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The Handmaid's Tale - After - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “After” was directed by Kari Skogland with the teleplay by Lynn Reneee Maxcy. The episode clearly deals with the “after”math of last week’s explosive conclusion. Once again, I was struck by the parallels to previous episodes that come up in this one… The flashbacks center on Moira, and Samira Wiley really delivers a terrific performance. The episode beautifully carries the theme of naming and inclusion and empowerment throughout.

The episode begins with the funeral of the Handmaids who died in the bombing. It’s one of those beautiful cinematic sequences that this show nails so well. We get what is now a pretty standard (for this show) crane shot that emphasizes the stark contrasts in colors. The white of the snow, the black cloaks with red veils and the red coffins arranged in a circle. Once again, Gilead falls back on a highly stylized ritual to keep everyone busy and give the appearance that the state cares. In a mockery of their very real grief, the Handmaids remove their veils and use them like handkerchiefs to “wipe” their noses and eyes as they touch the coffin and recite the ritual phrases. Yet they don't wipe their actual tears. I had to wonder just how many rituals they had to learn while at the Red Center!

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) seems genuinely moved by the deaths. She tells the Handmaids that “I was sure that I could give you a world without violence, without pain. It’s all I ever wanted.” This was not a part of the ritual, and she seemed sincere. Her deeds may be reprehensible, but Aunt Lydia, though misguided, seems sincere in her belief that she is doing God’s work. And by keeping the women “in line” she does spare them death or the colonies – but at what cost? The ritual includes “remembering them by their names.” Names have power. It’s why the women are stripped of theirs and given new names that are only a derivative of their “owners” – and naturally, it’s the “Of” names that are recited her. This resonates powerfully with the final scene in the market.

On the ride home, the Handmaids discuss what’s happened. In the end, 26 Commanders were killed and 31 Handmaids. June (Elisabeth Moss) asks Alma (Nina Kiri) if she knew Ofglen’s real name, but she doesn’t. Alma suggests that June should know it as June was walking partners with Ofglen. June tells her that they “never got that far.” We saw how long it took them to gain any kind of trust. It’s not safe for them to be that close to each other. And there is ample evidence of the danger they are all always in as they drive through the streets. People have been hung everywhere: Commanders, Marthas, and even wives.

At the hospital, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is looking after a severely injured Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Nick (Max Minghella) arrives with papers from the office for Fred to sign, but Nick says he’ll take care of it when it’s obvious that Fred is in no shape to do it.

Putnam (Stephen Kunken) and Cushing (Greg Bryk) show up like circling vultures to see how Fred is doing. They tell Serena and Nick that Pryce is dead. This is bad news for Nick, and it clearly crosses his face that he’s just lost his patron and boss. In fact, Putnam asks him if he was close to Pryce, which Nick denies. Cushing will be taking over Pryce’s security duties, and Putnam is clearly positioning himself to be his lapdog. Cushing leans in to a barely conscious Fred and tells him that he’ll make those responsible pay. Cushing is clearly a power-hungry sadist and responsible for the killings.

We get a quick scene in the colonies where Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) are just walking back from the fields. Suddenly, cars pull up, sirens blaring. Some of the women are pulled out of line – or electric-prodded out – and put in cars that whisk them away, including Janine and Emily.

In Toronto, the assembled crowd at the refuge center is informed that there has been a bombing and that there were fatalities, but they have no other information yet. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) tells Moira that he’s going home to get dinner. She’s amazed that he doesn’t want to stay and find out who was hurt. Luke tells her that he knows June isn’t ok – she’s being held and raped in Gilead! – but he’s also sure that she’s still alive. Moira insists that a feeling isn’t knowing.

In the flashbacks, we discover that Moira became a surrogate mother to earn $250,000. The procedure used her egg. In some ways, it’s just like being a Handmaid – with one huge difference. Moira gets to choose whether she wants to participate. I loved the contrast the show highlighted between June and Moira. June cautions Moira that she “might become attached to the little fucker.” Moira, always strong and in control, insists that she’s just in it for the money. She’s also met the parents. They’re good people and from England – and that’s important for two reasons. We know the baby is safely away from Gilead’s clutches and Moira knows that she will be safe from running into them or the baby after she gives the baby to them.

