The Handmaid’s Tale crossed a major milestone in the episode “Women’s Work” by getting me to feel sympathy for Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). She’d been fleshed out in previous episodes, but the the reaction I was obviously intended to have never came. She knew what she was doing the entire time, and what would happen. Any consequences are of her own making, and any regrets stem from pure selfishness.
This time was different. Serena not only took a very big risk to help others, she suffered very painful consequences for it. Granted, this could only end the way it always had, with Serena pushing June (Elisabeth Moss) away. But before she did, the two women actually ended up working in tandem issuing orders on Commander Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) behalf, and Serena was able to briefly have the identity she lost. Regaining a taste of that life and some of the control she once had meant she felt less of a need to punish June, and allowed the two women to truly bond for the first time. Before, June was merely the Handmaid, the schemer working to undermine Serena. But for a brief time, she was seen as a person.
There’s a shift when the Commander returns home more committed to the cause than ever, but it doesn’t prevent the unexpected alliances that form when Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) daugther Angela falls ill for no discernable reason. It leads to another first, that of women from different castes pulling together in order to save her, with Serena taking a much more radical course of action after Waterford refuses to allow a Martha who was once a brilliant doctor to examine Angela.
The stakes are high, not only for Angela, but for Janine’s always fragile state of mind, but the execution is bungled to such a degree that Serena and June’s relationship ends up being far more compelling. They both rediscover their identities to a certain extent, as does the female doctor who ends up trying to help Angela. It’s an intelligent commentary on how our lives can themselves be buried in another life forced upon us by outside forces.
But once again, intelligent insight is watered down by bad priorities. The Handmaid’s Tale is smart enough to show us the end result of Serena’s good deeds, and how powerless she really is, even after she seemed to have taken some of her power back. In the aftermath, Serena has painful, humiliating scars to show for it, courtesy of her once loving husband, who makes sure June is also there to witness it. The ploy works, and Serena detaches from June, who then goes into another one of her hopeless spells when her desperate appeal to Waterford (why she would do this is unclear) also fails.
The narrative is then taken over by Janine, who apparently heals her daughter through the miracle of…parenting? Yes, where medicine, or even that brilliant doctor, could not help, Janine seemingly triumphs with the power of love, and her song to her daughter is what plays over the end credits. It’s a touching but troubling development, ironically putting Janine and motherhood itself into the overly exalted position Gilead also reserves for it. How exactly does that square with the show’s points about the perils of ignoring the very real talents of women? Janine and the women around her deserve far better.