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The Handmaid's Tale - First Blood - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “First Blood” was directed by Mike Barker with the teleplay by Eric Tuchman. The action is centered primarily on the new dynamics in the Waterford household. The flashbacks concern Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss (June/Offred) both give wonderful performances. In fact, you almost feel sorry for Serena… Once again, the episode is beautifully shot, making the most of lighting, especially to highlight June.

As the episode opens, June is having an ultrasound. The baby is fine and the hemorrhage will resolve itself. Not surprisingly, Serena proves that she’s “well read” on the subject. The Doctor (Kristian Bruun) asks June if she had any complications with her first pregnancy, and we see that June is truly back as she shoots back, “With Hannah?” Insisting on naming her own child. She says no, but that she was 2 weeks early. The Doctor echoes Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) concerns that there needs to be harmony in the household for the baby to thrive.

In a really surprising move, when the baby starts to move, Serena actually asks June if she wants to see the ultrasound. When June eagerly says yes, she moves the wall aside to let her see. The wall is there to divorce the Handmaid from the baby, but June’s tear as she watches clearly indicates her attachment to the child.

At home, Serena’s surprising, solicitous behavior continues. She helps June off with her cloak. Rita (Amanda Brugel) hugs June to welcome her home. It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to get a real feel for how the characters feel about each other. Living with Serena is like negotiating a mine field every day, unsure of which step will set her off. Eden (Sydney Sweeney) is also in the kitchen – lurking. When Serena suggests Rita make June her smoothie, June says no. The tension in the room skyrockets, and June quickly diffuses the situation by saying that the smoothie upsets her stomach. Serena is placated and suggests soup.

Serena then directs June to the sitting room where she’s going to let her stay rather than having to climb the stairs. Rita is clearly put out by having to make soup – Brugel is terrific at conveying Rita’s feelings. Rita is also not happy about having someone else in the house whose status is ostensibly above her own and snaps at Eden who wants to help. Rita is clearly going to take advantage of Eden being the newcomer and so young. I wonder how long that will last, especially with Serena’s influence. But then, I also wonder how long Serena will tolerate Eden.

Nick (Max Minghella) comes in to check on June, telling her that she scared him. There’s some nice banter between the two as June quips that she’s sleeping there because Serena made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. It’s bittersweet comparing Serena to the Godfather, but it’s also rings a little too close to home. Nick tells her that he’ll come to her that night, and June demonstrates she’s jealous when she asks about Mrs Blaine – and what her bedtime is. But June also realizes that they have to be smart – they can’t keep sneaking around as there are more eyes on them now. Nick tells her that he thinks about her all the time – there’s no question about who he loves. June finally relents and tells him that she things about him too. I wonder if she thinks about Luke? What would happen if both June and Nick made it out? The two are interrupted by Rita’s arrival with the soup, but it’s clear that she, at least, isn’t likely a danger to them.

At the new Rachel and Leah center, Aunt Lydia has a word with Fred. She sympathizes with him – the dynamics between wife and Handmaid are challenging and he’s been blessed with a particularly difficult pair. Fred tells her that he just tries to stay out of it. And it’s a little late for that really, isn’t it? Fred is also having trouble at work. He shows Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown), Putnam (Stephen Kunken) and Cushing (Greg Bryk) around the site, and all three express concern that he won’t be ready for the grand opening. Fred assures them that he will be.

Nick and Eden share an awkward supper. She’s anxious that he enjoys the food her mother taught her to prepare. He suggests that it must be hard for her to be away from her family, and she assures him that he’s her family now. It’s clear that she’s been completely indoctrinated. She insists that her mother taught her what’s expected of her – what God expects of her. Nick escapes, using the excuse of having a smoke.

