The fourth and fifth episodes of Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale set a new standard for devastation in an already notoriously intense series, with nowhere to go but up, at least until showrunner Bruce Miller et al decide to see if they can beat the misery record again. With Offred/June beginning to perk up following her zombie phase in episodes 4 and 5, the first six episodes of Season two have led in a circle to the restoration of the Waterford household status quo. Like the 6th episode of Season 1, “First Blood” is Serena Joy-focused. It won’t be clear if that’s intentional or coincidental until next season.
Ultrasound. We open in the OB-GYN’s office—apparently, Gilead never traced Offred’s escape in the season premiere back to his orderly. The doctor and Mrs. Waterford stand behind a screen, and he spears to Serena Joy as if she were the pregnant one. Explaining the cause of the hemorrhaging. Serena Joy knows the medical terminology and possible medication for it. She must have done extensive research for a pregnancy that never happened, at some point. Serena Joy, in a moment of humanity, shows Offred the baby on the monitor. She could be doing it to torture her. Or it could be from an intense reverence for motherhood and pregnancy. They share a moment of awe. It’s not the only time in the episode that both women have tears in their eyes.
Sneaking Around. All Offred has to do to be treated like a human being in the Waterford house is almost die. Serena Joy insists that she sleep in the downstairs sitting room, where she and Nick have their first moment alone since her recapture. He tells her, “You know, I think about us. The three of us—how we could be. I think about it all the time.” Well, how could it be? In the world before Gilead, Nick and June never would have met. She is a surgeon’s daughter from a nice Boston suburb, a college graduate with a publishing job; he is a laid-off plant worker from Michigan. Maybe she might have had a one-night stand with him during an accidental stop on a cross-country road trip, but there’s no practical way that they would have met or considered each other as relationship material. What would they talk about? What are their shared interests, aside from sex and occasional quipping? We’ve seen that Nick has a shelf of books and a record player, but the titles and labels were blurry. Could they be a family?
A Woman’s Place: The Book Tour. As in last season’s episode “A Woman’s Place,” it’s Serena’s turn for flashbacks, beginning with a stop on her book tour for her “domestic feminism” manifesto, A Woman’s Place. It’s the first time that we’ve seen her wearing pants, and a reminder that the Waterfords used to be equal partners in their marriage, and they wait in a university hall for her to address the students. They’re happy that their ideas are being discussed in the mainstream. Her initial impulse is to be conciliatory towards the students—to “start a dialogue.” Yvonne Strahvonski is so good that it’s surprisingly easy to feel sympathy when the students shout down her efforts to speak. The students know exactly what they stand to lose: several generations of social progress. One yells, “We don’t want you at our school. We don’t believe in anything you do,” another calls her a “Nazi c—.” There was opposition “resist” signs, passionate boos (mixed with sheers) and hostility from male and female students. For once, Serena Joy looks daunted. These are the young woman of prime childbearing age who she’s trying to persuade to drastically alter their life plans—to begin childbearing and traditional home-making right away—and they hate her.
Girl Talk: Gilead Spawn Edition. Why would Eden talk to the handmaid about her new husband’s failure to consummate the marriage? Because econowives assume that handmaids are slutty. Eden was probably carefully vetted as an appropriate bride to be given in reward to a faithful Guardian. But she’s still a teenager—impatient and zealous, and she wonders if Nick is a gender traitor. It must be killing June to have to give love advice to Eden. Major props to Nick for not wanting to have sex with a 15-year-old. Actually, no. Wait a minute. Nick doesn’t want to have sex with a 15 year old. How sad is it that Nick scores decency points for not wanting to have sex with a 15-year-old?
Surprise Party! It’s scary when Serena Joy is trying to be nice because she could flip at any moment. She serves the five handmaids apple pie, and tries to coax small talk from them—which Ofglen II demonstrates herself incapable of by opening her mouth. Serena appears horrified at the loss of Ofglen’s tongue, even though she’s the one who said “remove the damaged ones” at the Mexican ambassador’s dinner last season. Awkward. Offred attempts to fill the silence by bringing up an old favorite brunching spot. It turns out that they both frequented the same “earthy-crunchy” place, Magnolia’s. Serena Joy was someone who enjoyed hipster brunch and movie popcorn. The Waterfords once happily partook in a culture they sought to destroy.
Assasination Fail. In Serena’s second flashback, she goes from attempting persuasion to telling the students that they’re spoiled and they’re in an academic bubble, telling them, “You want me to stay silent, but that is not going to change what is happening in our country.” Who is the real victim here: the Waterfords, faced with loud evidence that people dislike their ideas, or the LGBTQ people and religious minorities that Gilead hung on the wall? The shouting students are fighting for their society—one that, however imperfectly, aims for inclusion and egalitarianism–as much as the Waterfords are fighting for their own vision, one that corrects the plummeting birth rate by means of women “embracing their biological destiny.”
