This week on The Handmaid’s Tale, a shocking twist: Ladies and gentlemen, the plot advanced!
Look, the show is great. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are spectacular, and the story is truly visionary. But let’s be honest: So far it has been heavily populated with expository flashbacks and visually stunning scenes of Elisabeth Moss moseying to the grocery store.
No more. In this week’s episode, “A Woman’s Place,” Offred (or maybe we should start calling her June?) makes important discoveries and alliances. Discoveries and alliances that could compel her to actually act on the acts of rebellion the show has been foreshadowing since minute one.
The episode opens on Offred and driver Nick’s breathless sex scene from last week, which appears to have given Offred a little spring in her step. Pleasure is a scarce commodity in this town. And it doesn’t last long: In the next scene, Offred and the other handmaids are forced to sponge blood off of the Hanging Wall.
It’s grim, but Offred gets some good intel. One of the handmaids—I believe her name is Alma, based on her IMDB headshot—explains that they’re scrubbing the wall because some foreigners are coming to visit and the government wants to make a good impression.
“Tourists?” Offred says. “That’s kind of messed up.”
No, Alma says, diplomats. In fact, she tells Offred, they’ll be at her house that night.
Which indeed they are. Upon Offred’s return, Serena Joy calls her in to discuss. There will be important guests in attendance that evening and “we need to make the right impression,” she says. She quickly inspects Offred’s appearance before declaring it acceptable.
“Red’s my color,” Offred quips, letting her snarky inner monologue slip out into the world. The two women exchange a little smirk—it’s a good joke—before Serena Joy advises Offred to “speak wisely” if asked any questions that evening. Offred says she’ll do her best.
Another good thing about this episode is that we finally get the Serena Joy backstory. It turns out in the old world she was an Ann Coulter type who wrote a conservative bestseller arguing for something called “domestic feminism.” She also, as we learn in a series of flashbacks throughout the episode, had a major hand in bringing about the regime change that is now, whoops, responsible for her own oppression and apparent misery.
We learn about said bestseller—A Woman’s Place—at the evening’s festivities. The foreign guests are the Mexican Ambassador and her assistant, and they’re in town trying to negotiate some sort of trade deal. The Mexican Ambassador has definitely clocked the fact that women in this society don’t get to talk much these days. But she is familiar with Serena Joy’s book; she read it on the flight over, and even quotes a line from it. “I heard you speak once at a rally,” she tells her. “You were very passionate… Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this?… A society in which women can no longer read your book?”
The Ambassador also has a lot of questions for Offred: What’s your real name? Did you choose this? Are you happy? Do foreign officials not know how the Gilead government works or what? Seems odd, but let’s go with it. After some awkward pauses, Offred responds in a more or less acceptable fashion.
Commander Fred isn’t thrilled with how the evening played out. Mostly, it would appear, because of the attention his wife garnered. In another flashback, we realize that Serena Joy is very possibly the brains behind what used to be a formidable husband-and-wife political duo. (She has since been sidelined from that power coupledom, given that in the new regime—the regime that, it turns out, she helped conceive—women are not given a voice in politics.)
She and Commander Fred are at the movies when he gets the alert that “it’s happening. They’re issuing the orders. It’s what we proposed.” Even he notes the “pain” their actions will cause to so many people going forward, but the Serena Joy of this flashback is ruthless.
“We’re saving them,” she says. “We’re doing god’s work.”
Back in the present, Serena doesn’t seem so sure anymore. She lights up a cigarette and takes a long drag. She told the Mexican Ambassador that the “righteous blessings” god had given Gilead were worth the sacrifices she’d had to make. But how long can Serena Joy, shrewd political strategist and former conservative celebrity, take the backseat to her moody, petulant husband?
After his subpar evening, Commander Fred summons Offred to his office so he can vent about the Mexican officials. “Did you see the way she looked at us? Like we were f—ing freaks. Who are they to judge us?” he asks. Offred just stares at her Scrabble letters.
The commander has apparently drank the Kool-Aid so hard he thinks she actually agrees with him. For a minute, she forgets to pretend that she does. It’s not long before he notices her lack of enthusiasm and tries to send her away. “Being in here is a privilege,” he says, ice-cold.
