Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale, “After”
With Fred Waterford infirmed and recovering from his bomb-related injuries, the Waterford home feels lighter, less like the prison of his making. The window shades have been opened, sun is beaming in, casting a soft glow on the Waterford women. They share pleasant and possibly respectful interactions with each other. Offred has taken to her temporary role as copyeditor; she feels more purpose driven, and it also gives her a respite from her station. This daydream is quickly shattered as Serena breaks the news that Fred is coming home. A feeling of dread passes from person to person, Serena to Offred to Rita to Nick. Waterford is a broken man both physically and mentally and his return home is met with muted enthusiasm. As a viewer Fred Waterford could have been comatose for the remainder of the series and I would have been perfectly content. But the audience gets the same gut punch from his return as his household.
Serena reveals to Offred that Charlotte/Angela (Janine’s daughter) is very sick and was taken to the hospital for care. Offred is concerned the child is not getting the best care available, and she is right to worry. The scrub all-male pediatrician team is on the case, which is not good news for Charlotte. The best neonatal cardiologist in Gilead is a Martha, which means she can’t practice medicine. Serena takes a risk and signs an exception in her husband’s name so the Martha can treat the child without interruption. The baby is found to not have any infections, her condition is idiopathic, and she is dying. Helpless, Warren and the wife agree to allow Janine to see the baby during her final hours. Janine holds Charlotte the entire night and into the next morning and by some miracle Charlotte appears to be cured.
Serena’s decision, while the right one, comes at a significant cost. Fred views this as the ultimate disrespect and uses the bible as support for her punishment. He chooses to beat her in front of Offred. The way this entire scene played out, I cannot tell if this is the first time she’d been beaten by Fred. Serena’s face showed shock, disbelief, and resignation in a few brief seconds. Offred tried to turn away and Fred insisted she watch.
The founders of Gilead came together and stripped away the freedoms of their most powerful resource, women. “Women’s Work” further reveals the cracks in the surface of this new world. Fred’s misplaced anger towards his wife is less about what she did and more about how he thinks this makes him look to other Commanders. She was supposed to be a conduit for his ideas, not have ideas of her own but considering his head was scrambled in the explosion how cohesive were his thoughts? Serena took charge as was necessary to keep their lives intact and tried to save the life of one of their most precious commodities, a child. She thwarted the attempts of another Commander to expose the Waterfords’ secrets. Serena has been running things seamlessly and without Fred’s assistance and he cannot bear it.
His decision to beat Serena while shocking was not surprising, what was surprising was how they chose not to show it. Time and time again this show has taken the time to show us all levels of brutality: rape, stoning, hangings, shootings, verbal abuse, but beating a woman with a belt was the bridge too far. This is not to say I wanted to see Serena be beaten with a belt, but what makes this act of partner abuse less palatable than the others? A good portion of the episode was spent waiting in anticipation as Charlotte slowly succumb to her illness. As the events unfolded, I could not believe they were going to let a child die. Was she going to be an example of what happens when male hubris impedes common sense and the care of a child? When it was revealed that she not only survived the night, but was alert and about 6 months older than the baby Janine held in her arms the night before, I was relieved and disappointed. They tried to hint at the birth mom being the only cure for the child’s ailment, and while these things happen it was a stretch and my suspension of disbelief meter was off the charts.
For all the emotional highs and lows in this episode it would have been nothing without Yvonne Strahovski, Madeline Brewer, Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, and Ann Dowd. I don’t say it enough and maybe because it goes without saying at this point; there are no weak spots in this cast, from the minor roles to the main characters. Everyone gives so much to each scene and each piece of dialogue. It’s incredible and usually heartbreaking to watch. Even when I feel I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to take another episode I’m always glad I did.
- Fred is now the head Commander, what does this mean for Gilead?
- Serena and Offred had begun to form a very loose bond but the caste system in place does not allow for their relationship to be more than Wife and Handmaid. After experiencing mutual abuse at the hands of Fred where does that leave them?