There’s no denying that parallels with the rise of Donald Trump helped The Handmaid’s Tale achieve its highest echelon TV status in season 1, but they always felt to me a bit ham-fisted.
In fact, I had a suspicion that Gilead was as much of a result of left-wing politics getting out of control as right, if not more so. “If fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism,” Ronald Reagan once speculated, and indeed there have been worrying undertones of censorship and control in the more extreme parts of the American left over the last couple of years. This week’s episode passively referenced this, in the first long-awaited Serena Waterford flashback of the season.
Serena is a capricious, nasty and, above all, fascinating character, and in ‘First Blood’ we learned that, some time not longer before the show’s present, she went to a college to make a speech but was booed, jeered and almost chased off the campus (as many speakers with opinions – odious opinions, but opinions nonetheless – have in the US recently).
‘YOU ARE NOT WELCOME’ one sign read, ‘RESIST’ declared another, a clear reference to the current Resistance movement against Trump. Called a “Nazi cunt” and “fascist bitch”, Serena, along with husband Fred, fled the lecture theatre, Serena stopping only to rail: “You’re spoilt, you’re privileged and you’re living in an academic bubble!”
The scenes were riddled with the language and buzzwords that have been popular in online political discourse recently, and we were certainly expected to see the parallels. We then witnessed Serena get shot in the abdomen by a gunman as she left, leading Fred, in a crisis of masculinity, to exact revenge on the shooter. Perhaps what we’re looking at here in the big picture, is a climate of leftist intolerance that precipitated a backlash of right-wing authoritarianism.
Other plot threads
It was a busy and, again, fantastic episode this week, with so much event that we’re going to have to break it down into characters I think.
Our lovelorn driver came to the realisation that he must have sex with his new teenage bride in order to survive, his wife (whose name I can’t remember, but I think that’s kind of the point) being so young and so indoctrinated that she quite easily could end up accusing him of being a “gender traitor” (gay) without realising she’s giving him a death sentence.
Nick has a good time of it in comparison to the handmaids, and Offred had no time for his complaints, telling him knowingly: “Oh, you have to fuck somebody you don’t want to? Poor thing!”
The scene in which he yields and commits statutory rape was appropriately uncomfortable, but I kind of wish the show – which is interested in showing how vile men can be – had pushed it one step further and had Nick, on some level, enjoy it.
We’ve seen a rebellious June and we’ve seen a subservient Offred already this season, and this week we got someone somewhere in the middle. June had perhaps her first remotely real conversation with Serena as the pair revelled in the indisputable miracle that is her baby, but this tenderness did not stick out for long. In a particularly excellent scene, June tried to take advantage of Serena’s softer mood, asking to see her daughter Hannah briefly. “Absolutely not,” Serena said through tears – as though the room were bugged, refusing to give in to kindness and returning to her role of ice-cold disciplinarian.
This all ended with the pair playing a childish game in the Waterford residence, Serena playing her ‘I’m the lady of the house do what I say card’ only for June to play her ‘But I’m pregnant with “your” child so be nice’ trump.
This episode easily could have ended with Serena, June and the knitting needle, and the viewer would have felt satisfied, but there was one more kink in the narrative in store, and a big one.
The second Ofglen, who you may remember had her tongue cut out, suicide bombed the opening of the new Red Centre, an act of protest that we can safely assume killed Fred, his boss, several other commanders and even a few housemaids.
Without Fred around to “keep the peace” at home, things could unravel in the Waterford house and fast.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues weekly on Hulu in the US and through Channel 4, a few weeks behind, in the UK.
- More about:
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- The Handmaid’s Tale season 2