Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu
I ended “Dear Offred” with the urge to give everyone on this show except Commander Lawrence a hug and a high five. June refrained from shooting Serena in the face; Luke demonstrated the power of the local bureaucracy; Janine told Aunt Lydia about it directly, and Aunt Lydia actually listened and maybe even learned a little. Because I’m feeling generous and because I enjoyed this character-driven episode, I’m even going to commend Serena for having the willpower and/or willful blindness to make the most of her new job in Toronto after the mortifying experience of being rejected and expelled from Gilead.
As I kept jumping between June & Co., Serena and Janine and Aunt Lydia, this episode seemed much more focused than the previous three. Finally, I feel like I understand where each character is coming from and where they are going next, except for Commander Lawrence, who remains a mystery. I pray that this program decides to solve it one day. Plot A in particular, which pits Luke’s faith in local government against June’s bloodlust to fight Gilead’s growing cultural influx in Toronto, neatly mirrors the show’s biggest themes. The patriarchy part, yes, but also the relative power and limitations of political institutions in the face of political violence. Gilead has taught June that when the system fails you, as it always will, the only way forward is through violence. But Luke, having spent the last few years protected by asylum in Canada, wants to use the system as a weapon.
Luke’s bureaucratic offensive wins this round, managing to shut down Gilead’s pseudo-embassy, a so-called “cultural center” that is also Serena’s only home, through building code violations. But that’s in Canada (which, in this universe, is a nation of prison abolitionists who also consider minor building codes sacrosanct). Serena and Aunt Lydia believe in the system; But they are learning very, very slowly that the Gilead system is a cage of their own making whose only escape is through brutality or death. In a way, both Luke and June are right. Luke can temporarily remove Serena’s fang through the use of city ordinances, but the only way to stop Gilead forever may be, as June puts it, to put them all in the “damn ground.”
Hands down, my favorite part of this episode was seeing Janine, a perfect character who could easily draw me in for ten more seasons if I were running this show, expose this dichotomy to Aunt Lydia in a nutshell. Having awakened from her poison-induced coma, Aunt Lydia takes Janine through physical therapy amidst a stream of relentless Bible verses and hackneyed aphorisms. But this time, for some reason, Janine has abandoned her usual meek demeanor to really talk. “Please, she stop talking about the Bible. My legs don’t work,” he yells at Lydia, and I’m laughing.
Not only does Aunt Lydia not blink when Janine reads her the riot act for her attitude towards Esther, but she actually shuts up and listens. “She’s a girl! Who was hurt and abused! I told you! I warned you about her,” says Janine. Lydia begins with the life of service and grace, and Janine cuts her off by saying, “Or else! Right? Live a life of service and grace, or else you’d leave her to rot in the colonies.”
And then I’m screaming like I’m a real housewives they fight when Janine says, “Why don’t you gouge out his eye?” and “I know what you do to those girls, your precious girls. I see you I see what you really are. I still have a good eye, she remembers. Are you going to take that too?” For me, a fan of Janine to the bitter end, this was a more satisfying setback than anything June has yelled at Serena, mainly because it actually seems to work. I’ve often felt that Ann Dowd, by the power of her sheer Ann Dowd-ness, imbued Lydia with more depth than the cartoonishly evil woman written on the page, but this time it seems that Dowd has something to do with that pathos, as Lydia seems to evolve.
Moved as she is by Janine’s takedown, however, there’s not much Aunt Lydia can do. She should have known that her plan to reform the Handmaid system would be scrapped right away, but she takes it to Lawrence anyway. She wants the girls to stay with her at the Red Center full time and for the Commanders to visit her once a month to perform the ceremony there. She’s still a government-sanctioned rape, obviously, but at least it would protect the Handmaids from Commanders like Putnam. When Lydia brings him her plan, Lawrence just blinks and asks, “What are you smoking?” because josh from the west wing still lives inside of him. Lydia’s plan won’t work, Lawrence explains, because the commanders need servants around her to get even, as Lydia knows. She says that she doesn’t know anything about it. Lawrence says, “Not you.”
