Warning: Contains Spoilers.
With “Women’s Work,” the eighth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, the season-long story reaches its home stretch with old power dynamics apparently shifting. The prior episode, “After,” brought Offred and Mrs. Waterford to an unexpected, tenuous, welcome camaraderie as they clandestinely work together to restore calm to the streets of Gilead following Commander Cushing’s brief reign of bloody terror, issuing orders in Commander Waterford’s name. The pieces on the game board shifted, with Commander Waterford hospitalized, Emily and Janine back from the colonies and the handmaids newly united. The question is, how long will Offred and Serena maintain their détente, and how will the long-term results of the bombing play out? It’s unpredictable.
Here are the 10 most surprising moments from “Women’s Work”:
Breaking News: Serena hates knitting. Surprise! Serena is a Motown fan. She puts an old Commodores vinyl record on the Commander’s contraband turntable. (I wonder what happened to Gilead Lionel Richie?) It’s interesting to note that Nick and Commander Waterford both have record players: Waterford in his office and Nick in his apartment. I wouldn’t have taken Waterford for a closet hipster. At any rate, Serena is jumping way over all the lines, and the two women are getting along fine in their new working situation. Offred observes, “In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we’re heretics.” Regardless of how awful Serena Joy has been or how terrible the regime they’re holding up is, there’s a piece of me cheering, “Yes! Sisterhood is powerful!,” to see two highly competent women working together. Serena is in her element, and looks more at home behind her husband’s desk than any seat she’s sat in before. June has learned not to press her advantage. She doesn’t ask to be called by her real name instead of “Offred” and doesn’t ask to see Hannah. This is exactly what Serena wants from her handmaid anyway. Serena reveals a shocker when Offred asks her if she misses working. “I do truly detest knitting, to be frank,” she says. Aha! Serena is rarely seen in repose without knitting needle in hand. She must be desperate for anything to pass the time, even knitting.
Why is Rita Happy to See the Commander? They’ve been having a little respite in their private world while the commander is gone. I was hoping we’d get to see a few more scenes or even episodes of June and Serena bonding and working together, but that seems to have all happened offscreen in the weeks since Waterford went to the hospital. Sadly, we don’t get to enjoy this new power dynamic between Serena and Offred for long. Unfortunately, the Commander is coming home. Mrs. Waterford arranges the women of the household in a line at the door to greet him: Rita, Eden and June. The truly surprising thing in this scene is how happy Rita is to see the commander. She seems genuinely pleased to see him, smiling and thanking him for his compliments on her cooking. Why is Rita happy to have him home? It doesn’t make sense.
Waterford is slimier than ever, perhaps thanks to the cartoon-villain-like cane he now sports and a new gauntness and sallowness in his face that was not present, or at least not noticeable, in season 1. He can’t resist an opportunity to neg Offred: “Glad to see you looking so…healthy.” Dude, she’s pregnant.
That’s It? Return of the Music Box. While they are working together, Serena Joy tells Offred, “I won’t forget your help.” But the form her thanks may take is unpredictable, and it remains to be seen if it will be remembered at all. All that Offred gets for her office going-away is a surprise on her bed when she goes upstairs after greeting the commander. It’s the music box that Serena first gave her during a good mood in season 1, which was no longer in her room when she returned from her failed escape, and a long-stemmed white rose from Serena’s garden. S all Serena does is give back a gift she already gave! Offred has more voice-over monologues in “Women’s Work” than we’ve heard in the past few episodes, and thinks, “It was nice working with you too.” It’s like an office going-away present for a colleague you did not really know all that well. The tinny music in the music box is the theme from Swan Lake — a ballet where the heroine is imprisoned in the body of a swan, stripped of her identity. The white rose (most likely unintentionally) evokes President Snow’s white roses in that other dystopia, The Hunger Games’ Panem.
Emily Is Mad Again. June spends more time with Janine than with Emily, although Emily was closer to her before the colonies. We are given no details about Emily’s current handmaids assignment, and she’s radiating toxicity. After displaying grit in the colonies and shell-shocked, silent sadness on first return to Gilead, Emily has found her anger again. Janine says that her posting is great and a blessing because they only have the ceremony, no blow jobs. Emily says, “Being raped is not a blessing. The real blessing was that bomb. Anyone helping Gilead deserves to be blown apart.” June seems to feel awkward around Emily because of her secret work with Serena. They weren’t pushing increases to women’s rights in Gilead. June was helping to perpetuate a fascist regime by making it run smoothly, but she missed working. And she missed reading and editing. But how much did she give up for those hours of working together?
Warren Putnam Says Yes. June may never wrangle a visit with Hannah from either Waterford, but she is able to persuade Serena to ask the Putnams to let Janine see baby Angela, who is hospitalized and faring poorly. Naomi dismisses the suggestion, but Warren overrules her: “I think God would want us to welcome her.” It’s surprising that Mrs. Putnam would give him the upper hand on this one, since she insured that he lost a hand last season following his dalliances with Janine.
Dr. Hodgson. Gilead says that it cares about children. But that ends when solutions fall outside their picture. So Serena forges the commander’s signature in order to seek help from one of the world’s top neonatologists, Dr. Hodgson, who happens to be a woman and is currently a Martha. Karen Glave is incredibly effective as the initially terrified Dr. Hodgson, who arrives at the hospital in her Martha uniform to be greeted by Serena and Dr. Epstein, the doctor who’s been attending to baby Angela. I’ll admit: When I saw the name “Dr. Epstein” on IMDb prior to watching the episode, I assumed that the contraband doctor in the episode would be a Jewish doctor brought back from the colonies. I wasn’t expecting a female doctor. I guess Gilead got into my head too.
