Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 8 of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. Catch up with our weekly reviews of previous episodes here. Not seen Season 1? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“It was nice working with you too,” June (Elisabeth Moss) says to herself, after she finds a present from Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in her bedroom. It’s like any farewell gift from a colleague when your time in their company is over, except Gilead is no ordinary organisation, and this company of two is a quietly radical force.
Watching the duo collaborate together is genuinely satisfying, as we finally witness some positivity in the Waterford house. Even the suspicion we felt last episode, when Serena approached June for assistance, has largely been dispelled, blown away on the breeze by the Commodores’ Easy on Fred’s office record player. Passing each other pens and complimenting each other’s writing, their joint intellectual task of forging Fred’s signatures and composing his next speech fosters less a sense of affection and more an acceptance of mutual respect – in this field, for once, they’re actually equal. Serena even asks June’s opinion over whether to bring in a Martha to Gilead, an exiled woman who used to be a doctor, to help diagnose and treat a sick child.
But, of course, their happy union has to come to an end, as Fred (Joseph Fiennes) returns from hospital after several months of recovery. It’s telling that the first thing he does is shut Serena out of his study, closing the door in a Godfather-esque display of power and authority. Even the music box that Serena gives June as a thank-you token is just begging for him to find it and presume their collusion has been of the most treasonous nature.
And what of the child? That, inevitably, is Angela, nee Charlotte, the daughter of Janine, whom we last saw being dangled over a bridge, before being taken away from her mother and bestowed upon the Putnams. When Serena tells June that Angela is sick, June can’t help but relay the information to Janine, especially as they see a baby ambulance blaring past in the streets. “You sound just like one of them,” she spits at June, when June says that Janine would not be allowed to see the baby.
It’s a line that hits June where it hurts, especially after their earlier, friendly greeting – “Blessed be the fruit.” “May the Force be with you.” – and it seems that all those weeks of being in parity with Serena has, in a way, softened her towards Gilead, as her act of sedition against Fred has also helped to prop up the misogynist society. And so June takes it to heart, joining in with Serena to petition Fred to bring in Dr. Hodgson from the Colonies. Fred argues that what happens to the child will be God’s will, and they should trust in his plan, but Serena, instead, forges the signature of her husband one last time to get a written order to transfer the Martha to the hospital.
Hodgson, though, who takes a visible delight in being able to do what she is a specialist in, can’t determine anything wrong with Charlotte/Angela, and suggests they unplug her from the machines and simply keep her safe and warm. It’s a heartbreaking moment, not least because we see it unfold as Janine looks on through a glass window, unable to hear what her daughter’s new parents are being told. Even when they’re transparent, Gilead is a world where doors and partitions are everywhere to keep people in their place.
Fred, naturally, finds out that Serena faked his signature, and the punishment comes swift and hard: after some choice Bible quotes about women being submissive their husbands, he bends her over and beats her with his belt 13 times, all the while forcing June to watch. It’s a nasty display of abuse and sadistic control – the kind of thing that we’ve been seeing week in and week out for two seasons, and can often err on the side of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Thank goodness, then, that Season 2 has at last found fresh meat in the complex universe Margaret Atwood created, as this beating isn’t used to shock us, but to further explore the ambiguous nature of Serena’s relationship with both her spouse and the civilisation she helped to forge. Convinced up until now that she is doing God’s work, building and maintaining Gilead for the good of the human population, her time with June appears to have rubbed off in the opposite direction as well; she’s seeing now how much that initial vision has been taken away from her, and how barbaric the means to keep it in place are.
And so it’s no surprise that Serena should support June’s request for Janine to be allowed to see her child – something that Naomi Putman refuses, but her husband argues can’t make matters any worse than they already are. Aunt Lydia cautions June that if something does go wrong, it’s on her head – but by now, we know June has become hardened to that particular line of emotional manipulation. In fact, Aunt Lydia’s threats are soon forgotten, as the episode closes on a surprisingly happy note: after we hear Janine singing to her baby, while Charlotte/Angela’s parents are asleep, we presume we’re about to see a dead child, but instead, see a happy, gurgling young girl, with everything seemingly better. God’s plan? A mother’s love? The repercussions of this twist could spell positive change in Gilead, or inspire a change in philosophy among architects such as Serena. Or it could lead to more depressing end results. But unlike the start of Season 2, it now feels like some kind of shift is in the air.
Even the memory of Joseph Fiennes’ pathetic, power-hungry patriarch dishing out punishment can’t quite dampen the mood. Indeed, what we see happen in its wake is a flash of camaraderie between these two former colleagues – partners who have enjoyed teaming up before, on some level, and are presumably only being pushed closer to each other by their master’s attempts to corner them. In Gilead, it’s not just work that brings people together.
Episode 8 of The Handmaid’s Tale is available on All 4 until 7th August 2018. New episodes are broadcast on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.