What an awful show. Just awful, terrorizing stuff. I am grateful that episodes one and two were delivered on the same day. I’m glad I didn’t spend a week living in false hope for the season premiere’s golden coda — that chummy scene of June (Elisabeth Moss), Luke (OT Fagbenle), and Moira (Samira Wiley) bathing with Nichole connect time. This show isn’t The story of the maid. The story of the maid only shows mercy for the thrill of taking it away.
Episode one was elegant, showing a few storylines and really giving them space. Episode two is the opposite. It feels snappy and rushed, except for a few longer sequences that I found confusing. What do a state funeral and a ballet have in common that they are supposed to marry in a wordless three-minute sequence? Magnificence, I think, but why does it matter here?
go home again
“Ballet” begins with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) on her way to Gilead, with Mark (Sam Jaeger) as her companion. After stepping off the plane, she exchanges pleasantries with Nick (Max Minghella) and Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), then quickly drops the charade altogether. Serena wants Fred to host a media circus of a funeral. Correctly assuming that June could not get to Fred without her, Serena blackmails Nick and Joseph into making Fred’s goodbye an internationally televised spectacle.
When we finally see our maid Janine (Madeline Brewer) again, she’s helping Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) prepare a new class of maids, including Esther (McKenna Grace). It’s very morally crippling work if you can get it. In a moment that strains plausibility, Lydia even allows Janine to accompany Esther to Fred’s wake at the Putnams’ home, where Esther is being interviewed for a position as the Putnams’ maid. One could argue that Lydia strategically rewards Janine for her obedience by allowing her to see Angela, Janine’s child, with Commander Putnam. But given her past troubles, that feels reckless.
“You’re not June. You are a disgrace.”
Waking up is a snooze, like most awakenings. The women flatter Serena and her baby bump. Guests eat decent, crustless sandwiches. Joseph and Nick convince their fellow commanders that a grand funeral ceremony will elevate Gilead’s status in the world by demonstrating the universality of mourning or similar nonsense. To Lydia’s credit, Janine and Angela’s brief reunion is painful to watch but uneventful. Ms Putnam even thanks Janine for giving birth to Angela.
Esther and Janine’s relationship is raunchy. Esther hasn’t lost her rebellious spirit and is looking for Janine to replace June. But Janine is a follower. She does not intervene to protect Esther from Commander Putnam, who forces the 14-year-old to eat chocolate from his hand in a humiliating, menacing private encounter. He even makes airplane noises as he takes them through the air. When Esther tells Janine that she doesn’t want to be posted, Janine advises her to get pregnant quickly – then everyone will be nice to her.
But Esther is June, albeit cruelly demented. She begins to believe that Janine, the most open and loving person in Gilead, only used her to see Angela. Esther approaches Janine again, this time with truffles she stole from the Putnams. They enjoy them as Janine waxes poetic about the “complete love” Esther will experience if she has a child, even if 1) that child is the result of rape and 2) that child is later stolen by Esther’s rapist.
But in a treacherous act in June, Esther laced the chocolates with some sort of poison, causing them both to end up in a puddle on the floor and spit up blood. My guess is that they will survive. In Gilead, you always survive long enough to wish you were dead.
Meanwhile in Canada
June is obsessed with Serena. She is so obsessed with Serena that she doesn’t understand why other people aren’t obsessed with Serena. She is so obsessed with Serena that she bullies Rita with bad memories of the Waterford home, hoping the former Martha will become obsessed as well. She does this on game night. Rita had brought home-baked bread!
June later apologizes to Luke for telling Serena that she killed Fred for no reason other than to scare her. Luke convinces June to live with him in Toronto in the present. Serena doesn’t matter. It’s not part of your life. But it turns out Nick could be soon? Under the guise of Gilead Night, he meets with Mark, who suggests that the US government-in-exile might be willing to ignore Nick’s role in the Crusades if he continues to make himself useful as a spy and saboteur.
To stay in the present, June and Luke go to the ballet – their first date since June arrived in Canada. After the performance they stand in the middle of Dundas Square in the light of all those billboards and share a big kiss – a nice romantic one with a bit of dip. And there they still stand as we discover the real reason Serena insisted on so much fanfare for Commander Fred Waterford.
The billboards will be wiped off and replaced with news, live over satellite from Gilead. June and Luke watch as the commanders, including Nick and Joseph, march behind the coffin. You see Serena behind a black veil – the true picture of restrained grief. And they watch on a screen larger than a house as Serena kisses the forehead of a little girl chosen from the crowd to bring her a bouquet of white flowers.
It’s the first time Hannah’s parents have seen her in years. It’s eight stories high and a million miles away.
The Handmaid’s Tale episodes one and two are out on Hulu in the US. A UK air date has yet to be confirmed
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