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'The Handmaid's Tale' recap: A revolution is brewing

For The Baltimore Sun

The penultimate episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1 has arrived, and to my delight, it managed to pull some punches along the way. There’s only one episode left to destroy Gilead and send everyone on a Boston Harbor booze cruise, so let’s see how they closed the gap between A and B.

In an old house in Gilead that was stripped of its vines, walked 25 Handmaids in two straight lines. They’re gathered in support of Janine, who is enacting the final stage of The Handmaid Lifecycle: giving up any contact with the child she has bared for her mistress.

Janine is hesitant and generally unsure about Mrs. Putnam’s child-rearing skills, but Mr. Putnam gives her a big smile and tells her not to worry, that they will cherish the child. She interprets this to be a giant wink— remember, they’re supposed to run away together and live happily ever after — and she gives up Angela/Charlotte. Anlotte? Chargela? Renesmee?

As Janine leaves the house, the Handmaids offer congratulations down the line like they’re at the world’s most depressing wedding, and Janine basks in the red carpet treatment. She hugs Offred in particular and the poor fool whispers, “Don’t be sad: he’s coming for me!” He sent her a Snapstory from the bar that afternoon, and that can’t just mean nothing. Janine climbs into the Red Van beaming, but all she’s moving toward is another posting with another Commander and a new name, Ofdaniel.

Knowing the sad cycle is about to repeat, Offred approaches Alma and confides that she would like to participate in the May Day Operation that Ofglen was a part of before her grand theft auto days. Alma looks aghast and says she has no idea what Offred is talking about, leaving her in the cold.

…But not for long! On their next mutual shopping trip, Alma hurries her to the side and says that there were too many Eyes and Ears around the last time. Fair point, Offred: You did choose a ceremonial gathering surrounded by patrols and Aunt Lydia to ask about the secret society that will destroy their world order. Smooth.

Alma is forgiving, though, and if Offred is still interested in May Day, there is a special mission should she choose to accept it. All Offred has to do is go back to the Jezebel club and pick up a package at the bar from a girl named Rachel, and it would be super great if she could get it done tonight because The May Dayers are on a tight schedule. Hey, if you want to be a part of the secret society, you have to earn it. You don’t even start accruing vacation until the next quarter!

To convince Commander Waterford, Offred has to force a big smile and play his awestruck ingénue. “I just had the best time that night. The way your muscles glistened in the border floodlights was just sooooo amazing. When you’re not being the smartest and best, do you work out?” Commander Waterford’s ego is easily stroked, and with enough fawning, he agrees to take her out again once the house has settled in for the night.

Offred continues the act in the car, laughing with The Commander in the backseat and telling Nick that he needs to chill out about something so silly as a militarized border. Poor Nick: It’s like high school all over again. He makes an effort not to sound too desperate and tells The Commander to play it safe since the visit is last minute. The Commander says not to worry since they’re not even heading to the bar, which makes Offred panic because the whole point of this charade is to get the package and a decent Manhattan.

At the Waterford house, Serena is up late stitching a blanket for the baby she longs for. To take her mind off the absence, she does what any of us would do and heads to the kitchen to look for a bottle. Rita finds her rummaging through the spirits section, and Serena says she is definitely looking for the jar of chamomile tea that is directly on the counter.

I enjoyed Rita’s little twist here. She realizes that Serena wants liquor but not to come off as a sinful lush, so she suggests something a tad stronger. It’s like when you’re in front of an amazing birthday cake, but you don’t want to intrude first. You need the 6-year-old whose party you’ve crashed to offer you some.

Serena kindly offers a second glass for Rita, and they sip their drinks and bond over their mutual love of children. Rita had a son, but he died at 19 during The War. Serena offers a stiff verse about how those who mourn shall be comforted, and the gap between their worlds reappears.

Meanwhile, Janine has to adjust to life in a new post, and to say the transition is tough is an understatement. Still being in love with Warren and as a general human with agency, she doesn’t want to have sex with her new commander, and she beats back all attempts to hold her down. Janine’s breakdown quickly moves back to the Jezebel Hotel, where Commander Waterford and Offred have sex. Offred is preoccupied with the fact that her mission has been sidetracked and offers little emotional response to Waterford’s efforts, which he interprets as her trying not to express her amazement at his mad skills. He tells her not to worry about letting herself make noise because “you can be free here.” Someone needs to get this guy a tape recorder so he can play back the horse manure that comes out of his mouth.

