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)