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The Handmaid's Tale - Women's Work - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “Women’s Work” was directed by Kari Skogland and the teleplay was by Nina Fiore and John Herrera. Fiore and Herrera’s other credits include Blood Drive, The Vampire Diaries and Alphas. I swear this show gets better with each episode. The episode clearly demonstrates what has been lost in Gilead by denying women the right to work. It also highlights the differences in how women work versus men. We see women working collaboratively and with empathy and we see men consumed with violent solutions. I think this might be Yvonne Strahovski’s (Serena) most amazing performance yet.

Even the music reflects these themes. Serena and June (Elisabeth Moss) work together to the strains of “Easy Like Sunday Mornings.” Fred (Joseph Fiennes) favors cacophonous, harsh jazz. And finally, the episode ends with Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) sweet and beautiful acapella version of “I Only Want to Be With You.” Janine’s song is stripped down raw emotion which perfectly mirrors her using the warmth of her stripped down body to heal the baby. Self-less love is what Gilead is missing.

As the episode opens June and Serena are doing their work in the evenings. June muses that this is the new normal – and an offense against God. In another life, they might have been colleagues, but here they are heretics. She also muses that she’s already damned, but this is new territory for Serena, but Serena seems pretty fucking happy. June forgets, however, that Serena overthrew the government when she helped to found Gilead. Serena has been a willing participant in her own incarceration.

When June asks Serena if she’s happy to be working, Serena won’t admit it, but she does unbend enough to confide that she truly detests knitting. June rewards the confidence by telling Serena that she’s a good writer. Serena tells June that she won’t forget her help. And at the time I thought that that could be a threat or a promise. Serena tells June that the Commander is coming home from the hospital the next day, and both say “praise be” clearly not meaning it as they know that will be the end of their work and freedom. Once again, the music is perfect here as into the silence the lyrics state “I want to be free.”

Fred is still using a cane as he returns home. He remarks on how beautiful the house is before he goes in. Serena has arranged the household to greet him. June has been watching Fred’s arrival from the window and doesn’t heed Serena’s command to join the lineup immediately. Underscoring the new more equal relationship that they’ve come to.

Fred is pleased to be greeted, and it’s telling how he greets each of them in turn. He tells Rita (Amanda Brugel) that he’s missed her cooking. She’s ridiculously pleased and tells him she’s making all his favorites. Eden (Sydney Sweeney) has a present for Fred, and he remarks, “from the happy couple” and thanks her. Finally, Fred addresses June as their divine miracle. They are all only important to him in how they relate to him or a man – that is their only worth and function – their “work” in his eyes. One to cook, one to be a wife, and one to produce a baby. It’s like a sick came of fuck, marry, kill.

June tells him – so insincerely! – that they are all happy for his recovery. When Fred and Serena leave, June goes slowly up the stairs back toward the prison of her room. Eden worries that Fred didn’t like the present – given that he didn’t even open it, one wonders how he was supposed to form any kind of opinion about it. June assures her that he loved it – after rolling her eyes at how desperate Eden is for any man’s approval. But Eden has been taught that that approval is her only worth.

Fred and Serena retire to his office. She’s clearly hoping that now she will be able to keep helping him. He remarks on how grateful is for all the risks she’s taken for him, but she must be relieved to have things go back to “normal.” Serena tells him that she’s left the draft agenda for his trip to Canada on his desk. She moves a pen on his desk – it’s her turn to touch it lovingly and reverently as June did in the last episode. She’s so clearly hoping that he’ll ask her to pick it up. Instead, he holds out his hand and escorts her firmly out of the room, closing the door on her.

Meanwhile, in her room, June discovers that Serena has left her two presents. One white rose and the music box is back. A woman trapped in a box. It may be meant kindly, but both are symbols of loss. The cut flower will die. But June takes it as it was meant – it’s meant as a severance package and in voiceover June acknowledges it as the voiceover says ‘it was nice working with you too.’

