This week’s episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” reminds me of that one particular plot twist in many an action/heist movie: A villainous duo is marked from the beginning, but out of the two, there is always a stooge sidekick that may or may not be bald or have a cockney accent. Just when you think the duo will split everything 50-50, the chiseled main villain will drop the stooge like a hot potato, and the stooge either dies from the literal fall or realizes that he shouldn’t have been playing for Team Bad Guy in the first place.
Such is life in Gilead, where those who helped televise the revolution are now stuck wearing monochromatic Stepford cosplay.
The episode revolves around an upcoming state visit with ambassadors that will make or break trade relations for Gilead. Apparently, they have a thriving organic farmer’s market, but their overall currency is floundering. The Handmaids are put to work making Gilead look spick-and-span, including scrubbing the blood from the wall where traitors are hanged. Offred is distracted by thoughts of her tryst with Nick — silly girl, she’s going to get blood all over her red cloak! — but reminds herself that it can’t go on and definitely won’t later in the episode.
At home, Serena Joy is equally anxious for the visit, which begins with dinner at The Waterford residence. After much fretting, she decides to wear a green dress for the occasion, and reminds Offred that the future of Gilead depends on everyone pretending that no one is brutally enslaved. That’s just bad party conversation.
As much as Serena embodies the villain, locking the Handmaid in the tower and throwing away the key, a crucial element of this episode is digging behind that tightly wound chignon and into her humanity. Through flashbacks, we learn that she and The Commander once shared a passionate, physical relationship (they speed read the conjugal scripture as they tear off each others’ clothes), and worked as a team to plan out the Gilead end of days. Back then, Serena wore her hair loose and long and dressed in pale, pink power suits that would have made Jackie O proud. She even wrote a book called “A Woman’s Place,” which was widely acclaimed and went on to be used as an episode title for Hulu’s prestige drama “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The party begins with light cocktails and the presentation of Offred as a kind of cultural wonder. Offred is brought before the collective, and The Commander introduces Ambassador Castillo, whom Offred assumes must be a man. Mrs. Castillo, though, is the epitome of confidence and political strength, qualities that stand out in a room full of women barred from projecting those characteristics in one way or another. Ambassador Castillo asks Offred anthropological questions like “Did you choose this life?” and “Are you happy?” and poor Offred meekly responds “yes” to both in order to keep her hands.
Offred, having satisfied her interrogation, is sent away and the party moves onto organic hor d'oeuvres. Only the best bagel bites for you, Madame Castillo! Commander Waterford boasts that they have sustainable agriculture and low carbon emissions, and Castillo admits “most of our staples are not adjusting to the new weather patterns.” Oh hello, global warming, so glad you could join us as a thematic dystopian element.
The contrast between Serena’s past and present reappears when Ambassador Castillo quotes from “A Woman’s Place” and begins prodding Mrs. Waterford on her days as a political revolutionary. In the old days, Serena spoke at rallies with such passion that she was once arrested for attempting to incite a riot. Castillo then asks if Serena had imagined then that she would one day live in a society where women could not read the book she wrote, and Serena nervously responds that God requires sacrifice in exchange for the deliverance of blessings — MY MY WAS THAT THE OVEN BEEPING? YOU MUST EXCUSE ME.
In another flashback, we see Serena closer to her Lady Godiva days. She and Commander Waterford are plotting revolution with The Followers of the Faithful, and the FBI is watching their every move. But coup is a part of couple, and they take the night off at the movies with a jumbo tub of popcorn, presumably non-organic.
Serena has been working on articles and is considering writing another book about the national fertility crisis. The Commander doesn’t appear immediately enthusiastic, prompting Serena into one of those moments where many women feel obligated to pass the silence with JK JK UGH WHAT A LAME IDEA, but at least he eventually says it’s a good idea and he’ll support her.
Right before the movie starts, The Commander receives a text saying that Operation Giggles in Gilead is officially happening, with three attacks on the government. If you’ll recall from Episode 3, those terror attacks were what lead to the totalitarian backlash, paving the way for The Followers of the Faithful to take control.
“We’re doing God’s work,” Serena says. SHH, the movie’s starting!
