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This is based on a 1980s novel by Margaret Attwood . Despite the dystopian setting, Attwood is infamous for denigrating the Science Fiction genre and deliberately distancing herself from it. It seems she is one of those people who does not believe in soft sciences like sociology.
The nearest comparison for this is the classic dystopian SciFi story 1984 . They are both narrated by the protagonist, in this case a handmaiden named OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ). Both are set in an allegorical world that is a worst-case scenario for the time in which it was written. Orwell's book depicted England under the heel of a Stalinist regime, while this tale is about America under a Religious Right that rose out of the Reagan era.
Fascists resist change for the better, and instead want to turn back time to a mythical Golden Age that never actually existed. In Britain this is the Victorian Age, when Industry was all-powerful and employment was high. However, in America the equivalent seems to be the age of the Puritans. The Crucible used the 1690s Salem witch-trials as an allegory for the 1950s McCarthyite witch-hunts, but this book takes the metaphor and makes it literal. The McCarthyite extremists have literally turned America into a 1600s-style Puritan village. However, if you mess up they will do a lot worse than just make you wear The Scarlet Letter.
One of the handmaidens is about to give birth. This brings the Matriarchy's structure more into focus. The wives, such as Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ), have all the power. The handmaidens, a sub-class of fertile female, are basically slaves. This is very reminiscent of a Hugo-nominated novella about a feminist amazon society that had celibate women and lesbians in all positions of authority, and relegated traditional roles like child-bearing to an underclass. In fact, that is not entirely different from contemporary western society where middle-class females have careers and cats instead of families, and motherhood is relegated to working-class women who have no such pretensions.
This starts off with a flashback to the coup. OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) and her sister-in-law went jogging together, listening to that anthem of female empowerment Fuck The Pain Away by Peaches. Of course, the potentially offensive lyrics are not used.
The girl in the coffee shop has been replaced with a mouthy male. Rather than be a good little servant he objects to the unruly female customers. It turns out that all women have been fired from their jobs. Worse than that, they have been legally denied the right to own property. This means they have to get their bank accounts transferred into their husband's name. Evidently the new Government is against women working in offices, but it is perfectly happy to have them doing domestic servitude. To make coffee in a cafe is liberating, but to do it at home is slavery.
The sister-in-law complains about being disempowered, and delivers a passionate monologue about individualism that Thatcher or Ayn Rand would be proud of. However, despite disrespecting her brother when he promises to pull his weight in his marriage, she accepts his offer of protection when she needs to get to the station.
OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel ) has been arrested. It turns out her crime is gender-treason, which in her case is lesbianism. The trial is based on Biblical law, like something written by Ian Paisley's DUP. There is no defence lawyer, and the suspect is gagged and unable to face her accuser. Ironically this is similar to laws that Feminists have promoted towards suspected rapists. Now they see the bad side of such laws, when it is applied to one of their own.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is really nice to Offred because the handmaid's period is late. Everyone hopes for the best, but nobody ever thinks the worst. And Serena Joy has a nasty temper when she is in a bad mood. She may be a bible-bashing housewife now, but she still has the athletic body and skills she had as a secret agent in Chuck. Yes, she can drag another woman while running up stairs ... in high heels!
OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) has been punished by being sent to her room, as if she were a naughty teenage girl. She discovers a secret message her predecessor left - Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.
In the flashbacks, the trainee handmaidens hang out in a ladies' toilet. Apparently putting graffeti on a stall wall and using a glory hole is the height of rebellious behaviour. They do not like their new school, even though the matriarchy promises them that they will not be judged on their looks or clothes. Yes, feminism has triumphed over the male gaze. However, this is not good enough for them. The girls decide to take things a step further and stage a breakout. On the outside, the militiamen with rifles are everywhere. It turns out the city is a warzone. Young fertile women are valuable so they get enslaved as handmaidens, while everyone else is being exterminated. It is not technically genocide, because the villains are not targeting a specific race. Instead it is merely mass murder, because they are equal opportunities killers.
OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel ) is back. Well, she has a new owner so she is now called OfSteven. However, she lost everything so she has nothing left to lose.