Meanwhile, Eden primps in front of the mirror when she hears Nick (Max Minghella) coming. She’s clearly lonely and assumes that he’ll be around more now that Fred is home from the hospital, but Nick tells her that he’ll be busier now that the Commander will be back to work. She tries to engage Nick by telling him that she’s going to spruce up their home. She rabbits what her mother has taught her: “happy home, happy husband.” She favors yellow to do that – and Nick is utterly indifferent – or at least seems to be only focused on getting out of there and away from her.

Rita is giving a list for the market to June and asks her to get some honey because Eden has “borrowed” hers and she’s sure she’ll never see it again. June cuts Eden a little slack and says ‘she’s trying.’ Rita agrees but clearly means the irritating kind of trying! Serena is also getting ready to go out and confides that baby Angela is sick.

June is joined by Janine on her way to the market. She tells her “Blessed be the fruit,” and Janine hilariously responds “May the force by with you!” Janine talks about Charlotte and her own pregnancy and babbles on about Alien – calling June crazy for preferring the sequel. June is clearly uncomfortable, knowing that the baby isn’t well.

At the market, Alma Nina Kiri), making small talk, mentions that Fred is home, but at least June is already pregnant, so she doesn’t have to have sex with him anyway. Janine says her post is a blessing because it’s just the ceremony – no blowjobs! Emily (Alexis Bledel) is clearly at a breaking point and loudly states that being raped is NOT a blessing and that the real blessing was the bomb. As bad as the colonies were, it’s becoming increasingly clear that she would have preferred dying there. I have to wonder how long before she snaps or a guardian or an eye take her to task.

June wonders if Emily would want her dead if she knew that she helped Serena cover for Fred. June goes on to muse that if you stay in Gilead long enough, it eats you from the inside out. They force you to kill within yourself. The baby ambulance goes by and everyone kneels to pray. Was it just me or did the siren sound more like a demented ice cream truck than an ambulance?

One of the other Handmaids says it’s the Putnam’s baby, and Janine, predictably, freaks out. June calms her down and just keeps her praying. On the way home, Janine continues to freak out and June protects her as one of the guardians is about to subdue her. June pulls Janine aside and tells her the truth. She tells Janine to stay calm, and she’ll find out what’s going on. Janine tells June that she wants to see the baby, and June tells her “You know that can’t happen.” Janine accuses her of sounding just like “them,” and June does. She’s echoing exactly what she was told when she wanted to see Hannah.

June is in her room, looking at the music box, and she’s put her most valuable possession in it – her picture of Hannah. Serena comes in and June thanks her for the box and flower. And I couldn’t help thinking that box is a colloquialism for vagina and a woman is “de-flowered” when she loses her virginity. And it’s even a white box and flower – white also a symbol for innocence and virginity.

Serena tells June that baby Angela is getting worse. June is sorry and asks if there’s nothing else they can do. Serena says there is one thing they could do but it would mean “bending” the law. Serena asks June what she would do – and really is there any doubt? June tells Serena that if it were her baby, she would do everything in her power – law or no law. And we’ve already seen that June is prepared to break the law – and it was Serena who broke the law to get June pregnant in the first place…

Serena brings Fred tea and apologizes for not being more available to him on his first day home. Fred tells her that he managed very well – it’s a subtle dig that he doesn’t need her help. For her own part, Serena is clearly at least a little bitter when she says it must have felt good to be back at work. After all, she knows how good it felt for her to get back to work. But now she has different women’s work – manipulating her husband to get him to act.

Serena tells him that baby Angela is very sick and she’s worried, but God has blessed Gilead with the top Neo-Natal doctor in the world. Fred asks when he’s coming, and Serena tells him that she is now a Martha. She’d just need a one day transfer to be able to examine the baby. Fred tells her that they can’t question the will of God.

The next morning, June only has to look at Serena to realize that Fred has said no. This is another visually beautifully composed scene. June in red sits on one side of the bench with Serena in green on the other side with two bottle of white milk, and two red apples sitting on the table in front of them – so many indications of the life giving properties of the women – contrast to the men who predominantly wear black – the color of death.

June tells Serena about Janine freaking out and that Janine wants to see the baby. Serena sarcastically asks if that’s the Handmaid who tried to kill the baby. June brushes it aside, saying Janine was desperate. Serena tells June not to be stupid, but June won’t be deterred. She says what if this is Janine’s last chance to see the baby? Serena gets up, but it’s clear that June has made her think about it.

At the hospital, Naomi (Ever Carradine) is appalled that Serena wants to let that horrid girl see the baby. Serena points out that Janine was the one to give her this blessing. Warren (Stephen Kunken) interrupts and doesn’t see any harm in it. Serena insists that Janine only brings love. Warren suggests that God would want them to welcome her. Luckily, in this instance, the man who has the last say is the one who has the compassion.

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) brings Janine. She’s not happy either and pulls June aside. She tells her that there’s a reason the Handmaids aren’t told when their baby is sick. June insist that after everything Janine’s been through she deserves to see her baby. It quickly becomes clear that Aunt Lydia isn’t being cruel, she’s legitimately worried that this entire incident could break Janine completely, and she tells June that she’ll hold her responsible if that happens.

Janine, June and Aunt Lydia must watch through glass. The baby is in an incubator and hooked up to a bunch of machines. Even so, Janine cries with joy just to be able to see her again. She talks about her having curly hair and eventually driving all the boys mad…

Serena also looking through the glass at Janine, comes to June and tells her that she’s going to see if there’s anything more they can tell them – and June immediately realizes that Serena has gone behind Fred’s back to get the Neo-natal doctor. June is completely sincere when she tells Serena to “go in grace.”

Dr Hodgson (Karen Glave) has no idea why she’s been brought to the hospital, but Serena fills her in. The doctor in charge of the case – Dr Epstein (Andy McQueen) – fanboys Dr Hodgson because she is so famous. For her own part, Dr Hodgson’s love of her work, her profession, is seen clearly as she reverently puts on the stethoscope. She’s completely focused the minute the patient is in front of her, however.

Back at the house, Fred goes to see June and finds her room empty – except for the music box and flower. He immediately realizes that June and Serena have formed some kind of alliance in his absence. His reaction is so petty and violent, I had to wonder if he hadn’t been encouraging the rift between the two, so that they would both turn to him.

At the hospital, Dr Hodgson doesn’t have good news for the Putnams and Serena. Aunt Lydia, June, and Janine watch through the glass, unable to actually hear what’s being said, but it’s clear the news is very bad. Janine wants to know what’s going on. Aunt Lydia moves in to comfort her, but June turns to Janine and asks if she’d like to kiss the baby good bye. Both Serena and June know that the baby has been lacking in physical comfort and real love.

Serena goes after Dr Hodgson and wants to know how she’s just giving up. Hodgson explains that they’ve done everything they can. There’s nothing wrong with the baby. The best thing that they can do is unhook the baby from all the machines, make her feel safe and warm, and pray.

Naomi actually offers the baby to Janine and Warren invites her to sit. June watches from behind the glass – everyone is still wearing masks and gowns inside. June raises her hand in a gesture of comfort to Janine. Janine takes off her mask. Naomi looks concerned but Aunt Lydia shakes her head to stop her saying anything and takes off her own mask – there’s no point in it. Janine then takes off her gloves to use her own hands to comfort the baby.

Serena and June finally get home and thank each other after saying good night. Nick arrives before they can retire and tells them that Fred wants to see both of them in his office. Serena tells June to let her handle it. As June walks by Nick, she reaches out and touches his hand – they briefly touch before she moves on – it’s fleeting, but it’s another example of the comfort of touch – and is a beautiful contrast to the next scene.

Fred is behind his desk and makes them close the door and then wait while he finishes what he’s doing. He tells them that heard that Putnam got the help he needed and was surprised to learn that he’d signed off on it himself. Serena tells him that she did it for the child – after all what greater responsibility is there in Gilead? Fred tells her – obeying your husband. Serena then pushes back – she’s been breaking rules for months. Fred tells her that he asked her to be his conduit – NOT his voice.