June is settling down on the sofa to sleep – and did that look comfortable to anyone? How is a sofa better than a bed?! Serena comes in and settles herself in a chair to knit. She’s actually solicitous – even while creepily insuring that June is always in her sight – about the noise of the needles keeping June awake. June assures her that it’s just getting harder to get comfortable and the two share a moment reminiscing about pregnancy pillows. Serena tells June she’ll see about getting one for “us.” Serena then opens up to June by asking her what it feels like to have a life inside her. Strahovski is wonderful here as we see a crack in Serena, exposing the longing she really feels to have a baby.

June then returns Serena’s kindnesses by encouraging her to come and feel the baby. She even moves Serena’s hand so that she’ll be sure to feel the baby. Possibly for the first time, we see real joy on Serena’s face when she feels the baby move. Serena comments that it’s a miracle, and June actually agrees. Finally. Something the two can agree on.

The flashbacks give us even more insight into Serena as we see her and Fred on a book tour to promote Serena’s book, A Woman’s Place. It’s a really nice parallel to current events and the protests and riots that have broken out over outlandish political views. Serena is clearly not welcome. Fred is couching her not to scold or lecture – he certainly does know his wife. Serena responds that she’s to start a dialogue, and Fred softens the language even more – a conversation. He’s excited that their policies are going to make it into the mainstream to be discussed.

A riot breaks out as Serena is shouted down and the Dean (Adrian Falconer) insists that it was a mistake to have Serena and it’s too dangerous for her to speak. Fred – oh, so ironically – insists that this is America! She has a right to speak! And I immediately thought of the gags on the Handmaids.

Fred isn’t giving up that easily, however, and he pushes Serena forward into the crowd on the way out, insisting that she make them let her speak. She manages to make herself heard. Her message is that the human race is in danger and that women need to embrace their biological imperative. Fred tells her that she was incredible as they make their way to the car. Serena is shot before they can get there, and given where she was shot, I wondered if this is why Serena can’t have children?

Meanwhile, in the present, June gets up to get a glass of water and finds Fred at the kitchen table having a midnight snack. June asks him if he’s mad at her, and he says no, curious as to why she thinks so. She mentions that he hasn’t spoken to her since she came “home.” He suggests that there just hasn’t been anything to talk about. It’s clear that even though Serena seems to be suddenly more friendly, June is taking no chances and is trying to ensure that Fred is still an ally – smart girl.

He has been keeping his distance – no doubt angry that she got him in trouble with the other Commanders, but also knowing that Serena wasn’t happy. However, Fred can’t seem to resist June and offers her some of his snack. She declines, saying that Aunt Lydia is very strict with the weigh ins. Fred confirms that June still has a fascination for him when he tells her that he thinks she looks fine – pregnancy suits her. June leaves without taking things further.

The next day as she’s folding her blankets, June is joined by Eden who’s looking for Serena. Moss is fantastic in this scene. We get SO much just from her facial expressions. Eden starts bemoaning that she’s stupid and ugly, and Nick doesn’t like her – just what June wants to hear! June tries to reassure Eden, telling her that Nick is being respectful and to give him time. June quickly realizes that Eden is dangerous – she’s a true zealot. Eden also isn’t as self-deprecating as she seems. What she really thinks is not that she’s unattractive, but that Nick might be a gender traitor!

Their conversation is interrupted by Serena calling for June. I loved the look of being put upon that crosses Moss’s fact. She also looks disturbed. She wants to make sure that she’s defused the Eden situation, but also knows she has to jump when Serena calls.

June gets the surprise of her life when she walks into the kitchen and discovers that Serena has arranged a luncheon for her with some of the other Handmaids. Even more surprising is that Serena serves the Handmaids while attempting to make small talk with them. It’s as if she’s forgotten the huge social divide she helped to create herself. The scene also demonstrates the huge divide between who Serena is and who June is and which of them is more socially adept. Serena tries to get them talking – as if they’d ever talk freely in front of a wife! But what exactly does she think they talk about among themselves? Does she not even realize that she’s orchestrated taking their voices away?

