How Do You Measure A Resistance? The Handmaid’s Tale: “First Blood”

Forgive the RENT reference, but “Seasons of Love” came into my head when thinking about all of the little moments and factors that build up something so massive as Gilead, or its undoing. It’s not quite 525,600 minutes, but there were several that stuck out from this week, about halfway through the season. The best way to talk about this episode (THIS EPISODE), then, is to focus on the moments. Some refer to the “First Blood” of the episode title; others I just can’t stop thinking about.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×06 “First Blood”

First of all, Offred’s baby is fine. June’s baby is fine, and she’s going to make sure she—she seems determined that it’s another girl—will not grow up in Gilead and suffer the same fate as the other Handmaids, or young Wives like Eden. But first she has to bide her time and get through this pregnancy—which, thanks to this hemorrhage scare, has Serena Joy being almost friendly to her: letting her see the sonogram at the doctor’s appointment; giving her a pass on drinking Aunt Lydia’s awful green juice; setting her up in her own sitting room instead of making her climb the stairs; promising her a pregnancy pillow.

Fascinating how the episode begins with an internal hemorrhage near the uterine wall, with the following two instances also being related to women’s reproductive organs—but then the last, and arguably biggest, is all about the men. Oh, but let’s not get there yet, it’s too good to rush.

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Brunch

Can The Handmaid’s Tale do more of these wonderfully bizarre moments of juxtaposition? At first it was cringeworthy to watch Serena Joy arrange a little Handmaid playdate for Offred and the others, who to some extent must resent her for their suffering following her rebellion. Her attempts to inspire girl talk made her sound like the Cool Mom from Mean Girls, especially when they kept trading banalities like “We’ve been sent good weather.” But Offred is daring now that she has special treatment, and instead she asks who remembers “that brunch place” from their pre-Gilead lives. It’s a keen reminder that these women have been enslaved for only a few years, that it’s not impossible to drop into old language and references. The oddness of seeing these women in their matching smocks trading brunch recommendations is absolutely delightful.

Then, of course, Serena Joy ruins it by chiming in that they were probably there at the same time: “Serendipity.” They likely were, but instead of that being a cute small-world moment, it’s a reminder of the chasm between them. Because June and Moira might have gone for a bottomless brunch after yoga, but Serena Joy was likely eating her eggs Benedict and prepping her speeches shaming the women of America into following their “biological destinies.”

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Hulu

A Woman’s Place

And here we have the Serena Joy flashback, part deux. We already know that she literally wrote the book on the role of women within Gilead, and—spoiler alert—it wasn’t as active as she herself might have hoped. But this is the past, when she still gets to wear pants and say things other than “Blessed be the fruit”: She goes to speak at a university, where she is greeted by screaming crowds mostly opposed to her message.

“You may not agree with what she says,” says the person introducing her to the toughest of rooms, “but that’s what’s great about our country: the freedom to express our opinion.” And my blood ran cold, because that’s how Serena Joy is made sympathetic: She has a right to speak, no matter the content of it. And they have a right to yell things like “NAZI C*NT” right back at her. I have to say, was not expecting that from Hulu. It even seemed almost a little too on-the-nose, because despite her Aryan features, Serena Joy doesn’t necessarily align with the alt-right. She’s more like one of the late Fred Phelps’ children, trained in law and savvy in social media so that they knew exactly how to get the Westboro Baptist Church’s message into the mainstream.

Or, you know, she could just have her husband make enough noise to create space for her. It’s Fred shouting “SHE HAS A RIGHT TO SPEAK” as she’s being hustled away from the crowds, followed by an impassioned “THIS IS AMERICA” that made me laugh despairingly because sure, let’s use the Constitution to destroy America. At any rate, Serena Joy takes a page from Lady Macbeth and screws her courage to the sticking-place to make her big speech:

You want me to stay silent, but that is not going to change what is happening in our country. You are spoiled, you’re privileged, and you’re living in an academic bubble, all of you. The rate of healthy births has dropped 61 percent in the last twelve months. That is exactly the problem that we need to focus on right now. The future, and the future of mankind, depends on what we do today. What we do today! […] [E]very single one of you, women especially, embrace your biological destiny. This affects us all.

