This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale varied in a couple of ways – we actually get the chance to see the reaction of the outside world when an ambassador from Mexico comes to visit Gilead, and we got to dig deeper into Serena Joy’s character. For the first time, none of the flashbacks focused on June, instead uncovering who Serena Joy was before Gilead was set up – and the part she played in creating a world in which she herself is a second-class citizen.
As the handmaids are forced to scrub the blood off the walls where bodies usually hang (not cheery enough for foreign ambassadors), June and Alma talk (Alma is played by Nina Kiri – you’ll recognize her – and she and June have spoken openly in pretty much every episode so far). Alma is the one with the inside information this episode (“How do you know that?” “My Commander – small dick, big mouth"), tipping June off to the Mexican contingent that’s about to descend on her house.
Serena Joy warns June to behave herself in front of the Mexicans, and June comes face to face with the Mexican ambassador – a woman. The Commander tells the ambassador “how grateful we are for her choice in this,” and it’s laughable. The ambassador asks June if she’s happy, and she lies.
We find out that Serena Joy used to be a writer and speaker who argued for “domestic feminism.” “Women were abandoning their families,” she says, matter-of-factly. She was arrested in the old world for inciting a riot and mentions how angry she used to be (Tomi Lahren??). “Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this?” the ambassador asks. “A society that has reduced its carbon emissions by 78% in 3 years?” Serena Joy smirks. “A society in which women can no longer read your book,” the ambassador returns.
There’s a lavish banquet for the Mexicans, and the handmaids are put front and center – the ones who aren’t “damaged,” as Serena Joy puts it. “They deserve to be honored like everyone else,” says Aunt Lydia. “But you don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate, do you?” Janine, having fully bought into what a treat a banquet would be, has to be reassured by Aunt Lydia.
Serena Joy’s flashbacks this episode were fascinating, as she went from an extreme conservative writer to a wife of Gilead. We find out that she was instrumental in the plot from the very beginning, but as it progressed, she was forced out farther and farther. A nameless white guy spouts some classic 19th century sexism about how ambition is too much for women to handle. She and the Commander actually used to have a relationship – sex (I mean, weird sex where they quoted Bible verses) and a back-and-forth – he listened to her ideas, and she convinced him to go out to the movies. When he tells her that the coup has started, she still believes she can have it both ways. “We’re saving them,” she insists. “We’re doing God’s work.”
She takes the opportunity at the banquet to address everyone, to the surprise of some, and you can tell she’s basking at a taste of her old life. Serena Joy is a character who walks a tightrope – you can see her simmering, sometimes, just under the surface. I’m dying to see her boil over.
At the banquet, they bring out all of the children who have been born under Gilead’s reign – and something clicks into place about why any other country would begin to put up with a dictatorship. The Mexicans are mesmerized at the sight of the children; the handmaids have tears in their eyes. Alma brings everything into focus: “You think they wanna trade oranges? Don’t be an idiot. Gilead only has one thing to trade that anyone wants… They wanna trade us, dummy. They wanna trade for handmaids.”
The next day, the Mexican ambassador brings June chocolates – “a gift, to thank you for your candor.” And June, who had regretted her lie from the second it’d left her mouth, snaps. She spills everything to the ambassador: the murders, the beatings, the maimings, the rape. “I didn’t choose this,” June says desperately. “They caught me. I was trying to escape. They took my daughter. So don’t be sorry, okay? Please do something.”
It’s in that moment, though, that you realize the ambassador’s ignorance was willful. The promise of children is too tempting – she doesn’t care. “I can’t help you,” she says softly. A living child hasn’t been born in her town for six years. “My country is dying,” she says. “My country’s already dead,” June bites back.
And, the final (if convenient) twist: the ambassador’s assistant offers to get a message to June’s husband. June is confused, but the assistant lists off Luke’s information. “He’s alive.” I can’t say I’m at all surprised, but we’ll see how it plays out.
The subplot between Nick and June was back this episode, too – they do some hand-touching and some (very dangerous! Stop!) making out in a hallway. There’s a good exchange between them when June lashes out at him – “they don’t rape you, do they?” I understand wanting to seek out a more equal relationship with real sex – or, as equal as you can get in Gilead – but I need more from June’s subplot than her relationship with the men in the show. She also kisses the Commander this episode, furiously brushing out her mouth until it bleeds afterwards – a direct parallel to the bloody wall of bodies by the river. I was glad of this – before this moment, I’d worried that the show was veering into “weaponized sexuality.” That’s the danger of amping up the drama in something like this. The politics of The Handmaid’s Tale are complex, but there’s nothing revolutionary or progressive in being so enslaved that your only recourse is to try to use your own body for leverage. A prison is a prison.