Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “Seeds”
Following June’s failed escape plan in “Baggage” season two of The Handmaid’s Tale has been moving at a slower pace. The show has been no less engaging or emotionally demanding, just a little quieter in the horrors it presents. A little less gallows at Fenway Park, and a little more sitting in a bathtub full of blood with a vacant stare. These slower-moving episodes felt entirely appropriate, seeming to come at a natural point within the season’s overall narrative.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for “First Blood,” an episode that spins its wheels for nearly 60 minutes, before finally shifting into gear for a brief but intriguing closing sequence. While it’s too early to know whether the show simply didn’t need a higher episode count for season two, installments like this can certainly point in that direction; “First Blood” felt a lot like filler.
The Serena flashbacks offered us a bit more insight into her past, but the details we gleaned from those scenes were things we could have easily surmised based on previous knowledge. It was gratifying to see profanities hurled from every direction at Serena, but it wasn’t nearly as fascinating as when we learned just how large of a role she played in Gilead’s creation. Aside from reminding us how fervent she was about the warped ideals that led to her new world, these scenes did little for the character’s overall depth. We already know Serena is an awful excuse for a human, and this reminder feels pointless.
One could argue the flashbacks were a fitting way to subvert Serena’s present-day behavior towards Offred. But I’d also argue you’d have to be a fool to mistake Serena’s less icy attitude – I can’t bring myself to call it warmth – for actual kindness. There was never anything resembling friendship to be mined from the relationship between these women. Maybe they once both ate at Magnolia’s in the pre-Gilead days, but a similar taste in brunch spots is not enough to build a connection.
It wouldn’t matter how many smoothies Serena allowed Offred to skip, how long she let her sleep in the sitting room, or how many awkward surprise parties she planned for her, there will always be an imbalance of power at the core of their relationship, making it impossible to truly be anything more than master and servant.
Even though it was obvious things would turn sour between the two women at some point, I had hoped this episode was taking their relationship in a different direction. Perhaps there was something to be explored through a more mutually beneficial relationship. The nicer Offred was about the baby and the more welcoming she was to Serena, the more chance she might have had at getting closer to Hannah. By the end of episode 5 it looked like June was ready for another long-game fight, but she squandered what little progress she’d made by seriously overestimating the limits of Serena’s “generosity.”
For a moment, I thought maybe Serena was starting to question some of Gilead’s methods. The shock on her face as she realized she’d been trying to converse with a woman who has no tongue – a tongue that was removed in the name of Gilead – at least bordered on something like self-contemplation. That moment, combined with her jealousy over Aunt Lydia’s writing privileges in “Seeds” may lead to something more interesting in the future, but it didn’t manifest here. It was foolish of me to forget Serena lacks the right tools for true empathy.
So, as Offred returned to her room and Serena was restored to her full Ice Queen status, we were left with an entirely unchanged dynamic. An hour was spent teasing at an impossible change only to leave us back in the status quo, and “First Blood” didn’t offer us much of anything valuable in the process. In fact, the episode pushed the boundaries in terms of what feels excessive and not crucial to the actual story. I admire The Handmaid’s Tale for never shying away from showing us the brutalities of Gilead. And, thus far, I believe the graphic and violent nature of the show has been used for the good of its narrative.
However, Serena’s exertion of power over Offred, as she instructed Eden on how to run a tight household, came off rather trivial. This sequence belonged in season one, when we were still just learning how cruel and petty Serena could be. Used here, it felt like overkill, and perhaps the show’s way of frantically ensuring we didn’t start empathizing with Serena after having seen her get shot in the flashbacks. We’re at a point where we don’t need further emphasis on Mrs. Waterford’s deplorable nature. We get it, we don’t need convincing, and the attempts to do so only amount to treading narrative water.
Much, much worse than forcing Offred to pick up knitting needles though, was the sex* scene between Nick and Eden. There was no need to see this entire sequence unfold on screen. The vile visual of the hole in the bed sheet, combined with Offred’s warning to Nick about Eden turning him in, were enough for us to deduce what was about to happen. I’m not suggesting the show should have avoided the predicament entirely; what transpired between Nick and Eden felt completely organic and inevitable.
What I am saying, is that this is one area where the show could have erred on the side of restraint. What Nick had to do was disgusting, but the true gut-punch of it all is in the consequences and implications. In telling Nick they’ll just have to keep trying until she gets pregnant, Eden highlights the genuinely stomach-churning aspect of the entire scenario. The gratuitous nature of the scene (its length and not necessarily its visuals) distracts from the dread at the very heart of it, which is something The Handmaid’s Tale has been so adept at avoiding in the past.
Again, it’s too soon to make any claims that the show might be veering off course, but this episode does have me concerned. Eden’s character in general feels like a missed opportunity. Aside from establishing just how young these women are being indoctrinated – which, again, was something we could conclude based on other evidence – what was the point of introducing yet another White woman who’s loyal to Gilead? Eden could have been a woman of color with vastly different experiences to share and explore. She could have been a non-believer who eventually bonded with Nick. At the very least, it would have been nice to see her post-coital dialogue worked into the narrative another way, a way that used it to its full potential in accentuating the horror of the situation.
Though it wasn’t enough to save the episode, the final sequence did kick things up a notch. It wasn’t the action or the shock that made it the most memorable moment, but (like with Eden and Nick) the consequences it created. This attack opens up a lot of questions moving forward. Considering the amount of Commanders inside the building – namely Waterford and Price – this could turn out to be a pretty significant blow to Gilead’s power structure. Will we see the higher-ups of this regime scrambling to restore order? Was this Handmaid acting of her own accord? Or, is Mayday back in action, planning similar attacks in other areas of Gilead? Whatever the outcome, it does signal some potentially exciting momentum, which is now sorely needed after “First Blood.”
Under His Eye
- *Please call me out if you think I shouldn’t have referred to this as sex. I was hesitant to label it rape, though that’s exactly what it would be in the real world, even if Eden had still given consent. In Gilead though, it’s law for Nick and Eden to procreate, and she was clearly consenting. I think we can all at least agree it was gross. Really, really gross.
- Despite not being a huge fan of the episode, I still thought Yvonne Strahovski was fantastic. She’s not as chilling as Ann Dowd, but she’s equally frightening in her own ways. As soon as Offred asked about seeing Hannah it was as if a switch turned off inside Serena, and the subtle yet powerful way Strahovski hardened her expression was enough to tell us Offred had crossed a line. Though I obviously disagree with everything Serena fought for, Strahovski makes it easy to see how this character, with her energy and zeal, was able to impress her ideologies on so many people.
- Joseph Fiennes continues to excel at being a creep, but at this point I don’t think his character’s death would be a huge loss to the show. In fact, it might really shake things up in interesting ways.
The Handmaid's Tale S2E6 Review Score
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel