Warning: Spoilers for episode 7 of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 ahead.
Within the first few minutes of “After,” the latest episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we finally learn the circumstances around the mysterious promo image of black-clad, red-veiled handmaids, which was released prior to the season premiere. It was obvious that they were at some kind of funeral, but it took half a season to find out who died, and how. Now we know that it was a funeral for the handmaids who were killed when Ofglen II blew up the sparkling new Rachel and Leah Center. Last week’s bombing was an obvious game-changer, but we don’t yet know how the effects will play out. We know that 26 commanders and 31 handmaids were killed. This increases that rarity of handmaids, and ups the ante on what they can get away with, as well as the supervision around them.
The Funeral. In one of the most visually arresting sequences of the series so far, we see lines of handmaids in black mourning outfits circling red coffins in the snow. They’re surrounded by rows of guards. Are they there to protect the handmaids, or to police the handmaids? Aunt Lydia is leading the service, and she is believable when she says, emotionally, that she wishes that she could give her girls a world without violence or pain, and that that’s all she ever wanted. She has an odd way of bringing that about, given that she’s regularly hitting them with cattle prods. But in Aunt Lydia’s insane perfect world, the handmaids would all be willing and there would be no fertility crisis.
Aunt Lydia lists the deceased handmaids, while the remaining ones recite, “We remember them.” But the names they recite are not the deceased handmaid’s real names. They’re their “of” patronymics, which can offer only a vague red shadow of a woman and changed with the assignment. Notably, no memorable handmaids were killed in the bombing. There were no memorable scenes in past episodes built around Ofduncan or Ofzed, and we learn at secondhand that Ofedward was “kind of a jerk” who “never washed her hair.” The frequently seen handmaid later named as Dolores remarks that she barely knew any of them.
Nick Won’t Be Transferred Anytime Soon. Suspense defused: Commander Waterford survived the blast. He’s currently drifting in and out of consciousness in an enormous private hospital room. We quickly learn that Commander Pryce is dead, which means that Nick’s cowardly request for transfer will most likely be forgotten. Nick claims to have not known Pryce well, a clear lie: We know that he worked directly with Pryce behind the scenes as an Eye, and we know from the flashbacks in season 1’s “Jezebels” episode that he worked with Pryce since long before Congress fell.
How Moira Was Tagged. “After” ties off two intriguing, irritating plot threads dangling around Moira: How did Gilead know she was fertile, and who was her partner, Odette? In this season’s third episode, Moira mentioned that the abortion clinics destroyed their records, which still didn’t explain how Moira or Gilead would have known that she was fertile. The mystery of Moira’s proven childbearing abilities is solved in a flashback: Moira was paid $250,000 to be a surrogate mother, donating her egg as well as carrying the child. Moira’s $250,000 is significantly higher than the current top quotes for eggs and surrogacy, but it’s a reasonable guesstimate on the compounded cost if the rate of healthy births dropped by the 61 percent figure cited by Serena Joy in last week’s episode.
June’s daughter Hannah is an infant in Moira’s flashbacks, so we can guess that the flashbacks would have taken place roughly seven or eight years ago in the series timeline, when Moira would have been a few years out of college. The money gives her a new start in life; as Moira mentions, she can pay off student loan debts. Moira’s high fee demonstrates that the pre-Gilead methods of dealing with the fertility crisis were class-based. The difference between a commander and his wife using a handmaid for a baby and an elite couple in the old world paying a younger, fiscally disadvantaged woman a quarter-million for surrogacy and an egg is that the first case is nonconsensual. Either way, elites get the baby. But at least paid surrogacy was consensual.
Binders Full of Victims. Rachel Tapping has a tough job. Who is still paying her salary, and in what currency? She is a model of calm and decency and deserves her weight in gold bullion monthly for the difficult role she fulfills. Ms. Tapping, the face of the remnant U.S. government now based in Alaska and Hawaii, is a model of diplomatic composure as she calmly offers the available information to the refugees. She leads Moira into a room full of printed binders full of images of unidentified victims of Gilead. There’s a row of white binders for murdered children. So much for Gilead valuing children.
Ray Was a Blowhard. Commander Cushing has needlessly imposed a state of terror since assuming Commander Pryce’s responsibilities. Practically every yard in the neighborhood has a hanging body decorating at least one tree in the yard, and a Martha is shot in the street while reaching for her pass. He rapidly establishes himself to be less trustworthy than even the Waterfords as he creepily interrogates Offred for information on her “kidnappers.” Serena Joy has a low opinion of Cushing’s leadership abilities: “Guardians shooting Marthas in the streets and it’s supposed to make us feel safer. It’s asinine.” (Go Serena, for using an SAT word!)
“Ray Cushing will be the death of us all,” Serena later declares after a long day at the hospital. Offred perceives that, for the first time, they have a common enemy in a person she can trust even less than the Waterfords: Commander Ray Cushing.
Odette. Back to Moira in Canada. She spends hours looking for Odette among the binders full of victims and has further flashbacks to her surrogate pregnancy. Her OB-GYN was, in Boston parlance, wicked pretty. Months later, Moira ran into the doctor while buying wine. Dr. Sexy Spec mentions that she’s no longer Moira’s doctor (which conveniently clears up any ethical questions around doctor-patient relationships, and says, “You can call me Odette.” Well, that’s not exactly a meet-cute, but… it kind of works. For fans, tying off a dangling plot thread is a plot in and of itself. We knew that Moira had a partner named Odette, but she was referred to offhand. Thank you to the screenwriters for giving Moira a life and depth outside her friendship with June, and a face to go with the name “Odette.” (Also: it’s a relief to know that baby Gavin is safe in England.)
Bye-Bye, Ray. Cushing’s reign as a Big Bad was blessedly short. Serena and Nick wouldn’t risk letting anyone get Offred’s baby, even if it means fabricating treason charges.
Hello Again, Emily and Janine. Gilead is so strapped for handmaids post-bombing that they bring Emily and Janine back from the colonies even though Emily murdered a guard and Janine endangered the life of a child. Gilead is either desperate or willfully ignorant of science and medicine, or both. Janine has already had several months of radiation poisoning, Emily a few more. Chances are that any children they produce as handmaids might be affected by the radiation doses the women received.
Gilead may have shot itself in the foot by turning unwomen back into handmaids. Consider the kind of women sent to the colonies in the first place. The condemned were dissidents, rebels, “gender traitors,” purged academics and others who could not fit in and were not deemed attractive enough or willing to be sex slaves at Jezebels. For example, what might have happened to a fertile woman who served once in American intelligence services or as an officer in our armed forces, trained to be a killing machine, who was too stubborn or too dangerous to be a handmaid? She would have been shipped to the colonies. These women are now back in Gilead with nothing to lose, an already shortened lifespan and more reason than ever to hate the state. The commanders have let an unknown number of Ofglens into their cities. It’s true that the unwomen look weak and broken when we see them in the colonies. But given a few months of decent nutrition and fresher air, and they should be ready to fight. Immediately removing Emily from radiation potentially adds years to her life expectancy, offering a shred of hope that she could survive Gilead and see Sylvia and Oliver again.
My Name Is. Janine seems perky and joyous to be out of the colonies. Emily, who was so tough and resourceful in the colonies, is too shattered to say much beyond a quavering, “Hey.” June finds a way to break the ice when she says, “June. That’s my name. I never got the chance to tell you.” All that Emily can do is tear up and bite her lip. So June walks over to Oferic and introduces herself: “My name is June.” Oferic could reprimand June, but instead she says, “I’m Brianna.” And just like that, all of the handmaids are soon introducing themselves to one another by their real names, and Emily finally smiles. Gilead wanted to make the handmaids distrust each other, but now a barrier is falling. Ominously, insufferable Eden is in the background, observing.
Her Name Was Lillie Fuller. Rachel Tapping reads the names of the women killed in the attack. It would be interesting to know who the sources inside Gilead are, and how the information is leaked to Ms. Tapping. We see several images of smiling women in flattering lights, one with a child. And then we hear the name “Lillie Fuller” and see a photo of a hard-eyed, ashen Ofglen II with bad corkscrew bangs. It looks like a mug shot. Lillie’s (let’s call her Lillie from now on, not Ofglen II, because she deserves a name as much as anyone) picture is harshly lit. The other photos all look like the ones that a woman would post to a profile, or that a loved one would treasure as their best photo of the missing. But Lillie was a transient junkie sex worker. It’s possible that nobody cared about her enough to submit a personal photo, and this was the sole image available to official channels. Nobody was looking for her, and nobody cared about her. Lillie was physically and emotionally violated by every system she encountered until she finally blew it all up.
Gilead still knows that these women have real names, or they wouldn’t be on record for Rachel’s sources to release. Taking their names away is a form of dehumanization. The reading of the names at the end echoes the recitation of their “of” names at the beginning, but at least Ms. Tapping memorializes the handmaids as individuals. The very act of displaying and printing their real names is an act of defiance. There is power in names.
Who Run the World? Er… Still Men. How will the Offred/Serena relationship evolve now that they’re co-conspirators? Serena is an alpha, and she wants the work she’s submitting in her husband’s name to adhere to a standard of excellence. She needs two things from Offred: her baby and her editorial capabilities, which are suddenly useful again. Serena offers June an opportunity to reclaim her professional identity as an editor. That’s another important lost piece of herself. June gets to work with words again. She’ll be helping Serena prop up a totalitarian state, but the instructions so far — removing the war zone — are favorable.
Serena Joy is secretly lonely and starving for mental occupation. Recall her recent efforts at last week’s brunch for the handmaids, where she tried so hard, awkwardly, to get them to make conversation, or her frustrated efforts to snark with Offred about Ofzachary’s ungainly nose. The sheer boredom of life in entertainment-deprived Gilead must be mind-numbing, especially for women, who are denied the escape that a book can provide. Serena Joy has become a fine floral watercolorist, knitter and gardener. She has nothing to do. Conversation is limited to witless small talk about the weather. Women have no way to receive, verify or process information, beyond what they hear by word of mouth or personally witness. The sort of intense, stimulating conversation that brainy people delight in — about literature, politics, music, science, art, history, economics, current events, all the et ceteras of intelligent discourse — are off-limits; too much interest in anything beyond homey basics would draw suspicion.
Serena could run everything, and she has trapped herself in a life where she has nothing to do with her abundant energy and skill. On the one hand, Serena is a villain. On the other hand, she’s a born leader, brilliant and self-assured, and watching her finally getting to work to the peak of her capabilities is cheer-worthy. However, her aim in ousting Cushing and giving orders in her husband’s name is to make life more tolerable, not to overturn the state, and her tenuous power rests in ruling through her husband. Serena has power through Commander Waterford. Serena Joy has not had a feminist come-to-God moment. She sees herself as exceptional. Any woman with a shred of power in Gilead wields it with the consent of the men around them, and it can be taken away instantly.