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In a world like Gilead it would be pretty easy to craft cartoonish characters that twirl their evil moustaches and plot to take down anyone who opposes their views. But as the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (Sundays at 9 p.m. on Bravo) reminded us, everyone in this world is a product of their circumstances.

This week I’m specifically talking about The Waterfords, and in particular Serena Joy. There’s an irony to the fact that she fought so hard for this oppressive world in the first place, given how trapped she is by it now. But thanks to the power of flashbacks we kind of understand why she not only agreed to become a wife, but also why she helped to orchestrate Gilead as a whole. Fertility rates were plummeting, people weren’t taking the issue seriously, and at the end of the day Serena has always wanted to be a mother. That kind of unfulfilled desire can seriously mess with a person’s psyche.

Unfortunately that desire has also twisted her into a bit of a present-day monster, something we’ve seen plenty of in the past. But this episode switched things up as it showed traces of her humanity resurfacing now that she knows she’s going to be a mom. Watching her and Offred grow closer following the handmaid’s pregnancy scare was a Serena showcase to be sure, but it also exemplified the symbiotic, wife-handmaid relationship the powers that be in Gilead want this world to feature. Serena pulled plenty of strings to ensure Offred’s physical and mental state, including letting her crash in the blue room, skipping those gross green shakes and even allowing her “friends” to visit during the most awkward impromptu luncheon ever.

It definitely seemed like getting a baby was transforming Serena in plenty of positive ways, which makes a lot of sense given the flashbacks. When the woman set out in her previous life to spread the word about fertility and urged people to read her book, there were a lot of naysayers, protestors and fanatics who deemed her a Nazi. Yet despite an erratic and terrifying crowd at one college she made herself “heard” as Fred looked on with pride and joy, causing the pair to have a mini-celebration as Twitter exploded.

But then it all came crashing down when a shooter not only took out one of the Waterford’s team members, but shot Serena in what looked like her ovary. The show didn’t really explain it (and if you go by first-season flashbacks it seems like the couple was having problems conceiving before this all went down), but that shot definitely crippled Serena and Fred, as we saw when he got revenge in the darkest way possible by killing the shooter’s wife.

Meanwhile, we saw present-day Serena asking Offred what it felt like to be pregnant while tending to her garden, flowers being the one thing she can grow and nourish in her dreary world. It all left no doubt in your mind that by the time Serena showed Offred the nursery and told her how she was going to be the best mother she could be to that child, you truly believed her. At that point you could really see all that she had sacrificed in order to get to that point, and finally getting a baby was going to be her reward for everything she’d gone through.

Unfortunately Offred — not to mention we as viewers — really overestimated Serena’s humanity in that moment. What started as an idealistic Gilead bonding opportunity crashed the second Offred pressed her luck and begged to see Hannah, even for a few secret moments. That ask not only reminded Serena that Offred isn’t a willing surrogate in this world, but that the pair are not friends. In that moment Serena shut herself off again and reestablished her dominance towards the woman she doesn’t want, but needs, in her life.

Sure, tons of other things went down in the episode, from Fred reestablishing himself in Offred’s life by giving her a picture of Hannah, and Nick finally sleeping with his new wife, to the construction of the Rachel and Leah Centre (named after the biblical characters). And of course there was that cliffhanger kicker at the end when the new (tongue-less) Ofglen detonated a bomb in the centre, taking down a bunch of officials and maybe even Fred himself. But Serena was the real highlight in “First Blood,” proving that when it comes to providing fully formed and watchable characters, The Handmaid’s Tale really knows what it’s doing.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.