“Women’s Work” is Men’s Problem on The Handmaid’s Tale

A father and a son are in a car crash that instantly kills the father. The wounded boy is taken to the hospital. The surgeon exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy—he’s my son!” How can this be?

I couldn’t help but think of this aggravating riddle that I first heard in the ’90s during this week’s The Handmaid’s Tale, when Serena Joy tells Fred that Gilead possesses the best neonatologist who might be able to help poor baby Angela/Charlotte, and he asks, “Who is he?” That’s the setup, and Serena gets the punchline: She is a Martha. His assumption that the only actually important members of society are male hews too uncomfortably close to the attitudes that make this riddle a stumper, even as recently as a 2014 gender bias study. (The doctor is the boy’s mother, come on people.) So by “punchline,” what I really mean is “find a corner to laugh until you cry” at how stubbornly Gilead refuses to ever put its women above its men, even when the women are the only things keeping it up.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×08 “Women’s Work”

It’s unclear how long Fred convalesces in the hospital, but it’s long enough for Serena Joy and June to settle into a comfortable routine of drafting and editing dictates from the Commander. They transform his study, once the space of illicit Scrabble games, into something almost approximating the office where June once worked, a lifetime ago, down to putting some Lionel Richie on the record player. I think this is the first diegetic music we’ve had in the Gilead portions of the series—that is, not the triumphant pop songs scoring the Handmaids’ latest rebellion, but a Handmaid and a Wife actually enjoying music together, which I imagine is nearly as taboo as reading.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

June is used to these little transgressions, but she wonders about how it feels for Serena Joy: “She seems pretty fucking happy,” she observes in the return of her voiceover, not even knowing as we do the extent of Serena’s devotion in her past life to being a writer and speaker. In this current work, if nothing else, the two women seem to regard one another as intellectual equals. They even trade small admissions, like Serena’s that she detests knitting—which is fascinating, considering how much that action has helped the Wife to assert dominance over the Handmaid, from Serena Joy in both the book and movie literally ensnaring Offred in her knitting, to this Serena Joy dropping the knitting needle on the floor to remind Offred of her low standing in the household.

These scenes illustrate the shift in how Gilead’s women talk to each other, but like all good things, they must end. Fred’s joyous homecoming (say it with me now, a sarcastic “praise be”) prompts the flipside of this shift: the code-switching back to the language of Handmaid and Wife, no longer equals. It’s wonderful to see how, as Serena organizes the household’s female members as a little welcome committee, June has the audacity to slouch against the wall, arms crossed, until the last moment. You have to imagine that, as the women of Gilead take these risks in talking more and more plainly to one another, it will become more and more difficult to snap back into the meek, obedient personas they’re expected to inhabit.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Seeing June and Serena Joy getting along, I worried for the former that she would fall back into the cycle of trusting the Wife, asking for something, and getting punished for it. What I didn’t think to worry about was how their secret editing sessions would provide just enough freedom to keep June complacent, keep her from pushing back against the constraints of Gilead—too complacent to notice how much she’d internalized. Yes, she does tell Janine the truth about the wailing ambulance and the rumors of a sick child—it’s the Putnams’ daughter, Angela, a.k.a. Janine’s daughter Charlotte—out of sympathy for a fellow mother. But when Janine begs to see Angela, June firmly tells her that she knows that can’t happen.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Janine can’t believe what she’s hearing: “You sound just like one of them,” she spits. And indeed, June looks surprised to hear herself doing the Guardians’ work for them in keeping Janine in line. Though it’s interesting that moments earlier, when Janine was panicking and the Guardians were stepping in to quiet her, June quietly snapped, “She’s fine, I got her”—not the way that a Handmaid should be speaking to a Guardian, but they let it go.

Fred wastes no time in tossing off empty thank-yous at Serena for pitching in while he was gone, then ushering her out of his study, with a nice click of the doorknob to really punctuate that this is mine again. Maybe if he weren’t feeling so vulnerable from his injuries, he wouldn’t need to assert his dominance over a household that clearly carried on too well without him—wouldn’t immediately shut down Serena when she tells him that Angela is mysteriously and gravely ill. Because the only bet that Gilead has is the neonatologist it fortunately (?) kept on as a domestic servant rather than send to the Colonies. Apparently, being a baby doctor does not brand you an Unwoman or send you to the Wall.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Who else so wanted the mysterious Martha doctor to be Rita? It seems as if the series has been playing up her role this season, and actress Amanda Brugel has been just as present on social media as Elisabeth Moss and the others. It would have been a nice slap in the face to Fred to learn that a celebrated doctor had been under his nose all along. Instead, Rita just gets the funny exchange with Offred regarding Eden, with the Handmaid pointing out that “She’s trying” and Rita immediately snarking back some clever wordplay: “She is. God give me strength.”