This ignorance on Serena’s part is brought forcibly home when she encourages Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones) to talk, and it takes her several moments to remember that Ofglen has literally had her tongue removed for speaking out. Does Ofglen open her mouth while her head is turned away from us? To her credit, Serena looks horrified when she realizes what she’s done. Once again, June does Serena a kindness by jumping into the conversation to smooth it over, bringing up a local restaurant that they all know.

        It’s a little shocking when Serena comes up with the name of it – Magnolia’s. And then Serena further makes it weird by saying that maybe they’d been there at the same time. At a time when they would have been equals. When the baby kicks, June further brings Ofglen back into the circle by asking if the others want to feel it. As the Handmaid’s crowd around June, Serena slowly walks out of the room. It’s interesting that June is certain that the baby is a girl – all the more reason to get her the Hell out of Gilead!

Serena retreats to the greenhouse. Last season we saw her take refuge and solace in the garden. Here we see her happy. She has new plants just sprouting that need to be re-potted. Clearly a substitute for the baby she is looking forward to repotting in her own soil…

Serena then takes June to see the new pot for the baby – the nursery – another display of Serena’s basic lack of empathy. Serena tells June that she’s going to be the best mother she can be to “her” child. Is that possible with someone so lacking in empathy, bitter, and quick tempered? June tells Serena that the nursery is very special – and then tells her about the glow in the dark stars that she had on the ceiling of Hannah’s room. June tells her that her husband knew about the stars and would lay in bed with Hannah telling her all about them – Hannah loved it. It’s a sweet moment – and it’s impossible to imagine either Serena or Fred every having that kind of moment with a child.

Maybe it was mentioning Hannah or maybe June thought that she and Serena were relating differently, but June makes a huge mistake by using that moment to ask to see Hannah. Strahovski is brilliant in this scene. The mention of her own daughter, no doubt reminds Serena that this child won’t be her child fundamentally. Serena sees June’s plea to see her daughter – if only for a few minutes – as manipulative, completely ignoring the obvious and sincere emotion of June crying. Serena has come to the end of her ability to be nice. She makes June return to her own room.

Nick runs into June and sees that she’s upset. June immediately says that she thought Serena could be decent – big mistake – and she asked to see Hannah. Nick assures her that they’ll find a way. And then June tells him – not if you’re on the wall. She tells him to sleep with Eden or risk Eden reporting him. Of course June has no sympathy for him having to sleep with someone he didn’t choose! In fact, she had to sleep with Nick against her will too! But she’s not really angry with him so much as afraid that she will lose him. In order to save him, she hardens her heart and when Nick tells her that he loves her, she tells him that Eden is his wife. This is a terrific throwback to the flashbacks from the last episode when we saw June as the other woman, taking Luke away from his wife. Again, it underscores the differences between the two societies. Neither June nor Nick have the freedom of choice.

June manages to keep it together until she gets to her room. And at least it’s been made comfortable again. In fact, it looks a bit more comfortable than it’s ever been. Once she is finally alone, she allows herself to breakdown.

Nick takes June’s advice and we get the most unsexy sex scene ever. Foreplay consists of praying and the act itself involves as little skin to skin contact as possible! And yes, that was a hole you saw in the sheet… Afterwards, Eden can’t wait to see if it worked! Yikes. And, of course, it’s scientifically proven that virgins often conceive the first time they have sex…

Once again, Serena has retreated to her greenhouse. It’s pouring and Fred joins her there after Rita told him that she’d spent the entire afternoon there. Fred knows that Serena is upset, but she tells him to leave her alone. She complains to him as June complained to Nick, saying that June is devious and wanted to see Hannah. Fred agrees that June can be difficult. When Serena cuts herself, she denies that it hurts, and Fred comments on her strength.

In the final flashback, Serena is in the hospital after being shot. She tells Fred to stop fussing and insists that they press their advantage while people are listening to their message – no doubt sympathetic because she was shot – talk about devious! They discuss whether the police will find the shooter, and Serena says that while she has faith in God, she doesn’t have it in the police. Fred is full of remorse for having let her speak in public, and when he begins to cry, she tells him to be a man.