This week the flashbacks are for Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ). Before the fascist takeover, her husband Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) was a junior member of the conspiracy. He was involved in the plan to assassinate all three branches of the US Government. Of course, the conspiracy was incredibly sexist and refused to allow her to participate directly because she was a woman. On the good side, this means that they protected her from stress and gave her plausible deniability in case it all went wrong.
Serena wrote a best-selling book entitled A Woman's Place, which is ironic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite being a far-right extremist who believes in freedom and small government she also promotes nationalisation (i.e. government control) of fertile uteruses. Secondly, despite being written about womens issues for a female readership it basically espouses that women should be denied the right to read.
All this comes to light when Gilead is visited by a Mexican trade delegation. Serena is clearly the brains of the operation, although as a woman she is denied any authority. The Mexican ambassador is a woman, but nothing is really made of this.
Mexico is willing to trade with the Gilead fanatics. However, the really disturbing thing is the reason WHY. Thanks to the Children Of Men virus, the Mexican birth rate is practically zero. However, the Gilead system that Serena created actually WORKS! By nationalising the fertile women, training them as handmaidens and protecting them as a natural resource, they have actually succeeded in preserving the human species. So ironically, Serena and Fred turn out to be the good guys!
This week the flashbacks are for Offred's husband. We get to see the events before and after their failed escape attempt.
Before the escape they paid an old straight white man to help them. He claims to be an experienced people-smuggler, but he is a beardy old redneck so they cannot really trust him.
After the escape, the husband gets patched up by the Gilead Guards. They are meant to be a fascist police force, but they took the suspect alive rather than just execute him on the spot. They waste valuable time and resources by putting him in an ambulance and driving him at high speed towards the nearest hospital. However, the ambulance crashes and he escapes. Naturally he shows a lot less compassion for the paramedics than they did for him.
Finally the husband gets a lift with a bunch of other survivors. They are a mis-matched bunch, and the scenario is reminiscent of The Walking Dead . Unfortunately he tends to slow them down, and despite being gut-shot (like Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs) he wants to crawl back to Boston and do a one-man Rambo rescue of his wife and daughter.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is out of town visiting her mother. Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) gives OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) a special treat - a trip to Jezebels, the secret brothel for VIPs.
The flashbacks are Nick's. He was an average young man before the war, but he got a job thanks to a man he met who was in the Party. Soon he was a chauffeur for VIPs like Fred. Of course, he has a secret agenda of his own.
Offred's contact in the Resistance gives her a mission. She has to talk Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) into taking her back to Jezebels, so she can pick up a secret package. However, Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is back so it will not be easy for them to sneak out to the whore-house.
The one-eyed handmaid, the one who was mentally unbalanced even at the best of times, is seperated from her baby and sent off to serve a new commander. Offred warns the boss lady, but her concerns are ignored. It turns out that Gilead's high levels of security, with gun-toting psychos on every street, can be easily overcome by a one-eyed slave-girl with nothing better to do.
Speaking of slave girls, the men do everything they can to please their women. But for Offred and her friend, it will never be enough.
The plot-lines all come to a head. OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) is finally pregnant, but this just makes Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) even more uncomfortable. After all, the previous OfFred killed herself. Since the events of the previous episode, everyone is on edge. As a result, Serena reminds OfFred that she has something to live for. Unfortunately OfFred takes it the wrong way.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is made aware of the vulnerability of his own position. He sits on a committee that debates the punishment of one of their own. It turns out that while the word of a slave-girl might count for nothing, the testimony of a Free Woman counts for everything.
OfFred has the secret package that the Resistance smuggled to her. In such circumstances, nobody in their right mind would draw unnecessary attention to themselves.
The Handmaidens were taken by the Aunties to be punished. OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) gets boosted from captivity, and smuggled off by the Resistance. She gets to call herself June again. And to prove she is not a man-hater, she has a lot of sex with her new boyfriend.
The focus of the episode is on OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel ), who is in a work camp. She befriends a new inmate ( Marisa Tomei ). Their job is manual labour in an area that has been contaminated with an unspecified contaminant.
The flashbacks are from OfGlen. In her previous life she was a college lecturer who punished male students if they took an interest in the subject she was meant to be teaching them. In part this was misandry, because of her man-bashing politics. Also, she may have favoured female students because as a lesbian she might have wanted to sleep with them.
