Airing on Channel 4, Sunday at 9pm
Writer: Wendy Straker Hauser
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Essential Plots Points:
- And we’re right back where we were, with Offred and Luke making love.
- Offred and the other Handmaids are cleaning the wall where people are hung . It turns out that there are foreign diplomats visiting so the entire city is being scrubbed.
- That night, Offred is bathing in preparation for the visit. She explains that the Mexican trade delegation are visiting and makes it clear Offred is expeced to speak ‘wisely’. Offred, aware of the power shift in the house, pushes her luck. A lot. And Serena Joy knows it.
- Serena Joy leaves, watches Waterford prepare for the visit and…
- flashes back to a few years previously. Before Gilead, the pair of them making love and praying as they do so. In the present day, she tries to reassure him and it fails completely.
- Nearby Nick and Offred meet as the house prepares. They touch hands and the contact is staggering for Offred. Then Waterford asks for her to be brought in. Offred introduces herself…to the male aide not the female Ambassador.
- Offred is asked if she chose to be a Handmaid. She lies. She says yes. And is visibly disgusted by having to do so.
- On the way out, Offred is asked if she’s happy. It takes her almost 30 seconds, under the eye of both Waterfords, and Nick, to spit out the most honest answer she can.
- ‘I have found happiness, yes.’
- The ambassador, to her credit, asks the Wives how happy they are. She gets standard answers all the way along. Until she quotes the book Serena Joy wrote before Gilead.
- It turns out she was an advocate for ‘domestic feminism’ and was arrested for incitement to riot. The ambassador pushes and rattles both Waterfords.
- In the past, Fred arrives home to find Serena Joy arranging flowers. Fred openly questions whether anyone has the faith to see this through besides them and Serena Joy takes him out to the movies. She’s cheerful, loving and dominant in an affectionate way.
- Fred takes a call and says ‘It’s happening.’ Three separate attacks, three weeks ahead. Congress. The White House. The Supreme Court. Serena Joy looks at him and says ‘Praise be.’
- They watch the last movie they’ll ever watch in the old world, Serena Joy reassuring Fred that they’re ‘saving’ the people around them.
- Back in the present, Nick brings Offred to Waterford’s office but they can’t keep their hands off each other until Offred breaks away.
- The Scrabble game is non-existent, just a slightly drunk and belligerent Fred ranting. She tunes him out, he calls her on that and tells her to leave.
- Offred pauses by the door, a look of hatred and tangible disgust on her face. With visible effort, she composes something approaching a smile, makes herself apologize and asks Waterford to let her stay.
- Waterford orders her to kiss him, then sends her to bed, ‘forgiven’.
- Offred brushes her teeth until her gums bleed.
- The next day the Handmaids are assembled and told they will be guests at the dinner for the Mexican ambassador. Serena Joy inspects them all and then tells Aunt Lydia to remove ‘the damaged ones’.
- Ofwarren loses it, disgusted and upset and angry. Aunt Lydia talks her down in a way that’s compassionate, grotesque and absolutely chilling.
- The undamaged ones are allowed into the party and it’s almost surreal in its beauty. A huge, classy old ballroom full of immaculate dressed men and this sweeping tide of red robed women. All, for one night, being treated as something closed to an adult than they have been in years.
- Serena Joy flashes back again, preparing to speak to the Committee that would build Gilead. They won’t listen to her and while Fred wants to fight for her position, Serena Joy accepts it with something approaching grace. She leaves and Fred is reassured by a committee member that they won’t let women forget their ‘true purpose’ again.
- In the present, Serena Joy joins the high table late. Fred is worried, asking where ‘they are’ and she reassures him and begins making a speech. She explains that Gilead has makde great strides re-establishing a ‘healthy and moral’ way of life and that none of that matters without solving the world’s greatest problem.
- She asks the Handmaids to stand. They’re applauded.
- And then the children are walked in. And the applause intensifies.
- A crowd of toddlers, completely unaware of the world that’s birthed them, being applauded as the women who were violated so their lives could begin look on in silence. Their mothers are shown their children, not as family, but as an achievement to be lauded for a ‘greater good’. A greater good built on industrialized, regimental sexual assault.
- Offred is told by another Handmaid what the Mexicans really want. The plan isn’t to trade for produce, it’s to trade for Handmaids.
- In the past, Serena Joy is renovating her home. She throws her old clothes out and replaces them with variations on the standard Wife dress. Fred arrives, en route to a senior staff meeting and tells her she should be coming with him. He asks what her plans are and she says ‘I’m going to make this place a home’. Serena Joy Waterford, author of Domestic Feminism. Prisoner of Domestic Feminism.
- That night, Fred returns home and the pair begin to make love even as they both know they shouldn’t before a Handmaid is ‘assigned’ them.
- Offred goes to see Nick and she’s in pieces, panicked and furious and DISGUSTED with herself. She berates herself for not saying anything and when he tries to reassure her she demands he NOT call her Offred because that is NOT her name.
- She tells her his name. He responds ‘It’s nice to meet you, June.’
- The next morning the Mexican Ambassador arrives to see Waterford and gives Offred a gift of Mexican chocolates as a thank you for her ‘candour’.
- And Offred, calmly, methodically, explains that she lied. That Gilead is brutal. That they’re prisoners. That she is raped, every month, whenever she might be fertile.
- The Ambassador is staggered and apologises. Offred asks her not to be sorry but to ‘Please Do Something.’
- The Ambassador replies that she can’t help.
- Offred asks how she could possibly do this. The ambassador replies that Mexico is dying, that a child hasn’t been born in her home city in six years.
