Gilead may not know it yet, but it's starting to fray at the seams. The latest episode of "The Handmaid's Tale" saw several characters picking at the loose threads and starting to tug at them. It's not ready to crumble just yet, but there are definite signs of weakness.
We still don't know how Ofglen (we never did learn her true name) got her hands on an explosive detonator, or who in the Underground was involved in the explosion at the Red Center, but now we and Gilead know that this Underground is even more dangerous, organized and resourced than previously thought possible.
This is far more than trying to help Handmaids escape over the border. This is about systematically tearing down everything the Commanders had fought to erect, and this was their opening salvo.
Creatively, it's a fascinating approach to keep the viewers as in the dark as most of the principal characters are. Nick (Max Manghella) seems to know more than he's letting on, but his mysterious nature is one of his best character qualities, and it's always fun to have someone June (Elisabeth Moss) can poke at to try and get answers. It helps that he's a looker and he's definitely looking at her, too.
It's a unique approach to have an underground resistance developing and executing plans that even the audience is unaware of. We are as in the dark and overwhelmed as June is by everything happening. And honestly, we don't want to know everything that's going on, even if we totally think we do. Hell, we still don't know what's going on in Serena Joy's (Yvonne Strahovski) mind and we've been living with her as long as June has. But we do know this: Wednesday's episode was packed with quiet moments that may have a huge impact on the revolution to come.
A WOMAN'S TOUCH
This week, it's more than just her own disenfranchisement from Gilead that has Serena bristling beneath her blue dress. It's that she's seeing what putting men in power is doing to this infant nation. In a world where every life is precious, how crazy is it that life is so disposable on Gilead. We saw it as the Handmaids drove through the streets after the ceremonial-but-emotionally-empty funeral service for the slain Handmaids. There were bodies hanging from the trees and houses of every home.
In their zeal for total power and total control, they've forgotten the very tenet on which this nation was built, the sacred duty to bring new life into this world. And yet, we've seen Handmaids executed or sent to the Colonies, even though they are still fertile. We've seen whole families slaughtered. The leaders of Gilead are treating the nation like a war zone, but society is not so easily divided into black and white.
That's why, when an opportunity arose, Serena stepped up in secret to make a difference. Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk) was a problem on a personal level, and he'd already proven he'll just go ahead and kill indiscriminately, and so he had to be dealt with. Only Serena didn't deal with it directly, nor could she have even if she'd had the inclination to do so. With Commander Waterford in convalescence care, she instead found another way to regain some control of the empire she forged.
It is absolutely intentional that the episode ended with that dramatic close-up shot of the pen as June clicked it out. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, or so we're often told. And with that single act of defiance, June is making herself complicit in Serena's betrayal of Gilead, as well as her efforts to reshape it, at least on a small scale.
But this is how revolutions are ultimately won. After the battle is over -- and this battle has barely begun -- it takes people putting pen to paper to define how this land will move forward. Serena was instrumental in creating those guidelines for Gilead, and now she's taking the first steps in dismantling them. Sure, she's doing it for more personal reasons, and we can assume she still buys into most of what Gilead stands for, but it is a step nonetheless.
Allowing June to help her in editing her new security orders is also a huge statement. Serena even acknowledged June's previous position as an Editor, which is an absolute no-no in this world. The walls of propriety are crumbling between these two women, and the men of power remain oblivious to it. Serena, June and Nick are privy to the secret of the baby June carries, and if that truth got out, all of them would probably be killed ... after the baby is born, of course, for June. And now there are to be more secrets.
In many ways their motivations are purely selfish, but isn't there always a little bit of that? With the strength and totalitarian power of Gilead, as well as its callous disregard for life, it remains impossible to see a path to victory from here, but what we can see are two women who are coming together from opposing sides because it's all going too far.
What Serena doesn't know is that June had her own little act of rebellion, done almost out of impulse. We were all startled to see Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) show up at the grocery store, but no one was as shocked as June. Feeling a debt of gratitude and compassion, she finally took the opportunity to tell her original walking partner, Emily, her true name.
And then, out of nowhere, she turned to another Handmaid and told her her true name as well. There is power in names and there is power in secrets and friendships. June's act spawned a chain reaction as the Handmaid named Breanna turned and told another Handmaid her name. Before long, the Handmaids were all introducing themselves, gaining power on all three fronts. That simple act of defiance also united them in a way and proved that Gilead had not broken them.
Even greater than all of these, there is power in ideas, and seeds were planted in every single one of those Handmaids by that simple exchange. They got away with sharing this information. They now know something they're not supposed to know. They've regained some control of themselves and their environment. It's the tiniest crack in the seemingly impervious power of Gilead. Gilead says we are "Of" our Commanders, but we know the truth. I know my name and I know the name of every Handmaid here. I am me and Gilead does not own that.
A small thing, to be sure, but one snowflake can trigger an avalanche. Bit by bit, we've been seeing little and big acts of defiance on the parts of the Handmaids, most dramatically in Ofglen's sacrifice at the new Red Center last week. These little things all add up to a big problem for the Commanders and one that isn't going to easily go away.
June's little act of defiance in the supermarket was a very human thing, and it was echoed by the memorial service for the fallen Handmaids in Little America north of the border in Canada. Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) listened as the names of the women were read off, accompanied by pictures of them in their lives before Gilead tries to strip away their identities and humanity.
It was a far cry from the stoic and ceremonial memorial service that opened the episodes. The Handmaids all decked out in black, sashaying around a circle of red caskets as Aunt Lydia read off the "Of" names of the women dead. These weren't people. This was't the death of a person, this was a loss of property. The ceremonial overtures were to mask the emotionally bereft service itself. Gilead wasn't mourning the loss of life, but rather the loss of those fertile wombs.
That's why that scene rang hollow, while Moira's own grieving process was so powerful. Moira's loss was personal and human. And in Little America, her loss was echoed by the humanizing of those same women Gilead had reduced to chattel through a simple slideshow and reading of proper names, first and last.