The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 8 review: Women’s Work

A compelling episode of The Handmaid’s Tale touches on the role of work in women’s lives. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers.

“I know the Commander will forgive my trespasses” said Serena last week, naively expecting immunity from Gilead’s obliteration of women’s rights. Serena had trusted her privilege as a Wife, and specifically as the wife of Fred Waterford, to protect her from the restrictions and violence Gilead metes out to other women. 

Guess what, turkey? That Christmas you voted for is here.

However much one might feel that Serena—the angelic face of this infernal regime—deserves retribution, it was impossible to feel schadenfreude about her punishment. No woman should be beaten by her husband, even a war criminal. Fitting as it is for the ultimate gender-traitor (our definition, not theirs) to be hoist by her own petard, Serena’s reckoning should come in another form. A Nuremberg-style trial, for instance, once Gilead has been finally kicked to dust.

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There is another tentative possibility for her: redemption. 

The writers, directors and Yvonne Strahovski have drawn a fascinating portrait of Serena Waterford, an activist whose books and public appearances brought the Sons of Jacob’s fundamentalism to the masses. She’s done monstrous things in the name of her faith, and colludes in a monstrous system, but she’s more than just a monster.  

There are glimpses—her shock at coming face to face with a tongueless Ofglen at her dinner table, the irregular pulses of kindness she’s shown to June, the lengths she went to try to help baby Charlotte—that Serena has a conscience. 

It may have been a mistake for Fred to have beaten his wife in June’s presence. The humiliation snapped Serena and Offred out of their uneasy truce and brought the mistress back to barking orders at her servant, but there’s no greater bond than a common foe. 

(In his return to the house, Fred was framed as more of a threat than ever. His cane clicking on the ground as he made his steady progress to the front door was a touch of old school movie villainy.) 

Serena was somebody Fred needed as an ally when they were setting this whole thing up. Now, she might not be someone he wants as an enemy. If The Handmaid’s Tale really is telling the survivorhood story it keeps promising, Serena rebelling against Gilead could form a powerful strand.

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On the subject of miracles, one was granted to Janine this week (or at least that’s how she and most of the rest of them will see it). Not only was Janine allowed to see her baby, her presence also seemed to be the magic ingredient in Charlotte’s recovery. Madeline Brewer continues to excel as Janine, a character so compelling and unpredictable that Gilead’s narrow prison seems to expand whenever she’s on screen.  

Whatever medical explanation the writers care to give, Janine’s love for her child was presented to us as Charlotte’s cure. Magical thinking about the healing powers of maternal love feels out of place in the level-headed feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale. That said, in an episode about the role that work plays in women’s lives, the work of a mother clearly deserves a place.

Did you notice? While Serena was writing edicts and drafting documents with Offred, she didn’t mention the pregnancy once? She had work to do, and it was the happiest we’ve seen her. The last two episodes have shown women returned the tools of their trade—albeit temporarily. Last week we saw June illicitly granted use of a pen. This week, a neonatologist was symbolically given back a stethoscope. Both objects were received with such pleasure and relief, it’s enough to make you grateful for your Monday morning meeting. 

May the force be with you.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, After, here.