Just like straight career women she had a gay best friend (John Carroll Lynch - Carnivale ). When the GBF fell foul of the homophobic laws of Gilead, she decided to take her lesbian lover ( Clea Duvall ) and adopted child out of the country. Predictably, Gilead's laws did not acknowledge equal marriage between homosexual people. A nice little reminder of how important the equality laws were in the USA at the time this episode was shot and originally aired.
The focus of the episode is back on June ( Elizabeth Moss ) again. She is on the final leg of her journey. However, there seems to be a problem. One of the network is not keeping in touch. Has he been compromised?
June will be chained up and used as an incubator. OfFred will be allowed to return to her place as a handmaiden in Fred's house. Which will she choose?
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is happy to have his pregnant handmaid back. He goes golfing with his boss and cow-orkers, including Greg Bryk ( Bitten ). They congratulate Fred for putting his house in order, no doubt a snide reference to the works of Dr Jordan Peterson. Of course, Peterson's preference towards socially enforced monogamy (AKA marriage) means creating a society that is the opposite of Gilead and its polygamous Handmaid system.
The architects of Gilead must have realised that polygamy is a bad idea, because they start assigning Government-appointed brides to their footsoldiers. Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) is lucky enough to get one, although the supply of grown-up women has run so low that they have to give him a teenager instead.
OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) seems to have completely knuckled under. She does what is required of her.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) wants to have Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) re-assigned. Nick actually wants the reassignment too, because he cannot stand the stress of being around OfFred. However, Fred's boss is the one who assigned Nick to him in the first place - as an Internal Affairs agent, to keep an eye on him!
To mirror the mass marriage ceremony, a couple of women in the prison have a lesbian wedding. Yes, Enforced Monogamy is not just for straight people.
The flashbacks are of Mrs Waterford, Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ). Long before she was a housewife and home-maker, she was a public speaker who toured University campuses. Unfortunately this made her the target of much vitriol from Antifa types. So much for women supporting other women. And as she points out, the people who shout abuse at her are privileged whites.
This episode is the second from Mrs Waterford's perspective, and once again we become more sympathetic towards her. Someone took a shot at her uterus - yes, there is good reason to believe she is medically sterile. No wonder she needs a Handmaid.
Mrs Waterford starts to soften towards OfFred.
Eden, the child bride, has not had her honeymoon yet. She might report Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) as being a potential gender-traitor. OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) orders him to do his marital duty, chiding him with the words You have to f*ck some you don't want to? You poor thing! In all fairness, the same could be said of Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) himself who was unable to perform during The Ceremony in Season One.
Fred presides over the opening ceremony at a new Handmaid centre.
The Resistance attack killed more Handmaids than it did Commanders. At the prison camp, OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel ) and Janine are singled out for special treatment.
Janine is back in town, since Gilead now has a shortage of handmaids. Unfortunately her baby has taken ill.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) considers getting a female doctor to professionally examine the baby. Unfortunately women have now been banned from the medical profession, and the doctor in question is now a Martha (domestic kitchen servant).
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) returns after his stay in the hospital. Naturally, he finds out what his wife has been getting up to. He takes responsibility for personally punishing her. This scene evokes reminiscences of the film Glory, where the escaped slave (Denzel Washington) is punished for desertion. Another comparison would be Johnny Rico's punishment in Starship Troopers .
OfFred's voice-over narration recites the quotation men are afraid of being laughed at, but women are afraid of being killed. Of course, in the real world death is an inevitability that must be faced with bravery every day - for that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Laughter, however, is murder of the soul rather than the body - a cruel and emotionally sadistic torture. The quote is important because it is unattributed, but is a crossover with the real world because it was actually originated by Margaret Attwood, author of the original novel this show is based on.
Eden, Nick's teenage bride, is still trying to fit in. He is stressed out from his job, which does not exactly make him a good husband. She tries redecorating and reorganising the marital home, but Nick is a triple agent so he values secrecy above all else. Again, he is not exactly husband material. This adds an air of menace to the marriage, and as the male it is the otherwise benevolent Nick who is cast in the role of potential abuser. The irony? If Nick's true loyalties were revealed by Eden, then he would suffer a far worse punishment than Serena. We only feel pity for Mrs Waterford, who physically abused OfFred in Season One , because she is just a girl. Yes, benevolent sexist wins again.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is sent off to Canada for some diplomacy. He wants Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) to accompany him, but she is still both physically and emotionally tender after the events of the previous episode.