And suddenly, Lydia is more personally allied with her Handmaids than with the Commanders. I think. Wait. Well we’ll see. She asks Janine to help her take care of the girls and she seems sincere.
Serena, who has received a lot of credit for intelligence that doesn’t seem to measure up at the moment, is busying herself in exile sucking up the system with all the energy she has. she’s imprisoned because she’s needed to advance the plot and now she’s swinging her tiny cock the only way she knows how: barking at minions about petty details. Examining stationery: “Are you out of crude?” Posing for her official portrait: “There was no natural light option?” She is determined to be the best little pet of Gilead that she can be, even if the panel of male commanders in her country continue to thwart her efforts and encourage her to focus on colors for the nursery. Sorry, Serena, but no amount of beautiful gift baskets sent to Germany or afternoon teas with Venezuelan political wives will give you the respect or control you seek.
His nastiest but ultimately toothless attack is on June, of course. Serena sends him a note announcing the grand opening of the Gilead Cultural Center, addressed to “Offred.” Later, after Serena runs off thanks to Luke’s building codes and June’s shot outside the building, June burns the note. They put Serena in a car and take her to a safe house, one that looks so much like Waterford’s old house in Gilead that, at first, I wondered how they got there so quickly. But no, it’s just a house that belongs to people who are clearly from Gilead and allies of someone back home. Either way, it’s not like anyone gave Serena the choice of where to go.
By burning Offred’s envelope at the end of the episode, June appears to have exorcised some of the violent energy that she had been struggling to control for most of the episode. June is first triggered when she and Nichole are recognized by a woman in the park, turning from uneasy to threatening as soon as it becomes clear that the woman is a Gilead supporter, signaling to June (and us) that Gilead’s influence outside the country is growing. The lady calls June a whore, and June, in my opinion, quite rightly, grabs the lady by the lapels and pushes her into the jungle gym.
In therapy (finally!), where Luke is also present for some reason, June asks him how she can quell these violent urges, which have begun to scare her. To be honest, the therapist comes across as some kind of terrible therapist and says, “That sounds like it would be really hard,” which June doesn’t find helpful. Also Not Useful: Officer Good Guy! Tuello shows up at Casa June to tell the team that (1) he saw Hannah and she looked healthy; (2) There was nothing she could do to get her out of it; and (3) Oh yeah, Serena is free. After telling June that her expectations of him are too high, Tuello runs away and thus June’s obsessive compulsion to kill Serena is set in motion.
That night, he pulls his gun out of the backyard and drives straight to the Gilead cultural center/group home where Serena currently lives. Fortunately, the gun jams, so June can’t shoot it, but she sees Serena at the window, looking out at the crowd of candle-wielding supporters milling in the cold like a Virgin Mary happy to be raped. June may have scared Serena, but perhaps even more disturbing than the appearance of her former abuse victim standing outside her bedroom window is the image Serena is projecting to June. The possibility that Serena is actually a good pet for Gilead. That Serena, smiling beatifically at her small band of fertility-challenged followers, could spread Gilead’s disease far and wide by her mere presence.
The episode concludes after a violent altercation between dueling protesters outside the center. A member of the Canadian Oathkeeper guy punches Moira in the face during an argument, prompting June, who is still armed and stalking downtown, to point the gun at the guy and shoot into the air. Chaos erupts and Luke, who is also at the cultural center after waving a stack of building code violations in Serena’s face like a threat, appears out of nowhere and pulls June away from the crowd. They circle the building just in time to see Serena about to get into her getaway car. If June was going to kill her, now would be the time. But not her.
• I love the union of June and Luke. Not only does she accompany her to therapy, but she also doesn’t hide anything from him about her violent impulses or her nightly excursions. Instead, she lets him in and allows him to help her through it. This seems incredibly wholesome and a much-appreciated departure from a secret spouse narrative that she was expecting.
• Speaking of June and Luke, that it’s a sex scene! I’m still hot and upset!
• I feel like this episode was a big help because of Nick’s absence. Can I just say that I’m tired of Nick? I’m tired of Nick.
• Mrs. Wheeler, Serena’s new hostess, seems incredibly sinister.