The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1/ Episode 6 “A Woman’s Place” – Recap/ Review (with Spoilers)

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As the Mexico ambassador visits, we get a peek inside the past of Serena Joy and her part in what eventually created Gilead.

The Woman Behind The Man: Serena Joy, Fred

While it is made clear this terrorist organization overtook the government through bombing congress, the white house, and supreme court, what perhaps isn’t so clear is how it came to be? Well, part of its basis comes from Serena Joy. An author, a woman who advocated for domestic feminism, and yet here she is now. She has, at most, the duties of a first lady and is ignored when it comes to anything further. However, it wasn’t always like that. At one time, it seems Fred relied on her opinion, possibly stole them, to further their cause and begin to shape the nation we know as Gilead.

In fact, there was a time they also weren’t distant as they are now. There was a time they were intimate, seemed like a couple who weren’t in an arranged marriage [note]They were together and married before Gilead was formed[/note], and perhaps truly happy. Something we get a glimpse of after the Meixcan ambassador’s visit and this big dinner party. Though with Fred ready to end that moment before it barely begun, and Serena Joy having to push to see it through, who knows if that was just a lapse or maybe she can win back her husband. Someone who seemingly wants more intimacy out of June.

Commentary

Last week I was hoping for more flashbacks and backstory into other characters since, at this point, June, Moira, and Luke feel firmly established. As for everyone else? Well, while the air of mystery helps, it also hinders.

Which perhaps is just an issue for me since I’m very dependent on character development to connect with characters and their story. So, I considered it quite a treat to see as much of Serena Joy’s past as we did. Granted, it wasn’t on the Orange Is The New Black level I was hoping for, but anything is better than nothing right?

Now, diving in, I must admit I wasn’t surprised at all that she was part of the groundwork for Gilead. She always seemed to have opinions about what to do for strategy and learning Fred likely stole her ideas explains so much about him. For, in my mind, there came a point where he realized she was smarter than him and perhaps his ego couldn’t handle it. What I mean is, as he noted her ideas more and more, and how much he saw people liked them, maybe he felt expendable? Thus maybe making him the cause for the sexism in the room? I mean, as seen by what his colleague said when Serena Joy was officially shut out, he wasn’t trying to combat these men either. Though, something about Fred has always made him seem like a coward.

Fred aside, hearing from the Mexican ambassador Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara) about Serena’s activism and her writing a book, it really leads you to wonder how she is mentally dealing with the world’s changes? The idea she perhaps gave birth to, or at least nourished, has been turned on her. She can no longer write, perhaps isn’t allowed to read, and you can tell she doesn’t get along with the other wives. They are gossipy and she perhaps wants an academic conversation.

Perhaps leading to why she chose, or agreed with Fred, to choose June. She wanted a kid who would feel or seem like her. Versus having a child by someone like Janine or the new Ofglen who maybe fertile, but has a sketchy past. Which, I’m assuming, they are aware of.

A Valuable Commodity: June

Why would Mexico associate with Gilead? The country is within a civil war, ran by terrorist, and is an oppressive nation. Well, the reason any country would associate with them is because they have fertile women. For, just according to Mrs. Castillo, her hometown, Xipica, which is about the size of Boston, hasn’t had a single child which lived past birth in 6 years. Meanwhile, Gilead has all these children, of various races and ages, pour into a banquet. So yeah, while it seems  like a betrayal to her gender, and surely a pass being given to a society which doesn’t support human rights, it is a ends to a means. Mexico needs fertile women and Gilead needs resources. So maybe we should expect June to be heading down south soon.

Commentary

The whole commodity thing doesn’t come as a surprise, so I find no need to address that. What I do think needs to be addressed is Janine and Aunt Lydia’s scene. For, recently in an interview with Sam Jones for Off Camera, Elisabeth Moss speaks on how excellent Dowd is at establishing that there is no absolutism when it comes to Aunt Lydia. What I mean by this is, she is not an absolute villain. She may take part in maiming, using cattle shock instruments, and stuff like that, but there is a love for the girls.