Dr. Hodgson muffles tears as she puts on her hospital whites and almost needs to again when Epstein hands her a stethoscope, the symbol of her former calling. She was a big deal once. Dr. Epstein tells her, “I can’t tell you how excited I am to see you again. You probably don’t remember me. You actually trained my mentor. We met once, at the 2012 ACOG meeting, for a seminar on therapeutic hypothermia.” To him, she’s still a rock star, and he feels privileged to get to work directly with her. It’s great to hear a man talk about missing a female colleague, and it could be the first time we’ve heard this from a male professional in Gilead. Up until now, it seemed like most of the men have preferred having women removed from the labor market. And to the rest of the world, she’s a lowly Martha, keeping house, and she’s probably grateful to be alive at all. Getting to briefly step back into her old life must feel like heaven.
The Commander Whips Serena. Serena fails on two counts. First, her gambit in bringing the doctor to the hospital appears to be a failure. Dr. Hodgson was unable to cure Angela/Charlotte and tells Serena that all they can do is unhook the baby from the machines and pray. If she had had a miracle cure, Serena would have been vindicated, but her prescription is in line with the Gilead standard. It was all for nothing. Worse is her humiliation when Waterford whips her in punishment for writing his memos and going against his verdict to bring in Dr. Hodgson. He holds obedience above the baby’s life. When he calls them into his office, it feels like they’re being sent to the principal’s office. She tries to make excuses, and Fred still whips her with his belt in front of Offred. Serena used to be the star of the marriage. She’s amazing, but nobody needs her to be amazing anymore. Now, she’s reprimanded for doing what she’s good at. She had no real power while issuing commands in Fred’s name. Serena Joy and Offred were playing house all along.
Eden Found the Letters. Eventually, someone was going to find the packet of letters that June smuggled out of Jezebel’s. It’s Eden. She finds them in a trunk while folding Nick’s things. Nick generally tries to be decent, but in this case, he reprimands her harshly: “You never touch my things, you understand?” Eden is desperate for Nick to take an interest in her, or to find some way of pleasing him. But Nick tends to behave like she’s not there at all and to spend as little time with her as possible. Marriage is not what she figured it would be. The thing that she could do to please him is beyond her. She’d need to be a grown woman with a mind of her own.
Go Back to Your Room. Weeping alone in her room, Serena lets her hair down before walking to the mirror to see the numerous purple welts on her backside from her husband’s beating. She sees what she has become: a powerless, battered wife. Fred has said before that Serena would not complain if she were hurt. We saw her push back her pain in the hospital flashback two episodes ago. Serena can take pain. Serena isn’t crying because it hurts. I want to believe weeping Serena repents bringing Gilead into existence, but she could also be repenting her disobedience, or heartbroken at the state of her marriage. Yvonne Strahovski has said that it’s the final nail in the coffin for the Waterford marriage.
We can’t tell if Serena is truly repentant or which actions she repents. Does she regret disobedience, the state of her marriage, or her role in creating a society in which she is subjugated? When Offred knocks on her door to ask what she can do to help, Serena can’t let the handmaid see her crying, telling her, “Go back to your room.” This is her snap-back moment. Instead of accepting comfort, Serena reasserts authority over a person she can still control: Offred. She may have tumbled down the ladder, but she can still stomp on the hands of women beneath her. The rejection is consistent for the character. At the moments of vulnerability, when growth seems the most possible, Serena exercises control through cruelty. Serena proves she can’t change and that their weeks of working together meant nothing to her. She always snaps back instead of growing. Maybe the purpose of this is to surprise us in case Serena genuinely changes in the future. Or maybe it just means that she can’t change. We can expect nothing from Serena but an endless dance of push-and-pull.
Charlotte/Angela’s Miracle Recovery. The Putnams let Janine hold the dying baby Angela one more time, assuming that there’s nothing further they can do. And then the Putnams and Aunt Lydia apparently give into exhaustion, leaving Janine with the child. In the morning, Aunt Lydia wakes to hear Janine singing Dusty Springfield to Angela/Charlotte. My first thought was that crazy Janine was singing to a tiny corpse, but then a baby’s happy gurgles and coos can be heard. Baby Angela looks happier and more alert than we’ve ever seen her. It seems a little too on-the-nose that all Janine’s baby needed was her biological mother’s love.
Upon reflection, “Women’s Work” reminded me of a memorably irritating conversation that I had on the school bus in eighth grade when a sophomore boy mansplained to me that women actually had more power before the 19th Amendment and feminism, because they had greater sway over their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons, and that pre-20th-century female monarchs had a great deal of power. I knew that he was dead wrong, but he was better than me at point-for-point debating, and I’ve never been a fan of rhetoric for its own sake. I think I ultimately found the conversation annoying and made excuses to bow out of it and read. “Women’s Work” perfectly illustrates how worthless a woman’s influence over her male relatives is compared to real power.
Offred said she “was” an editor, Emily was a professor, Dr. H was the best neonatal care physician. All of them have been stripped of their identities. The mental difference between them and Serena was that Serena, an architect of her own prison, has never lost her old self-perception. She got what she wanted. She just never saw the personal ramifications in forcing backward changes on American women would change her too. Serena is always at her most human and magnanimous when she feels empowered — she initially gave Offred the music box shortly after her triumph at the Mexican ambassador’s dinner — and at her most monstrous when she’s feels powerless, like confining Offred to her room at the end of the third episode of season 1, when she turned out to not be pregnant. Furthermore, her worst behavior always follows the moments when she displays some glint of kindness or humanity. She cannot bear to admit that she was wrong. Serena will always let us down.