‘After’ is a mixed episode. On an artistic level it is a visual treat, beautiful to look at and stylish on screen, but narrative-wise it stumbles several times, especially with a frankly pointless plot involving Moira’s deceased fiance.
The title ‘After’ obviously refers to the aftermath of the events that took place in last week’s episode ‘First Blood’ in which Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) detonated a suicide bomb at the opening of the new Rachel and Leah centre (the training site for new Handmaids). This episode explains that Commander Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown), the supreme architect of Gilead and its main ruler has died in the attack and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) lies incapacitated in hospital. This leaves a power vacuum at the centre of Gilead and anyone who has ever studied history will know that a political power vacuum is never a good thing. Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk), a man who is extraordinarily cruel even by Gilead’s standards, rises to fill the role of head Commander.
‘After’ can of course also refer to that strange experience of all civilians who live through a war or regime change, in which they can measure their lives in two halves. Their existence before a war and their lives afterwards. This is an especially sharp contrast for the people who live in Gilead or those who have only just managed to escape from the regime. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in a rare moment of authenticity, reflects on Cushing’s character and his behaviour; ‘We knew Ray and Sonja from before… We used to vacation together. Went to Antigua once. They had the most amazing beaches, picked up some sea glass. Ray was a blowhard even then.’ Before Serena would have never kowtowed to Cushing, having little time for his arrogance, but now she must obey his every word.
Moira (Samira Wiley) herself, safe in Canada, must also contend with past events and the sorrows that followed thereafter. In the American Consulate she searches for her lost fiance amongst hundreds of binders filled with photos of the deceased. This is perhaps the one plot thread that is not completely successful. The show feels as if it unsure what to do with Moira’s character. One could argue that the series is attempting to explore the trauma that survivors of war and totalitarian regimes experience even after they have broken free of captivity. Wiley is also such an expressive actress, so it is no wonder that the writers want to utilise her talents as much as possible. Unfortunately Moira’s storylines are not developed enough and her suffering pales in comparison to everything June (Elisabeth Moss) is experiencing. As a consequence her storylines feel like extraneous subplots or unnecessary detours. We are left with questions such as why have we not heard about Moira’s fiance before? Why has she not attempted to search for her before?
Perhaps the inclusion of the unnatural demise of Moira’s fiance serves to remind us that there are many lost women in Gilead, those that were alive before and are now dead, those that had personal identities before and are now simply known by the men whom they belonged to: Ofglen, Ofwarren, Offred. This striking contrast between the real women that the Handmaids actually are and the constructed identities they must live under in Gilead is emphasised in several heartbreaking and beautiful scenes.
The reminder that Handmaids do not exist as self-determining, free women is first emphasised by the funeral that takes place in the first 5 minutes of the episode. In stunning cinematography the dead Handmaids are mourned in red coffins in a graveyard filled with white snow. The mourners wear black bonnets and walk to the beat of a small drum. Gilead has always been expert in constructing ceremonies. They know that ceremonies are a great source of propaganda, a way of manipulating the emotions of a population and keeping them in order. As each Handmaid is mourned, her Gilead name is called out, a name that forever identifies the woman with the man that she was systematically raped by. It is a final insult and it is clear that even in death, the regime will not let anyone go.
Later in the episode, in sharp contrast to Gilead’s ceremonial and hypocritical grieving, the names of the dead Handmaids are read out with very little pomp but with genuine grief at the American Embassy in Toronto. To a tune of muffled sobbing from relatives, we learn that Ofglen’s real name was Lillie Fuller. Photos and family snapshots are displayed on a screen showing the Handmaids as normal everyday women, a collection of individuals that look like women in America today, like women you may know and even women just like you. It is a sad and chilling reminder that this dystopian story is firmly rooted in our 21st century world.
It is the Handmaids’ real names that give them power and unties them. Although no one knew Ofglen’s real name, it was her sacrificial act that allows the Handmaids to finally claim their names back from the regime. Due to the high death toll amongst the Handmaids and the subsequent lack of fertile women, both Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) are removed from the colonies and sent back to Gilead. In a moment of rare joy and solidarity June whispers her name to Emily in the supermarket starting off a chain reaction of communication as each Handmaid tentatively tells each other their given names as if they are all finally meeting for the first time. It is further proof that June will be instrumental in the downfall of Gilead as even her most subtle acts of rebellion can cause ripples that spread far out.
June’s bravery in this climate of fear is especially apparent in this episode. Commander Cushing has rightly guessed that June had fled the Waterford household with the help of the resistance and he questions her repeatedly in a scene in which he has all the power and she has none. But June is extremely brave. As terrified as she is, she keeps her expression carefully vacant, her answers short and soft. Only when Cushing comes close to her and pushes her further does she become steely and direct, looking him straight in the eye, jerking her chin out of his hand with defiance. She’s not Ofglen committing daring acts of terrorism, but Elisabeth Moss’s performance is so exceptional that each time she rebels even in the slightest way, we want to loudly cheer from our seats.
‘After’ is all about women rebelling. In the aftermath of the attack, Cushing’s cruelty, extreme security measures and threats towards the Waterford household, mean that Serena, June and Nick (Max Minghella) have to join forces to defeat him, forging documents and signatures. In this patriarchal system, men oppress women but they also protect women from other men when they have vested interests in those women. With no man to protect them Serena and June must shield themselves.
What is most surprising about this episode is that the two women, normally so at odds with each other, are actually a very effective team. They sit together in Waterford’s office, in flagrant disregard of the rules preventing women from reading and writing. Together they rewrite all of Cushing’s security orders. June, in a striking symbolic comparison with Ofglen’s handheld bomb trigger, is given a red pen with which to edit. She holds it up and decisively clicks the top of it, unleashing a different kind of weapon. It is no accident that this is June’s story. She is a writer after all. It may not be terrorism that brings down Gilead, it may be a woman’s words. Perhaps, in the end, the pen really is mightier than the sword.