The Canadian hotel that the Gilead VIPs stay in is protested at by people who escaped from the regime. OfFred's husband Luke is one of them, and he gets the chance to confront Fred personally. Later, Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) has a quiet chat with Luke in a public place. Hopefully no sharp-eyed observers noticed anything.
One of the protestors is Luke's flatmate, herself a former Handmaid. She has a banner displaying her name, since she no longer has to be named after the man who owned her. Of course, she does not consider that she got both her family name and her first name from her father - a man!
OfFred has worse things to worry about. The Martha complains that security guard can boss her around, despite the fact that he is only about twenty years old. Yes, she would prefer a hierarchy based on age instead of merit.
The Waterfords return home early after their trip to Canada was cut prematurely short. Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) is with them, with good news for OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ). However, he neglects his own wife and she prefers the company of the security guard.
OfFred starts to throw her weight around. Her manipulations are crude and blatant, and it backfires on her horribly.
Fred's act of kindness towards OfFred ( Elizabeth Moss ) has backfired horribly. Nick the chauffeur (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) has been taken away, and she is trapped in an unfamiliar house. It is the bleak midwinter, and there is no heat in the house.
Aunt Lydia tries to find the murderous handmaiden formerly known as OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel ) a new owner. Everyone seems to know that she leaves dead bodies in her wake. Luckily, one of them (Bradley Whitford - The West Wing) is desperate.
Guard Isaac and Nick's wife elope. As always, no good will come of it.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) discovers that the dead girl was such a bible-basher that she kept her own bible. This inspires Serena to recruit the other wives in an attempt to change Gilead for the better. All they ask is that women be allowed permission to read books.
Emily ( Alexis Bledel ) makes her run for the border.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ), formerly known as OfFred, has a new Commander - Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ). The Marthas, including Beth ( Kristen Gutoskie ), are running a resistance cell in the basement. They want to smuggle someone out of town - the woman who built the bomb that killed a lot of handmaids in Season Two.
Naturally it all goes horribly wrong. June has to sort out her own mess for a change. Nice to see someone take responsibility for their actions.
Emily ( Alexis Bledel ) is safe in Canada. She even woman-splains things to her female doctor, in order to show off her intellectual superiority. However, she is reluctant to contact her lesbian wife ( Clea Duvall ).
Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ) holds a meeting of the Commanders at his house. Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is there, despite having been demoted. Nick (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) is also there, having been promoted. However, he has been posted to the front line in Chicago.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) is separated from Fred, and has gone to live with her mother. Unfortunately Mrs Joy is not a very supportive parent.
The entire community attends a church service for the mass baptism of the new crop of babies. This illustrates how colour-coded the Gilead society is. Commanders, wives, guards, handmaids and marthas - every caste has specific clothing.
The one-eyed handmaid is still around. She tries to ingratiate herself with Aunt Lydia, who is showing her human side more these days. Unfortunately her good nature is now mirrored by a violent streak, no doubt the result of Emily's murderous assault on her.
Emily ( Alexis Bledel ), safe in Canada, is reunited with her lesbian wife ( Clea Duvall ). In the previous Seasons the Canadian scenes featured the token black girl, Moira ( Samira Wiley ), but now the big complaint from the fans is the black woman's erasure and replacement with the white lesbian storyline.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) discovers that her baby is now in Canada, with her almost-husband Luke. She wants to somehow send him a message.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) cannot risk starting a war with Canada over the baby, so he adopts a diplomatic approach. Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) gets flown in a cargo jet to Canada, where Luke meets her at the airport.
What sets this apart from the other episodes, stylistically, is the use of music throughout the story.
Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ) sends June ( Elizabeth Moss ) to help Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) on his diplomacy campaign. The former members of the Waterford household go to Washington DC to continue the diplomatic effort. It is a bit reminiscent of the Elio Gonzales affair, although Canada is not a world-class super-power.
Nick (Max Minghella - Darkest Hour ) drops by to say hello to his old household. This might be the last time they are all together again. June tries to get him to help secretly derail the negotiations. However, he has an urgent appointment in Chicago.
