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The Handmaid’s Tale untangles the dark dynamics of the Waterford household

“Women’s Work” spins up a health crisis out of (almost) nowhere and punctures Serena Joy’s power.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Commander is back, and he’s not particularly happy with Serena Joy and June.

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 “Women’s Work,” the eighth episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: Around the midpoint of “Women’s Work,” I found myself thinking, boy, baby Angela better not survive just because Janine held it for a while. By the end, when that actually happened, I was surprisingly relieved to see that conclusion arrive. There she was! Baby Angela! Alive and well! And living as a woman in Gilead, so ... you know ... this probably won’t turn out so great.

If there’s a single reason I think that season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has been considerably better than season one (a minority opinion, I’m aware), it’s that the show has gotten so much better at balancing its moments of uplift with its many slow-motion tragedies.

“Women’s Work” is a weaker episode, to my mind, one that flirts at all times with being miserable for the sake of being miserable, and it doesn’t help that the health crisis with Angela all but parachutes in from nowhere (though there have been hints here and there that something isn’t right with the child). But the series has gotten so much better at punctuating its darkness with brief glimmers of light while also not turning those brief glimmers into needless triumphalism. Angela survives, yes, but she gets to live in a dark and horrible world.

I do have other complaints about “Women’s Work” (particularly in regards to how the show raises the idea of Serena Joy and June working together and then doesn’t really bother to fill in what exactly they did — here’s hoping that comes up at a later date), but I found the second half of the episode somber and interesting in the way that Serena Joy and June, now with a kind of rapprochement between them, are confronted with the Commander back in their lives as a regular presence.

Look at the scene where he beats Serena Joy as punishment, one of the bits of world-building this season that feels like an organic extension of Gilead’s religiously motivated misogyny, rather than an elaborate ritual cooked up in the writers’ room in a couple of spare minutes. Director Kari Skogland frames the Commander through much of the scene so that he’s very small, sitting behind his big desk but diminished physically and emotionally. And then that changes abruptly, as he rises from the desk to loom over the frame and the others living in his household.

The man who is small in the frame is how the Commander sees himself and Gilead’s mission as a whole — humble and charged with saving the world through that humility. What happens when he stands up is who he and his country really are, monsters who alter the psychological landscape of everyone around them based on whims.

Having almost the entire cast back in the same city has helped considerably with keeping the story of the various Handmaids going, as Janine argues with June about which Alien movie was better, or Emily threatens to burn it all down. But it’s also helped underline these shifts in power dynamics within the Waterford household, as the season unmistakably changes from one about the ways that women can perpetuate power imbalances with one another to one about just who created those power imbalances in the first place.

Why that scene between the Commander and Serena Joy is so powerful

Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

Constance Grady: Part of what makes the Commander beating Serena Joy hit home so hard is that it comes after an episode in which June has tasted enough power that she’s beginning to hold herself as though she is an authority. When she takes charge of Janine, she pushes away Guards like she’s their superior, and she speaks to Aunt Lydia about Janine’s sanity as though they’re equals or even colleagues. When she has the ability to pick up a pen and use it, she begins to feel that she might be an exception to Gilead’s laws, that while other women might suffer, she will rise above it all — just as Serena always believed to be the case for herself.

And then the Commander takes off his belt, and you see all the sense of strength and power just leak out of June and Serena’s shoulders. They are not exceptions to Gilead’s power because Gilead has no true exceptions. It will crush everyone in its path.

But beyond the political issues, there are some interesting family psychosexual dynamics to that scene. There’s a sense in which the Commander is punishing Serena not just for disobeying his orders but also for stealing his lover: When he sneaks creepily into June’s room with the apparent expectation of a tryst, the music box and white rose that Serena left for June look like tokens from a lover, and the Commander seems to be more than a little jealous in response. He’s the one who’s supposed to get to do illicit literary things with the Handmaid in the study, he seems to think; not the Wife.

In a larger sense, the scene isn’t just about the Commander punishing Serena and June for being women who disobey, but about him reasserting his own right to be the single person in the family with the power to break the rules and control the human chattel.