After the dinner party, Offred is summoned to The Commander’s study via Nick. They kiss in the hallway — I told you it was definitely over — but Offred knows this is only going to make things more complicated. At Scrabble night, The Commander is ranting about how poorly the evening went, Castillo looking down her nose at their caste system like she was so special, while Offred mindlessly rearranges her tiles. The Commander notices that he is not the center of her universe, so he reminds her that it’s a privilege to join him for Scrabble and orders her to go.
Offred makes it within inches of the door, but then pauses and the most fascinating, slow-moving expression changes her features from fear to anger to determination. She turns back to the Commander and demurely yet coyly requests to be let back into his good graces. This, to the Commander, means Offred must come to where he is standing, and he orders her to kiss him. No, try again. Like you mean it. Offred obeys, and the whole scene is a tense display of power dynamics. The camera shifts in and out of focus to create an added layer of dizziness, and possibly confusion as to who is really in control.
The Ambassador Visit concludes the next night with a gala dinner honoring the Handmaids — Offred is a shoo-in for Best Actress Pretending to Keep It Together. Unlike most occasions, The Handmaids will be seated guests at the party, and apart from having to serve as political props, everyone is excited for a break. Then Serena Joy swoops in and demands that anyone with a burn, mark or missing limb be forbidden to enter the gala. As it says in “A Woman’s Place” Chapter 9, “You don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate.”
Janine is, naturally, the most upset, but Aunt Lydia promises that to bring her a tray of dessert if she does what’s best for everyone and not what’s fair. Extremely small credit goes to Aunt Lydia here for pushing back on Serena’s initial order. I would give her more had she not been responsible for beating half the Handmaids in the first place.
The Handmaids are lead through the gilded ballroom (Line of the night goes to Ofsamuel: “I think I went to a bar mitzvah here once”) to two rows of banquet tables in the center of the room. Serena makes a speech about how wonderful they are in their duties and, to reward them, brings out a special surprise: “the children of Gilead.” I have to think the Handmaids would have preferred a sorbet or a mini cheesecake, and their cold expressions as the children they were forced to bear stream through the doors suggest as much. Offred is already nauseous from the sight, but it’s about to get worse. Alma quietly asks Offred what she learned from The Commander’s party, and when Offred says there isn’t any intel except for the general trade hopes, Alma drops a bomb. The Ambassadors aren’t there to trade for organically grown kale — they want to trade capital for Handmaids.
Flashbacks return us to Serena’s life following the uprising. Even though she was a key strategist for the movement, she is barred from attending meetings. But she’s not to blame, says one of the Followers — it was all that education we let them have, making them dizzy and distracted from their biological duties. We won’t make that mistake again, golly! As The Followers take power, Serena trades in her Jackie O suit for a rack full of identical green dresses, and her long, blonde hair is swept up into a tight bun. The Commander says he feels awful sorry about her not being allowed to attend the critical meetings, and we see Serena struggle to keep face and not interfere with politics. As her new role in Gilead unfolds, her clothes, her heels, and yes, even “A Woman’s Place” are taken out to the trash.
The gala ends and Offred goes home just a little more shattered. She ends up in Nick’s attic — the last time I swear — and cries over The Commanders’ plans to sell the Handmaids off as cattle, on top of her own inability to speak up when Castillo asked if she were happy. Nick tries to comfort her with a glass of water, and for the first time, Offred shares her real name with him.
The next morning, Offred encounters The Ambassadors, including Castillo, in the kitchen. Castillo offers her some Mexican chocolate as a thank-you gift for being a reproductive vessel, and in return Offred finally reveals what has been happening in Gilead — from the mutilations, to institutionalized rape, to the plan to sell them off to the highest bidder. “Don’t be sorry. Do something to help us,” she pleads. Castillo eyes her with pity, but ultimately, she needs the Handmaids in order for her country to survive. Commander Waterford whisks Castillo away, but the second ambassador stays behind. He wants to help Offred and has information on her husband, Luke. He’s still alive, and the ambassador will give her the chance to send him a message. You only have one shot, Offred: Better ask him if he had the chance to pick up the milk.
Can we trust this all-too-friendly ambassador?
How will the rest of the relationship with The Commander play out now that Offred kissed him?
General filmmaking question — why does Alma get a regular name on IMDB and not the name “Of+Commander?”