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

And people start listening. Because she’s not saying lose your name and become a slave and get raped every month or even give up all autonomy and exist only to serve your husband, she’s saying we’re losing babies, we’re losing the future. And, of course, it’s easier to watch a woman lead this charge to give up some of your rights, because she will serve as the ultimate example that it can be done. Except that then she gets shot in the abdomen, which I’m assuming is what has made her infertile (unlike the book’s route of blaming all infertility on pollution and radiation).

In the hospital (mirroring Offred’s brief time there at the start of the episode), Serena Joy doesn’t even get to grieve this loss, as they’re being watched by eager followers and opponents to find out their next move. Drafting their official statement, Fred calls the shooter a fanatic, but Serena Joy stops him: “He’s a terrorist.” He’s a white man with a gun, so she’s not wrong. Then there’s the kicker: “Only the truth can save America now.”

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Hulu

The Sheet

Just when you thought Gilead couldn’t get any more old-fashioned, Nick and Eden consummate their marriage literally through a sheet with a hole in it. I saw this visual in last week’s preview and still couldn’t steel myself for the scene; I was cringing away from watching. Is this because Eden is a virgin? Is the first-anniversary gift getting to graduate to skin-on-skin? You can bet that the Serena Joys of the world, who were having sex with their husbands before they subjugated four-fifths of society, would not have stood for that kind of downgrade to their marital relations. But how will Gilead’s first generation of Wives know any different?

It’s sad, however, especially after Serena Joy made a point of telling Eden on her wedding night that it was OK to get pleasure from the act, that it could draw a husband and Wife closer. Instead, this consummation occurs several days behind schedule thanks to Nick dragging his feet—first over Offred, then grappling with his own discomfort. But his young bride is so obsessed with getting pregnant—rightly so, as her own survival hinges on her husband deciding to have sex with her. Offred is no more sympathetic to Nick: “Oh, you have to fuck somebody you don’t want to? Poor thing.”

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

And of course, this is when Nick tells June he loves her. It’s unclear how much she feels it back; she hasn’t spoken or thought of Luke much at all since the season started, but I also don’t think she’s let him go. She certainly feels something for Nick, and especially for the three of them as a unit, a family; but for the moment, at least, he has a Wife.

On top of all this, Eden will report him as a gender traitor if he doesn’t do his husbandly duty, and he’ll wind up on the Wall, of use to no one. So out comes the sheet.

I did feel for Eden, that it was all shrouded in such hesitation and mystery, and over so soon. Yes, she should not be having sex with a man his age, both of them coerced on all sides. But would it have killed him to make it at least a little enjoyable for her? Personally, I would find that more narratively interesting—if Nick weren’t just doing his duty, but instead tried to create a brief moment of connection.

Raise your hand if you were expecting to see blood blooming around the hole in the sheet.

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Hulu

Offred + Fred

Surprising no one, Offred and Serena Joy’s budding friendship, with sleepovers in the sitting room and feeling the baby together, is short-lived. After the Wife shows the Handmaid the lavish nursery in which her daughter will stay—what should strengthen their tie—Offred makes the mistake of asking to see Hannah. Even just for a few minutes, just so Hannah can know her mother is alive, a small request considered against the enormity of bearing the Waterfords’ child.

Of course Serena says no. Though it’s interesting that she’s crying while rejecting her request—not full-out sobbing, but tears dripping from her eyes while the rest of her face is stone. It’s truly creepy, the way she drops back into the Wife language, doubling down by sending Offred back to her sparse, depressing room. Each of them is disappointed in the other—the Wife wishing her Handmaid didn’t want so much, the Handmaid wishing the Wife wanted more for her wellbeing.

