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So far in just under two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo) we’ve dealt with a lot of dark issues. Obviously institutionalized rape, the killing of “gender traitors,” body mutilation and the overall oppression of women come to mind. But after Sunday night’s latest episode, “Women’s Work,” we can now add physical abuse to the slate.

Okay, so physical abuse has always been a tentative part of Gilead’s framework, but usually it’s reserved for someone in power teaching a subordinate to be obedient… like breaking a horse or something. Sunday night the idea took on a whole new meaning though when we took a deep dive into Serena and Fred’s relationship, which took an awful turn.

But let’s back up a bit, shall we?

As we saw last week, Serena and Offred managed to come to an understanding with one another in Fred’s office when they began rewriting his manifestos or whatever the heck he’s working on while he recovered in the hospital, sprucing up the papers to give this new world order a little finesse. Or whatever they were actually doing. What we do know is that between Serena’s writing skills and Offred’s editing prowess, the pair finally developed an appreciation for each other that was strangely compelling to watch. It gave them each a sense of purpose in this strange world, allowed them to forget that there was a baby coming that was about to change everything, and the task kept them busy during what would otherwise be fairly dull days. At one point Serena even caved enough to admit that she loathed knitting. It was kind of a huge moment for her.

It wasn’t meant to last though, since Fred Waterford was on his way home and he was not about to let his house fall to the women within. He made that clear straightaway when he urged Serena out of his office the second he got back into it. As the door closed on her face you could tell that things had changed once again, and it was pretty damned sad to see.

We can’t forget that Serena fought so hard to help orchestrate this world in the first place, so she did essentially ask to be treated this way. But she probably didn’t stop to think about how much she’d miss having actual responsibility or things to do in life, other than wait for someone else to have her child. As we’ve seen through the flashbacks, Fred used to rely on her for everything, and now he doesn’t want to give her even the slightest bit of power. Especially now that there has been a terrorist attack, he doesn’t seem to want to take any chances.

Unfortunately for her, Serena didn’t realize just how much the incident changed Fred’s disposition, because she continued pushing — first by working to allow Janine in to see her dying baby and then by faking The Commander’s signature on a document that allowed a former female neonatal surgeon, now working as a Martha, to assess the baby and see if there was anything she could do.

It was a wildly conflicting moment for the duo, and a huge power struggle. If Serena was doing all of this in order to advance fertility rates, but Fred wasn’t willing to let a female check on the baby just because of her gender, well what does that say about why he was working to orchestrate this world? It was the first time we saw fertility and babies as a pretense rather than a reason, and it kind of changed the game in terms of how we’re supposed to see The Commander.

Whatever his real motives, it’s clear he’s won the power struggle for now. He purposefully put an end to Offred and Serena’s newfound friendship by whipping his wife at least 13 brutal times with his belt while Offred was forced to watch. In a series where many awful things happen, the intimacy of that particular act made it extra hard for us to watch too. The one saving grace? At least baby Angela was okay in the end, miraculously saved by the fact that Janine was able to give her some much needed skin-to-skin contact. Maybe these wives will reconsider sending their handmaids off so soon after all.

Then again, maybe not. Every time we see an inch of humanity from Serena she pulls it all back, so something tells us she’s going to go back to trying to get rid of Offred sooner rather than later, especially now that she’s been embarrassed in front of her handmaid like that.

And so the twisty tale continues…

 

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