Fred then moves on to June asking if the handwriting on a document is hers. She confirms, defiantly, that it is. Fred isn’t interested in really turning his anger on her though. He accuses Serena of involving the Handmaid in her transgressions. And then he delivers the ultimate degradation and insult, telling her that it’s his fault for burdening her with responsibility. It’s clear from the flashbacks that Serena was really the one with the talent and brains. Was Fred jealous of that all along?

Fred tells Serena that they must make amends. At first Serena seems angry when she says, “Amends?” but Stahovski is wonderful in this scene as we see a multitude of emotions pass over her features. She’s incredulous, hurt, and ultimately cowed. Fred quotes some scripture to excuse his actions – he has clearly marked lots of passaged for that purpose. Then he has Serena bend over a chair so that he can beat her with his belt. June is going to leave, but Fred makes her stay and watch. She flinches violently with each strike and this is emphasized by the camera work.

Meanwhile, Eden has been working diligently at being the dedicated and compliant wife, making a happy home for her husband. She’d going to make curtains the next day and asks Nick to help pick the fabric. He proves that he has been listening when he picks yellow – the color Eden said that she favored. Nick may not want to be married to her, but we also know that he is a nice guy. However, he is not happy when he finds the package of June’s letters sitting on his night table.

Eden tells him that they fell out of his things when she was straitening his trunk. He asks her if she read them, and she denies it. It’s unlikely she even knows how to read. He tells her to stay out of his things. She’s clearly scared as he gets right in her personal space and she tacks on a “Sir” when she tells him she won’t touch his things. He finally realizes that he’s scaring her and backs off. But if someone knew he had those letters, he’d be in deadly peril now that Pryce is dead.

Serena undresses, crying. She pauses to look at the welts left on her. June comes to her room and knocks. She asks Serena if she needs anything or if there’s anything she can do for her. Serena hardens her face and holds back her tears long enough to tell June to go back to her room. There’s nothing she can do. She then covers her mouth to try to smother her sobbing, but it’s clear that June can hear it on the other side of the door. Has Fred succeeded in driving a wedge between the two?

Moss is amazing in this scene. She’s leaning against the door, clearly feeling Serena’s pain, and then slowly looks up with cold fury in her eyes. She turns to walk away, and quotes Margaret Atwood – because of course it wasn’t just a random someone who wrote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

June goes on to muse that they should have known better. They thought that they (women) could at least make some small spaces safe and beautiful or at least bearable. The site of their recent happiness and industry had become a site of ultimate violation and violence. Fred’s touch is in direct contrast to the touch we’ve seen between the women.

However, June goes to Fred and apologizes. We know that she’s not being sincere, but she has to debase herself in an attempt to soothe his ego for both hers and Serena’s sakes. Fred doesn’t forgive her in so many words, and he doesn’t let her into the study. He just tells her to go to bed – the baby needs its rest. Fred puts on his music that is in such contrast to the music associated with the women.

June turns to go after he shuts her out. She smiles, but it’s the same false smile that turns to tears – she’s killed a little more of herself from the inside out. She collapses to her knees – and we get another one of those beautiful crane shots of her in the center of a star in a circle.

The next morning at the hospital, Aunt Lydia is woken by Janine’s singing. The Putnams are still asleep. She finds Janine in her underwear on the window sill in the sun. The baby has made a miraculous recovery. It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. There’s lots of research to support the necessity of babies receiving touch – it’s as important as actual food. Aunt Lydia is sincerely thrilled. It’s clear that regardless of how psychotic she is, she does sincerely care about the welfare of the babies and Handmaids – more the babies, but still. She goes to wake the Putnams to share the good news.

I loved how this episode showcased the essential work that women perform – not just the work, but how they perform it – with compassion and empathy. Great performances from Strahovski, Moss, and Brewer. Once again the music was perfect in this episode – both the choices and the weaving into the plot. I can’t say enough about the detail that goes in to making this show, the choices of colors and cinematography are just stunning. I’m really hoping to see the women continuing to grow closer. I’m worried about Emily, however. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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