Moira suddenly feels the need for closure about her wife and fiancĂ©, Odette (Rebecca Rittenhouse). She’s lead into a room that is filled with the evidence collected on unidentified bodies. It’s another powerful reminder of the power of naming – literally putting a name to a face. There are black file cabinets and binders with all the evidence collected on the missing adults. Children have their own separate section – but the binders and filing cabinets are white. It’s also a nice echo of the black and white of the Handmaid’s funeral at the beginning of the episode.

In the next flashback, Moira is having an ultrasound. This was a brilliant echo of June’s from last week. Serena is actually kind enough to let June see the baby, and June wants to see. In contrast, Moira looks at the image but vehemently refuses the offer of a picture. She’s clearly already preparing herself not to get attached to the little fucker.

From the binders and filing cabinets which are a sort of coffin, we go back to Gilead and June packing away her funeral clothes in a suitcase – another box for the dead. Rita (Amanda Brugel) comes up to tell her that there’s someone there for her and is clearly nervous – and she should be because it’s Cushing. Cushing dismisses Rita who clearly doesn’t want to leave June alone with him. The tension in this scene is beautifully ratcheted up by the sounds of sirens, helicopters, and dogs barking coming from outside.

The tension in the room is also terrifically created by Bryk’s menacing performance. Cushing begins by asking June about Ofglen, and June brushes him aside saying she didn’t know her well. Cushing makes a particularly cruel joke by saying that he imagined Ofglen didn’t talk much. When he makes no headway there, Cushing moves on to ask June who helped her escape. June is no fool and sticks to the story she was told to stick to. She tells him that she was taken against her will and didn’t see her abductors.

Cushing tells her that she can trust him – June doesn’t buy it for a second. He asks if Commander Waterford helped her – he would clearly like to ensure that his chief rival for control of Gilead is permanently out of the picture. June insists she was taken against her will. Cushing is clearly obsessed. I loved Moss’s performance here. She is clearly repulsed and angry when Cushing comes and places a hand on her belly, but she has no choice but to allow it. Cushing tells her that if her house is infected with terrorists he needs to know immediately. They are interrupted by a noise outside. June looks out to see a Martha shot in the street just for reaching for her papers. June is clearly terrified.

Serena has Nick bring June to the hospital. In a surprising moment of candor, she remarks that having Guardians shoot Marthas in the street to make them feel safer is asinine. Serena brings June close to the bed so that she can place Fred’s hand upon the baby. It does seem to rally him, and he even remarks that June is “bigger.” Serena, once again, isn’t quite so happy when she gets what she wants. When Fred is more responsive to June and even smiles at her, Serena suddenly declares that he needs his rest and sends June away again.

Nick stops June in the hallway, and I thought they were being pretty reckless here. June tries to be strong and tells him she’s ok, but breaks down crying as she relates the shooting. Another great scene from Moss. June tells – warns – Nick that Cushing was pressing for who helped her escape. Nick promises that he will keep her safe and not let anything happen to her, but June is worried about who is protecting Nick. June finally pulls away and walks away from him.

It’s late at night and June is sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of food when Serena comes home. Serena tells her to go to bed – the baby need rest. June tells her that right now the baby wants Twinkies, and she’s trying to compromise. June asks after Fred. Serena assures June that Fred is strong. Once again, she confides in June, telling her that Fred needs to get back into the office. She’s convinced that Cushing will be the death of them all. Serena tells June that they knew the Cushings “before” – they’d even vacationed together. Even before, Cushing was a blowhard. Being the “big man” doesn’t suit him.

