep her safe when the self-appointed head of the household views women as “the misery of all men”?
The Rise and Fall of Serena Joy
The first time I watched this episode through, a thought from last week wouldn’t leave my head: Are you only woke now that you have a child? This week, I’m adding: Are you only advocating education for girls because you have used the system to get what you want, and now you realise how much you have screwed over all women? The motivation of the Angry Wives Club isn’t solely altruistic as they have a vested interest in the treatment of the daughters of Gilead; where was this drive for equality when you were forcing women to bear children for you, huh? But the second time through, I loved this moment a lot more. Knowing what happened afterwards made this seem much more selfless. It took guts to do that. Fred was giving Serena death stares before she even started speaking. And although many Wives slipped away during Serena’s controversial recital, this was as kick-ass a moment as reading aloud from the Bible could be. The Word is divine; she is citing her own Biblical precedent. It’s a shit-ton of power in her hands. And it terrifies those weasely bastards.
When the Guardians drag her away, she screams for Fred, pointlessly. He’s not going to help her. This might have been his idea. At the very least, it’s happening to her because he wouldn’t stick up for her. How are you going to keep her safe?
The reveal of the punishment was drawn out for tension, even though Emily reminded us about it last week. Serena has lost a finger. But I have questions… Was this all that happened? She looked ghostly and frail, like her whole body was hurting, and she was visibly traumatised, either from pain or humiliation. This leads me to a question you’d wish I hadn’t asked: did they amputate without anaesthetic? Warren’s punitive amputation last season was surgical and under anaesthesia. We didn’t see his reaction afterwards — but we have seen two other characters immediately after a punishment. Emily was also mutilated under anaesthesia, and we saw her dawning horror as she realised what had happened to her. We also saw how frail and horrified Janine was when she was brought to her bed after losing an eye. It’s suggested that her ‘crazy’ behaviour can be traced back to this. She was defiant before, and broken afterwards. Now, I’d wager that waking up to a lost pinky is less traumatic than waking up with only one eye or without a clitoris. So was the horror ramped up elsewhere? Did they do this without anaesthetic to scare her more? Oh no, did they do that with Janine too? Were Warren and Emily anaesthetised because they were being ‘saved from themselves’ and prevented from re-offending rather than ‘just’ being frightened out of re-offending? We know that Gilead tortures women; we’d all rather forget the hob incident from the start of this season… Or are there other wounds we can’t see? I was assuming from how she moved that she had been flogged or something, but she has suffered that sort of treatment before and didn’t look as broken… Or is she just aghast that something like this could have happened to her? Is it the shame that hurts the most? Is it the horror of finally realising what you have done?
Either way, June offers comfort. She seems to have forgiven Serena for the horrific rape, and so, again bearing in mind what happens later, I’m going to follow June’s lead. Serena’s not hit full redemption yet, but as she said, “I tried”, and OK, I’ll take that.
But now June is furious with Fred. They’ve already come to blows, and this time, she’s barely keeping a handle on her temper.
June: You let them do that to Serena?
Fred: We all have our roles to play. Serena needed to be reminded of hers.
How are you going to keep her safe when you let something like that happen? It wasn’t just a “difficult day”, you git. Fred changes tactic when he tries to tempt June with staying ‘Offred’ and ‘trying again’. She looks troubled, and we’re worried for a moment that she will fall in line in order to stay close to Nick and the baby, or even see Hannah again. When he says it “could be fun” to try for a boy, I shuddered. Does he just mean fun for him, or does he think it would be fun for her? Is he calling her out for the way she’s endured flirtation in order to find some tiny respite from the darkness? Is he completely deluded that she would find it “fun” to stay with her rapist? Hands up if you cheered when she gave him her answer!
“Go fuck yourself, Fred.”
This time, he doesn’t lose his temper. He seems to think he’s winning. But episode 13 June is a “badass”. June faces a choice: obedience to him and Gileadean rule, or integrity. Like Eden, she chooses the latter. She’s done with playing the game. She’s not the only one…
Emily Gets Her Rage Back
Emily has been kind of broken since she got back from the Colonies. When she talks to June early in the episode, she sounds like she is saying goodbye, and when she finds herself a knife in the deserted kitchen, it seems like she’s planning her own suicide mission for the first Ceremony with the Lawrences. But in a strange twist, Joseph isn’t interested. In fact, he says “I’m not going to do that with you” in a way that sounds more like he’s disgusted at the thought of her than the Ceremony itself — but it’s all for the sake of a good twist, so I’ll let this go. The fact that he has lied to Aunt Lydia about it is also strange; you’d think he would let Emily know this rather than risk getting caught out, but again, it’s all for the sake of a good twist. I don’t know why Aunt Lydia popped round for a ‘How was it for you?’ chat, but sometimes opportunities need to be engineered. Emily never got to use her knife the night before, and now she faces her greatest enemy, while armed.
