On The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June’s (Elisabeth Moss) dynamic has become akin to a dysfunctional relationship, with Serena as that bad boyfriend you know you shouldn’t be dating. Last episode, she humiliated June after she dared to express a desire for something outside of her set function. This time, the two are teaming up in the wake of last episode’s explosive attack in the episode fittingly titled “After.”
To no one’s surprise, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) has survived the attack, but he’s mostly out of commission while he recovers at the hospital. Many other high-ranking men weren’t as lucky, so a new face has stepped into the void in the form of Cushing (Greg Bryk), who has turned the streets into a war zone, murdering people on the slightest pretense. Or no pretense at all. More dangerously, he’s very skeptical June was abducted against her will. But with her husband absent, Serena is free to take whatever steps she deems necessary to protect her family after June alerts her of the danger.
June and the other Handmaids also have to grapple with the fact that many of their own are among the dead. They are at least allowed to mourn, albeit in the highly ritualized fashion Gilead allows, presided over by the ominous Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who is as unrepentant as ever. It’s long since been established she truly believes she’s doing right by the women under her charge, and she reveals this yet again when she outright tells them all she’s ever wanted was to give them a world without violence or pain. Like the best justifications in The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a twisted kind of sense in it. In a post-Trump world, our collective road to hell is now paved with paternalistic intentions rather than anything resembling good ones.
Tellingly, it is only after the funeral is over and the Handmaids are able to talk among themselves that they can truly mourn, even if most of them are unknown to them and us. It’s something of a lost opportunity to make these casualties-who were also victim’s of Gilead’s oppression-faceless. Making them recognizable would be a good chance to point out that even those fighting for freedom can still inflict devastating consequences.
The repercussion are also felt in Canada among those remnants of America who are anxiously awaiting more information. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is taking it absurdly well, and soon we find out it’s all part of an effort to add more to Moira’s (Samira Wiley) backstory. We’ve gotten hints of it before, but only if it related to June and her struggles. Wiley has done brilliant work in making Moira a force unto herself rather than an afterthought, who is every bit as vibrant as the character the show has seen fit to give the spotlight to. “After” really tries to give Moira something better, but the efforts made on her behalf show not only how little the show understands her, but how little they regard her. Her story comes off less like a subplot than a retcon.
Things start off surprisingly well at first, with flashbacks revealing that Moira once agreed to be a surrogate mother on behalf of a British couple. It’s actually a good development, since it explains how Gilead knew she was fertile enough to become a Handmaid. But The Handmaid’s Tale is less interested in exploring her unique perspective on pregnancy and feelings about giving up the child she gives birth to than giving her a previously unmentioned love interest who might’ve been her fiancée. Giving her such a major development this late comes off especially weak. Why would a woman who was supposedly such a major part of Moira’s life go unmentioned?
It feels like a more frustrating bit of insanity when considering the fact that Moira freely performed the very duties Gilead tried to force her into. She chose to conceive a child on behalf of an infertile couple, gave birth to a healthy baby, and then gave up her child with far less pain and fuss than a Handmaid typically experiences. All she had to do was take advantage of a financial incentive that made it worthwhile to her. Moira also experienced a kind of motherhood which is rarely addressed, and it was a far more layered one than the show has delved into so far. For all its strengths in depicting the inner lives of strong, complicated women under siege, the show’s depiction of motherhood is still somewhat simplistic. Why not delve into this, since the child was apparently taken overseas pre-Gilead? It could also explore Gilead’s rise from another fascinating vantage point, since Britian has had to reckon with far-right fanatics of their own post-Brexit.
At least The Handmaid’s Tale saves the best for last. There’s a reason feminists have a reputation for focusing so much on words. What we call people, and how we refer to them, matters. They are an indication of how society views people, and thus how they’re treated. Throughout “After,” they are of special importance, from the names of the dead to the survivors, and those who plotted the attack. Aunt Lydia refers to the women who perished by the names Gilead has seen fit to give, which assumes them to be the lost property of the men trying to impregnate them. At the very end, when the death of so many Handmaids has the effect of returning some of the exiled from the Colonies, June is reunited with Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Emily (Alexis Bledel), and she is able to tell Emily her real name, then do the same with the other Handmaids. It sparks a kind of quiet revolution, in which the Handmaids use their shopping time to stealthily introduce themselves, and in a sense really meet each other for the first time, while Eden (Sydney Sweeney) warily looks on. The attack doesn’t seem to have changed her, and she just may have the potential to bring this revolution to a screeching halt.
The surprises don’t stop once June returns home and Serena asks for her help. She’s not only managed to eliminate Cushing, she’s decided to issue a series of new orders. It’s all in her husband’s name, but it gives her a taste of the power she’s always wanted. She also decides to bring June with her by asking her to edit the documents where those orders are outlined, a shocking act when women are no longer permitted to read or write. As Serena settles down behind the Commander’s desk and June picks up the pen, there’s a good reason it’s an obvious visual equivalent to Ofglen’s bomb. The women of Gilead are starting to lose their fear, especially the Handmaids, who are beginning to realize their leverage as the country’s most needed resource. And the two women who have begun to work in tandem (again) have one important thing in common. The man who has been deigned to rule over them cannot hold a cande to either in any area. How this will play out politically and personally between all three once the Commander returns home is anyone’s guess.