After being nearly consumed by Offred, June (Elisabeth Moss) is back in “First Blood.” After waking up in the hospital inspired by her child stubbornly clinging to life, June is newly committed to escaping Gilead. Good thing, because she’s the only one who’s changed for the better.
After such a scare, it first seems that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is newly committed to treating June like a human being, especially now that the pregnancy is further along. But in the past, Serena has only shown her kindness when she believed June was about to fulfill her function as a Handmaid and give the increasingly desperate housewife the child she desires. That pattern is continued in “First Blood.” Serena allows June to sleep downstairs in the more luxurious den, see her baby on the ultrasound, and in a darkly funny scene, have a lunch date with the other Handmaids at her home. Well, it gets less funny when Serena learns of Ofglen’s (Tattiawna Jones) tongue deficiency.
But when June asks to see her daughter Hannah, even if for just a few minutes, Serena not only shuts her down, she remarks on June’s “deviousness” to the Commander (Joseph Fiennes). Flashbacks have already demonstrated that Serena was a true believer, but “First Blood” takes us back to a time in the Waterfords’ marriage when Serena was a fiery activist speaking at a college campus rife with protesters. She was not only sincere and engaging, she thrived on attempts to shout her down, all with the full support of her husband, albeit with some mansplaining. In true alt-right fashion, they both counted on their freedom to speak while arguing that others should be deprived of that right. “This is America!” Fred angrily states in response to students shouting her down. It’s inherently comic, since at this point he had to be actively plotting for America to cease to exist.
Because Serena isn’t the only one who has been unable to see June as a person. The Commander has forced her to be his mistress in the past, and he tries to do so again, although June is able to use her pregnancy to refuse him. It’s another reminder of how patriarchal society will always fail to satisfy even the men who run it. As Fiennes himself remarked, his character is drawn to powerful women. But such women are now outlawed, and Waterford is left with a wife who is as unable to fulfill his needs as her own. It makes a twisted kind of sense that they both exploit June accordingly. Serena even finds a fresh outlet for indignities to inflict: Nick’s new wife, the 15-year-old Eden (Sydney Sweeney). Eden herself mostly remains a simple character, but she shows the first glimmer of potential for complexity.
Eden has been brought up in the teachings of Gilead, and she fully embraces them. She believes she knows what god expects, and what her duties are, as well as Nick’s (Max Minghella). Her involuntary husband has little interest in becoming more complicit and accepting his set role in impregnating his child bride. But he’s shown how little choice he has when this seemingly sweet and naive girl begins to wonder if Nick is a gender traitor. It coerces him to consummate his marriage lest he end up on the Wall. It’s a deeply uncomfortable scene, especially as it leaves Eden eagerly anticipating motherhood. However, she is also instinctively disconcerted when Serena asks her to follow her lead and bully June, even if her upbringing means she obeys.
It’s unsettling, not just in how Serena is perpetuating abuse, but for what Eden could become. Eden may be a victim, but she is also dangerous as only a true believer is. She could and would report anyone she believes is a threat to Gilead and perhaps one day become just as monstrous as Serena herself. Serena may also be a victim, but it’s a state she brought on herself. Any remorse she feels is due to the fact that she is deprived of the benefits she enjoyed previously. If she possessed the power and privileges of an Aunt, she would feel no remorse whatsoever.
It makes for a lot reasons to be angry, with the threat of violence hovering over every complex interaction. The episode title obviously embodies this tragic fact of life in Gilead, but it’s rage that takes the forefront. Rage on the part of not only all the female characters on-screen in The Handmaid’s Tale, but the writers too. The first season wrapped before Trump was elected. The second pulses with a rare anger, that of a show being TOO relevant. It accounts for the celebratory tone at the end of the episode during a ceremony for the newly built, larger Center for processing Handmaids, as Aunt Lydia so whimsically puts it. The unexpected act of rebellion that occurs there is quickly followed by end credits overlaid punk music. In one way, it’s yet another reminder of the show’s ham-handedness. Yet this is also an indication of something far more disturbing. Such violence is inevitable under a regime which leaves no room or recourse for the underprivleged to voice their discontent. Does that mean it should be celebrated? The answer is no, but with increasingly misogynistic beliefs becoming more and more of a part of our daily reality, perhaps such endorsement is also inevitable. Anger isn’t just for male characters anymore.