At this point, the Waterfords are still saying “America”. When did it become Gilead? And they still believe in the First Amendment—as it applies to them, at least. Were the gun shots the start of their radicalization? One of the least feasible aspects of Handmaid’s Tale has always been that the Gileadeans are pro-environment right wing fascists—not two strains that normally meet. Their 78% reduction in carbon emissions is admittedly laudable. The gun shots demonstrate that the two sides are already radicalized. Right-wing social conservatives are rarely pro-environment, and left-wing social progressives are likely to be anti-gun.
Milk It While You Can. Serena can never venture too far into contemplating the handmaids as human beings before she snaps back with a fury. The frightening thing about watching Serena Joy be nice is that you never know when she’ll snap back, or how mean she’ll be when she breaks. She thinks that Offred is devious for wanting the most normal thing in the world: to see her daughter Hannah. Serena is nicest to Offred when she’s afraid that she’s lose her baby vessel, and meanest when June behaves like an intelligent adult with a free will. The leaders of Gilead are so certain of their own rightness that they are perpetually dumbfounded and enraged that anyone could possibly disagree with them and behave in defiance. Serena is sweet when treating her handmaid like a porcelain doll, but terrible when the handmaid wants to be treated like a person. She prefers Offred weak.
Coerced Statutory Rape. June doesn’t want to lose Nick at the same time that she pushes him away. She puts it bluntly: “Oh, you have to f— somebody you don’t want to?” If Eden didn’t want to have sex with Nick, non-consummation would be a non-issue. But Eden wants a baby, and believes that God wants her and Nick to have a baby. Thus begins a queasy, uncomfortable sex scene involving an elaborately embroidered sheet with a hole, which ripples as Eden moves down from belly button into position. Nick doesn’t take his undershirt off. He doesn’t look at her. It’s over quickly. Sydney Sweeney, the actress who plays Eden, is twenty, not fifteen. But it doesn’t reduce the queasiness. Nick is committing statutory rape. Who is coercing who here? Eden could report him.
Creepy Fred’s Photo Bribe. June basically has to whore herself for a picture of her daughter. She pretends to enjoy it, pretends to have feelings for Waterford. Yuck. Fortunately, she can now use the baby to avoid having sex with him.
Bombs Away. The opening of the new Rachel and Leah Center was supposed to be Commander Waterford’s big moment. It’s a state-of-the-art processing center in glossy black stone that resembles an evil Apple store, the modernity contrasting against the retro-puritan gowns. And Ofglen II is the one who literally blows it up.
Can We Please Have an Ofglen II Standalone? Ofglen II began as a willing handmaid, and wound up being the one to throw the switch. Both Gilead and the johns she had sex with to pay for her drug habit used her for her body, regardless of how nicely her commander and mistress treated her. Maybe being called “Ofglen” wouldn’t have mattered to her because sex workers often go by aliases; she was accustomed to it. She had a rough life. It would be interesting to know her journey, and how she came to be in on the bombing plot: how did she communicate with Mayday, when Mayday had gone quiet and stopped helping handmaids? There’s a whole other world we don’t see. It was surprising when she stoop up for Janine, and the bombing fits on a continuum from that.
When it was about someone like June losing her Anthropologie card, Ofglen II didn’t care; when she was asked to help stone Janine, she rebelled. She didn’t care about the politics, but it became personal when the state expected her to help murder a fellow. Presuming that she’s dead, how can we hope to see her perspective? There’s also a conversation to be had around the lower and working class experience in Gilead. The women who have had their backstories told are all white women from the educated class. Moira’s backstory is seen in flashbacks as an appendage to June’s story. If you view all of Ofglen II’s scenes in sequence, there’s an intriguing character evolution evolution. But it’s all in the background. We don’t know her real name.
Soundtrack Side Note. I gave a little fist-pump when I heard X-Ray Spex’s punk classic kick in over the closing credits. X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene was revolutionary when the song, their first single premiered: screaming in your face, loud and bold, mixed race, with braces on her teeth, a prototypical punk feminist. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” was the perfect follow-up to a scene that ends with an explosion.
Ofglen II’s bomb continued a cycle of violence that had already begun to replace discourse at the time of Serena’s flashbacks. Who are the intolerant ones here? What is intolerance? You could say that the students carrying “Resist” signs and yelling down Serena Joy yelling are intolerant of other people’s ideas. But consider the practical implications of the opinion that the students shouted down. Using tolerance itself as a basis to countenance the spread of limitations on that tolerance amounts to a flawed equivalency in this case, a rhetorical snake choking on its tail. Those students sensed, rightly, that the opinions they wouldn’t want to hear threatened their rights, lives, dreams and wellbeing if implemented. The differing opinion that they didn’t want to hear harmed them.