Speaking of Serena’s rule-breaking: The scene in which the lady doctor Serena found begins weeping quietly as she changes into her scrubs and lab coat was incredibly moving, but it struck me as slightly out of character that Serena would believe so wholeheartedly in that doctor’s competence. Misogynists who want women out of the workforce — including women with internalized misogyny — usually don’t believe that women are really good at their various professions but should be stopped from participating in them anyway because it’s God’s will. They usually believe that women are just bad at their jobs, full stop, and are willing to interpret any evidence to the contrary as needed to fit that narrative: She’s using her feminine wiles to get ahead; she’s the beneficiary of affirmative action; it is she, not I, who is the real sexist.

Did that plot line work for you, Todd? And what about Chekhov’s Handmaid’s tales, which showed up this week in Eden’s clutches?

Why did the doctor storyline not quite work?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Janine looks in on the ailing Angela.

Todd: I’ll admit I couldn’t jibe with the doctor’s story, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until you brought it up. I think the show wants us to see it as a sign of how Serena Joy’s increased agency behind the Commander’s desk is opening her up just enough to the idea that there are certain situations in which women’s expertise might be helpful to the cause of Gilead (after all, June’s was). But I think the audience probably needed at least an episode of living in that space with Serena Joy to make the leap from “She thinks this about June” to “She thinks this about someone the audience has never met.”

What’s more, I think that this storyline suffered because when Serena Joy says, “Maybe we have someone who can help,” it’s only natural to think that she might have leaped to, “What if Angela spent some time with Janine?” We’re aware of how stories work, and we know that this one is funneling all its energy into getting Janine back in the same room as the baby who was torn from her, so introducing the doctor feels like a pointless complication. It’s an interesting one, especially for that scene where the doctor puts on her scrubs, but it never escapes feeling like a temporary speed bump in the plot.

In general, I much prefer The Handmaid’s Tale’s approach to storytelling to that of most other streaming dramas. But the downside of needing to constantly generate a string of ideas for episodes is that some of them will seem to just sort of come up out of the blue. As mentioned, there were a few slight hints that Angela wasn’t feeling well, and it makes sense that none of the characters we spend the most time with would be at all concerned about Angela beyond the abstract. But the health crisis was still one of those times when it felt like the show had dropped in a crisis of the week.

That said, the longer-term serialization of the Commander’s return to his home, as well as the downward spiral that is Nick and Eden’s relationship, all worked here. When Eden picked up that stack of letters and said she hadn’t looked at them, I briefly wondered if she would have been able to read them.

With so much of this episode revolving around Serena Joy and June’s manipulation of words to their benefit, it provided a forceful reminder that there are many, many young women who are not even being taught to read. Eden is probably old enough that she spent her primary school years in the United States, as opposed to Gilead, but the show’s caginess on the timeline is helpful in giving some punch to the idea that Eden has seen the letters but maybe hasn’t looked at them too closely.

In general, I’m finding Eden one of the second season’s strongest additions when it comes to new characters. If there’s one thing this season hasn’t quite done, it’s added new characters to populate its expanded world. We have hints that June’s mother might still be alive somewhere, and Marisa Tomei’s character made a very brief impression. But, really, it’s just Eden and the Waterfords’ pastor (slash boss?) who have stuck around enough to sink into our memories.

I might count this as a fault when the season is done with. (I’m still undecided.) But it’s also worth noting how much this show gains from its starkness, from the sense that the world is already becoming underpopulated. That final image of Janine cradling Angela in front of a window where snow softly fell was a gorgeous one in this regard. But it also had me asking just how much time has even passed this season.

Constance: I think you’re right that the tiny population is really starting to make itself felt, Todd, especially in scenes like the ones where the Handmaids are walking to the market and you see that they’re walking through a suburban housing track. There’s a sense in which the aesthetic there is similar to the one in Netflix’s weirdo show from 2016 The OA, which was really interested in finding the sparse, eerie corners of the suburbs and rendering them otherworldly: all those empty and echoing white corners and lone figures looking very small inside them.

It’s also true that time feels very elastic on this show. We know June was on the run for about three months, because Serena Joy said so, and it feels like a safe bet that the season finale will involve the birth of the baby in some fashion or other. And while it’s safe to say that we’re somewhere in between, I really couldn’t tell you if June is five months or eight months into her pregnancy at this point.

But that also might be more of a feature than a bug. In a nightmare, you can never tell how much time has passed — you only know that what you’re experiencing is horrific and unbearable. And if Handmaid’s Tale is anything, it’s a nightmare.