Whispers Will Bring the Walls Down on The Handmaid’s Tale: “After”

“It’s about time things started getting back to normal around here, don’t you think?”

When Serena Joy says this to Offred near the end of this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, it ostensibly sounds as if she’s guiding their household back to its regular rhythms after the disruption caused by last week’s suicide bombing. Yet there is extra weight to the Wife’s words, not to mention the weight of a pen in the Handmaid’s hand. If you’re looking for subtext, it could be Serena Joy subtly pushing not just for Gileadean normalcy, but for the return to the state that existed before the Sons of Jacob.

That could completely be wishful thinking on my part, but what’s undeniable is that the women of Gilead have begun to change how they talk to one another. Wives confiding in Handmaids about their insecurities and rewarding such confidences with little mercies. Marthas breaking their stony, self-preserving silence to provide sympathy for the lowest members of the household. Aunts dropping pretenses and speaking plainly to Wives and Handmaids both. And the Handmaids to one another, with wistful reminiscences about brunch, snarky asides about each other’s petty pet peeves, warnings to each other about an explosion moments before pressing the trigger.

The walls between Gilead’s female inhabitants are beginning to come down.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×07 “After”

Considering all of the pomp and circumstance—and creepy blood-red/black Handmaid mourning garb—I was certain that the opening scene was grieving the fallen Commanders. Why else would Gilead put on such a ceremony, with Handmaids dropping their face coverings like lovers’ tokens onto fancy caskets? But instead this is revealed as the mass funeral for the 31 Handmaids killed in the blast. The 26 Commanders probably each got a separate funeral, indoors instead of out in the snow, attended by their Wives, children, and servants.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Which means—sigh—Fred is still alive. Charred and slipping in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed, but he’s still kickin’ despite Ofglen charging directly at him with a bomb strapped under her Handmaid robes. However, his recovery creates a power vacuum in the Waterford household, into which Serena Joy is happy to smoothly step. But there’s another power vacuum above Fred: Commander Pryce, head of the Eyes and Nick’s protector, did bite it, which means creepy Will Forte lookalike Ray Cushing is taking over the Eyes. And he is determined to figure out who caused this terrorist attack by creating an atmosphere of even more fear in Gilead, if such a thing were possible. Or, you know, find convenient evidence pinning it on Fred. Either. Both. He’s open to options.

Cushing’s plot is what my dad would call a nothin’ muffin: In the space of the same episode he makes a power grab and gets outsmarted by a bunch of tough-as-nails women who will not be fucked with. Which is not to dismiss his brief reign of terror, characterized by household members—Commanders and Wives among them—hanged outside of their homes like grotesque Christmas decorations, Marthas shot in the street (which is especially harrowing seeing as they are primarily women of color), the suffocating clamor of sirens and holstered guns.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

It’s the kind of atmosphere that could easily become permanent, except that Serena Joy decides that it will not be their new normal. So she does what she has to, bringing in first Nick to submit a warrant (complete with forged signature) to the Consulate of Divine Law to frame Cushing; and then, when it’s that easy, forging a few more executive orders and enlisting June to edit them.

Not gonna lie, June standing in Fred’s study holding the pen got me a bit choked up. Scrabble tiles are one thing, but this is an instrument, this leaves a mark. Better yet, this work engages who she was before she became a possession, a means to an end. It gives her an invisible hand in steering changes, however small, in Gilead. The fact that it’s Serena who remembers this detail and utilizes it helps to bridge some of the distance between them. Since June returned from her “kidnapping,” Serena has sought to engage her in everything from gossip to conspiracy, dispensing with platitudes in favor of more direct talk.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review funeral Aunt Lydia

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

But even in this collaboration, Serena chooses to sit behind Fred’s desk while June stands; and she has proven over and over, and recently, that she takes power away much more swiftly than she gives it. It’s not as if she’s having June line-edit executive orders to free all of the Handmaids. Whatever sympathy the show creates for her, a woman fighting to regain her prior autonomy in the system she helped create, is inversely proportional to her own empathy for the women she has subjugated worse than herself.