Offred channels her inner Marilyn Monroe and returns to the subject of visiting the bar, which makes The Commander angry. He’s figured out her ruse, you see, and he knows that she came here to meet someone! He calls for someone to enter, and for a heart pounding second, I thought Alma might appear as a traitor, but the person to walk in is Moira. The Commander, sharp as a tack, saw the last time that Offred and “Ruby” had a special connection, and he wanted to bring her as a surprise. He’s a little miffed that they seem ungrateful — can’t a guy order his mistress a hooker in this day and age? — but leaves them to catch up nonetheless.

Unlike last time, Moira is not pleased to see Offred. She wants to know why she’s come back, and when Offred describes her mission for May Day, Moira is horrified. She wants Offred to stop playing with fire and accept her fate, to just “go home and do what they say.” Hearing this defeatism from Moira, the woman who once tied an Aunt naked to a pole in order to escape, is crushing. Offred tearfully reminds Moira of their shared promise to rescue Hannah, the one they pinky swore on, and implores her to “keep her [expletive] [expletive] together,” but Moira doesn’t want to fight. She wants to keep her head down, live a Jezebel life, and maybe not die in the colonies until she’s 40.

She leaves Offred sobbing, and The Commander comes back in super annoyed that all of these feminine feelings are harshing his good vibe. They take off for home, and once there, Serena catches The Commander sneaking up the stairs. Honey, you know I joined an a capella group that practices from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Now that I’ve made the commitment I can’t let The Songs of Jacob down.

Offred returns home with a failed mission under her belt and is punished by dreams of Moira, Hannah and the joys of her previous life. Serena Joy shakes her awake and orders her to get dressed immediately — there is a sale at Marshall’s and green capes are half off.

They drive to a bridge where a large convoy of black vans has gathered. Pushing through the crowd, they find Commander Putnam, Mrs. Putnam and Aunt Lydia watching in horror as Janine teeters on the edge of the railing, baby Charlotte in arms. Warren tries to get her down, but Janine has had enough of his sweet nothings, because, thank His Eye, she has finally realized they mean nothing. Aunt Lydia begs Offred to intervene, to which Warren objects because Handmaids are hostages, not hostage negotiators. But Aunt Lydia knows that they have a bond that is probably stronger than a man’s flaky promises.

Offred approaches Janine and pleads with her to come down. She reminds her that nothing is permanent, and that in the near future, this whole nightmare will come crumbling down so they can return to happy hours and karaoke. Janine momentarily gets caught up in the fantasy of a free life but feels that world will never come back. She says Offred should come with her, off the bridge and into the freezing river, but Offred won’t go because Hannah needs her. The thought of Charlotte and her future in the world is enough for Janine to give up the baby before she steps back up to the ledge and plummets into the river.

Aunt Lydia and The Eyes rush to save her, and in this week’s most horrifying moment, we realize that Janine is being kept alive on a thread, if only because she is still a fertile woman who can bear Gilead future children. And if you think they would have made any effort had she been infertile, you have been watching a very different television program that I also may be interested in recapping. Janine’s one bedside attendant is Aunt Lydia, who shakes her head and offers her a card from the hospital’s Get Well and Continue to Breed for The Nation section.

Because of the family’s involvement in Janine’s attempted suicide, Warren is sent downtown for questioning, and Mrs. Putnam is left at home with Serena, who tries to help her with the baby in her husband’s absence. Mrs. Putnam lashes out, saying Serena should mind her own beeswax and pay more attention to her own husband. Oh yeah, everyone knows about the last Handmaid and your husband’s wandering eye, so don’t tell me I’m holding the baby upside down, SERENA.

However tactless Putnam’s comment may have been, Serena is still put on edge and she bursts through the doors of The Commander’s forbidden office. He’s hiding something, and she is going to find out who it is.

Having witnessed yet another horror, Offred moves through the world expressionless, tending to her chores at the supermarket with a blank stare. The butcher reaches under the case and brings her a steak, as well as a second package. He nods knowingly, and Offred runs around the corner to open it. Inside is a card from Moira — she came through after all!!!

Not only did Moira get the package delivered, she broke free from The Jezebels by stabbing a client, stealing his clothes and his car, and driving away into the night. That’s my Moira, back and badder than ever.

One more episode to go! “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been renewed for a second season, so May Day will probably not be wrapped up by next hour’s end, but we can dream.

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