Serena Joy is breaking the law. The Handmaid’s Tale has so steadily tracked her journey this season that only in its eighth episode, “Women’s Work,” does it become clear how far, how quietly radical, she’s come. After Waterford’s near-death experience, she joined forces with June to take control of the Commander’s business, to settle manners while also reclaiming a bit of her lost agency. We’ve been conditioned to view Serena as someone with power and influence, the punisher to June’s punished. But “Women’s Work” reveals, gruesomely if also skillfully, that no woman in Gilead is truly free.
It feels a bit rushed, the way Serena breaks the news to June in the episode’s very first episode that the Commander has recovered enough to return to their home. It was only in the final minutes of last week’s installment that Serena had hatched the plan to take over for the Commander while he was on bed-rest, and to enlist June’s help. We get a glimpse of a surprisingly harmonious dynamic: Serena complimenting June’s editing skills, June firmly but respectfully offering Serena suggestions for better phrasing and structuring. Both of them appear in their element; it’s enjoyable, even, for us to watch. And perhaps that’s why The Handmaid’s Tale structured this brief story line as it did: to take it away before anybody gets too comfortable.
And indeed, Serena does get a little too comfortable with her rebellion. She locks eyes with June, knowingly, upon the Commander’s ceremonious return, and leaves her handmaid small but meaningful presents in her room as a thank-you for her help. Serena brings new life into June’s room in the form of a flower, and re-gifts what was once taken away as a simultaneous apology, peace offering, and token of solidarity. June is moved by the gesture, and is evidently seeing Serena in a new light: a victim of circumstance not unlike herself, a person of far too much intellect and complexity to be stuck in the “Praise Be” routines of the Waterford household.
While the Commander settles back into his routine, resting back control of business from his wife, Serena and June are pulled away for a personal crisis: Angela, the baby Janine gave birth to and who’s being raised by Naomi and Warren, is “not well.” Serena goes alone to assess the situation first, leaving June alone, to worry. Even worse, on her morning trip to the market with the other handmaids, she’s left to combat rumors. Janine is back, of course, and content with her new situation; she even calls it “blessed.” (Emily, firm as ever in her return, shoots back, “Being raped is not a blessing.”) But word gets to her that her child is sick; later, June has not choice but to confirm it. Understandably, Janine is heartbroken.
June catches up with Serena for an update, and the word is not good: Angela is only getting worse, and the doctors don’t have answers. The “new” Serena pops out again. “There might be something that could help,” she tells June, determined. “It might mean bending the law.” She asks June for her opinion, and she inevitably assents. Serena wants to temporarily transfer a Martha who was once the best doctor in her field, and get her opinion on Angela’s condition. It’s a small but potent reminder of Gilead’s self-sabotaging tactics of oppression. Serena asks the Commander to sign off on the transfer, but he refuses, demanding that they stick to “the will of God.” It’s cowardly, and Serena refuses to abide by the sentiment. She once again forges her husband’s signature, bringing a revered professional-turned-servant back into her old life, if only for a few hours. (Recap continues on Page 2)
Yvonne Strahovski has played Serena’s transformation so delicately that it feels completely natural to watch Serena suddenly make these subversive decisions, even if the writing of it can feel a tad choppy. Same goes for the other surprising decision Serena makes this episode: accept June’s request to let Janine see Angela, and “say goodbye.” Serena initially reacts to the suggestion with scorn, as she has so many of June’s, but then she lets her guard down, and gets in touch with the profound emotion of it all. Serena asks Naomi and Warren what June asked her, and while Naomi is predictably against the idea, Warren says allowing Janine to be with them is the right thing to do. Serena and June are acting in-sync here, leaning on one another to advance their moral and personal agendas.
Lydia escorts Janine to the hospital, and pulls June aside. “If this breaks her, I will hold you personally responsible,” she tells her. June responds, “I will too.” It’s such a fragile scene, and almost disarmingly effective: We see each of these characters helpless to Gilead’s enforced dynamics, vying in their own ways to let a little decency shine through. June and Janine first observe Angela from a distance, Janine crying with joy and fear, gushing, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Madeline Brewer was such a standout in Handmaid’s Tale‘s first season, and she’s gut-wrenchingly good in her first real showcase of the season, enhancing the affecting nature of the episode’s central plot. She stays strong, loving with the baby, even as the worst news comes in. The doctor brought in reveals that she can’t determine the baby’s condition either, which can only mean bad news. The doctor suggests they unhook Angela from the machines, let her feel “warm” and safe.” Janine is given the chance to hold her, finally, and it’s a stunningly beautiful moment.
There’s humanity in the scene, which contrasts sharply with June and Serena’s return home. The Commander hadn’t been blind to changes in his wife’s behavior, her empowerment. He’d perused June’s room, noticing the gifts, the life, in evidence. And he calls them to his study promptly, with Nick delivering the message. (Here’s as good a time as any to note Nick’s small and very out-of-place arc in “Women’s Work”: Eden tries to make the house nice for him, really in an effort to get something out of him, but inadvertently comes across the letters Nick had been keeping hidden. She promises she didn’t read them, but Nick is hardly convinced.)
June and Serena enters Fred’s study and he presents a stack of papers to them: Serena’s copy, June’s edits. And he says, of the Martha’s “transfer order,” “I never consented to this.” What follows is as brutal and painful a scene as Handmaid’s has provided to date: Fred very calmly address their indiscretions, cryptically saying things to Serena like “It was unfair of me to burden you with so much responsibility.” He tells her they must “make amends.” He takes off his belt, patiently waits for Serena to bend over submissively, and begins whipping her, June looking on in silent horror. It’s brutal and unyielding, Serena’s punishment for trying to reclaim a little bit of herself. The visual language in the scene is agonizing, too, eventually moving from our perspective to June’s; we don’t watch the last few whips, only observe June as she’s forced to endure the spectacle.
Serena is alone in her room crying in the next scene, utterly broken. June knocks and asks what she can do. Serena, fighting back tears, shoos her away, in the same tone she used before they’d established a bond. June then goes downstairs, seemingly distraught, to try to get something out of Fred. She knocks on his study door and apologizes profusely. He doesn’t bite, closing the door back on her. June finally breaks down on the other side of the door.
Between the baby’s sickness and this disturbing turn of events, “Women’s Work” is a heavy episode of television, even for this show. What a relief, then, that it provides a little levity at the end. The final scene opens on the sound of Janine gently singing a lullaby. The camera opens on Lydia, Naomi, and Warren sleeping in the hospital room; Lydia wakes to the gentle melody, and follows it. What she sees is nothing short of a miracle: Janine, her hair long and her uniform off, holding a healthy, responsive baby as she sings to it. Lydia is overjoyed, stunned. And Janine’s only line in the scene is both as touching and as pointed as you could imagine: “I told you, she remembers me.”