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Hulu

So, cunningly, Offred turns from one master to another. It’s ironic that she and Fred have hardly interacted since her return, yet their dynamic is as open as before, over illicit Scrabble games. Her point-blank question of “Are you mad at me?” His wry face when she mentions how Serena has “been very kind.” It’s unclear how much June is manipulating him by asking about big-picture Gilead developments; is she fishing for information, or does she genuinely miss his attention?

At least on Fred’s end, it becomes clear that he has an agenda. Following Serena’s shutdown (and subsequent complaint to him, looking for sympathy over why her Handmaid doesn’t like her), he procures a small treasure for Offred: a Polaroid of Hannah, dressed like a child of Gilead and yet still smiling. Unlike in the book, she actually gets to keep it; a later shot shows her hunched over it on her windowsill, looking from the back as if she is praying.

But first, there is the matter of payment. Fred’s inability to read the room—I just gave my Handmaid, pregnant by another man, a photo of her daughter; surely she will want to have sex with me—is so astonishingly laughable that I can’t even be upset with him, just impressed at his utter obliviousness. Especially when Offred uses the weakest excuse (“I don’t want to hurt the baby”) to fend him off. At least her pregnancy still gives her some power within the household.

 

THAT ENDING

That same blissful ignorance and brash overconfidence combine at the opening of the new Rachel and Leah Center, Fred’s current pet project. Indeed, it’s much more state-of-the-art than the old gymnasium in which June, Moira, Janine, and Emily were “processed” in the early days of Gilead. This one even comes with a big hall for all the Commanders to sit in smug triumph, with lovely floor-to-ceiling glass windows at which the Handmaids can line up for all to see.

Except Ofglen, who cannot speak but who can certainly walk—surprising all of the other Handmaids, who in a rare absence of decorum turn their blindered heads to watch her—strides into the room. From the podium, Fred waves her back, because clearly there’s some sort of demonstration that she’s started too early, and then this wonderful woman whose real name I don’t even know pulls out a trigger and at this point I was dancing in my seat in disbelief.

I love how she turns back to the window and gives the other Handmaids enough time to run—with our fave Ofsamuel in the lead. Then Ofglen’s running toward Fred, who still doesn’t get it, running as far away from the other women and as close to the Commander as possible before pressing the trigger and blowing out that entire room.

FUCK. YES.

If the man who shot Serena Joy is a terrorist, how about this Handmaid? Or is she a fanatic? A martyr? A sacrifice? A champion?

Only the truth can save Gilead now.

The Handmaid's Tale 206 "First Blood" television review Serena Joy

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Hulu

Scraps

  • It’s beautifully fitting that this Ofglen inherited not just her predecessor’s name, but her penchant for gory public displays of violence against Commanders and Eyes.
  • Fred couldn’t have made it, right? It’d be kind of an ignominious end, but also I kinda like that. Could losing this particular Commander strike a huge blow for Gilead, or will things continue on?
  • Did Nick make it out of the way of the blast after he asked to be transferred? (That’s a whole other thing I didn’t get into, but I wonder what his game is. Because he may be protected by the other Commander, but that’s still super suspicious, especially his request that they “protect the Handmaid.” Niiiick.)
  • I cannot get over the fact that the Wives get to have different styles of dress: fancy or casual depending on the occasion, or if they want to stand out from each other. Last week at the Prayvaganza wedding, I don’t think a single Wife wore the exact same dress. It brings me back to the exchange between Offred and the Commander in the book in which he talks about women having too many clothing options in the pre-Gilead times. What the hierarchy has done, Offred points out, is turn the women into accessories: “So now that we don’t have different clothes, you merely have different women.” Except that that’s not entirely the case within this caste.
  • Even Serena Joy’s gardening gloves are green. Now that’s commitment.
  • Eden started out the episode as the lowest-ranking member of the Waterfords’ home in terms of function and seniority, but now that Serena and Offred are no longer BFFs, she’s moving up within the household.

Natalie Zutter finds it fitting that this morning her yoga instructor encouraged everyone to say “fuck” during particularly challenging deep stretches, because “‘fuck’ is a positive affirmation.” Theorize about the rest of season 2 with her on Twitter!

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