June knows this, I think, which is why the last image is not her clicking the pen, but rather returning to the market to be among the other Handmaids—including Janine and Emily! The two were dragged out of the Colonies not to be put to death, as they surely thought, but because Gilead needs to replace its lost Handmaids. Their return, plus Moira’s expanded backstory, are reminders of how hard up Gilead is for healthy babies—and how they’re still doing better than a lot of the world. When are we going to return to last season’s subplot with trading Handmaids to Mexico and elsewhere? That was one of my favorite deviations from the book, opening up the story beyond Gilead’s borders. I hope that isn’t the last we hear of it.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review Moira Luke Canada

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Speaking of crossing borders, we spend some time up in Little America with Moira and Luke. As fellow refugees and chosen family, these two have fallen into an interesting dynamic in which, as she regains the drive to push back against Gilead, he seems to become increasingly detached from what’s happening to his wife and daughter. He doesn’t stick around to find out if June is among the Handmaids killed in the bombing, while Moira pushes her way through a crowd to gain access to the room filled with binders of the unidentified dead. It’s not that he’s in denial, exactly—in fact, it’s the opposite:

Moira: “You don’t want to know that she’s OK?”

Luke: “She’s not OK. She’s alive. Have faith that she’s alive.”

Moira: “That’s not knowing.”

It’s a clever inversion of Offred in the book, who carries in her heart multiple scenarios of what could have happened to Luke. As long as they’re all equally possible, she doesn’t have to confront the likelihood that he was shot dead in a forest, one of hundreds of anonymous corpses.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

But Moira wants to know—specifically about her fiancée, Odette. (Having briefly forgotten about Odette, I thought at first that Moira asking about her fiancée was a ruse to get information on June that Luke was unwilling to; but I’m glad to be wrong.) I couldn’t recall if we had met Odette earlier (she looks so familiar), but according to IMDb, this was her first appearance in the series. She might have been mentioned previously in flashbacks, but her and Moira’s meet-cute was new: Moira decides to be a surrogate for the cool price of $250K to go toward student loans and the like. In the ensuing flashbacks, June is oddly pushy about how surely Moira will bond with the unborn child in her womb (perhaps her own defensiveness, as we know that her mother likely looked down on her eagerness to get married and have a child), but the only time that Moira truly gets upset is at June’s “perfect” marriage to Luke. Their hushed argument at birthing class is perfect, calling each other out without it being a friendship-ending fight.

And when Moira does give birth, she is able to hand over the child to his parents with only a flicker of loss. She seems glad to have performed this service, glad also to have been properly compensated for the use of her body—and look, her supportive OB/GYN is very cute and rather interested when Moira flirts with her over a wine display a few months after the handoff. If she had never been a surrogate, she would have never met Odette. Which makes it all the more wrenching when, after days of thumbing through binders, she discovers Odette’s photo—another anonymous corpse, truly beloved and finally truly lost.

Of course, if Moira had never been a surrogate, she also would never have become a Handmaid. I had always wondered why they decided to enlist her in sexual servitude instead of branding her a gender traitor and sending her to the Colonies—clearly, a fertile womb trumps all else in Gilead.

The Handmaid's Tale 207 "After" television review Emily Handmaid real names

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Up in Little America, the Canadian press official formally reads out the real names of the 36 Handmaids killed, a lovely but sobering parallel to the disingenuous tribute to the fallen Ofwhomevers at the start of the episode. And down in Gilead, June leads the surviving Handmaids in whispering their names to one another, truly meeting one another for the first time, a tiny subversion creating a chain reaction. And Eden is right there, watching it happen.

 

Scraps

  • That mourning wear tho. Costume designer Ane Crabtree continues to kill it.
  • “I wish I could give you a world without violence, without pain.” Fuck you, Aunt Lydia.
  • There’s something darkly funny about Serena Joy having to greet the Commanders with the stock statement of “blessed day” while Fred languishes right next to them.
  • In other language thoughts, Moira calling herself “auntie” carried a very different meaning before Gilead, sheesh.

Natalie Zutter hopes it was a red pen. It’s too good not to be. Speculate about the end of season 2 with her on Twitter!

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