Offred takes a minute, and, in yet another brilliant display of face-work from Elisabeth Moss, makes the decision to go all in. She is going to gain Commander Fred’s trust, she is going to become his confidante, and she is going to get whatever info she can out of him to fuel the resistance—whatever the cost to herself. “I’m sorry. Can I stay here with you? Please?” she pleads. The Commander allows her to stay just long enough to make out with him before sending her away to cry into her toothbrush.
The next day, the handmaids are granted a special privilege: They get to go to a party in the Mexican Ambassador’s honor. Well, most of them get to go. Right as Aunt Lydia is about to lead the handmaids in, Serena Joy demands that the “damaged” ones—the ones who have been maimed and scarred with cattle prods—be sent away. “You don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate, do you?” she asks Aunt Lydia, who displays an uncharacteristic level of empathy in the face of this cruelness. Serena, it turns out, has plans for this event, and she doesn’t want them to marred by a few unsightly handmaids.
Cut to another flashback: Serena is reviewing some index cards, apparently about to make a presentation to some officials, when Commander Fred comes out of a room and shuts her down. Sorry, he says. “They won’t let you speak.” He promises he’ll keep trying to get her a seat at the table, but as soon as she leaves it’s clear that’s nothing but lip service. When an official comes out of the room and starts ranting about women knowing their “real purpose” in life, Commander Fred does not protest.
At the party, Serena paces back and forth in the hallway before making a grand entrance. She stands to make a little speech. Her husband looks shocked. This was not part of the plan, it seems. But before anyone can object, Serena Joy is introducing the evening’s “special guests.” Much to the handmaids’ collective horror, the guests are the children of Gilead. Their children.
The kids start running around the room, playing and laughing, while the handmaids stand there, stricken. The Mexican Ambassador, all smiles now, shakes hands with Commander Fred. Serena Joy is smiling, too, riding high on her stolen moment of glory.
“I guess they’re gonna get their trade deal with Mexico,” Alma, the handmaid from before, says to Offred.
Offred could care less. As far as she knows, the trade deal is about oranges.
“You think they want to trade oranges? Don’t be an idiot,” Alma says. “Gilead only has one thing to trade that anyone wants: Red tags.”
“What?” Offred does not want to believe that “red tags” means what she thinks it might.
“They want to trade us, dummy. They want to trade for handmaids.”
Another flashback: It’s right after the current regime has taken effect. Or so I’m guessing, because Serena Joy is unpacking a box of green Wife dresses and throwing away pretty much everything else in the house. Fred comes into the room in his new commander’s uniform—he’s pretty pleased with himself. “What do you think? Does it fit?”
Aw. Serena Joy is monstrous, of course, but it’s still kind of sad she has to tolerate this utterly pathetic man. He asks what her plans for the day are: “I’m going to make this place a home,” she says. Outside on the street, people are putting out boxes of their now-forbidden possessions. Nick carries a box out to the curb; A Woman’s Place is on the top.
Back in the present, Offred barges in to Nick’s room, freaking out because she realized she totally sold the other handmaids down the river when she told the Mexican Ambassador she liked being a fertility slave. “I should have said something,” she says.
As it turns out, she has another chance. When she goes back into the main house, the Mexican Ambassador is there saying goodbyes, and Offred has a moment alone with her. “I lied to you. This is a brutal place. We’re prisoners,” she tells the Ambassador. “If we run, they’ll try to kill us. Or worse. They beat us. They use cattle prods to try to get us to behave. If we’re caught reading they’ll cut off a finger… They rape me. Every month.”
“They took my daughter,” she adds.
The Ambassador feels bad, but only to a degree. She can’t do anything, she says. In the city she’s from, a baby hasn’t been born alive in six years. She’s gotta acquire some handmaids to keep the population going. Her country is dying, she says!
“My country is already dead,” Offred retorts, disgusted. So much for the value of saying something.
But wait. With moments left in the episode, something is happening. The Mexican Ambassador leaves the room and now Offred is alone with the Ambassador’s mild-mannered assistant. He turns to Offred: “I want to help you,” he says. “I don’t know where your daughter is but I think I can get a message to your husband.” Her husband? Her husband is dead.
But no. The assistant starts spouting off Luke’s biographical information. “He’s alive,” he says, as Offred turns in disbelief. “We don’t have much time. Please.” He holds out a pad, and Offred stares at it. “June. Write something.”
And that is what we call an action-packed episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. I am genuinely excited to find out what happens next.
Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, and the Women of The Handmaid’s Tale
From left: Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and consulting producer of its Hulu series.
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