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The Handmaid’s Tale delves into Serena Joy’s past and kicks season 2 into another gear

Plus: Does the Commander have anything to do with [spoiler]?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Serena Joy seems to be increasingly realizing she’s in a prison of her own making.

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “First Blood,” the sixth episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: Here’s a question I often have when I’m taking in any story with flashbacks specifically centered on one character’s point of view: How accurately do they reflect what “really” happened? Since they’re filtered through the eyes of one character in particular, how much are they colored by that character’s memories?

This is a question I’ve had about some of the June flashbacks on The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s one that reared up especially in “First Blood,” which takes us back to Serena Joy and Fred’s college tour in the pre-Gilead era, Serena Joy angrily entreating women to do their duty and have some babies, lest the birth rate keep plummeting. People jeer at her. They try to shout her down. And eventually, she’s shot.

This flashback sequence was interpreted by our dear departed colleague Caroline Framke in her full-season review as an implicit endorsement of the idea that something like Milo Yiannopoulos’s ill-fated journey across American campuses, which often ended up with him racing away from loud, boisterous crowds eager to shout him down, should have been allowed to proceed because this is America and something something free speech. Due respect to Caroline, but I struggle to read the flashbacks here in that light, thanks to the wild funhouse mirror of this season’s politics.

First of all is the fact that if you read these flashbacks literally, the protesters are right. Serena Joy and Fred really do want to institute a fascist theocracy that will rip away women’s rights. But even if you read the flashbacks as an attempt to make Serena Joy more sympathetic, they depict a scenario in which she has more agency taken from her by her husband — who eventually declares that she should not speak anymore, a foreshadowing of everything to come — than by the protesters, who do eventually listen to her as she shouts not particularly convincing platitudes over them.

But this is also where the show bumps up against the fact that the flatlining birth rate so central to its premise is a complete wild card when it comes to any of its more timely political commentary. Sure, these campus protests are meant to evoke the ones in our reality, but they take place in a completely different one, with a huge, overriding sociopolitical concern that simply doesn’t exist here. That sometimes hurts the show, but I think it helped the flashbacks of “First Blood” attain escape velocity, decoupling just enough from our reality to examine their weirdo power dynamics.

I could also just be saying that because everything Serena Joy does in this episode is fascinating. I loved the little party she threw for June, and the ways she seemed to be trying to get the various Handmaids to break out of their preordained scripts and talk about literally anything other than the weather. But I also loved her yelling at her husband to not cry after she was shot and he worried he might have lost her. Serena Joy might be the show’s most fascinating, layered character, and I’m here for whatever Yvonne Strahovski wants to bring.

But where other episodes this season have contrasted what’s happening in the Waterford home with what’s going on in the Colonies or in Canada or something, this one kept cutting between June and Serena Joy’s struggles and whatever’s up with Gilead’s power structure, with a bunch of political maneuvering. What do you make of all of this, Constance?

How The Handmaid’s Tale connects Serena Joy’s rabble-rousing past to her increasingly dull present

The Handmaid’s Tale
Here’s Serena Joy in ... happier(?) times.

Constance Grady: I have to agree with you, Todd, that the Serena Joy flashbacks don’t seem to demonstrate that college students are overprivileged snowflakes who refuse to respect their political opponents’ rights to free speech, even if Serena says they are. If anything, they seem to be making the case that the opposing argument is specious: Serena Joy and pre-Commander Waterford may say they’re just exercising their rights to free speech, but they’re doing so because they want to take everyone else’s rights away.

In flashback, Fred yells indignantly, “This is America!” But in the present day of the show, he’s talking about how he’ll be able to better craft the Gilead of his dreams with a new Red Center that will allow him to more efficiently train women for their lives of ritualized rape and slavery.

One of the things I love about that flashback sequence is how elegantly it connects in the present to Serena’s profound boredom and misery in the world of constrained speech that she’s created. She is so desperate for human connection that she invites over all the Handmaids she knows and tries to engage them in conversation about brunch, and it still doesn’t work because the power dynamics that she helped craft have effectively isolated her.

The only opportunity she has for a real connection with someone is with June, with whom she’s developed a twisted surrogate-daughter intimacy, but when June tries to act on that connection by asking for the opportunity to see Hannah, Serena lashes out in fury. She wants the intimacy to come to her on her terms, without her having to cede any of the power she thinks she has.

But much of Serena’s power is illusory, and June knows it, especially when June is carrying the baby that Serena wants. That’s why June is able to win the petty power game Serena starts when she tells tiny Eden to throw a knitting needle on the ground and force June to pick it up. “I feel a cramp,” June says, smirking and caressing her stomach as she refuses to bend for the needle. “I don’t want to hurt the baby, so …” And there’s nothing Serena can do about it.

The person who actually holds the power here is the Commander, which is why his nighttime visit to June’s bedroom feels so gross and creepy and intrusive. Serena may have been able to chastise him for his weakness in the past, but in the present, he holds all the cards.

Unless, of course, he gets blown up in that climactic explosion. What do you see as the fallout from the destruction of the new Red Center, Todd?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Fred is Serena Joy’s biggest fan.

Todd: Call me crazy, but I think the Commander is in on it. A fair amount of this episode is spent on the people around the Commander finding what he’s doing vaguely distasteful, and finally, Nick just outright tells the Commander’s superior that he thinks something is rotten in the Waterford household. Gilead was founded under the auspices of blowing up the existing power structure and claiming terrorists did it. Why wouldn’t some enterprising Commander (Fred) try the same tack if he thinks the jig is up?

What’s more, this season has been so interested in the power dynamics among women that keep a system that oppresses them in place that it makes sense for the season to introduce a shadowed, parallel story about the same thing happening among men competing vainly for dominance in a dying world.