Something which is especially seen in this episode with how she handled Janine. You see, to show off their handmaids, their fertile livestock, there is a banquet. However, Serena Joy excludes any of the girls who have been maimed, scarred or are missing something. Basically, she takes out any of the bruised fruit, which Janine is part of. Now, Lydia sticks up for her girls against Serena Joy but her rank, being what it is, forces her to eventually back down.

Naturally, with Janine loving a party, being seen, and shown off, she gets upset about the exclusion. Yet, Aunt Lydia, speaking in almost a coo, so soft and gentle with Janine, calms her down. Not in some, either hush or I take the other eye out way, but very maternal. She understands Janine’s pain, isn’t happy about Serena Joy’s decision, but promises Janine a plate of dessert to make up for it.

I mean, to really hit it home, she doesn’t call Janine by her house name while trying to calm her down but by her real one. Making it seem personal for her, as whenever we have heard her use someone’s birth name in the past. To me, that is when Aunt Lydia becomes simply Lydia. A person, a woman who maybe of a different belief, but still believes in some form of fairness.

Luke? He’s Alive.: June

Either a commander or one of Mrs. Castillo’s handlers lets June know that Luke is alive and gives her the opportunity to write something to him. As you can imagine, this comes as a great shock to June and with the complication of her developing feelings for Nick, it makes things even worse. But, I should note, this man isn’t the only one who seems like an agent for an outside force. One which knows who June is and what she is capable of. One of the handmaids asks June a lot of questions about Fred’s plans and what his next moves are. She is the one who also reveals the true nature of the banquet to June. Making it seem she likely is part of the resistance movement old Ofglen (Emily) was part of.

Commentary

Luke is alive but, unfortunately, during the parade of children, no signs of Hannah. Yet, as we see more and more agents who perhaps are part of the rebels, or are sympathizers, it seems clear that a breakout attempt is coming. That or a battle will take place in the area. For something just tells me we are in the calm before the storm and some of the flashbacks, like when Moira and June were protesting, were just a taste of what’s to come.

Collected Quote(s)

Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps, perhaps…

    I will continue to read your recaps with great interest regardless…

    The one scene, as a fan of the book, that I hope they keep, is the “Jezebels” scene. That was the one scene from the novel that surprised and appalled me the first time I read the book… and for this reason I am curious to read your recap of it, and find out what your reaction is.

    Remember that word – “Jezebels”… and if they leave it out of this adaptation, then I’ll be very angry

  2. As someone who has read the novel, seen the 1990 movie adaptation and listened to the 2001 BBC Radio version, I’ve found it interesting to compare your criticisms of this series to my own, given you’re not familiar with any previous version…. mainly that a lot of what you consider flaws, I consider to be virtues and vice-versa…

    A constant refrain in your recaps is that you don’t feel that enough is explained to the viewer, that too much is left ambiguous, that the focus of the narrative is too narrow…. my own impression is that TOO MUCH information is being spelt out to the viewer, that the series is systematically destroying all the beautiful mystery of the original story and that the narrative has been broadened and expanded upon in ways that undermine the themes and characterisation of the source material.

    I have a sinking feeling that if you ever get round to reading the novel, or watching the movie, or listening to the radio series, you’ll find them EVEN MORE frustrating than the Hulu series.

    As I’ve said before, the novel is told in the first person, from June’s point of view, so the reader only sees what she sees, only knows as much about the state of the world as she does, only views the other characters through her eyes…. much of the drama in the novel comes from her sense of frustration at not being able to know everything about the world around her, and being kept ignorant… a lot of the suspense comes from her uncertainty about the motivation and allegiances of certain characters. I’d say the narrow focus of the novel is a huge part of why the reader feels empathy for June as a protagonist, despite her flaws and why the reader is surprised by the twists and turns the story takes.