June tells her about Cushing’s visit and that he doesn’t believe that she was taken against her will. Serena cautions her to answer his questions very carefully. June ensures that she’s not in it alone by pointing out that Commander Deeds entire household was killed for what Ofglen did. Serena insists that Ofglen was a terrorist – this is different. But June insists that Cushing would kill everyone in a house that was connected to the underground, and he certainly wouldn’t let a baby grow up in such a house. I love that June is smart enough to know just what Serena’s real weak spot is. Serena insists that Commander Waterford would never let that happen – and of course, we’re back to Serena’s comment that he needs to get back to the office – to protect them all.

Back in Canada, Luke brings Moira food because she’s still pouring over the death books. Luke tells her that she doesn’t have to do it and that Odette wouldn’t want her to. But Moira insists it’s time and she just wants to know that Odette wasn’t alone when she died. This theme of being alone runs nicely throughout this story thread and through the episode – there is strength in numbers.

In the flashbacks, we see that June was there the entire way to support Moira. Toward the end of the pregnancy at a birthing class, Moira is beginning to feel the stress, especially of not having a spouse to share the experience with. She takes it out on June, accusing her of throwing her “perfect” marriage in her face. June completely understands what’s going on – another nice parallel to how well she “manages” everyone around her. June tells Moira that no marriage is perfect – Luke can’t even learn to load the dishwasher properly! Because he’s an “infant” – and who wants that! It’s the perfect way to gently push Moira out of her funk.

In the final flashback, we see Moira with the baby. She’s had a little boy, and the day has come to give him up. June coos that you forget how small they are (and this dovetails in nicely with the next episode…). Moira watches covertly as the Doctor takes the baby to the new parents. It’s clear that Moira is ok with the baby going to a loving family. He won’t be alone, but she remarks that it’s weird to be alone after having the baby with her for so long.

In the next scene, six months later, Moira bumps into the Doctor while shopping for wine. The Doctor asks how she is and Moira tells her, slowly getting back to normal – even her sex life! The two flirt a little over the wine, and the Doctor invites Moira to call her by her first name now that she’s no longer her Doctor – her name, is Odette and she’s the one Moira is looking for in the present. Again, it’s the naming that invites intimacy and connection between the two, and Moira is no longer alone.

In the present, Moira finds Odette in the binders. She is pictured with two other people, so Moira can at least draw some comfort that she didn’t die alone. She can also now name Odette. We see Moira break down in grief as Odette’s death is finally made concrete. Wiley is simply wonderful in this episode as we see Moira go through such a range of emotions.

Back in Gilead, Nick is returning to his apartment at the end of the day. He almost goes to the house first, but decides not to. He finds Serena waiting for him. She tells him that Eden and Rita have gone to visit the family of the Martha who was shot in the street. Serena wants to know if Nick has ever helped Fred with a warrant to the Consular of Divine Law, and he confirms that he has. She asks him to walk her through the process of submitting one. Nick points out that she’ll need the Commander’s signature, and she tells him that she knows that Fred will forgive her trespass. It’s clear that they both know that they are on dangerous ground, and that they both know it’s necessary to protect all of them.

The next day, June is watching from the window, Serena appears on the steps, and Nick walks in the gate to the house as Cushing pulls up and attempts to come in. One of the Guardians blocks his way as a black Eye van pulls up with Putnam. Putnam informs Cushing that Commander Waterford has ordered that Cushing be stripped of his rank and charged with treason. Putnam is clearly enjoying the entire process. We can only imagine that that one nasty comment while they were shooting was not the only dig Cushing has had at Putnam’s expense.

      June also smiles as she turns away from the window – thing have turned out exactly as she’d hoped. I’m sad to see Greg Bryk go – assuming that Fred doesn’t reverse the charges – though it would be stupid for him to. Bryk did a great job her as the sociopathic Cushing. I had to wonder if the name was a shout out to the great Peter Cushing of horror movie fame…

June is in the market with Eden who’s super excited about what she’s making for dinner. It’s clear that June finds her hard to take. Once Eden trots off, Janine is there flinging herself on June! The carnage has left them so short of Handmaids that they’ve brought a bunch back from the colonies – including her and Emily. Janine is as bubbly as ever, sure that God has a plan for both her and Emily… well not the same plan maybe, but one for each of them!

