Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!
The road to hell is paved with Serena Joys ― but once you get there, it might just be blown to bits by angry handmaids.
Season 2, Episode 6 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” aptly titled “First Blood,” digs into the backstory of Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) a little more. We learn that before Gilead she was a much-protested university-touring “provocateur,” in the style of Tomi Lahren and Ann Coulter, and that she survived an assassination attempt related to that. In the present day, all the energy she once funneled into her powerful career is now channeled into her confusing relationship with June (Elisabeth Moss). Serena even seems to soften toward June this episode, as they bond over the fetus growing in June’s uterus, but that dynamic doesn’t last long.
In other news, Nick (Max Minghella) consummates his marriage with child bride/Gileadean zealot Eden (Sydney Sweeney), and the Mayday resistance finally scores a (bloody) win as Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) sacrifices herself for the cause, taking a new handmaid-processing Red Center down with her.
Oh, and brunch is ruined forever.
Emma Gray: This. Episode. Was. Satisfying! I mean, still nauseating per usual, but damn. Who knew I’d ever say that about something titled “First Blood”? There were a lot of (bloody) firsts, all of them disturbing and one of them ― that explosion at the very end ― also deeply gratifying. Is the revolution upon us?
Laura Bassett: This episode was full of emotional whiplash. Do we sympathize with Serena and even like her a little, or is she just a devil in a pretty dress? Do we want Nick to devirginize the 15-year-old so he doesn’t get called a gender traitor? Is it kind of a relief that June and Serena are finally being warm to each other, or do we still want June to kick her in the shins?
I agree that this episode felt a bit less brutal than the others ― we needed a reprieve. And it’s interesting to feel that way about an episode that literally ends with a suicide bombing.
Emma: The fact that I thought the suicide bombing was the most exhilarating part of the episode also makes me pause. What has Gilead done to me? Besides ruin every happy life-event celebration and, as of this episode, also brunch.
I do think this episode felt less brutal though, because although brutal, disturbing things happened, it finally felt as though the plot was moving forward, and that June and her fellow handmaids might one day taste freedom. That is, if they survive this season and at least one more. But details. I felt that same emotional whiplash you described and grappled with all of those same moral quandaries. The beauty of this show is that it forces you to question your moral absolutes. In hell, the calculations change.
First, let’s talk about the ever-changing power dynamic between June and Serena, which is really becoming the meat of this season. I was genuinely relieved to see Serena showing a modicum of kindness toward June. It’s exhausting and upsetting to watch Serena psychologically and physically torture June, so any reprieve from that felt welcome.
It also illustrated to me how lonely Serena must be. She almost enjoys having June around, as long as June toes an unspecified, hazy line. After all, as we talked about last week, June is her intellectual equal, someone to spar with. She resents her for being able to carry a child when she can’t (thanks to Fred), but she also enjoys her conversation and wants affirmation from her.
We see this play out when Serena tries to connect with June over Magnolia’s, the brunch place they both went to pre-Gilead. Or when Serena shows June the nursery. And yet … Serena wants a friendship on her terms only, one in which they are friends like equals, but June ignores the fact that she’s in captivity, that she is ritually raped, that her child has been taken from her and that her next child will be, too. Serena wants to be rewarded for her small acts of kindness but never reminded that she is an oppressor.
Laura: Yes, it seems like the moment June was able to connect with the fetus inside her, she was able to connect with Serena. Because Serena appears genuinely excited about this pregnancy, and she’s so far been alone in that since the Commander doesn’t have any normal emotions at all. But now she and June have something in common ― the love for this baby. So they exchange tiny favors: Serena lets June see the ultrasound; June lets Serena feel the baby kick. And their budding mutual empathy culminates in that very odd scene when for a moment they are just two normal women from a pre-Gilead world, connecting over a brunch spot they both enjoyed.
The oddity of the moment is really brought to bear when Serena excitedly directs a question at Ofglen, not realizing her tongue has been cut out. This brunch scene is an inflection point in the episode, when Serena realizes that maybe she has stepped into dangerous territory by reminding June of a time when they were on equal footing. June, of course, senses the moment of weakness and tries to seize on it by asking to see her daughter, Hannah, which ruins everything.
One thing I did not see coming was June’s attempt to reconnect with the Commander. What was that about?
Emma: I honestly wasn’t quite sure. I wondered if it was out of utility ― it certainly didn’t seem to be out of any genuine desire to connect with him. But she is smart enough to know that his goodwill could be lifesaving at some point. Bonding with him served her (semi) well in Season 1. But this episode was an important reminder that although Fred might seem reserved, soft-spoken, kind even at times, he’s vicious.
He loves his wife and wants to protect her, but he also ignores her most of the time. He seems genuinely concerned about June and about “his” baby, but he feels entitled to her body in all aspects and certainly feels entitled to sexual gratification from her. As Serena urges him in the flashbacks we saw, he feels the need to “be a man.” And what does “being a man” look like? It looks like rape. It looks like cold-blooded murder.
Speaking of those flashbacks, let’s dig into them. I love an episode that focuses on Serena because she is such a fascinating character. Who knew she was essentially a less intentionally troll-y Milo Yiannopoulos-type figure? (He is no stranger to having his bigoted speeches shut down by protesting students.)
Laura: Yes! And perhaps because she’s blond, I was immediately reminded of the incident in April last year when Ann Coulter had to cancel her speaking appearance at the University of California, Berkeley due to threats of violence. It was interesting to me that the students at Serena’s planned speech were holding “Nazi” signs ― until now, there hasn’t been such a direct reference to the Third Reich.
