There is something dreamy about the opening scene in this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Think about it: after weeks of heart-breaking drama, a zero-tolerance war zone, and a literal fiery explosion, ‘Women’s Work’ presents a calming alt-universe. The verbal hostility between June (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) has been put aside. They rule in Commander Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) absence, amending his executive orders. They even have the perfect song to represent the mood – “Easy” by The Commodores. No more walls or theocratic rhetoric, just two characters working with an efficient co-dependency and freedom. In any walk of life, this would be a great visual representation of a Beyoncé track!
The Handmaid’s Tale has been on a slow detour, comfortably reinforcing elements about Gilead life and its seminal effects within its community. However ‘Women’s Work’ rewardingly brings some of those elements to a near convergence point. Serena Joy is granted an advantageous reprieve from being just a simple, dutiful housewife. She finally gains power and independence and takes June along for the ride.
Despite the forbidden circumstances, June and Serena equally demonstrate their leadership capabilities, proving there is no difference between a man and a woman. Whilst the show will most likely never change its opinion of Serena Joy and her temperamental flashes of anger, this new-found camaraderie in breaking the rules is liberating. We normally expect this reaction from June because she is already on the “naughty list”. But for Serena, this is new territory. This is a complete disregard for the law, and a sin against the foundations of Gilead. Although she regards it as a sacrificial ideology, it is clear as daylight that she is enjoying herself.
But The Handmaid’s Tale has a painful reminder that nothing lasts forever. Their secret operation comes to an end with a noteworthy announcement: the Commander is returning home from the hospital. Whilst the show has an eclectic mix of mottos, you will never hear “praise be” said with such disappointment and disdain. It’s during this moment that The Handmaid’s Tale loves being historically referential. Reminiscent of women relinquishing their work positions after the First World War, the Commander’s homecoming is brought with a pessimistic sense of ‘normal service’ being restored. Nevertheless, the opening scene only serves as a gateway to the main subject.
Baby Angela’s illness raises questions about parenting in Gilead. Ever since ‘Birth Day’ back in season one, The Handmaid’s Tale has re-written its essence. Instead of a loving, joyous occasion, it is a forced detachment of surrogacy. For a world so desperately in need of children, you begin to question whether a ruthless Gilead has the emotional sustainment and environment to keep a child healthy. Of course, the answer is no. But the clever thing about ‘Women’s Work’ is that it never elaborates on Angela’s medical condition. It carefully proposes a ‘God vs. science’ debate, but her diagnosis is a silent takeaway behind closed doors as if it was inconsequential. The episode just asks one question: how far would you go to break the law?
Janine (Madeline Brewer) holds the episode together. It’s not to say she’s unaware of the cruelty. At times, her behaviour is a delusional outlook on life. But on the other hand, you can’t help but love her. She always finds an uplifted brightness amongst the dark. In one brilliant scene, she comically throws a Star Wars reference into a conversation. When she hears the news about Angela, her faith is tested and she responds as any mother would. She wants to see her child, and fights with an honest credibility that inspires Serena and June to take action, throwing into question whether Gilead’s laws are in need of reformation.
What ‘Women’s Work’ establishes is that dangerous line of male dominance and female subservience. It’s evident when Fred slowly ushers Serena out of his office, displaying no interest despite the work she has done. It’s repeated once again when Nick discovers that Eden has found the letters written by the Handmaids. There is no shocking surprise that Gilead is an enabler of men and their behaviours, hiding behind religion as a justification for their beliefs. It promotes a double standard where the law is flouted. But for a woman, whether it is minor or not, they are punished, which ties together another aspect of Gilead life that sadly mirrors a current reality – domestic abuse.
There’s a great Big Little Lies comparison to be made. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) was a character suffering in silence, psychologically balancing the formal appearance of ‘happy families’ yet hiding a dark secret. ‘Women’s Work’ does a subtle replication with Eden (Sydney Sweeney). She is still a child, naive and brainwashed to please her husband Nick (Max Minghella). However, she lacks an educated defence mechanism to help her understand the potential emotional vulnerabilities of being married. We know Nick’s true intentions are to protect June and their child. We know that he is in a compromised position. So when Nick crosses that verbal line of intimidation, Eden is defenceless. She experiences the darker side of his personality for the first time.
Youth and ignorance might be on Eden’s side because of the acceptance that Gilead’s actions are normal. However, Serena does know. She is old enough to remember pre-Gilead. She is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong and experiences the extremity of that reality. She is physically abused and disgustingly whipped by her husband to remind her who is in charge. Thanks to some clever editing, we feel every single, painful lashing, as if the audience was forced to watch it alongside June. Domestic abuse is a silent and emotional killer, and Serena sadly becomes another victim and statistic.
It’s a harrowing situation that June perfectly sums up – “someone once said men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It never quite reaches the level that Big Little Lies achieved, but The Handmaid’s Tale acknowledges that distraught conflict and bravery in bringing the issue to the forefront. It’s insensitive to say that Serena gets a “taste of her own medicine” by finally experiencing what June and countless handmaids suffer on a daily basis. But as the growing disillusionment with Gilead continues, Serena has reached a crucial breaking point.
The sad reality is that women did make significant contributions, even if their worth went unnoticed. Serena disobeyed her husband’s decision by proceeding to get Angela the medical care she needed, treating Angela as her child. Dr Hodgson (Karen Glave), the female doctor-turned-Martha may not have provided the good news that everyone wanted to hear, but her thorough professionalism meant that her skills as a doctor didn’t magically evaporate during the Gilead transition. Just as June powerfully uses a pen to edit Commander Fred’s documents, Hodgson’s stethoscope becomes her commanding weapon. June becomes a supporting crutch to Janine, taking full responsibility from the wrath of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). After Serena’s humiliating beating by the Commander, June offers that same support structure. The best example of it all, Janine’s love and undying faith seemingly brought a child back from the brink of death.
These are small gestures, but The Handmaid’s Tale is quick to acknowledge how vital that female support network can be. They broke the rules to achieve a compassionate and empathetic outcome in a cold-blooded environment. Gilead might be a ‘man’s world’, but it means nothing without a woman’s heart.