    But the series has taken the focus away from June and expanded upon each of the supporting characters in some way…. most notably, Ofglen is given a past, a love interest and a real-name that she didn’t have in the book and her ultimate fate is shown in explicit detail… Moira too is given a wife that she didn’t have in the book and some added scenes that explain her backstory… it seems like Luke is being given an expanded role too given that in the novel June never sees him again after they are caught trying to cross the border and doesn’t know if he is alive or dead. Her NOT knowing is a major source of angst for the character and this is another example of the series undermining the suspense and drama of the story by explaining things left ambiguous in the novel…. Janine is not disfigured in the novel, though she is depicted as mentally ill, she’s never really depicted as outspoken. Her insanity manifests itself in more subtle ways. If anything, the book depicts Janine as a demure conformist, overly eager to please everyone… and although the book hints that Aunt Lydia shows favouritism towards Janine, that scene at the party is another invention of the series.

    The Mexican delegation… the intimate scenes of Serena and Fred getting to know each other in the time before…. pretty much all of this is made up for the series… in the novel, the only thing June knows about Serena’s life in the time before come from her memories of seeing her on TV as a child and reading about her in magazines (as well as some little titbits of information that Fred or Serena let slip in conversation with June that vaguely allude to how they were once close but have “grown apart”).

    You see, already the series has explained so much that was unexplained in the novel… and considering that it has to fill out an entire season, making it more than five times as long as the previous screen adaptation, I think it’s a safe bet that by the end of Episode Ten, EVERYTHING will be spelt out in detail and you’ll get the answers to all your questions.

    My initial reaction to all these changes, as a fan of the novel, was disappointment that the writers of the series felt the need to spell out so much – that they didn’t have more trust in the imagination of the viewers…. but reading your comments, your constant refrain of how they are not explaining ENOUGH, I am reminded of the fact that literature and television are different mediums with different requirements… and perhaps in order to secure funding for such an ambitious story, compromises were necessary or it wouldn’t get made at all.

    Still, I have a sinking feeling that if you ever get round to reading the book, or seeing the movie or listening to the radio version, then you’ll find them EVEN MORE frustrating than the TV series… because if you found the level of ambiguity and mystery in the series hard, then the other versions are more mysterious and more ambiguous in many ways…

    I’m thinking especially of the 1990 movie version here… it fits the story into two hours by cutting out ALL the flashbacks to the time before the regime came to power and all of the protagonist’s internal monologues. So if the viewer hasn’t read the novel then they just have to use their imagination to think of how this government came to power, and much of our heroine’s motivation is similarly left open to interpretation. The film is much more concerned with examining the minutiae of day to day life in a totalitarian society than exploring how such societies come to be.
    (Offred is called “Kate” in the film. The subject of Offred’s real name is something that the novel doesn’t spell out. Margaret Atwood intended for the protagonist’s real name to be unknown, but “June” was a common fan theory that the makers of the Hulu series took up and ran with… “Kate” appears to be an invention of screenwriter Harold Pinter to ensure that Offred’s scenes with Moira and Nick have an added intimacy… but director Volker Schlondorff did some uncredited rewrites of Pinter’s script, in consultation with Atwood, so calling her “Kate” might’ve been their idea)

    • I think if the story was introduced the way it was in the book, there would still be this yearning to know more but I would still enjoy it. However, since they keep cracking open doors and peeking into windows, there becomes this insatiable need for them to detail everything.

      I am starting to think they might be distancing themselves more and more from the way you describe the book though. Especially since we didn’t hear June’s inner thoughts this episode and everything was just put out there.

      In a way, it is like they are trying to appease people like me, and beyond, who want more information, and are willing to go from the “Based on” to “Inspired by” tagline to maintain what they consider their viewers. Leading me to wonder if they thought the way the book was written wasn’t commercial enough, that it had to be dumbed down, or maybe they didn’t have faith in whatever actress they would find, or Moss, in being our eyes and ears and solely reliant on her to understand Gilead?

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