You could even argue the flashback to Fred killing the girlfriend of Serena Joy’s shooter — the one flashback in this episode definitively not from Serena Joy’s perspective — is a harbinger of his willingness to be ruthless with the lives of others when it suits his need and his disinterest in the rule of law, even a rule of law he himself set up. Fred seems to be an “eye for an eye” guy, who conveniently forgets Jesus suggested otherwise.

I wasn’t sure about director Mike Barker’s work in last week’s episode, but his more distanced take here — with off-center frames reminiscent of Mr. Robot — matched perfectly with an episode all about the complicated power dynamics and destructive impulses of the Waterfords. Where shooting June’s fraying psyche in medium shots didn’t quite pay off, getting a glimpse of Serena Joy struggling to hold her interest in her own life works much better via this slightly cool, distanced shot selection. There’s a clinical quality to it, like watching lives in a fishbowl, that really zeroes in on what makes the Waterfords tick.

I even thought this episode was pretty smart about Nick and June’s relationship. Sure, there was more tragic romance than I typically like, but “First Blood” makes clear, I think, that the two are deluding themselves if they think that the very foundations of Gilead aren’t going to eventually make them antagonists.

The more the show depicts Nick blundering his way into ever greater complicity in Gilead, the more his character interests me. It’s a really great example of how people who imagine themselves to be good can so easily be corrupted by the world and times they live in.

Also: This might be the first episode (or at least the first episode in a while) without June narration, though it makes up for that somewhat with her occasional snide remarks, protected by her pregnancy. Did you find the choice to pull back from June distracting, Constance? I have to admit I just realized that was what the episode had done.

Why Eden is such a great addition to the series’ world

The Handmaid’s Tale
June doesn’t even have voiceover in this episode.

Constance: I think losing June’s voiceover went a certain way toward justifying Nick’s presence in this episode: If Nick is the only person June can talk to without being on her guard, then without the voiceover, he is our only access to the real, unfiltered June. Did I particularly care when she tearfully confessed her love to him? Not really. But the conversation beforehand, in which June bluntly informs Nick that he’ll have to sleep with his child bride, is great television — and the consummation itself, with that horrifying embroidered hole in the sheet, is icky and fascinating.

Poor Eden is a great addition to this show: She would have been about 8 or 9 years old when Gilead took over, so with her we’re seeing a character who spent her most formative years in this world, and who experiences it as natural in a way that not even the Waterfords or Aunt Lydia do. They had to work to build this world, and they’re always aware that it can come toppling down again, but Eden knows almost nothing else.

The speech patterns of Gilead are built into her vocabulary. Everyone else sounds like they’re speaking a second language when they talk about how they’ve been sent good weather, but Eden is a native speaker. Which could end up making her a real threat, not just to Nick and June but potentially to the Waterfords too.

I will admit that I tend to ignore what’s going on with Gilead’s political structure from week to week because it has been vague to the point of boring so far, but your suggestion that the Commander is in on the destruction of the Red Center is an interesting one. In the book (look away, spoilers for a 30-year-old book ahead), we learn in the epilogue that the Commander was purged from Gilead’s ruling classes for corruption shortly after Offred’s narrative ended, and we’re right about at the equivalent point in show time now.

If the Commander has seen which way the wind is blowing and decided to jump the gun on his rivals, his next few moves could be very interesting — and ditto if his gambit fails, he loses his power, and we find out what he’s like when he’s as out of control as he likes to pretend to be in his house.

But I have to admit that in that scenario, I’m really most interested to see what Serena Joy would be like after losing her status as an important society Wife. Is Serena always the most interesting part of anything happening in the Waterford house?

Todd: One of the most important things Handmaid’s Tale had to do in season two was pick a second lead character, an alternate protagonist it could turn to when June’s story was in a holding pattern. It seems to be splitting those duties between Emily and Serena Joy, which is a smart call. (The jury’s still out on Moira, the other character who could credibly take the “second protagonist” role.)

Giving that role to Nick would fatally imbalance the show, while Lydia is probably best left in a strong supporting part. Emily and Serena Joy are the two characters who have the clearest perspective on what Gilead really is, even if they have come to vastly different conclusions about it, and that level of perspective is helping keep season two from collapsing into the worst, most manipulative version of itself.

The show seemingly recognizes that an endless cycle of June escaping and being recaptured would eventually grow numbing, so it needs something else to turn to when June is mostly whiling away her time. And in the past two episodes, that’s been Serena Joy’s increasingly futile attempts to pull the strings around her.

I would bet anything we’re building toward some sort of uneasy alliance between June and Serena Joy — perhaps having to do with the fate of June’s unborn baby. (I found it a telling detail that people in positions of power within Gilead tend to think the child will be a boy, whereas all the Handmaids are sure it’s a girl. It’s natural to hope for the best for your child, but Gilead makes it impossible to imagine a child that can escape the station they’re born into.)

I also want to cycle back to your point about Eden, who I agree is an intriguing addition to the show. In particular, her existence throws whatever is happening with Hannah into starker relief. We know that Hannah is being raised by some other family, and it’s all but certain that her brain, too, is being molded by Gilead’s re-education efforts. That nods toward the season’s third episode, featuring June’s mother, whom June wasn’t always keen to listen to but whose influence she still feels. When it comes to her own future, will Hannah even remember June’s influence? Or will it be too late whenever the two are reunited?

I’ve spent a lot of these first six episodes praising the season’s construction, which might seem like damning with faint praise but is actually indicative of just how much I nerd out about these sorts of writing decisions. Still, it’s not hard to wonder what all of that construction is building toward. If nothing else, “First Blood” finally gave us some hints, and that final, fiery explosion should act as a catalyst for whatever shape the story takes next.

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