Serena Joy is trapped in a prison of her own making

By Jessica Derschowitz
May 17, 2017 at 09:00 AM EDT
George Kraychyk/Hulu
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Up until now, The Handmaid’s Tale has really just been Offred’s tale — except for a handful of scenes focused on Emily/Ofglen, everything we’ve seen has either happened to Offred in the past or present. But in “A Woman’s Place,” we get new insight into another central character — Serena Joy, who helped dream up this new society and is now trapped by the rules that govern it. Did these week’s flashbacks (notably, the first ones to not come from Offred) change the way you feel about her? Either way, they certainly give more context for her character and new insight into the early days of Gilead.

But first, let’s talk about the present, as everyone is preparing for a visit from a Mexican trade delegation. For the handmaids, that means scrubbing blood off the wall where they usually string up dissidents — you know, the sort of thing that might not sit well with out-of-town visitors. (“It looks kind of weird without all the dead bodies, doesn’t it?” Janine asks. It’s just like Aunt Lydia said: Normal is just what you’re used to.) Those VIPs will, naturally, be staying Chez Waterford, which means Serena Joy has a one-on-one with Offred about how everything needs to be perfect, and how if their Mexican visitors ask her questions about their way of life, she should “speak wisely” when she answers.

When they do arrive, there’s a reception of sorts inside the Commander’s office, as Offred and Nick stand waiting outside. Offred still can’t stop thinking about their (consensual, how novel!) sexcapades the other night, and Nick seems to be on the same page — there’s whispered, flirtatious banter, and a brushing of hands that would most definitely get both of them in big trouble if anyone saw it. That’s interrupted when the Commander opens the door and has Nick bring her. Tellingly, when he introduces Ambassador Castillo, she automatically assumes he’s referring to their male visitor — but the ambassador is actually the woman next to him, and the man is her assistant. Whoops. But, really, that’s probably to be expected from someone who probably hasn’t seen a woman in a government role for a while.

As Serena Joy warned her, the Mexican delegates have questions for her. The first one is simple enough — what’s her given name? — but Offred knows better than to answer that. The Commander explains the patronymic names they use are a symbol of the handmaids’ “sacred position,” which is a nice spin on them not being allowed to have their own identities anymore.

Next question. Did she choose to be a handmaid? Oh boy, what a question. With the Commander looking on, she just offers a “yes.” Again, the Commander offers some Gilead-branded spin: “Handmaids are having children for the entire nation. Offred knows how grateful we are for her choice in this.” And a third question — is Offred happy with the life she’s supposedly chosen? Her silence, with Nick and the Commander and Serena Joy all watching, feels long and telling, but she finally manages to give the answer she’s expected to: “I have found happiness, yes.”

RELATED: Margaret Atwood and Elisabeth Moss Discuss The Handmaid’s Tale

The night continues as a show of how Gilead has made things great again — Mexico and other nations are still struggling with their food supply in the wake of changing weather patterns, but look, our food is organic! We even have oranges! The ambassador doesn’t seem to buying the whole dog-and-pony show, though. She turns to the “quiet half of the room” — the wives, sitting separately like it’s a middle school dance — and asks what they think of Gilead. The rote answers follow, and Mrs. Waterford tells them she’s blessed to have a home and husband to care for and follow.

“Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness,” Castillo responds, quoting a line from a book Serena Joy wrote, called A Woman’s Place, which argued the benefits of so-called “domestic feminism.” Yep, Serena Joy wrote a book back in the day, and was even arrested once for inciting to riot while speaking at a rally before the war. “Women were abandoning their families, and we needed to make a change. We were running out of time,” she explains. But, the ambassador asks, did she ever imagine that she’d be living in a society like this, where women are no longer allowed to read her book — or anything else? She admits she didn’t, but “God demands sacrifices,” and she reasons that she and Gilead have gotten many blessings in return.

The extent of those sacrifices is exactly what we see in Serena Joy’s flashbacks: the passion that was once in their relationship and the way he valued her ideas for the revolution that founded Gilead. Back then, she wore stylish clothes, and she and her husband went on dates to the movies, albeit after he was in late-night, let’s-overthrow-the-government meetings.

In the theater, Serena Joy tells her husband about an idea she has for a second book: arguing for fertility as a national resource — reproduction “as a moral imperative.” Does this mean she’s the founding mother of the handmaids system? The Commander thinks it’s a great idea and tells her to go for it. Before the lights go down, he gets a message on his phone that confirms that their plans are a go — three separate attacks on the three cornerstones of American democracy: first Congress, then the White House, then the courts. They look around the theater at the unsuspecting attendees (by the way, couldn’t any of them overheard all this?) and express pity for the pain this may cause, but argue it’s for the greater good. “We’re saving them,” Serena Joy tells him. “We’re doing God’s work.”

