Wednesday, May 23, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - The Waterfords Struggle to Help Offred Feel Comfortable in Their Home in 'First Blood'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.06 "First Blood"

Offred finds unexpected allies and obstacles in her search for a way to protect Hannah. The Commander prepares for the dedication of a new Red Center. Nick struggles with his new assignation.

The relationship between Offred and Serena Joy is the most fraught dynamic on the entire show. The world of Gilead knew that the relationship between wife and handmaid would be troublesome. They put this system into place because they believed it's what God is asking of them. They can rationalize all of it by saying the use of handmaids was a component in the Bible. But this year, Offred is pregnant. She is able to give the Waterfords what Serena Joy was incapable of doing. She can create new life for them. She can deliver them a baby that can make them a real and legitimate family. This world places so much value on the traditional family unit. A wife who isn't able to give a man children is failing in her duties in this world. It needs to be her top priority at all times. It's a mission Serena Joy has been on for a long time. She and Commander Waterford were struggling to get pregnant long before the creation of Gilead. Serena Joy wants a baby more than anything else in the world. She has been such a vicious and despicable character. But there's so much nuance in the way that Yvonne Strahovski plays her. This is such a complicated story on display here. It shows Serena Joy needing to be more compassionate to Offred or risk losing the baby. She is attempting to bring June out more so that she too can flourish in this world. Then, she resents the freedom she gives to June. As such, she needs to put Offred back into her place to ensure that she is always aware that this isn't her family that she is creating. She is just a vessel in her stead. That's heartbreaking and so traumatic. But the show presents it in such a grueling and complicated way.

The show also uses flashbacks to highlight just how destructive this journey has been for Serena Joy. Last season painted her as one of the architects of Gilead who was kicked out of the room as soon as the plan was coming into fruition because she was a woman. She advocated for these traditional values and roles. She saw purpose in serving her husband and bearing him children. She saw the rise in infertility as the most troubling crisis in the world right now. It's always so fascinating to see what the Waterfords' marriage was like before Gilead. There is much more equality between the two. They spar with each other and support each other no matter what. But it's also abundantly clear that Serena Joy is the one with the backbone who is willing to push this agenda forward no matter how much resistance she faces. Fred is caring and nurturing to her. That's not what she needs right now. She needs her husband to be strong and take action into his own hands. Serena Joy was unable to get pregnant and that was so crippling to her. She saw it as her failing as a woman. She needed to act to ensure that the human race wasn't going extinct. Her preaching these values ultimately leads to her getting shot. It's never clear if she was made infertile because of this global drop in pregnancies or if this bullet tore her reproductive system apart. The show plays into the ambiguity of the situation. It wants to make it more complex by asking the audience to have sympathy for this vicious character. Fred takes it upon himself to execute the man who shot Serena Joy as well. He sees that as the right retribution which is absolutely horrifying. As such, there can never be too much sympathy for the Waterfords. The show just continues to paint their lives as complex and unpredictable. They've endured trauma as well. But they've inflicted just as much on the rest of the world.

It's so eery to watch Serena Joy be a completely different person in her handling of Offred as well. The system in place is set up to treat wife and handmaid as the same. The ceremonies are all about mimicking the experience for both of them. But when it comes to the doctor's appointments, there is a partition that keeps Offred away from the wife and physician. She is only addressed when her medical history is of relevance to the proceedings. That's what makes it so personal when Serena Joy parts the screen to give Offred a glimpse of the new life growing inside of her. It's beautiful and selfless. It's her sharing this experience instead of excluding the pregnant woman from it. Of course, Serena Joy may do too much course correcting as well in an attempt to better Offred's health. She allows Offred to sleep in her study on the ground floor while she sits nearby to protect her. She shows off the nursery that she has decorated. She has brought more furniture into Offred's room. There is a lot of interaction between Offred and Serena Joy this week. They are able to talk openly and honestly about what they are feeling regarding this pregnancy. Offred can't get comfortable sleeping on the couch and they can bond over remembering pregnancy pillows. Serena Joy invites some of the other handmaids over for lunch and Offred recalls a restaurant from the previous world that Serena Joy enjoyed as well. Things are never completely genuine between the two of them. Offred isn't planning on handing this baby over even though she allows Serena Joy to be a part of this experience. It doesn't take much for Serena Joy to turn vicious towards her handmaid once more. But it's so strange to see them attempt to find a new balance in their relationship as well.

