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A bloody, deadly act of resistance promises to spin the show in shocking new directions

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May 23, 2018 at 04:29 PM EDT

“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)

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