Under His eye, sisters. As we know, in Gilead, they call gay and lesbian people “gender traitors.” On this episode, we get to see what a real gender traitor looks like: not someone who loves another human, but someone who sells out her gender, Serena Joy. Yep, it’s our episode to focus on the Wife who helped us get to this gender dystopia.
In the flashbacks, we see Serena Joy and Fred, before he was Commander, rushing to fuck and using bible verses as foreplay. We also see them going on a date, and we realize how involved Fred was with the coup that toppled the government. He talks of three attacks: Congress, the White House, and the Court. I think that this is where we run into some real world dissonance. It is very hard to separate our particular American brand of religious fanaticism from patriotism. Our demagogues wrap themselves in Christianity and the flag, so it’s hard to imagine a religiously motivated group attacking the state in such a direct way. Sure, it’s happened in other countries, but it goes against the way that religion has integrated itself into right wing politics in this country. They find a way to legislate and weaponize their religion, or at least they try to. The direct assault on the government is shocking and perhaps totally unbelievable, at least from our standpoint in this reality.
Serena Joy prepares to speak in front of a group of traitors, but Fred tells her that she’s not allowed. She accepts her place, and Fred acknowledges that she’s frustrated because she’s been a part of it from the beginning. Another Commander talks about how we let women focus on their brains too much but that won’t happen again. Back at home, Serena Joy throws away her colorful clothing as she moves into her new house. She unpacks a rack of blue dresses, her Wife garb. The Commander comes in with his terrible Commander suit jacket--I think fascists would have better fashion sense, as historically proven. Marthas throw away clothes, and Nick carries a box of lady books to the trash. On top of the pile: A Woman’s Place, Serena Joy’s book. Up and down the street, Gilead’s garbage men take out the trash.
In the main story, we begin with the Handmaids scrubbing blood off of the hanging wall. Well, we really begin with Offred flashing back to her hump session with the supposedly sexy Nick. Offred is flying high on all those good sex chemicals. So good, apparently, she can zone out while scrubbing the blood of transgressors off the wall. Maybe we can see how dangerous this sort of drug--because it is a drug, have no doubt--is. Her liaison with Nick anesthetizes her to the awfulness of her situation. It makes her mouthy, popping off at Serena Joy and making Rita smile. It makes it easier for her to lie to the Mexican ambassador who comes to visit.
The whole household is in an uproar because the Waterfords are hosting the Mexican trade delegation. Serena Joy is running the show and it’s clear that she’s enjoying it. Enjoying being in charge, the center of attention. Serena Joy gives the Commander a pep talk. (MEN, RIGHT!)
Offred and Nick flirt before she’s sent into the room with the delegation. Our girl Offred is super horned up. She goes into the room to serve as a model Handmaid for the visitors. She embarrassingly greets a man as the ambassador instead of the lady ambassador. They ask her things like, what’s your real name, how do you enjoy being raped, did you choose this? There’s a lot of talk of sacrifice and duty. Offred passes their tests.
At dinner, we learn a bit more about this world that’s slipping. Erratic weather patterns are affecting crop yields. All the Wives are questioned by the ambassador, who recognizes Serena Joy as a formerly famous Book Writing Cunt who advocated for “domestic feminism” and incited riots. Serena Joy knows her talking points about reduction of carbon emissions and increase of blessings, even in the face of being forbidden to read (or write terrible books).
Offred is summoned to the Commander’s office and he rails (boringly) about the Mexicans. When he sees she’s not paying attention, he orders her out. (MEN, RIGHT?) Offred stops at the door and marshalls some strength to simper and scrape. It’s gross. The Commander makes her kiss him, “like she means it,” and he really is the White Devil. The camera blurs, almost as if Offred is having to enter a fugue state or is about to puke. She goes to brush her teeth frantically, going full Joan Crawford, spitting blood in the sink.
The next evening, the Handmaids are lined up for Serena Joy’s inspection. We see crazy Janine, as well as several Handmaids of color. Serena wants the damaged ones removed, and Aunt Lydia disagrees. Serena flexes privilege and is also ten feet tall, towering over the Aunt, and Aunt Lydia kicks out the eyeless and scarred Handmaids. Janine has a fit because she wants to go to the party. Even Aunt Lydia thinks this is unfair, and promises her a whole tray of desserts. They exchange a few words: “Promise, hope to die?” Janine says, and I can’t help but think: STICK A NEEDLE IN MY EYE! Because they already did stick a needle in Janine's eye! That’s some Atwoodian word play, and Book Offred would have commented on it.
The Handmaids are ushered into the beautiful ballroom and move with military precision. Serena Joy enters the room and stands up to introduce Gilead’s most precious resource: children, brought to the state by the Handmaids. A whole bunch of multi-ethnic yet somehow Hitler Youth-ish children come out. These are the children that have been taken from their mothers, and those mothers are in the room. The rest of the luminaries are charmed and moved, including the Mexican ambassador. Alma, one of Offred’s friends from the Red Center, presses her for details, and tells her that the trade item being negotiated are Handmaids. It’s pretty clear that Alma must be a part of Mayday. Offred is like, oh shit.
