“First Blood,” the sixth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season, begins right where we left off: in a hospital room, with June’s baby surviving a scare and Serena Joy barely leaving her side in nervous worry. It’s a confining moment, both in terms of the actual space and what the scene represents: another retreat to the status quo, another rebellion from June merely placing her back under Serena’s watch. And so it feels just right that the episode would end with a literal explosion, a dramatic shakeup that promises to push the show in thrilling new directions.
But first, what gets us there: “First Blood” is an episode intimately focused on the relationship between June and Serena, and thus it’s a quieter, discomfiting episode that revels in manipulation and passive-aggressiveness. Their dynamic is easily the series’ most engrossing and twisted, and that’s only highlighted here. When June is brought back to the Waterford home, Serena again strives to make her handmaid comfortable. She doesn’t flinch when June rejects her yucky smoothie, offering soup instead; she lets her stay in a relatively spacious room, concerned about the toll walking upstairs could take; and she even tries connecting with her, however forcibly, on a more human level. June takes note of the kindness: She lets her feel the baby, and shares stories of her previous pregnancy.
Serena is craving some connection to a pregnancy that is fundamentally not hers. The irony, of course, is that it’s the oppressive, dehumanizing system she so strongly promoted which prevents her from meeting June on a truly even level. The entire episode is filled with fascinating behavior on Serena’s part; she turns increasingly emotional as she fails to escape her bizarre predicament. In one remarkable scene, Serena invites June’s “friends” (read: fellow handmaids) over for a surprise lunch. She begs them to talk about what they “usually” talk about, but as they finally do, chatting about brunch, her isolation only comes into clearer focus.
It’s interesting too the way Serena’s new life is juxtaposed with her old one. In flashbacks, we get a sense of her activism, as we did last season, but here it’s more violent, angry, intense: It’s framed around a college speaking tour of hers, and one particular stop that ends in near-tragedy. She arrives at the campus with Fred by her side, and with set talking points, but she’s met by a mob scene reminiscent of real clashes happening around the country. Serena is called every name in the book as she makes her way to the microphone, with items getting hurled at her. She’s escorted out. It’s a brutal scene, rendered especially effective by its real-life parallels; that Serena is lamenting her stripped right to free speech, while also promoting ideas that would strip most in attendance of even more fundamental rights, appears lost on her.
Still in the past, as Serena is taken away from the campus, she abruptly stops and demands, again, to be heard. She reminds the students of the rapidly flatlining birth rate and the need for extreme measures, and exits triumphantly, excitedly planning more stops on her tour. Her ideas are dangerous, but we see how they (and the dramatics they create) fuel her. It’s a marked contrast to her dull, voiceless existence. She’s gunned down before leaving the school, nearly killed. But we see hours later, when she wakes up in the hospital, that she’s still driven and motivated, perfecting more speeches with Fred and preparing for the next stage of the fight.
She scolds Fred too, to “be a man.” The episode’s last glimpse of the past is an incredibly bleak one, as it finds Fred (with some backup) taking who he says are the shooters into the woods, to be killed. It’s a boy and a girl, students. He forces the boy to watch the girl shot dead before dragging him off to meet his own fate. It offers new, disturbing insight into who Fred is. In one present-day scene with Serena later on, he says he prays every day to be “worthy” of her, and her strength. That can manifest, evidently, in destructive ways. (Recap continues on page 2)
The sad fact remains that what once drew Fred to Serena — her passion — has been drained out by the exact ideology they pushed into existence together. Serena has been cornered into bonding with women below her in status, rights, and agency. And her bitterness cannot be discounted. She’d been making inroads with June, but when June asks Serena for the chance to see her daughter, just for two minutes, Serena appears totally heartbroken. It’s a reasonable, even necessary request given their building intimacy, but Serena can only view it as a betrayal. In a stirring scene, she starts giving June commands again while tears stream down her face. It’s a window into just how damaged she’s become.
Waterford takes it upon himself to step in. He gets a bit of a spotlight this week too, preparing for his grand unveiling of the new Red Center. While on the site, he runs into Aunt Lydia, who notes to him that the tension between June and Serena is especially “willful.” And after Serena tells him about June’s unacceptable “request,” the Commander makes a peace offering in secret. In the dark of the night, he heads to June’s room (yes, she’s been banished upstairs by Serena again) and hands her a picture of Hannah, looking safe and healthy. June expresses gratitude. He then tries to take it one step further. “I miss you,” he says, groping her. She plays along, but skillfully fends off his more aggressive sexual advances, citing the need to protect the baby. He scatters off, and she thanks him again.
Waterford has been a more enigmatic character than virtually anyone else in The Handmaid’s Tale, and “First Blood” makes the argument that this may have been a more deliberate choice than it initially appeared. Andrew Pryce and those above Fred wince at his dedicated work on the new Red Center, almost stumped by it; the scene of Fred preparing the unveiling lacks context, an indication of its importance. And at the grand unveiling later, Nick rushes up to Andrew (who recruited him as an Eye) and tells him, in so many words, that he needs to leave the Waterford home because the Commander is up to no good.
Now, it seems most likely in this moment that Nick is lying, hoping to escape his new domestic situation. Earlier in the episode, he kind-of rekindles with June, but she nonetheless implores him to go through with his new forced marriage and do what is asked of him, if only for their safety. Nick’s new bride, Eden, introduces a new, brainwashed generation of women to Handmaid’s, and it’s dispiriting to watch. Her entire sense of self-worth is wrapped up in the notion that she cook for Nick, clean for him, and give birth to his children. When he initially rebuffs her advances, she tells June it’s because he thinks she’s ugly; she questions whether he’s a “gender-traitor,” using the language of GIlead, and fears for their future. Most agonizing to watch, though, is when Serena pulls Eden into her petty control games. Demanding her to demean June, through the sheer power of self-hate, is as grim a commentary on these women’s lives as Handmaid‘s has provided.
In any case, it becomes increasingly clear that Nick may be referencing something else when asking Andrew he be reassigned, implying something more sinister is afoot with regard to Fred. “First Blood” certainly reinforces the Commander’s penchant not just for deceit, but for cold, brutal murder. When we finally get to the Red Center ceremony, Fred addressing Gilead with confidence, a sense of danger begins to creep in. The handmaids are lined up outside the main lecture hall, but Ofglen, tongue cut out and all, subtly makes her way into the room. It’s an indelible image: Her red robe contrasting with the rest of the room, her head bobbed down in apparent servitude, a grand act of resistance on the horizon.
She pulls out a ticker. Fred takes notice, slowly. She charges the stage and detonates a bomb. The episode cuts to black, leaving us on a shocker of a cliffhanger. It raises too many questions to count: Who was involved? Was Nick referencing this impending attack? Who died in the explosion? What will come next? If Handmaid’s seemed a little stuck in the punishing cycles of everyday Gilead life, an actual bomb dropping feels like a sufficient narrative curveball to throw.