- And then Waterford arrives and takes the Ambassador to his office. Offred, disgusted, furious, desolate is about to leave when the Amabassador’s aide explains that he can get a message to Luke. He knows where he is. He knows that Luke is alive.
- He calls her by name. He gives her a pen and paper and says he’ll try and get a message to Luke. Offred is stunned, looking into the distance as she tries to work out what to write.
This is an astounding hour of TV. It’s also one of the most disturbing, hardest to sit through things you’ll watch this year.
There are three reasons for that. The first is the way the format, and story, are cleverly expanded to include other viewpoints. Yvonne Strahovski has been one of the very best elements of the show from the start but here she, and Serena Joy, are given some of the spotlight. But not all, which, in a subtle, elegantly brutal twist, is the point. Serena Joy, it turns out, is one of the principle architects of Gilead. Her book, advocating for ‘domestic feminism’, was used as one of the cornerstones of the revolution. She built Fred, steered his career and her reward for that was to be, literally -and metaphorically – shut out.
Strahovski (and Fiennes too, as Fred) show us these human monsters from multiple angles. We see them as a loving couple, as young idealists wanting to beat the system from within and, most tellingly, we see them as murderers. The moment in the cinema, where Fred gets word that the attacks that will cripple the US have been approved, is stunning. Both are terrified, both are aware of exactly what they’re about to do. Both are aware they could walk away. Neither do. And, surrounded by gay couples and multi-racial families they look, just for a second, small, isolated, afraid. And dangerous.
Scenes like that bring us to the second way this episode disturbs you; providing context for the Waterfords as they are. Fred is a straw man, promoted above his capabilities due to the ruthless intellect of his wife and unable to look that, or her, in the face. It’s possible there’s more to the breakdown of the marriage than what we’ve seen but honestly, what’s here is enough. Serena Joy becoming a prisoner of her own writings. Fred breaking out from under her shadow but still, somehow, trapped there. They’re horrifying, monstrous people. But they’re still people.
And then you get to the moment before the dinner where Serena Joy orders the ‘damaged’ Handmaids to be left out. The examination of Gilead in personal and global context that follows is the third way this episode will haunt you and possibly the most disturbing of all.
The Waterfords are monstrous. The world they’re creating is so much worse. The personal tragedy of Serena Joy being subsumed by her own ideas is lost inside the tidal wave of horror the final half hour of the episode brings. ‘The children of Gilead’ being paraded near their mothers but not close enough to touch. The revelation that the Handmaids themselves are the subject of the trade negotiations. And, worst of all, the moment where Ambassador Castillo listens to Offred’s testimony and explains why she can’t help. Because, from her point of view, the horrific lives the Handmaids endure is the lesser of two evils.
The entire episode builds to that final, cathartic moment where Offred tells the Mexican delegation everything. It’s one of Elizabeth Moss’ finest scenes in the show to date and certainly the most cathartic. There’s a sense of things being about to change, of Offred being whisked away in a car, of a diplomatic incident and global condemnation. The fall of Gilead could begin here. The fall of Gilead should begin here.
Instead, Offred is left, not alone, but in the company of the last news she expected; Luke is alive.
That final moment is the episode in microcosm. It’s a single, perfect note of hope in an episode that’s almost completely devoid of it. But it also locks Offred inside her own choices, just like Serena Joy. One has created a society that marginalizes her for the common good. The other has pushed her past aside to try and survive in her new environment. But where Serena Joy is locked in, Offred, suddenly, has a way out. And that’s almost more frightening than everything else she’s endured so far. It’s a brilliantly clever, nuanced way to end the episode and raise the stakes for the rest of the season. Another stunning episode from a stunning piece of drama.
- The hallucination direction is great. Especially the cut from the bloody water sluicing over the murder walls to Offred in the bath. The transition from Offred’s bloody sink to Janine’s eye too
- The Wives’ dresses blending in with the background is a really smart, subtle way of showing how little women matter in Gilead.
- Likewise the way that Serena Joy’s wardrobe and hair change. In the past she’s a free-spirited, terrifying admittedly, individual with loose hair and bright clothes. In Gilead she’s a buttoned-down, literal and metaphorical part of the background.
- Offred automatically assuming that the man in the room is the ambassador says everything about this.
- So much subtle world building this episode. We know its taken 3 years to establish Gilead. We know that global weather patterns are thrown off and every harvest has suffered. And we also know Gilead has six months to make friends before it’s economy collapses. This is the crucial time, and if Mayday are going to bring it down it needs to be now.
- Aunt Lydia’s compassion for ‘her girls’ is genuine. Disgusting. But genuine.
- ‘Red’s my colour.’
‘…Well that’s lucky.’
- ‘A society which has reduced its carbon emissions by 78% in 3 years.’
‘A society where women can’t read your book. Or anything else.’
- ‘We do honour them, but you don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate.’
- ‘What are you going to trade us for?’
- ‘My country is dying.’
‘My country is already dead.’
- None. This is a savagely good, horrific piece of TV.
And The Random:
- Wendy Straker Hauser was also the story editor on 13 episodes of the Beauty and the Beast remake.
- Floria Sigismondi has directed The Runaways as well as episodes of Hemlock Grove, Daredevil and American Gods. She’s also a prolific music video director whose work includes ‘The Next Day’ by David Bowie, ‘Sledgehammer’ by Rhinanna, ‘E.’T.’ by Katy Perry and ‘Fighter’ by Christina Aguilera.
- Zabryna Guevara, who’s so good here as Ambassador Castillo, is a frequent genre flyer. She was Sarah Essen on Gotham, Ayn on Burn Notice and had a cameo in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Review by Alasdair Stuart