Serena Joy exults in her triumph and these two devils get it on. Commander tries to call it off, but they are filled with self-satisfied horniness. I don’t want to see these two devils fuck. I hate them both. Commander says he’s forgotten that she was an amazing woman. I hate everything about this. I think it is clear now that sex between Commanders and their “barren” wives is forbidden. The music swells and they pant. Serena Joy even gets to be on top! Good for her? But also fuck her.
Offred stomps into Nick’s bachelor pad and she’s freaking out. She realizes that she’s been a gender traitor too, letting the Mexican delegation believe that all was well in Gilead. She lashes out at Nick, but he talks her down with a glass of delicious water. She gives him her real name, which we know is an act of true rebellion against this regime.
The next morning, the Mexican ambassador brings Offred a gift. Offred is wearing her sad sweatshirt. Offred decides to ovary-up, and spills the terrible, rapey, eye-gouging, tortured beans. Cool story, sis, the Mexican ambassador says, but I live in a town that’s the size of Boston and we’ve had no living children born in six years. We’re going to get in on this child producing Handmaid scheme. Offred tells that Gilead is already dead.
The assistant to the ambassador, the man Offred incorrectly greeted, stops her before she leaves. He’s here to chew bubblegum and drop bombshells, and he’s all out of bubblegum. DERP DERP DERP LUKE IS ALIVE. He has his birthday and social security number and everything. He knows Offred’s real name. He presses a pad into her hand, begging her to write a message for her husband.
I want to talk about a few departures from the novel. Novel Serena Joy is older (as is the Commander) and a former televangelist that is clearly modeled after Tammy Faye Bakker. Offred recognizes her immediately, having watched her as a child (when her super feminist mom was out of the house). In the TV adaption, we don’t see Offred have any recognition of Serena Joy. Given what seems to be Serena Joy’s stature pre-revolution, that seems to suggest that Offred just didn’t pay any attention to her. Which may fit the character, who curses herself from failing to get off her phone until it was too late, and seems surprised by the praying hordes outside the hospital when she is in labor. But I’m trying to think of a real world analogue. Say, if I were pressed into sexual servitude in the household of...Ann Coulter or even Ann Coulter's terrible little sister, Tomi Lahren, I think I would snap to that. If anything, it would make my captivity worse, living with this woman who’d helped strip me of my rights. I would certainly think about it quite a bit.
TV Serena Joy espouses “domestic feminism,” calling women to leave their jobs and pay attention to their biological and moral imperative of fertility. Given that she was arrested, it is easy to believe that she was quite fiery in her speech making. Again, this type of gender treachery sticks out as notable to the rank and file American woman. Additionally, she was deeply involved with the coup, even if her voice was discounted due to her sex. Fred suspects he’s being followed by the FBI, although apparently not closely enough (THANKS, COMEY). Novel Serena Joy seems to mostly sell Biblical submission of a kind that is familiar to me, having been raised in a conservative Christian area. The novel gives no indication that Serena Joy was involved in the plot to overthrow the government. TV Serena Joy seems more powerful, especially when she runs the banquet and injects her show biz instincts.
Younger, hotter, more powerful. Seems like typical visual adaptation protocol.
I’d also like to talk about the Republic of Gilead’s positioning on the world stage. In the novel, Offred is gawked at by some Japanese tourists. She remarks at how alien the women look, in their revealing clothes and heels and makeup. It seems as if the tourists are simply taking a trip to Colonial Williamsburg or Amish country. Here, Gilead is desperate to stay financially stable, and is willing to engage in international slave trade to do so.
The choice of Mexico as a trade partner is at first odd, for a variety of cultural reasons. Initially, I balked at it. Mexico seems too close, too traditionally unstable, and most of all, too Catholic to interact with Gilead. At least in the novel, Gilead is very sectarian. They routinely execute Catholic priests and force nuns to be Handmaids. In the TV adaptation, we have seen priests on the wall. There is no room in Gilead for any brand of Christianity that doesn’t gibe with their twisted reading of the Bible. This is a strength of the novel that immunizes it from being read as entirely anti-Christian. I find it hard to believe that a majority Catholic nation like Mexico would even consider legitimizing such a hostile nation.
On second thought, I came around a bit to Mexico as the primary partner in this for almost strictly ironic reasons. There is a history of developed nations using developing nations as literal incubators--paying poor women in other countries less money to serve as surrogates then would be paid for women in developed nations. So, that is up ended. The former United States provides the surrogates for our neighbors to the south. The Mexican ambassador, unmoved as she is by Offred’s honesty, lets on these problems are endemic across the globe. I also am interested in the hint at climate change we see in the discussion the two groups have. (And god, are these Gilead fuckers proud of their oranges.) Things would have to very fucked up for most of the world to ignore the festering human rights nightmare that is the Republic of Gilead.
Canada stands out in both the novel and the show as apparently the last bastion of freedom in North America. That’s a cold and lonely place to be, except for all those Aunts and Handmaids and apparently husbands who have fled to refuge there. What has Canada done differently? What about the UN (briefly mentioned a few episodes ago)? It’s hard to imagine, again, that they would be willing to engage with a theocratic, insane fertility cult masquerading as a nation.