You have to give The Handmaid’s Tale credit where it’s due. It’s not every day you get to feel an inch (ok maybe a millimetre) of empathy for a character you completely despise. Trust me, there’s plenty to hate about the Gilead regime: the Aunts (especially Aunt Lydia), the Commanders, ceremony days, their extreme theocratic laws, unspeakable acts of torture which violate every human rights manifesto – you get the picture. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is a character that lives up to her reputation of vileness. But when you have an episode dedicated to showing the full wealth of her elitist personality, it’s certainly worth paying attention.
What I love about The Handmaid’s Tale is that amongst the astute commentary on politically and socially charged elements (which at the time of writing feels like a déjà vu reality in our current world), the show attempts to paint characters as diversely as possible. Nothing is ever black or white and it’s a show that is smart enough to let its audience understand that. For example (and as previously mentioned), June (Elisabeth Moss) is not a simplistic heroine. She has her faults: she is complicated, vulnerable, devious and funny (when she rebels) and the series recognises those traits. She represents the strong emergence of emotionally rich, female characters on our screens as of late.
The flip side is that Serena Joy can never be defined as a simplistic, cartoon villain. Her character excels beyond those mere connotations. Like June she inhabits those same qualities, propelling her to be one of the most intriguing and fascinating characters on the show. So, it comes as no surprise that she is given that same treatment.
Just as my fellow handmaid-in-crime Clara pointed out in last week’s review, ‘First Blood’ also delves deeply into questions of hierarchy and the expectations of women within Gilead.
It’s a question that seems to run through Serena’s mind because she has authority but no meaningful substance or recognition. Last week it was the awkwardness that the Aunts could have a pencil for special circumstances. It is a forbidden tool and yet a wife of a commander can’t partake in such luxury. She lives in a closed off society that has banned all books, including her own, something that was highlighted back in season one in ‘A Women’s Place’. She can’t have children and yet has to go through a surreal, surrogate relationship with her handmaid, using June (based on her previous experience) as her emotional guide. She even organises a surprise for June (which has to go down as the most awkward Galentine’s Day style brunch in human history) and yet still manages to feel out of place.
There’s certainly a ‘seen but not heard’ parallel within ‘First Blood’. It’s a phrase normally associated with a 15th Century Old English proverb, telling children (particularly young girls) how they should behave in front of their parents. But under Gilead, it somehow has a slightly different interpretation.
It mostly applies to Serena Joy and her growing powerlessness within Gilead. Pre-Gilead, she had a voice. She was someone of influential intentions, helping to usher in the Gilead regime. She almost became a martyr because of her breed of conservative idealism and activism, taking a bullet for the cause at a hostile University campus. But as ‘First Blood’ shows, she is easily subjugated by Gilead, with its increasing sense of isolation and loneliness. Nurturing her plants is the only solace she can rely on.
What ‘First Blood’ does successfully is re-contextualise Serena as a complex human being, stuck in a dynamic quandary. She is a character we love to hate (and frankly nothing will stop that), but like all the characters on the show, she too is quietly suffering. There is a reconciling thought that entertains the idea that Serena enjoys her rebellious and abusive confrontations with June. It reminds her of her previous life and her outspoken fearlessness. But nevertheless, her authority is the only power she has left, running the Waterford household with an iron and wilful fist. It also taps into her envious and miserable psyche.
Seeing June going through motherhood hurts because it is something she will never experience, thanks to the assassination attempt on her life. It robbed her of the one essence that she campaigned for: that women should embrace their “biological destiny”. But it also entertains the assumption of having everything you ever wanted but still being left unsatisfied. The only thing that seems to keep her hopeful is the arrival of “her child” as if it’s going to magically fix everything, from her loveless marriage to Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), to being the envy of other wives in Gilead. We see this in her elegant effort in decorating the baby’s room. She clearly thinks she is making a sacrifice for “the greater good”, but The Handmaid’s Tale ponders whether this will work out in the long run.
That’s why it is interesting to see Serena attempt to bond with June. There is a constant power shift between the characters. But for once, through their ‘eye-to-eye’ communication, they reach a common understanding, even if that moment doesn’t last for long!
So, if a woman can’t imprint her own opinion, what can she do? Gilead’s sense of traditional values means that women are simply there to be subservient to men. It explains Commander Fred’s perversion towards June in rekindling their complicated affair, with an ‘his house, his rules’ declaration. Most men don’t face the same conflicting scrutiny, but the women are supposed to be dutiful housewives, as brainwashed Eden (Sydney Sweeney) illustrates. This becomes complicated for Nick (Max Minghella), left with no choice but to perform his husbandly duties for his new child bride – yuck.
But specifically, with Eden, ‘First Blood’ certainly raises the idea of battling for hearts and minds. In my previous review, I mentioned the fake news culture and Gilead’s re-writing of the truth. In ‘First Blood’, it evaluates the very thing America thrives on: freedom of speech. Like a self-reflecting mirror, the episode contends with the open divisiveness and hostility of political views, as expressed during Serena’s flashback. It’s reminiscent of the fractured political divide ongoing since the 2016 Presidential election. Even pre-Gilead Fred yells ironically “This is America”, defending Serena’s entitlement to speak her controversial views. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, free speech has become a blurred line where its meaning has become subjective and reactionary. In Fred’s case (after being told to “man up” by a bedridden Serena), the extreme provocation turns him into a stone-cold vengeance killer when he tracks down the person responsible for the assassination attempt. This incident re-affirms Gilead’s ideological cause.
There is a conflicting impact between June’s liberalism and Serena’s conservatism with Eden as if they were representations of that political divide. Eden represents the next generation of women in Gilead where life will have normality but she struggles with her teachings. She seeks advice from June about her husband, thinking Nick is a gender traitor for not consummating their marriage. She learns from Serena how to be in charge of the household through obedience. If Serena wasn’t sure of her place in Gilead before, she certainly uses that moment to re-establish it. Gilead, in winning the hearts and minds battle, will always win.
This is disturbingly demonstrated in the opening of the new Red Centre, where the Aunts will have the extreme capacity to process more handmaids. It’s a grand statement to usher in the new era as a symbol of “progressive” and “fruitful” change. But as the title suggests, change does not come without a fight.
If anything, in asking where a woman’s place should be, they might not want women to be seen, but they will be heard, and ‘First Blood’ went out with a bang.