Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!
What is women’s work? And what is a woman without her work ― whether that work be mothering or book editing? These are the questions that “The Handmaid’s Tale” poses in Season 2, Episode 8.
After June is handed a pen, we see June (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) get to work, filling in for Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) while he recovers from injuries sustained during the suicide bombing at the Rachel and Leah Center. It’s idyllic, almost: two women as colleagues, getting shit done. But of course that comes to an end when the Commander returns home ― though his wife seems to remember how good it felt to be able to use her own decision-making and writing skills without filtering them through her husband.
This comes to a head when the neighboring Putnam family’s baby ― whose birth mother is Janine (Madeline Brewer) ― becomes ill. Serena illegally authorizes a temporary transfer for a Martha who used to be one of the premiere neonatal specialists in the world, against Commander Waterford’s explicit wishes. The only problem is that she’s a she. This transgression proves to be too much for the commander, who resorts to violence to bring his once-powerful wife to heel. Meanwhile, Janine is given the space to rediscover the joy in the work of mothering, if only for a few moments.
Emma: This episode, aptly titled “Women’s Work,” was all about work ― specifically the work that women do, both in the domestic sphere and the professional one ― and what it looks like when that work is stripped away from them against their will. It also felt like a big turning point, not just for Serena and June, who are clearly the most fascinating of our band of un-merry actors, but for the show itself and what it’s interested in.
We’ve discussed how the first half of the season really zeroed in on how women are complicit in their own oppression and in the oppression of other women. But now it feels like we’re finally meant to zoom out, and see who that complicity ultimately benefits: powerful, rich, straight, cis, white men. How did you feel watching this one, Laura?
Laura: I think, in part because of Yvonne Strahovski’s fantastic acting, that Serena has emerged as by far the most interesting character this season. And maybe our fascination with her has something to do with this current moment in politics, where we’re looking at women like Melania Trump (who went missing for three weeks amid rumors of domestic violence) and trying to decide whether we empathize with them ― because she is clearly not loving her life, and is in some ways as much a victim of the patriarchy as other women ― or whether their economic privilege and complicity in the oppression of other women makes them unforgivable characters.
In this episode, we see June struggling with this question. She is clearly developing an affinity for Serena, especially since Serena recognized her editing skills and has started to show a bit of mercy and compassion. Plus, Serena is occasionally dropping the “rich Gilead wife” act a bit and has really been able to relate to June, like when she admitted that she hates knitting and misses her real work. June sees in her a kindred spirit ― a woman who is ambitious and smart, who wants to work and exert power and earn respect. But Serena is still the same woman who is essentially keeping June as a slave, who held her down and facilitated her rape month after month, so June would have to sacrifice every modicum of self-respect to become Serena’s friend.
And June’s self-respect may be eroding a bit. When Serena gives her the white rose and the little ballerina music box, she seems almost thrilled like a little girl to have been rewarded for her work ― which is understandable, after she’s been devalued for so long in Gilead. But ultimately, it is still a gift for a little girl ― I received one of those when I was 5 ― which makes it the most empty, condescending gesture possible for a rich woman to extend to her slave. Serena could have given June something meaningful, like a chance to see her child, instead of a spinning plastic toy. That choice makes it clear that Serena’s moments of kindness to June are still just, essentially, lipstick on a pig.
Emma: I felt incredibly conflicted, as I do about almost every interaction that Serena and June have. There is a part of me that truly does feel for Serena, and wants to see her redeemed in some capacity. (I described her to a friend as my “new problematic fave,” as the kids say.) She’s incredibly fascinating, and as you said, Yvonne Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss are often at their best when playing off of each other. But at the end of the day, Serena cannot escape the fact that she helped create Gilead, and despite her small acts of (largely empty) kindness, she is always working within a rotten, irredeemable structure ― something June also comes up against when she agrees to help Serena, to use her skills as an editor to cover for the Commander.
“Stay in Gilead long enough and it starts to eat you from the inside out,” says June, reflecting on the role she played in propping up Gilead during those months. “That’s one of the things they do, they force you to kill within yourself.” This is also Serena’s character’s central conflict, and until we see her truly break with the premise of Gilead and work to right her wrongs in a meaningful way that impacts the people whose lives she has helped to ruin, redemption is impossible for her.
I think my tendency toward empathy for Serena and the other wives comes from my understanding that women are so often judged more harshly for their wrongs than men are, even to the point where they are held accountable for the misdeeds and crimes of their husbands or men who are perceived to be aligned with them. I thought about this a lot with Bill Clinton’s recent inability to engage meaningfully with the Me Too conversation ― despite the fact that his wife paid dearly during her campaign for the way her husband has treated women. Serena is in no capacity innocent ― far from it ― but I am relieved that the show is finally allowing us to see Fred as the greater threat. Serena may have acted as his enforcer, his brains at times, but even her dignity and humanity will be sacrificed if she tries to assert her own voice and power in Gilead.
Laura: Great point about Fred. I have been frustrated a bit this season with the show seeming to let men off the hook. Then Fred took his belt off and whipped Serena like a slave, making it crystal clear, as you said, that it is still rich, white men at the top of the power structure here and perpetrating the oppression, even if women like Serena were complicit in making Gilead what it is.
