The Handmaid's Tale Hits Margaret Atwood's Sweet Spot: Power Dynamics Between Women

(Episode 2.04)

TV Reviews The Handmaid's Tale
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<i>The Handmaid's Tale</i> Hits Margaret Atwood's Sweet Spot: Power Dynamics Between Women

Welcome back, Offred.

Chained to a bed in the Red Center, June (Elisabeth Moss) is given a choice. Be June. Stay chained to the bed until the baby is born, and then be executed. Or be Offred and go back to the Waterfords’ house. It’s not much of a choice.

Does anyone currently have the ability to beat Elisabeth Moss in a hateful-stare competition? I am thinking no.

“Other Women” is a very, very complicated episode, though its beginning is straightforward. Here is where we get into the very heart of Margaret Atwood’s sweet spot: power dynamics between women. Because Gilead might be a place where women are not allowed to work, or read and write, or have their own bank accounts, but if you think that’s as simple as “patriarchy,” you’d be very much mistaken. Gilead’s not only a patriarchy. It’s also a bat-shit crazy matriarchy where the alpha position is always shifting. Commander Waterford’s not a “patriarch,” not even literally: Offred’s baby doesn’t have his DNA.

The Handmaids and the Marthas are servants of the Wives. And even the Wives answer to the Aunts. And holy shit, it’s really getting hard to tell to what extent Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is actually sadistic, or chafing against the constraints of her forced role as much as the young women she abuses, or some mixture of things, but there’s a tip of a huge iceberg coming into view here. The oscillations from stern to simpering are starting to seem so weird. Is there a human being in there? Is she pious? Does she believe in Gilead? Does she think the Commanders and Wives are as insane as the Handmaids do? It’s becoming difficult to tell.

But in the end, even in a coerced and horrifying situation, a pregnant woman cannot be touched. Not that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) doesn’t slam Offred into a wall and put a hand to her windpipe for leaving; she does. And yes, Aunt Lydia seems to have settled in for a monitoring visit and is helping Offred to bathe “down there” (priceless facial expression), feeding her gag-inducing green smoothies and forcing her to sit through Serena’s hideous baby shower (“You’re absolutely glowing!” exclaim all the infertile Wives. To Serena.) As she sits through the shower (and as the men shoot clay pigeons in honor of “life”), Ofglen II (Tatiawna Jones) walks by without speaking. Alma (Nina Kiri) says they cut out her tongue for speaking up for Janine. Offred looks at the burn scars on Alma’s wrist. “it wasn’t your fault,” Alma says. “Not that part.” Offred looks stricken, but no time, there’s a binding ceremony with chanting and prayer and a circle of Wives and Handmaids around Serena and Offred as their hands are bound in silk cords. It would actually be kind of beautiful if there were consent involved. As the ceremony progresses Offred remembers being confronted by Luke’s (O-T Fagbenle) wife, Annie, who calls her a selfish bitch and a fucking whore for not leaving her husband alone. Luke orders her to leave June alone, but June knows there’s something about this situation that isn’t right.

Then, at the end of the shower, Offred remarks that she’d gotten so many gifts at her own baby shower that she and Luke had given half of them away, and Serena loses it and decks Rita (Amanda Brugel), knocking her to the ground. Lydia takes Offred to the Wall, where the body of the delivery truck driver who’d tried to help her is hanging.

Whose fault is it?

“My fault,” Offred finally says, on her knees. She’s starting to see this whole situation in another way.

“June’s fault. June did this,” Aunt Lydia says in a deeply enigmatic tone, embracing her and kissing her forehead. “Offred does not have to bear June’s guilt.”

And June begins to disappear from Offred’s eyes right then and there. Is there a chance Aunt Lydia is, in a bizarre way, actually trying to help her?

The master image in this episode is flowers, and there’s enough clearly purposeful focus on them that I expect they’re going to keep piling up: from the opening scene, in which June reports that she’s counted 71 flowers on the bedspread in the room where she’s chained to the bed, to the lingering shots of dropped rose petals on glass coffee tables, to the wreaths of flowers on the bannisters and everywhere in the house as it’s decorated for the shower, to the cut flowers in window as Lydia walks away with Serena’s cigarette. (They’re bad for the baby…). There’s a ton of symbolism in flowers, beginning with fertility and love but stretching way past that, and I’m interested to see how much thematic variation this gesture will get.

After a ritual humiliation in which Offred is made to plead for the Waterfords to keep her and let her “try to be good,” she goes to bed. To call anything “one of the creepiest scenes” in a show where creepy is such an abundant resource is saying something, but in all seriousness what happens next is yowsers-creepy. Serena creeps up the stairs, hair down, and kneels by Offred’s bed, caressing her belly and whispering “Mama loves you” while Offred’s eyes bug out of her head. Once she leaves, Offred goes to the closet to lay her hand against the “don’t let the bastards grind you down” inscription inside the doorframe. The wood has been replaced. She remembers going out to breakfast with Luke and baby Hannah, and seeing Annie walk in, see the new family, and walk out.

My fault. My fault. My fault.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.