Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 9 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.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 has suffered, at times, from a lack of direction and a repetitive reliance upon suffering and violence to fill the absence of Margaret Atwood’s novel as source material. But if it’s now writing its social commentary from the perspective of our contemporary world, Episode 9 of this sophomore run finds fresh resonance in its direct study of the relationship between Gilead and Canada.
It’s the most explicit The Handmaid’s Tale has been to date, and while you might not want such lack of subtlety every episode, there’s a thrill to seeing this plausible fictional dystopia collide all too closely with reality.
This season has increasingly played with the juxtaposition of real life (pre-Gilead) and existence under the regime, and that glib, grounded depression, shot through with a dark sense of humour, continues here, as Ofred imagines her home as an Airbnb listing, with “some ritualistic rape required”. But Ofred is being left almost to her own devices this episode, as Commander and Mrs. Waterford head across the border on a diplomatic mission – with Nick going with them.
Before they depart, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) drops one major bombshell on Ofred (Elisabeth Moss): when her baby is born, the Waterfords will be transferring Ofred out of there immediately, choosing to remove the dissident from their home rather than capitalise on any potential benefits of maternal nurturing. Ofred tells Janine the news, which fires her up for yet another burst of rebellious ranting – earning her a rifle butt to the face from Isaac, the guardian appointed to watch over the Waterford household while they’re away. It’s a nasty demonstration of what’s in store for Ofred’s child once she’s born – which, of course, is precisely why Ofred promised she was going to get her out of them a couple of episodes ago in the hospital.
And yet this episode sees her seem to make peace with the idea of leaving her child behind out of nowhere – a brief glimpse of the back-and-forth that the series has had to resort to, in order to keep its narrative going. And so we see Ofred approach Rita to ask her to look after the baby in the future, and even beg Aunt Lydia to help protect the child – a move that’s less about her suddenly trusting Lydia, and more about her trying to expose the Waterfords for the domestic abuse Commander Waterford has committed, by beating Serena with a belt for her behaviour.
If that side of the story slightly underwhelms, though, it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale is getting better and better at exploring the other side of the tale, as Serena once again takes centre stage. Yvonne Strahovski is nothing short of impeccable, as she takes on the role of a quiet, submissive housewife on foreign soil – keeping up appearances, even in a dystopia, is important – and yet manages to communicate just as much about her inner feelings as when she’s at home talking and lecturing with chilling authority. Abroad, that authority has wilted significantly, and she’s left behind by Fred, as he swans off with Canada’s diplomatic representative to negotiate.
“I was very fond of visiting the USA… with my husband,” the Canadian official remarks, with a pointed stare at his guest. (1-0 Canada.) But that enjoyable tension is nothing compared to the frosty reception Serena is given: left to wander through a botanical garden (while her own seedlings back home wither away), her Gilead wife’s cloak marks her out as visibly complicit in the rise of a misogynistic, abusive regime. “Don’t stare,” a mother tells her daughter, as they wait for a lift with her. “Are you a princess?” asks the daughter, prompting a smile from Serena. But no matter how friendly she tries to be, and how much she insists that the daughter is “precious” and “blessed”, there is nothing she can do to convince the mother she is a nice person. After all, did we mention the misogynistic, abusive regime?
Strahovski, though, continues to find ways to make us feel something nearing sympathy for her, as she walks alone in a foreign world, surrounded by remnants and relics of an old life of freedom – back home, she flinches at the touch of her husband, who has systematically stripped her of her voice and influence in a new society she thought she was establishing for the greater good. If Fred is testing her to see if she will give in to the liberated lifestyle of Canada, it’s nothing compared to the actual test of a government agent, who approaches her in a bar (yes, she goes in a bar) and offers her cigarettes and a one-way flight to Hawaii – if she’ll go on the record with her story about the truth of Gilead. She refuses to sell out, even when this tall, handsome stranger offers her fertility treatment to give her the child she’s always wanted.
Serena’s inaction only makes her more complex, as Strahovski’s facial expressions repeatedly hint at untold conflict, regret and anger – you can expect to hear more from him by the end of the season. If not him, then certainly Luke, who coinwwcidentally happens to be in Toronto for when the Waterfords visit. He finds them at a protest and, while Moira holds up a sign (“My name is Moira”) and gets recognised by Fred, Luke barges through the barrier and shouts in Fred’s face, holding up a photo of Ofred pre-Gilead with her family. Fred tries to quote the Bible back at his aggressor and insists there’s misinformation out there about Gilead, but Luke’s promise to remember Fred’s face is the thing that hangs in the air.
No wonder, then, that Nick approaches him in a bar later and tells him that June is now pregnant – by Waterford, he lies. Then, he lies again, saying they’re only friends. And, a third time for good measure, he claims he doesn’t know whether Hannah is OK. The deceit, arguably to save Luke more anguish and anger, only reinforces how much Nick is stepping out of line, as he breaks the rules to do the right thing: he gives Luke the letters from women in Gilead, for him to publish and share with the world. Once published, they’re enough to close Canada’s borders off to Gilead, as the country’s officials suspend negotiations and ask Fred and Serena to leave.
It’s hard to watch all this unfold without thinking of Donald Trump’s visit to the UK, which coincided perfectly with the episode’s Channel 4 broadcast, only highlighting the power of talks, lies, truth and protests in a landscape where evidence of objective facts can be hard to come by. When Nick returns and tells Ofred what he’s done, and that he loves her, she doesn’t reply with her own feelings of affection, but she does decide once more she’s not ready to resign to her Gilead-determined fate. “Fuck that,” she declares, and if you’re watching this episode shortly following its broadcast, you’ll know just how she feels.
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