Serena’s transgression, I think, showed once and for all that she is under no delusions about Gilead and its religious ideology. She knows exactly what’s going on. She saw how ridiculous it was that the best neonatal doctor in the country ― a black woman ― was not being allowed to do her job. She knew that prayers alone were not going to heal baby Angela, and that deferring to her husband was the wrong decision even if it’s what the Bible teaches. So, on the one hand, we see the extent of Serena’s compassion in this episode as she takes a massive risk to help someone else’s baby and to help Janine see her daughter. At the same time, now that she’s dropped the act of pretending to believe in Gilead’s value system and we see how smart and capable and aware she really is, anything she does to perpetuate the system of abuse is just fully disingenuous and evil.
That’s why it’s so jarring when June knocks on her door to see if she’s OK after having been beaten ― a moment that could have been very tender between two women ― and Serena pauses for a moment, pulls herself together and tells June in a stern voice to go to her room. Despite their mutual understanding, and Serena’s clear view of Gilead’s injustices, she is pressing forward to preserve the power structure.
Emma: Yes! That moment was completely heart-wrenching ― and ultimately hurt both women. But part of me still believes that by the end of the season we are going to see Serena truly break and do something to fuck with Gilead. (Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Though I think Fred’s violence towards her truly shocked her. In that moment she knew her marriage would not protect her. Gilead would not protect her.)
I also want to talk about work more generally. The episode opens with that dreamy montage of Serena and June working together, both reveling in their ability to use their skills, their ability to feel useful in the way that only accomplishing something professionally allows you to. But I’ll admit that the scene that moved me most to tears was when the neonatologist-turned-Martha arrived at the hospital to examine Commander and Mrs. Putnam’s baby (aka Janine’s baby). Dr. Hodgson tears up as she puts on her scrubs, listening as the male doctor expresses admiration for her knowledge, explains that she trained his mentor. It’s this moment that drives home just how much a nation sacrifices when it doesn’t utilize the skills of half of its population. Imagine the vast swaths of talent and innovation ― not to mention personal fulfillment ― that Gilead is tossing away in order for a few men to feel powerful and virile. When Dr. Hodgson is finally handed a stethoscope, her face does Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski levels of work. She feels herself again, probably for the first time in years.
Laura: It was just like that moment in the last episode when Serena hands June a pen ― the symbolism of a woman being allowed to do what she’s good at, to contribute and feel productive and useful. Of course, this episode contrasts those moments with Nick’s 15-year-old bride, who is so bored and desperate to feel useful that she is obsessing over how to fold clothes and what color curtains to pick out. In Gilead, women can’t even feel valued in the domestic sphere.
Meanwhile, Janine has been denied her ability to act as a mother to her own child ― the only job that she feels called to. And we see the healing power of real motherhood, actual love and skin-to-skin contact, which Doctor Hodgson had subtly prescribed for that ailing baby. Even the nation’s most prominent neonatologist was able to acknowledge that the only way for that baby to survive was to take her off the machines and let her mother hold her.
That scene really hit home for me, because my little brother was severely premature and lived in an incubator for two months similar to the one on the show. And my mom would talk and sing to him every day and stick her little pinky in the incubator, and the doctors told her that that may have been the only reason he survived. I think this show has a powerful message about women and work, as you said, whether that work is neonatology or being an editor or being a mother. Women are invaluable in all of these areas, and a society suffers when you deny them the ability to thrive.
Emma: Precisely. I love that the show was able to talk about the labor women do without devaluing either the intense labor that goes into motherhood or the myriad of ways women contribute to society outside of that sphere. Labor is labor, and it should be acknowledged and valued. Gilead manages to deprive women of all jobs, except, as Commander Waterford reminds Serena: “obeying your husband.” Gilead was presumably founded because of a fertility crisis ― and yet this is not a society that truly values mothers or children.
The only other notable thing that happened this episode was that Eden continued to be present in the background, continuously ignored by nearly everyone in the household as she tries to be the wife she believes she has to be. I was torn between feeling really awful for her ― she’s a teenager alone in a house without any support or affection or friendship ― and being terrified of her. She finds the letters from Gilead citizens that June had been holding onto for Mayday. She says she didn’t read them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she will be Nick’s downfall. Never underestimate a zealous teen.
Laura: Or a bored teen, amirite? This is why high school sports and piano lessons exist.
I hate Eden for some reason. Maybe it’s just because I miss the steamy sex scenes between June and Nick, and Eden is ruining their romance. But I also think, as you said, that we can’t quite trust her since she threatened to report Nick as a “gender traitor.” She is so eager to please in Gilead that it’s clear when the revolution happens, she’s not going to be on the right side of it.
I wanted to mention one other great moment in this episode, when June and Janine are walking together and June says, “Blessed be the fruit” and Janine responds, “May the force be with you.” It’s so refreshing, and it shows that Gilead’s facade is really starting to crumble. All the women, maybe with the exception of fresh-faced Eden, are tired of pretending.
Emma: The end of the episode provides us with a stark juxtaposition. On the one hand, June and Serena are broken, yet again, by Commander Waterford’s stunning violence. This leads June to conclude that there cannot be any upsides to Gilead, even momentary. “Someone once said, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them,’” she says (side note: love the uncredited Margaret Atwood shout-out here). “We should have known better. I thought there were still secret places, hidden in the cracks and crevices of this world, places we could make beautiful, peaceful, safe ― or at least bearable.”
And yet, moments later, we do see a crack that reveals some beauty: Janine singing Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” to her giggling, bouncing baby. And the show lets us sit with that scene rather than the pain ― her song continues even as the credits roll. So maybe even hell has those places and moments, even if they are always short-lived.
Laura: That was such a beautiful, moving scene. I would have set it to Rihanna’s “We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place),” but that’s probably why I wasn’t invited to be a writer on the show.
Emma: *puts on Rihanna, cues the credits*