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This week, Hulu manages to answer pretty much every question about just how closely “The Handmaid’s Tale” intends to hew toward the plot as Margaret Atwood envisioned it. It turns out the minor departures of the past five episodes — each eliciting its own murmur from those watching with book in hand — have merely been a rehearsal for the challenges posed by Episode 6.
What if Luke isn’t dead? What if Serena Joy isn’t just Gilead’s prime enabler, but also its architect? What if Offred’s position in the Waterford house gives her the opportunity to influence international trade agreements?
What if this particular Handmaid’s tale doesn’t have the ending we think it does?
The screenwriters have a ticklish task to accomplish in terms of filling in Serena Joy’s backstory, adding dimension to her character without going so far as to redeem her. Her pain is real, and Yvonne Strahovski makes sure we feel it, but whether dealing her a tragic blow or a small personal victory, the writers juxtapose each development with a stark reminder of whose expense it really comes at. However it may pinch, Serena’s sacrifice to Gilead is a voluntary one. Everyone else walks through this patriarchal fantasy-land at virtual gunpoint.
The episode opens with our titular Handmaid scrubbing blood off the wall where Gilead’s political enemies become public spectacle. Diplomats from a foreign country are coming to visit, and believe it or not, leaders of the rogue state are still very concerned about optics even as citizens are slaughtered in broad daylight during “particicutions” (North Korea seems to share this kind of sensitivity to public perception both at home and abroad).
Empowered by the sexual liberties she’s taking behind the Waterfords’ back, Offred has begun talking back to her oppressors in a way that, while entertaining to those watching at home, is likely to prove unwise. Her humor is bone-dry enough to be mistaken for mere eccentricity by those in her immediate circle, who seem confident she poses no threat. Tartly informing Serena Joy that “Red’s my color” may seem like playing with fire, but Offred has been observing her new family just as closely as they’ve been watching her, and she’s learned exactly how far she can push the sass (“Well, that’s lucky,” her mistress responds).
The pressure from this visit from Mexican dignitaries kicks off a series of flashbacks elaborating on Serena’s rise (or do we call it a descent?) to power. You may recall that as envisioned by Atwood, Serena was more Jan Crouch or Tammy Faye Bakker than Sarah Palin or Ann Coulter, brimming with the kind of unexamined spirituality that made her useful to Gilead in the short term, less so in the long.
One of the Hulu series’ most daring achievements is to style its main female antagonist (no shade intended towards Ann Dowd, a scene-stealer for the ages as the scabrous Aunt Lydia) as a precocious political activist who hangs with the wrong crowd. If she were content to merely write books and give speeches, Serena could have become the arch-conservative troublemaker that Berkeley riots are made of. Instead she ends up abetting in a terrorist plot to overthrow the US government — she’s one of those “the ends justify the means” pundits whose ferocity betrays a lack of any real-world experience. That part comes later, as Serena falls victim to the practical realities she helped put in place: shunned from leadership meetings, relegated to the role of homemaker, trapped in a world where women can no longer even read.
Serena was born to be a leader, but that doesn’t make her good. How many more times do we as a civilization have to learn this lesson?
A lesser series would retool this character as a potential conspirator for Offred, but Hulu doesn’t appear to be letting Serena off the hook. Unpleasant as her life may be, she will defend Gilead to her last breath; while the responsibility of promoting Gilead to outsiders turns Offred inside out with guilt, Serena takes great pride in rising to the occasion, making sure the Handmaids who bear visible scars are declined a seat at the lavish gala held in their guests’ honor. These poor women (including poor Janine, who still hasn’t managed to get herself killed yet) may have been the lucky ones, for at the height of the party Serena ushers in some unexpected guests: the children of Gilead, fathered by Commanders by way of Handmaids. This may be as close to a reunion as any of these women get with their offspring, but the setting stifles their emotional reaction (not ours, though — this scene is a tearjerker).
Serena’s impressive speech is ultimately revealed to be a marketing pitch, and the products she’s selling are Handmaids themselves. Faring no better in the fertility game (no child has been born in the diplomat’s hometown in six years) and having endured four elections in three years, Mexico’s survival is uncertain. Thus, when Offred finally summons the courage to speak her mind to the visiting diplomat — and let’s remember that she risks her life in doing so — she gets little more than a shrug in response.
This is where you have to remember we haven’t seen anything of the world outside Gilead. This episode alone refers to crop failures and “new weather patterns.” For all the desperation housed within its walls, Gilead really may appear quite cozy compared to what’s on the other side of them (Atwood darkly satirized this concept in last year’s novel The Heart Goes Last). That experience I described in last week’s recap, in which the viewer becomes seduced by the opulence of Offred’s surroundings, is apparently something that characters on the show are susceptible to as well.
Digging deeper into Serena’s past, we see this as a deliberate facet of her activism. The final flashback to the early days of Gilead show her engrossed in renovations of the manor house they’ve taken over (the show goes into less detail than the book in terms of describing the fate of its former occupants), committing wholeheartedly to the brand of “domestic feminism” she has carved out for herself and other women of privilege — her active mind and obsession with “optics” have made her surroundings into a living, breathing work of propaganda. If anyone’s capable of making the Gilead lifestyle palatable to outsiders, it’s Serena.
None of this is making the Commander look too impressive — though played to the hilt by Joseph Fiennes, all he really brings to the equation is a penis. This is a pretty drastic elaboration on the character as Atwood originally sketched him: the more light the show casts on Serena’s past, the more we see how good ol’ Fred has simply been the right guy in the right place at the right time, soaring to prominence on a jet-pack fueled by his wife’s superior intellect and bravery.
His awareness of this is painted in lowlights and undertones, coloring everything from his occasional impotence to his fickle treatment of Offred during their intensifying Scrabble competitions. Suddenly he appears to be a much more vulnerable target for her sexual manipulations — Offred’s bravery increases at the same glacial pace that the Commander’s confidence is eroding. It’s not a safe position for her to be in, but there’s no doubt she’s a worthy adversary and then some — even if their encounters inspire her to brush her teeth until her mouth is bloody.
The episode closes on the aforementioned revelation about Luke, delivered by a security guard who claims to be in a position to pass a note from Offred to the man we’ve all assumed had been killed protecting her. There’s an obvious danger of entrapment here, but no conceivable amount Red Center conditioning could inspire anyone to refuse such an opportunity. Earlier in the episode, Serena was caught listening to Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” as she set about destroying the world as we know it; this could easily serve as a tragic anthem for all of Gilead’s once and future inhabitants as they end up becoming enslaved by instincts they’re determined to suppress — namely, love, lust, and human kindness:
Don’t you know you’re life itself
Like a leaf clings to a tree
Oh my darling, cling to me
For we’re creatures of the wind
And wild is the wind
So wild is the wind
Where has Luke landed in all this, and will we be permitted to know his story? And what about their child? With just a few episodes left in the season, time is running out for us all.
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