This is a deep dive into the events of Episode 8 of Series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale. Spoilers are a given, as we discuss all of the plot points within the episode. New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale premiere every Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS Australia and at 5pm at SBS On Demand.
Watch episode 8, 'Women's Work', at SBS On Demand:
It was midway through series one of The Handmaid’s Tale -- when the visiting Mexican ambassador came to call upon the Waterfords -- that we got a Serena backstory, and we munched popcorn as we watched the complicit monster experience the schadenfreude of being denied a position within the brutal theocratic dictatorship she’d enabled. That last part wasn’t just me, surely?
In her pre-Gilead life as a conservative author and pundit, Serena Joy called for women to exit the workforce en masse and attend to their biological and moral imperative of raising children. In her controversial tome, ‘A Woman’s Place’, Serena dressed up her regressive social blueprint for the return to traditional gender roles. She branded it “Domestic feminism”, and praised the power of wifely submission: “Never,” she cautioned her critics, “mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.”
Skip ahead to this week’s episode and Serena is holed up with June in the Commander’s office, sipping tea like old colleagues, breaking the laws of Gilead through the very act of writing new ones. The episode opening makes plain that however much she retains her facade of pious zealotry, circumstances are causing Serena to practise a subtly different form of domestic feminism these days. And, as June observes in voiceover, “She seems pretty fucking happy”.
‘Women’s Work’ is a surprisingly compassionate episode, especially for the way it complicates our attitude towards Serena. Her kinship with June this episode is the impetus for a moment of unity for a group of women of Gilead (yes, even including Aunt Lydia), when the pair conceive of an act of justifiable lawlessness to save the life of baby Angela. At its centre is a demonstration of reasonable compromise, and a practical display of the meaningful contributions women could be making... if only it weren’t just men calling the shots.
Serena and June’s Me Party is short lived, when Commander Fred returns home from hospital and can’t usher them out of his office fast enough. (Nick’s eager-to-please child bride, Eden, is the only occupant of the Waterford residence who seems the least bit pleased about The Man Of The House’s return). Fred, once pictured in flashbacks as Serena’s ally and greatest advocate for her intellectual prowess, offers her patronising thanks for “helping out”, of the kind that would trigger many a working woman. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, he might as well be saying. I’ll take things from here. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.
All signs point to a depressing return to everyday oppression for our June, when the spectre of infant mortality propels her further into this uneasy affinity with Serena. Children are quite literally Gilead’s future, so the prospect of a dying baby spurs them into action. Janine, the unpredictable birth mother, gets special dispensation to see / touch / hold her precious cargo; and Serena defies Fred’s refusal to permit a woman to re-enter the workforce temporarily. Not just any woman, mind you: Dr Hodgson, a world renowned neonatalogist in the 'before times', now living mildly as a Martha.
Dr Hodgson is suggested as the last hope for baby Angela, as the 10 month-old gradually falters in a humidicrib of some unknown affliction. The woman is treated to a hero’s welcome by the near-giddy attending physician, who reminisces about his past work experience with her. Dr Hodgson commissions all manner of tests - swallow surveys, MRIs, metabolic and cardio checks - but determines the root cause is not a medical one. The good doctor prescribes unplugging the child and simply holding her close, which at first sounds like a dim prognosis, but importantly, is nothing that has occurred to any of the male doctors before her.
Even Aunt Lydia melts her steely heart, when she wakes to see Janine cradling the child, and tearfully singing Dusty Springfield. We brace for the shattering prospect that the song is a eulogy to Angela, but in a rare moment of optimism and catharsis, we have a happy ending. Yes, I know. Hard to believe. But true. Angela lives on, and we get hearty round of ‘Praised Be’.
Man may work from sun to sun, But woman's work is never done. This pithy proverb articulates the unequal burden women bear in performing the gendered duties of homemaking, child rearing, and countless other unpaid domestic tasks. This week we’ve lingered in that space awhile, to illustrate the unique challenge for the Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Aunts of Gilead, to Get Shit Done, in a world where the men call the shots. It has the best and worst outcomes: a child lives, and a Wife gets whipped.
Continue the conversation in SBS' dedicated The Handmaid’s Tale podcast, Eyes on Gilead. This week, my co-host Sana Qadar offers a thoughtful theory about what caused baby Angela’s brush with death, and Natalie Hambly considers what was the final straw for Fred, in his act of retribution towards Serena.
New episodes of Eyes On Gilead will be available to download as soon as the latest episode of the TV show has started streaming at SBS On Demand.