Aunt Lydia literally never saw it coming. Her faith in the system and her role in it, creating submissive, obedient two-legged wombs, is so great that she can insult Emily, calling her “perverse and degenerate”, and make fun of the way she mutilated her, saying “it’s like I cut out your tongue”, and then turn her back and confidently walk away. She, uh, won’t be making that mistake again. Emily’s attack was swift, brutal and chaotic, leaving Aunt Lydia broken and bloody, but probably not dead (because season 3). When she walked down the stairs to kick the fallen Aunt a few times, she looked calm and peaceful. Once locked in her room for her crime, we saw a whole parade of emotions: fear, elation, liberation, regret, vulnerability… We also saw the thrill of agency. For a giddy moment, she acted. She did what she wanted to do. She might die for her actions, but for a moment, she lived again.
The Great Escape
Teamwork, people! This is what happens with effective teamwork! Rita is done feeling guilty for not acting. How are you going to keep her safe? Rita puts herself at risk to save a baby. So does Nick. Nick has the added burden of giving up his child and lover to keep them safe. He makes the selfless call; that little nod through the window was his way of saying goodbye. Both Rita and Nick will be in grave danger in Season 3. Fred suspects Rita, and Nick has clearly outed himself. But if they are going down, they will die for their beliefs, like Eden. Dead Eden is far more inspiring than Living Eden ever was.
But most surprisingly, Serena does the same thing. How are you going to keep her safe?
“She cannot grow up here. She cannot grow up in this place. You know she can’t. I know that you love her.”
Serena gives up the one thing that makes her life bearable, the only thing she has ever wanted, something she gave everything up for, something she betrayed womankind for — and she did it for the right reason: to save her daughter. This is her redemption moment. It’s a selfless act, one she too will likely face punishment for. And damn this moment made me cry. Again. I know. This show is dangerously dehydrating.
“Let me have her…so I can say goodbye.”
Your heart was in your mouth right? Is she telling the truth? Is she going to call for help? Then it was time for the frantic dash between the houses, guided by the Marthas. The direct action of the Wives might have failed, but never underestimate a quiet mutiny. As June waits by the road, with one rescued child, she remembers the one she hasn’t rescued; the one she had to leave behind. How are you going to keep her safe?
Hooray for the Commander Lawrence twist here! He could have given Emily a clue that she was heading for salvation, rather than letting her freak out to the sound of Annie Lennox, but he was a good’un after all.
“I’m getting myself in deep shit. Have a nice life! Don’t get caught! Keep away from drugs!”
As it turns out, Commander Lawrence has been wrestling with his own guilt. It’s some redemption for him as well, then. Perhaps it’s just the start of his redemption arc; I hope so, I’d love to see more of him in season 3. He gets bonus points for protecting his wife from the knowledge of his rebellion as well. Like every other good’un this week, he’s trying to keep a woman safe.
As with season 1, this season ends with a mysterious van coming to take a handmaid away. It’s just Emily though. June hands over the baby, telling Emily to call her Nicole. We were talking about Serena’s choice of name in the comments last week, and I see it more as a way to thank and include Nick than just a dig at Fred, though it’s definitely a bit of that too. By keeping Serena’s choice of name, June can honour both the baby’s father and the woman who loved her and let her go. It feels a bit like she’s erasing her own role though; wasn’t there time to ensure Nicole’s middle name would be Holly?
Why did June stay behind?
The real answer, of course, is ‘because Season 3’. Was I alone in screaming ‘GET IN THE CHUFFING VAN, YOU NUMPTY’? What is June planning as she stays behind? If she’s caught, she runs the risk of being executed. (Though perhaps she’ll get some new plot armour to help her out with that.) So why on earth would she opt to stay behind?
Here are the main theories:
1) She’s going on revenge spree. One, Two, Fred: I’m coming for youuuu
2) She’s launching a rescue mission for all the other handmaids and children of Gilead.
3) She’s starting a full-scale open rebellion.
4) She is going to start a new resistance group and Underground Femaleroad, since Mayday only sees handmaids as collateral damage now.
5) She’s too burdened with shame to face Luke and Moira.
6) She won’t leave without Hannah, Nick, Rita, Janine and maybe even Serena. Mostly Hannah. She couldn’t choose between her two children, and opted to try to save both of them.
7) She was staying behind to create a diversion and buy them time to get away, thus sacrificing herself for her daughter and her friend.
Any of these would be an interesting turn for season 3; which one do you want to believe? Do you have another theory? Or were you just swearing at her to get in the damn van?
Final thought: I love the fact that June delayed her escape for long enough to write the trademark faux-Latin on the wall. She really is a badass.
Until next time: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.