This review contains spoilers.
All lives are divided into befores and afters, but the lives of Gilead markedly so. The civil war that led to its establishment redefined everything. Name, family, status, rights… all of it was torn to pieces and replaced with a state-approved alternative.
That didn’t only apply to the women who fought against Gilead, but to a lesser extent, also to the few who were instrumental in its creation. Last season, we experienced the schadenfreude of seeing Serena shut out of power with a lock of her own making. She’d been the angelic public face of the Sons of Jacob’s misogyny, the gal to whom they must have pointed—as all such regimes seem to do—to say ‘Look! We love women! We’ve even got one!’
Serena was the midwife who delivered Gilead. Once it had been born, it no longer required her input. That terrifying mind of hers was limited to pruning roses and attending tea parties. It’s no wonder that when she spied an opportunity to take back some power, this previously political thinker relegated to the domestic realm, rebelled. With Fred out of action and her unborn child under threat from a thug with whose intellectual limits she was well acquainted, Serena transgressed.
She’s playing a very dangerous game (one that makes you wonder whether her fate was being foreshadowed in the fateful story of the Wife transported to the Colonies earlier this season). By letting June use both a pen and her brain, Serena is breaking a huge taboo. She’s allowing a little of the before to bleed into the after.
Doing so has been the basis of every act of subversion we’ve seen on this show, from Offred calling herself June, to the Commander giving her those magazines, to Emily driving that car. At Serena’s sickening baby shower, June shook Gilead’s carefully maintained illusion by dreamily remembering that she was somebody before she was Offred. In The Handmaid’s Tale, regression means progression.
That’s exactly what the supermarket scene signified. Not wanting to be another unremembered Lillie Fuller, first one, then a whole crowd of the Handmaids confided their past names to each other. If they die now, at least somebody will remember who they really were.
It was a small scene of triumph that took away some of the sting of that visually arresting funeral opener. 26 Commanders to 31 Handmaids – it was a heavy price to pay, but one that allowed the impossible to happen and Emily and Janine to be returned to the district.
The title of this episode, After, doesn’t only apply to the aftermath of the bomb; it could be the subheading for The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole. This show’s storytelling shifts between before and after, jamming together then-and-now stories to invite comparison between them.
This week paired Moira’s experience of surrogate pregnancy with June’s. Showing us both together prompts us to reflect on the crucial differences. Both are sad and hard, but one was chosen and the other is a result of sexual slavery. The show reminds those dozing at the back of class that surrogacy isn’t the issue here, choice is what matters. The same applies to all female reproductive rights.
We also live in a before and after. Before the UK 1967 Abortion Act and after. Before Roe v. Wade and after. In The Handmaid’s Tale, turning back the clock is synonymous with progress. Not so for us.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, First Blood, here.