In the next scene, we see Fred take out his frustrations of clearly being a browbeaten husband on the shooter. Fred prays over the shooter who is tied and gagged and has been beaten. Fred exacts his revenge by shooting and killing the shooter’s girlfriend. Whether or not he has the shooter executed is left to our imagination – perhaps not as it might have been better for the cause to have more public justice – but Fred’s intent was to make him suffer.

In the present, Fred finally takes a more active role in trying to smooth things over between his wife and Handmaid – or perhaps to simply get closer to June who is clearly a lot more empathic than Serena – whether it is for her own ends or not, June is kinder to Fred than Serena often is. Not that there isn’t plenty of blame on either side there. Fred has brought June a peace offering – a polaroid of Hannah. June is clearly thrilled and overwhelmed with emotion, holding the photo carefully in both hands and studying it intently under the light.

As June looks at the picture, Fred touches her stomach. Is it possible that he really does care about this baby too? He tells June he’s missed her, and she plays along, saying she’s missed him too. Fred slowly moves his hand up from her belly to cup her breast and remark on its being firmer. It’s different, but he likes it. He kisses her and she kisses back, but when he moves her to the bed, clearly anticipating sex, she puts him off – for the safety of the baby. Fred accepts the excuse and leave.

The next morning, Serena sits at one end of the kitchen table knitting while June tries to eat. When she says she’s full, Serena orders Rita to cover the food so that June can eat is all later. Eden joins them, saying she wondered if she could do anything for Serena. Serena comments on how sweet Eden is and how she wishes that Offred could be as pleasant. Serena comments on how important it is to know one’s place in the household. She throws her knitting needle on the floor and stops Eden from picking it up, insisting that the Handmaid do it. It’s a perfect example of what’s important to Serena – power and control. She relishes humiliating others. The contrast between Strahovski here and when she’s feeling the baby move is night and day.

In order to make June’s humiliation complete, Serena gives the needle to Eden and tells her to try. Any wife is above a Handmaid and can make her do their bidding. When Eden hesitates – maybe she isn’t a complete zealot psycho – Serena asks her if she wants to run a household of her own one day? Apparently, humiliating those “beneath” you is a necessity. It’s a beautiful parallel to June dropping the rock and refusing to stone Janine. But rather than spare someone, Eden choses to humiliate June. However, June has the last laugh and claims that she felt a cramp. Bending over would hurt the baby. June simply smiles at Serena and retreats to her room where she looks at Hannah’s picture in the light from the window.

It’s the day that the Rachel and Leah Center is opening and Fred welcomes all of his guests. Nick takes the opportunity to talk to Pryce and beg to be reassigned. He tells Pryce he has to get out of the Waterford house. He does ask that Pryce promises to protect the Handmaid – but that would seem to be a red flag. However, Pryce agrees. Is Nick simply abandoning June?

This time it’s Fred who leads the ceremony. The Handmaids are the final window dressing – literally as they line the windows on both the ground and second floor of the auditorium. And then Ofglen steps out of her place and enters the auditorium. She turns her back to Fred so that she can show the Handmaid’s the detonator to the bomb that she’s wearing and give them a chance to get away. There’s no way to warn the Handmaids on the second floor however. Fred yells that she’s too soon and asks someone to take her back out, but Ofglen turns and runs down the aisle, detonating the bomb about half way. I thought this was an interesting echo of the two weddings we had in the last episode.

Another great episode with powerful performance by Strahovski and Moss. I loved the final music, which was perfect – “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by XRay Spex. I loved the echoes we see from previous episodes and the layers that they are adding to both Serena and Fred, fleshing them out far more than the novel ever did. And once again, I like how the title played out in so many ways with the episode. Who draws first blood between June and Serena? Is it Eden’s first time blood? Is it the blood of Serena being shot, being betrayed? Is it Fred’s first kill? What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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