New alliances are struck as the status quo in Gilead is perhaps permanently shaken
“Our republic is under siege,” goes perhaps the most important line at the midpoint of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season. In the wake of last week’s stunning, deadly act of resistance, “After” is an episode dedicated to outlining how things have changed and will continue to change: New alliances are struck, characters shift locations, and new, quieter subversive acts promise that Ofglen’s game-changing rebellion won’t mark the end of the resistance. It may even usher in a whole new era of activism.
This is not a plot-heavy episode of The Handmaid’s Tale; rather, it’s composed primarily of sequences, beginning with the mournful funereal opener, which finds the surviving handmaids, all clad in black, grieving those who died in the bombing. A distraught Lydia leads the ceremony, fighting back tears as she makes pronouncements like, “I was sure I could give you a world without violence — without pain. It’s all I ever wanted.” (Yeah, about that…) Rumors are that more than 30 handmaids died, though June is alive and well, left to navigate an uncertain new landscape.
By “uncertain,” I mean even more deadly than usual: Gilead resembles even more of a police state than usual here, panicked over how such a large-scale attack could be carried out. As June and the handmaids drive along a residential street, they see individuals hanging from trees, guardians scattered on snowy lawns with guns arrogantly displayed. Marthas are senselessly being killed in broad daylight, murdered for even the slightest hint of resistance. And there’s a new sheriff in town: Commander Pryce, we learn, died in the explosion, leaving the relatively hot-headed Cushing in his place.
Cushing is on a mission to get to the bottom of the terrorism by any means necessary. Commander Waterford has survived, but narrowly, now bed-ridden and looking frail; Serena and Nick are by his side, but the latter is suddenly an eye without a head, his boss having perished. Cushing’s suspicions immediately turn to the Waterford household — and particularly, June’s foiled escape plan from earlier this season. He realizes rather quickly that someone inside must have helped her get as far as she did; in a distressingly tense scene, he quizzes June on whether Fred could’ve been involved and where his allegiances truly lie. June maintains the “kidnapping” charade, but barely, and he sees through it. “You can trust me,” he says, most untrustingly. “If your house has been infected with terrorists, I need to know.”
June visits the commander in the hospital later before reconvening with Nick outside the room. She indicates to him that Cushing isn’t going to give up investigating, a reminder that he’s in serious danger. But with the commander out cold and Gilead so heavily policed, their options are especially limited. June has no choice but to catch up with Serena and jointly assess how they can move forward. Back at home, they have a slightly more relaxed back-and-forth than what we’ve come to expect of them, and Serena freely bashes the new security head without June even having to bring him up. “Ray Cushing will be the death of us all,” she cracks, to June’s surprise. June explains to Serena exactly what Cushing asked her when he stopped by unannounced. “You need to answer his questions very carefully,” Serena responds. “Make sure that he understands the truth.” June then notes that Cushing killed Ofglen’s entire family; with a man this brutal, lying and stalling may not be an option. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Serena takes matters into her own hands. She enlists Nick’s help to essentially take over for Commander Waterford while he’s unable, forging his signature and typing up new documents and orders to be distributed around the Republic. Anyone aware of her position wouldn’t question the necessity of the tactic. But it’s undeniable — and smart, on the show’s part — how important this is for Serena as a person. Last week’s episode coldly contrasted her thrilling pre-Gilead intellectual life with what she’s been stuck with now, a housewife role of her own making. Now, not only is she taking charge and writing up laws, but she’s coming back to life. It took her husband nearly dying to give Serena the chance to again become the charged, engaged person she once was. And she certainly maximizes on the feeling: She goes so far as, with Nick’s help (and, erm, proof), to frame Cushing as a traitor and have him sent away. (As to who takes over next? Stay tuned.)
Even more intriguing is the way she brings June into the fold. Serena calls June down to Waterford’s study, a place where June has been called down many times, each circumstance more unexpected and perilous than the last. But here, the offer is irresistible: Help Serena edit press releases and decrees, which have been written by Serena in the commander’s name, to get Gilead back on track. Who knows what the commander will think if, or when, he wakes up, but for now, this alliance is ripe with potential, and this moment of coming-together is fully earned by the careful work the show has done with Serena and June to get to it. The end of the episode is accordingly thrilling: June noting she’ll need a pen, Serena smiling and handing her one, and June feeling the rush of just clicking it, a piece of herself finally brought back.
This is all important to the show’s narrative set-up; it’s no coincidence that this huge dynamic shift takes place at the season’s exact midpoint, before we start headed into its endgame. But the emotional heartbeat of the episode rests in the quieter moments: the aftermath of an event simultaneously tragic and triumphant. Early in “After,” June asks the other handmaids if anyone knew Ofglen’s real name, since she never asked; no one does. There’s a different kind of wake-up call here, in the handmaids’ existence among themselves, falling into the system’s trap of not really seeing each other. It’s a small thing, not knowing anything about Ofglen aside from their grocery store walks, but it still breaks June’s heart.
“After” also returns the action to Canada for just the second time this season, with a rare spotlight on Moira. She and Luke learn of the bombing back in Gilead and fear that June may have been killed. Moira goes on a journey this episode as a result, finally digging through the refugee camp library’s binders of unidentified people who died in Gilead to look for her (previously unseen) girlfriend and learn what happened to her. She’s mustered the courage to confront the sad reality. As Moira flips through, while flashing back to her experience of pregnancy as the (well-paid) surrogate of an English couple, the broader theme of the episode shines through: dozens of nameless women, pictured dead and often alone, with nobody able to identify them. “After” is practically calling out, “Say her name.” And Samira Wiley plays the story line devastatingly, a reminder of how good she is when she gets the chance. Moira’s breakdown, upon finally discovering her girlfriend’s body, is just wrenching to watch.
At the refugee camp, the dead handmaids are eventually identified: Moira and Luke implicitly learn that June is alive, and we learn Ofglen’s real name: Lillie. Each woman’s real name is read in succession, the memorial they could never get in Gilead. But there is a bright spot, a moment of joy and unity, across the border that works as the episode’s gorgeous centerpiece. June is at the market as she is every other day, when she’s suddenly embraced by Janine — apparently (and improbably) brought back from the Colonies. And then there’s Emily, too: also returned. Janine explains that the terrorist attack created a handmaid shortage, so some needed to return. June is relieved. Then, in a less flashy reunion, the first thing June says to Emily is her name, adding she never got to tell her before. Emily smiles. June asks another handmaid’s name. In the process, she creates what sounds like the most intimate game of telephone ever: a chorus of whispers flowing through the sequence, against a slightly uplifting score, each person finally revealing who they are to one another. In an episode full of twists and turns, there’s still nothing more cathartic than that.