June immediately goes over to see Emily who looks shell-shocked. When we last saw her, it was clear that she was starting the slow slide toward death. Is she really still healthy enough to conceive? And even if she is, is this a better Hell for her? She certainly isn’t happy about it the same way Janine is. On the other hand, she has a much better chance to escape from Gilead than from the colonies.

June immediately tells Emily that her name is June. She creates an intimate bond with her by speaking their forbidden names, and she reveals her true self to her. June explains that she never had a chance to do it before. And then she acknowledges both the importance of their bond, the Handmaids showing solidarity and the precariousness of their positions, but immediately turning and introducing herself to Brianna (Bahia Watson). Brianna is surprised but barely hesitates to tell June her name. And then it starts a chain reaction as they all introduce themselves to each other.

        This is also a beautiful echo of the discussion in the van at the beginning of the episode when none of them knew Ofglen’s real name. How can they remember and cherish her without it? There’s a sweet moment when Janine giggles at Dolores’s name, and she explains that it was her grandmother’s name – establishing a link to the past and to a legacy of women. It’s an obvious way that we remember our loved ones – by naming our children after them.

I also loved the use of the cornette in this scene. Eden is watching the Handmaids and is completely isolated and alone, but she also has no idea what is going on because they use the cornettes to hide their faces. Rather than restricting their view as was intended, it protects them as they reveal their true selves.

Back in Canada, we get another example of the power of naming. They’ve received a report on the identities of those killed. Each victim is named as their picture flashes on the screen. And we finally learn that Ofglen’s real name is Lillie Fuller. They know that she is responsible for the bombing and everyone is suddenly even more interested as pictures are suddenly taken of her. Lillie looks nothing like what Ofglen seemed to be when we first met her. Lillie looks like she re-emerged after Ofglen rebelled and then had her tongue cut out. Lillie looks like a fighter.

Moira decides that it’s also time to add Odette to the legacy of those who have died for the cause. She adds her picture to the memorial in the center of the ring of those still missing. Luke joins her to also pay homage, and he takes her hand, demonstrating again that Moira is not alone.

Finally, in Gilead, June is just heading up to bed when Serena stops her and asks her to come with her. She takes June to the study where piles of papers, clearly reports, are laid out. Serena tells her that Cushing turned their streets into a war zone, and it’s time things went back to normal. She’s drafted up new security orders! Serena knows that June is an editor. June cautiously says that she used to be. And then Serena does the unthinkable and asks June to read over the documents for her.

        June considers it for a moment. Once she is equally complicit, she is equally vulnerable to punishment – even moreso as a Handmaid, but if she doesn’t do, then she’s complicit in doing nothing. But this is also very dangerous ground for Serena. It gives her a taste of what she’s lost in addition to the danger of punishment for simply reading and writing.

June steps forward and Serena is clearly not sure what to think. And then June says she’ll need a pen and reaches across the desk to grab one. She fondles them in an almost sexual way before picking one up. The two women exchange small smiles. Serena settles behind the desk – she’s a writer, and we’re reminded that she gave up a lot to pursue her dream of having a baby. Is she having second thoughts? June settles by the fire and holds the pen up – it’s red in the glow of the fire, and she clicks it in exactly the same way that Ofglen clicked the bomb detonator in the last episode. Here’s another strike back at the patriarchy – this time two women from exact polar opposite position uniting against it.

This was another stunning episode. I loved the themes of naming and community that ran throughout this episode. Both Samira Wiley and Yvonne Strahovski deliver terrific performances as we see their characters go through a real range of emotions. Is it even necessary to rave about Elisabeth Moss anymore? June’s very real fear is palpable, and her courage and determination come through clearly on Moss’s expressive face. And finally, the final song was a terrific cover of “Venus” – a personal favorite of mine. It’s a song about naming and empowerment. Perfect here. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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