That's what makes it so tragic when the most personal moment for June is the exact thing that causes so much pain and anguish for Serena Joy. They made a deal that Offred would keep Serena Joy's baby safe if Serena Joy did the same for Hannah. There has been no further update on what Hannah's life is like in Gilead. She hasn't been seen in the present day following that glimpse in the finale. She still only exists in those flashes of memory that June has of their life together. But June is still fighting desperately to reunite with her. That's what she wants more than anything else in the world. Yes, her asking to see Hannah again could be the precise thing to get Serena Joy to worry about Offred refusing to give this new baby to her. She doesn't want Offred to end up like Janine. She saw that brutality on display and the severe consequences from it. She doesn't even think Naomi is grateful to have a child now. Serena Joy wants to believe she'll be a good mother. Those are her grandest ambitions in this world. But she also sees the value in everyone knowing their precise place in this household. That means needing to belittle Offred once more to ensure she doesn't act out of turn. She got too much freedom and was allowed to escape. She wasn't given enough and she almost bled to death. A happy balance still needs to be found in this environment. Right now, it's restoring the former dynamic where Offred is absolutely terrified of Serena Joy and what she is capable of doing. She is afraid of ever saying the wrong thing or asking for something in the wrong way. It makes June passionate about finding a way to escape this world. She is willing to push back against Serena Joy's demands. But that's bound to only stir the fire even more moving forward.

It's also fascinating and intense to watch Commander Waterford form a relationship with Offred once more. The two of them haven't really interacted since Offred returned to the house. She needed to plead to him to return home. But since then, he has been too busy and distracted with his work to really engage with what was happening in his house. He believed that Serena Joy could handle all of the complications. He was confident his wife could handle all of the problems that were being created in the household. He didn't believe he had to insert himself into these personal dynamics. He could instead focus on the grand opening of a new Red Center and formulating strategies for how to secure and expand the borders of Gilead. And now, his focus is needed at home. He needs to be the calm in the middle of the storm for Serena Joy as she complains about how difficult Offred has been lately. He also needs to give Offred just enough of her freedom to ensure that she remains loyal and loving to the family. He is the one who provides her with a glimpse of Hannah. It's just a picture. But it's something that she clings onto for life. She can stare at that photograph for hours. It brings her so much joy and pleasure. Commander Waterford delivering that to her is then immediately corrupted by his sexual gaze towards her. He is filled with so much lust towards her. He has kept his distance out of respect for everything that has happened. But now, he is eager to be with her once more. She only turns him away because of the uncertainty of her pregnancy complications. That saves her here but he's bound to act inappropriately towards her again very soon. Of course, that's under the assumption that he survives the bomb explosion at the end of the episode. Ofglen walking into the middle of the unveiling of the Red Center to detonate a bomb is such a precarious and tense way to close the episode. The fallout of which is bound to be very catastrophic heading into the second half of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "First Blood" was written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Mike Barker.
  • It's truly frightening to think that Nick could be hanged as a criminal for refusing to have sex with a 15-year-old girl. She is technically his wife. That ceremony was performed just last week. But he doesn't wish to have sex with someone against his will. It makes him more understanding of what life is like for June. But he still has to go through the motions just like she does. He needs to survive in this world long enough so that they can eventually run for freedom again.
  • Meanwhile, it's just so twisted to see Eden as a woman who views sex as this purely mechanical thing in the creation of new life. Throughout the entire act, she is hopeful that a baby is being conceived. That is the only thing on her mind. She doesn't even understand the notion that sex could be about pleasure for both the man and the woman. Instead, it's all about her doing her service for the betterment of the family.
  • Nick is trying to protect June and free her by going to Commander Pryce asking for a reassignment. He is willing to go anywhere in Gilead in exchange for some of the most damaging information about Commander Waterford he hasn't shared in his official reports. He also asks for the handmaid to be protected at all costs. He does this because he loves June. But it's bound to backfire in some way for him - most likely from the bomb.
  • Nick mentions that he is willing to fight on the front for Gilead. That's a location in this world that has yet to be seen. This season has made a big deal about exploring the world of the Colonies. But this is another facet of life in Gilead that must be visited at some point. It's important to always remember that a war is being fought that will decide which form of society will survive in the world at large.
  • The detonation of the bomb also brings back the assumption that Mayday and the resistance have returned to Gilead. There hasn't been much terrorist activity since Offred was returned to the Waterfords. That was seen as the crushing blow that disrupted their operation and sent their agents into hiding. But now, they must be emboldened if they are willing to strike during this occasion with a suicide bomber. It's a potent image for a handmaid to be willing to deliver that blow as well.