In another flashback, presumably after those impending attacks, Serena Joy is quickly removed from that “we.” Now her hair is pinned up and her clothes are more modest, but she still won’t be allowed to speak at a meeting in some sort of building where, eerily, there are still American flags lining the hall. The Commander still thinks she should be part of these decisions, but she tells him not to rock the boat and heads home. Another man comes out of the room and asks Waterford if his wife was upset about not being included, and he says she’s just frustrated because she’s been involved since the very beginning. The other man isn’t as sympathetic. “This is our fault,” he says. “We gave them more than they could handle — they put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, we let them forget their real purpose.” Ominously, he adds, “We won’t let that happen again.” And it doesn’t — when we see Past Serena Joy again, she’s filling the closet in her new home with identical blue dresses and tossing her book, her stilettos, and the freedom she once had on the curb to be taken away.

Back in the present day, the Commander asks to see Offred after that dinner with the ambassador and stews to her over how it went. (“Did you see the way they looked at us?” he fumes. “Don’t they see the good work we’re doing here?” Offred listens, barely, until he calls her back to attention, chastises her for tuning him out, and tells her to go. As she walks to the door, she pauses and turns around, apologizing and asking to stay. This is a game, a power struggle she knows he wants her to play into, and one he knows he’ll win. He beckons her over and tells her to kiss him. She does, a quick peck on the lips, but he’s not satisfied. “Like you mean it,” he orders. This time, Offred cups his face as she does it, and then he dismisses her. She goes and brushes her teeth vigorously, enough to make her gums bleed, getting the taste of him off her.

Phase 2 of Gilead Puts on a Show includes a banquet that the handmaids get to attend as honored guests — at least, the ones who don’t have eyes or hands missing. (Sorry, Janine, no party time for you.) The rest walk into the hall in two straight lines, like some twisted version of Madeline, to a pair of tables near a dais where the Mexican delegation and the Waterfords are both sitting. Serena gives a speech welcoming their guests, hailing the evening as a celebration of Gilead and what they’ve achieved — helping clean up the environment and restoring a “healthy and moral way of life” they can be proud to leave to the next generation. Speaking of that next generation, she then has the crowd applaud the handmaids for their “contribution” to that effort.

And then Serena Joy has one more surprise: the doors open, and in come the children of Gilead, infants and preschoolers in cute little outfits, running around the room looking stupidly adorable. One of the handmaids comments to Offred that it looks like Waterford will get his trade deal, but it has nothing to do with oranges. “Gilead only has one thing that anyone wants,” she says. Handmaids. The Mexican ambassador is laughing with Waterford, but the music is ominous, and Offred’s face says it all. This is a horror show, one that the Commander later thanks his wife for helping to orchestrate (“I forgot what an amazing woman you are”).

Offred goes to Nick’s apartment, distraught over the night’s events and the role her answers may have played in it, for saying she was happy with the way her life was now. He points out she didn’t any other choice, but those assurances aren’t much comfort, especially coming from someone who has the protections of being a man in this world, whether or not he’s also an Eye. Nick tries to calm her down, but she recoils when he calls her Offred. “That’s NOT my name,” she cries, doing what she couldn’t in front of the ambassadors and declaring herself by her own name, as her own person: June. “It’s nice to meet you, June,” he replies.

The next day, Ambassador Castillo and her assistant are back at the Waterfords’ house for a final meeting with the Commander. Offred sees them as she’s about to leave for her daily walk, and Castillo offers her thanks for her “invaluable” candor, for helping her to better understand their world. Offred smiles, nods, and you can see the struggle over whether or not to say more — and then she does. “This is a brutal place,” she tells them. “We’re prisoners. If we run, they’ll try to kill us, or worse.” The abuse, the cattle prods, how you’ll lose a finger if you’re caught reading, the whole hand if you’re caught again. “They rape me every month. Whenever I might be fertile.”

The woman facing her says she’s sorry, but sorry isn’t nearly enough. “I didn’t choose this. They caught me. I was trying to escape,” Offred adds, on the verge of tears. “They took my daughter. So don’t be sorry, okay? Please don’t be sorry,” she’s on the verge of tears now. “Please do something.” But the ambassador says she can’t help, or won’t — the population in her hometown, her home country is dying out. So she sees this as necessary (again, just so we’re clear here, this is sex slavery and human trafficking we’re talking about, all state- — and now potentially internationally — sanctioned). Offred shakes her head, a hollow laugh. “My country’s already dead.”

The Commander finally shows up and walks away with Castillo, and Offred composes herself to go outside, but the ambassador’s assistant stops her and wants to help. “I don’t know where your daughter is,” he tells her, “but I think I can get a message to your husband.” SAY WHAT?????

Offred replies that her husband is dead, but he rattles off Luke’s name, birthdate, where he was born… and says he’s alive. He rushes over and puts a pad of paper in her hand, calling her June and urging her to write something quickly, something he can try to get to him. The episode ends with her grasping that paper and pen in her hands — an empty sheet of paper, and a life-shattering new realm of possibilities.

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