The writers seem to be making a point about political correctness and free speech from the political fringes, which has been coming up a lot in the national discussion lately. When you allow men like Kevin Williamson, who said women should be hanged for having abortions, to have a massive platform in a major publication, or when you allow people like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at schools, are you risking a slippery slope into a Gilead-type society, where those ideas slowly become more mainstream until they’re widely accepted?
That seems to be the case in dystopian Boston. While Serena is initially booed off the stage by an angry mob, she keeps shouting until her voice is heard ― and then you can see a student here and a person there start to like what she’s saying. She’s appealing to people’s fear of the human race dying out, and you see her fringe ideas start to resonate with the crowd. And that was perhaps the scariest part of this episode.
Emma: Absolutely. The pre-Gilead flashbacks are always more petrifying to me than present-day Gilead. They feel so eerie and so real. The other part of Serena’s speech flashback that resonated was when Fred started yelling that his wife “has the right to speak.” “Isn’t this America?” he asks. It echoes the arguments many on the far right make when their ideas are loudly disagreed with or met with protest at private institutions like universities.
Does Serena have a right to speak, in the general sense? Absolutely. And clearly she had been ― she was at that university because she had already published a book, for which I assume she was handsomely paid. But does Serena (or anyone) have a right to speak to an auditorium of students at a particular university or conference or any other similar venue? I’d say no. And that distinction exposes the fallacy of the First Amendment argument that extremists often try to make. (Hello there, Tomi Lahren.)
Public disagreement with and protest of someone’s ideas do not mean that person’s fundamental rights have been violated. Of course, I don’t think it’s awesome to call someone a “cunt,” and I know neither of us would condone an assassination attempt as a form of protest ― but as badass as Serena often seems in these flashbacks, we have to remember that her ideas are abhorrent. Her ideas, that women have a “biological debt” to society, deserve to be opposed. Her ideas, made palatable by a pretty face and blond hair, are how Gilead came to be.
Laura: We have to reckon with the terror attack at the new handmaid-processing facility, which ― of course ― is also a moment where the writers drew inspiration from real life. As we said, in this case, both of us were cheering on the suicide bomber, simply because how else are the handmaids going to escape from this oppressive and violent regime? There has to be a bloody revolution; there’s no other way. Peaceful protest is not going to cut it.
Is that why the episode is called “First Blood”? Or are they referring to that awful scene between Nick and Eden where he devirginizes her through a hole in a sheet? (I should point out that in real life, the marital hole-in-a-sheet sex thing appears to be a false rumor about Orthodox Jews.)
Emma: I felt queasy watching Nick dutifully have sex with a child. What we saw in that moment was sex devoid of everything that makes it nice: passion, love, pleasure. That was duty ― and (in our world) statutory rape. It was so sad ― for Eden, who is so indoctrinated by Gilead that she believes this is what she wants and what she must do (not for herself, but for God), and also for Nick, who finds himself having sex with a child through a sheet while he goes blank on the inside. (“Oh, you have to fuck somebody you don’t want to? Poor thing,” says June, dryly, to him.)
And all of this is complicated by the fact that it’s June who urges him to go through with it, because she realizes that Eden is ultimately dangerous. If she reports Nick for not fulfilling his “duties” ― i.e., attempting to repopulate Gilead ― he could be labeled a gender traitor and killed.
I was also really struck by Eden’s exchange with June. Eden is styled and filmed in a way that is intentionally so childlike: soft lighting, minimal makeup, her eyes always wide and a little scared. After Nick rebuffs her initial sexual advances ― “My mother taught me all about marriage. About everything. I know what’s expected of me. What God expects of me.” ― Eden goes looking for Serena. Instead, she finds June and opens up to her about how rejected and ugly she feels. They fall into a dynamic you would find in our world between an adult woman and a teen girl. June attempts to guide her and reassure her: She’s not ugly. She’s beautiful. She’s wanted. Nick just needs time. He’ll make a great father. Except ... this is Gilead, so June is talking to her illicit lover’s child bride.
Laura: If I had a nickel for every time my baby daddy’s child bride asked me for sex advice ... I’d still be broke.
The amount of emotional manipulation June has to do, constantly, is exhausting to watch. She can literally never be herself. She is trying to manipulate Serena into caring about her, manipulate Fred into thinking she still wants him, manipulate Eden into seeing her as an ally, keeping Nick’s passion on a low simmer so he doesn’t get them both in trouble. Can you imagine the emotional labor?
I was really confused by the scene in which Nick requests to be moved to a different household. Maybe it’s too painful for him to have sex with a child in the same house as the woman he loves, or maybe he has a plan up his sleeve to bust June out of there once and for all.
Emma: I guess we’ll never know because Commander Pryce was certainly near the center of Ofglen’s bomb at the newly minted Rachel and Leah Center. And know what was decidedly less confusing than Nick’s attempt to flee the Waterford household? Those closing credits.
After Ofglen charges the podium, detonator in hand, a blast goes off. We know there will be casualties ― many ― but we’ll deal with that next episode. For now, we get to revel in the satisfaction of an X-Ray Spex song as the screen goes to black: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think ― Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
Laura: Oh yes, excellent song choice. Ofglen may have lost her tongue, but she sure made herself heard with that explosive device. Quite the metaphor for so many things. These women will not go quietly into the night.
Emma: They didn’t let the bastards grind them down.