Fred says no to a one-day transfer for the Martha to serve as a doctor—and this is even before he knows that his Wife and Handmaid have been enjoying their own “transfer” of power in his absence. He clearly does not believe that a female doctor could bring any perspective to this House-esque case that a male doctor hadn’t already considered.

Which is what makes it all the more wonderful when the doctor overseeing Angela’s care basically fanboys all over Dr. Hodgson, who trained his mentor and who he once met in the pre-Gilead times but doesn’t expect her to remember him. Serena Joy has once again gone over Fred’s head and brought in this poor scared woman, who tears up when she exchanges her green Martha garb for a white lab coat she probably never thought she’d get to wear again. When the junior doctor hands her the stethoscope, it’s like when June was handed a pen—women being given the tools they had likely forgotten what it was like to hold.

And after all that, it still doesn’t work: Dr. Hodgson can’t tell them what’s killing Angela. All they can do is make her comfortable and hold her close until the end. Serena isn’t having any of this, challenging the other woman on the stairs once she’s back in her Martha wear:

Serena Joy: How dare you give up. […] You are supposed to be the best in your field.

Dr. Hodgson: I am the best. I was.

It’s unclear if Serena is solely upset for poor Angela, or that her risk didn’t pan out. Because she and Offred return to the Waterford household to a nasty surprise: Fred knows everything.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

While Fred’s return meant that Serena and Offred were no longer on equal footing, the fact remains that they are both very much beneath the boot of the Commander. Yet when it comes to handing out punishment, it’s Serena he focuses on: With the permission of a convenient Bible passage, off comes his belt for thirteen brutal lashes. Offred is forced to watch, which is half the punishment—both of them enduring Serena’s humiliation. The camera work for this scene was impressive, each lash its own sharp cut so that the effect was not dulled.

Serena: I did it for the child. What greater responsibility is there in Gilead?

Fred: Obeying your husband.

Seriously? Seriously.

Serena retreats to her room and strips down for what I believe is the first time, at least as a Wife in Gilead. She stares at her bruised behind in the mirror and sobs. The Waterfords have had their fair share of dysfunction, shifting power dynamics, and small and large betrayals, but if I remember correctly this is the first direct violence Fred has wrought upon his supposed partner. Is this what makes her finally want out of Gilead?

Offred tries to offer camaraderie to Serena, but Fred’s “discipline” had its intended effect: it’s eroded whatever connection they had forged in the previous weeks. So it’s very interesting when Offred’s next stop after knocking on Serena’s door is to return to Fred’s study and knock on his door. I truly don’t know what she was going for here: Was she distancing herself out of self-preservation, afraid that Serena might throw her under the bus once she stopped crying? Would she have offered up her body to continue his groping advances from before the explosion? At any rate, it doesn’t work: He turns back her excuse about “for the sake of the baby” on her and closes his door. Perhaps for good.

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Speaking of Commanders, Wives, and Handmaids, the Putnams reluctantly allow Janine to kiss baby Angela/Charlotte goodbye, so they’re not complete monsters. In a supremely sad moment, Janine takes off her surgical gloves and mask because it’s beyond the point of mattering. But then something inexplicable happens: The Putnams and Aunt Lydia fall asleep, only for Lydia to wake up the next morning to find Janine stripped down to her underwear, singing to a very healthy-looking Charlotte. This series being what it was, I was completely expecting a naked Janine cradling a corpse.

But instead we get… a miracle?

 

The Handmaid's Tale 208 Women's Work television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Scraps

  • “Blessed be the fruit.”
    “May the… Force be with you.” Hee. Good one, Janine.
  • Serena leaves a white rose on the bed for Offred, which supposedly symbolizes respect, new starts, and hope for the future. Hmmmm.
  • Can we trust that Eden is so indoctrinated in the ways of Gilead that she didn’t read Nick’s stash of Handmaid letters? Can she even read?
  • This is two occasions now that Eden has been adjacent to Handmaid rebellion, after watching the Handmaids trade their real names at the end of episode 7. I do not like this pattern. That doe-eyed Wife means trouble.
  • “Someone once said, men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Looove the use of the quote most commonly attributed to Margaret Atwood.

Natalie Zutter isn’t sure about this baby-healing plot but is curious to see if it changes the Wife/Handmaid dynamic. Speculate about the end of season 2 with her on Twitter!

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