The latest episode of "The Handmaid's Tale" kept viewers directly in the here and now of the dystopic near-future religious patriarchy that is Gilead. But it's a patriarchy that has no idea just how shaky its foundation is getting.
Now that the former United States has closed its borders and subjugated its people based on its bastardized take on Biblical text, it's time to see how their view of nation holds up in the real world. Every form of government sounds great on paper, but then every form of government seems to ultimately eat its own and collapse under the weight of its inevitable corruption.
In the episode entitled "Women's Work," we began to see the cracks forming already within the citizenry that will ultimately tear Gilead from power. The explosion at the Red Center that killed Commanders and Handmaids alike was a pretty display of the organization and power that the rebellious underground has, but it is the people of Gilead, bristling under the yoke of its leadership, that will truly do the work of overthrowing this regime.
"I Do Truly Detest Knitting" (Dissatisfaction)
Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) has been our most blatant and poignant representative of this, and she had another powerful and heartbreaking episode. As the co-founder of the Gilead movement, no one is dissatisfied more with their new lot in life than this brilliant and driven woman, reduced to kowtowing to her dimwitted husband, hosting social gatherings and knitting.
After tasting a bit of the power denied her by the patriarchy she helped establish during Fred's (Joseph Fiennes) incapacitation, it was evident that Serena was frustrated at being again reduced to essentially a prop in Fred's power sphere. Perhaps that is why she was willing to help June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) in their quest throughout the episode. While she's struggling with a severe internal conflict at her own dissatisfaction, we're feeling pretty confident that her frustration and growing resentment toward Fred and the entire power structure will win out in the end.
"May the Force Be With You" (Normalcy)
Already, the fear is dissipating among the Handmaids. Just last season, they were terrified to say anything in front of one another or the guards for fear of retaliation. By this point, though, they've been tortured and abused so much the fear of retribution just doesn't hold much power over them anymore. Gilead has normalized suffering so much they've weakened their power over the Handmaids.
Now, in the market, the women can be seen talking freely to one another, and the guards are even getting lax in their control over them. When June greets Janine with a Gilead greeting, Janine breaks protocol and responds with the classic "Star Wars" refrain. They then argue over which "Alien" movie is the better one. It's a jarring conversation in this stark society, but an important reminder to the Handmaids that this is not their world, and they're not going to acclimate to it. It's a powerful reframing of their perception, and a direct defiance of Gilead's laws forbidding ever discussing their past lives.
With the reduction of fear comes the courage necessary to speak out, and not just about your favorite movie. Emily (Alexis Bledel) has long been one of the most vocal opponents of Gilead, but she became even more empowered after her return (with Janine) from the Colonies. Rather than break her with backbreaking work in an irradiated wasteland, Emily is more driven than ever to overthrow her oppressors.
And, knowing the powerful position she and the other fertile women have in this new world, she's been emboldened to speak out even more. The other Handmaids not only hearing her words, but seeing that she is not immediately struck down for them, emboldens them as well. It also seems to indicate that at least some of these male guards just don't have their whole hearts in abusing and beating these women down just for expressing frustration at their rather horrific situation.
"I'm Sure Our Physicians Are Capable" (Arrogance)
Just as Serena is our window into the growing frustration of the lesser classes, Fred is our representative of the growing arrogance of the leadership of this patriarchy. The whole reason Gilead came to be was to emphasize the importance of bearing children to the point many fertile women have become little more than breeding cows. And yet, Fred's hubris has grown to the point he rejects outright Serena's suggestion that they allow the best neonatal doctor in the city look at the Putnam's ailing baby ... because she's a woman.
Fred knows that Serena was the brains of the operation. He knows that women are every bit as brilliant and capable as men because he's seen it first-hand. But now, he's so arrogant in the power and control he's gained, he's become blind to the reality of the world around him. He'd rather let a child die than admit that perhaps a woman could step in and save that baby where a man couldn't.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) may have been threatening June when she told her that if seeing the baby she birthed for the Putnams breaks her, she would hold June responsible, but that's not what's significant here. What's significant is that June orchestrated Janine being brought to the hospital in the first place. The lowest citizen managed to convince Serena, who convinced the Putnams.
It seems like a minor thing, but a Handmaid seeing the child she birthed is against the strict rules of Gilead, and yet June managed to get a male doctor and a male Commander to break those laws for no other reason than humanity and kindness. Again, everyone is getting a little too comfortable in this harsh regime, for good and bad. "What harm could it do?" Warren Putnam responded. But lenience of the law is not what Gilead does; it is what people do.
"I Did It for the Child" (Defiance)
Bringing Janine in wasn't even the biggest offense; that honor goes to Serena defying Fred's order and allowing the woman doctor, now working as a Martha (housemaid), to examine the Putnam baby. The woman was even fawned on by her male colleague, who knew her in the previous world. More significantly, he called her Dr. Hudson, her earned title and actual name, as a sign of respect.
There were security guards involved, Aunt Lydia was involved and the hospital was complicit in the deception, but Serena did it for the right reasons. She remembers that the life of the child is the most important thing in this world of reduced fertility and dropping child birth rates. It's just unfortunate that Dr. Hudson wasn't able to find anything beyond what the male doctors did. Still, that Serena orchestrated the effort is a huge statement about what really matters.
And yet, Fred remains ever stubborn and determined to hang on to the power he's attained, no matter the cost. He may not even care about the depleting population. He has all the control and he gets to enjoy evenings away at his government-sanctioned (but secret) whorehouse. He is absolute power absolutely corrupted, and Serena felt the literal brunt of his desperate need to maintain control.
Again bastardizing the Bible, Fred read a passage that he decided gave him permission to strip off his belt and beat his wife in front of June. The objective was to humiliate both women and reaffirm his control over them. We kept waiting for one or both of them stand up to him, or even beat him down themselves, but they're not yet ready to go there. Based on their expressions, though, they are very close.
The moment might even have brought them even closer together, though Serena did stiffen up and try to assert her own control over June when the Handmaid showed her kindness. But her tears and attempts to stifle her crying as she looked at the bruises on her body betrayed her internal struggle. Fred is losing the support of his wife, and turning it into contempt. He should remember the mantra about a woman scorned, because this one might just prove his undoing.
"She Remembers Me" (Motherhood)
But perhaps the most poignant and beautiful slap in the face of everything Gilead stands for came in the closing moments when the Putnam baby, that Janine birthed, was revived to seemingly normal health simply by being in the arms of Janine. Aunt Lydia awoke to find Janine rocking and singing to the baby, which was cooing and completely content.
There is power in the bond between a mother and a child, and it's not something Gilead can regulate. By taking infants from their mothers, they are weakening the child's chances at survival. If that's truly what they value, they may need to rethink their whole system and strategy.
Granted, the system is more about the Commanders getting to sleep with a variety of different women and then blame those women if they don't get pregnant in a reasonable amount of time. All the power, all the pleasure and none of the consequences. It's good to be the patriarchs. Just don't take your eyes off the women you're trying to keep beneath your heel or they might just be a quiet revolution already underway down there.
"The Handmaid's Tale" premieres new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.