The Washington Monument has been turned into an Xian crucifix, which illustrates the end of separation of Church and State. The Lincoln Memorial has been defaced and desecrated. The place is used as location for another propaganda video that is more than a little reminiscent of a Neurenberg Rally. Nobody mentions that Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's top propaganda film director, was a woman! This acknowledgement of female success would not fit with the victim narrative.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) is back in her own city. She hopes to get access to her daughter. However, she underestimates the lengths Aunt Lydia will go to.
Emily ( Alexis Bledel ), safe in Canada, hangs out with her lesbian wife ( Clea Duvall ). However, she hangs out with June's other lesbian friend. They bond over little things, like the fact they are both murderers. Unlike the characters in Marvel Comics circa 2019, they do not automatically hook up. This show actually addresses the fact that there is not a lesbian community so much as a lesbian dating scene, and two out gay women of the same age group can live in the same medium-sized town without even meeting each other.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) gets the other handmaids to ignore their colleague. After all, she got at least one person killed.
The flashbacks are of Aunt Lydia. She used to be a teacher in a Primary School, which explains why she treats the handmaids like children. Once she befriended a single mother with a lonely son. Of course, if it had worked out for the best then she would not have become a born-again puritan.
Aunt Lydia takes the handmaids to the hospital to pray for their braindead colleague. Gilead only cares about the foetus, and regards the woman carrying it as an expendable vessel. This is obviously a reference to contemporary American politics.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) is held responsible, and forbidden to leave. The stress of this solitary confinement begins to affect her mental health.
Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) drops by to pay the handmaid a visit. The doctor (Gill Bellows - Ascension ) is helpful, but June resents him because he works for the system. Teenage girls have appointments in the hospital to check on their ability to bear children. June feels this is inappropriate, but she comes from a society where teenagers have abstinence-only education and when they reach the age of thirty they are suddenly pressured into marrying and having children. At least the Gilead system is more inwardly consistent.
A powerful Commander (Christopher Meloni - Happy ) drops by to visit Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ). They conspire against Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ), and want to usurp his position even though they are not capable of taking on his responsibilities. Together with Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) and Aunt Lydia they pay Lawrence a visit to inspect his household arrangements.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) has to organise the Ceremony, because nobody in the Lawrence household has actually done it.
Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ) loses his nerve and tries to make a run for it. This means leaving everyone else behind, but he has his wife to think about.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) gets interrogated by the Council of Marthas, who want to check her plan is feasible before they okay it. Then she has to visit Jezebels in order to arrange the escape aeroplane. She runs into a familiar face - the ambitious Commander (Christopher Meloni - Happy ). Can she please him?
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) is not happy about his new accommodations. Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) makes the most of it, since she has half of what she wants. In Canada, life seems to go on as usual - despite the disasterous fall in birthrate that caused the international community to make a deal with Gilead in Season One.
Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ) has to sort the diplomatic mess out. The Commanders want to lock down the border with Canada, but this would make Lawrence's escape plan unworkable.
June ( Elizabeth Moss ) has gotten everything she wanted so far. But her plan is very ambitious. Beth ( Kristen Gutoskie ) has heard about what happened in the previous episode, which means that the circle of trust is already far too wide. Mrs Lawrence is mentally unbalanced because she cannot get medication in Gilead. Our heroine has to ask herself, how many innocent people will she sacrifice to get what she wants?
Lawrence (Bradley Whitford - Get Out ) does everything he can to help June ( Elizabeth Moss ) with her plan. Unfortunately the biggest problem is the Marthas, who are over-eager and cannot follow simple instructions. It is unwise to draw attention in a police state. Luckily the handmaids are experienced at stoning people to death. June could just use Lawrence's pistol, especially when taking on rifle-toting security guards, but stoning people seems to be more poetic.
As has been previously established, the medical staff in Canada are mostly female. This seems to be the main difference in the demographics of that society. In a world where the vast majority of people are infertile, Canadian women become career-obsessed while men are reduced to mere beasts of burden. All Gilead has to do is out-breed them, although the Canadians are keen to steal children.
Fred (Joseph Feinnes - American Horror Story: Asylum ) starts to cooperate with the Canadians. They have little knowledge about the inner workings of Gilead, so he gives them very basic information. He also implicates Serena Joy ( Yvonne Strahovski ) in a serious crime not covered by her immunity deal. Apparently anything June and Nick the Chaffeur did is Serena's fault rather than their own responsibility.