When someone remarks, “I guess you get used to things being one way,” in The Handmaid’s Tale episode A Woman’s Place, it feels like a warning. True, the whole series serves as a kind of cautionary tale of what we could become, but A Woman’s Place shows us what we normalize when the dust settles and injustice becomes our everydy reality.
Just as Offred and her fellow Handmaids have grown accustomed to how things are, so have we. But when a visiting delegation arrives, we see Gilead from without rather than within. Suddenly, Offred comes to realize just what she has been forced to normalize for survival, especially when she learns that the visitors are a female Mexican ambassador and her male assistant. Offred then sees herself as outsiders see her, and what she’s been reduced to becomes that much harder to cope with. Lately, the show has given her a few consolations, such as a reawakened mind, triggered by her friend Ofglen’s (Alexis Bledel) refusal to conform, and Offred’s night of passion with Nick (Max Minghella), which gives her the first sense of passion and intimacy with another person since Gilead began. But The Handmaid’s Tale giveth, and The Handmaid’s Tale taketh away. Just when this poor woman thinks she has nothing more to lose, the series shows more signs of takething.
This is the first episode that doesn’t belong to Offred, but rather, a very different woman. We’ve already seen how Gilead began from without, but A Woman’s Place shows us the story from within for the first time, as we see just who Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) was and who she is now. It’s been made clear that she and her husband are true believers, but Serena actually used to be an activist in her own right with a vibrant career. She may have advocated for women to return to the home, but in true contradictory fashion that such views take, she did it publicly, by giving speeches and writing books, clearly loving every minute. Now, as Ambassador Castillo (Zabryna Guevara) points out, she has helped create a world where women are no longer allowed to read.
She and her husband did want to make the world better, and they were willing to kill in order to create a society that conformed to their values. But the beginning of their brave new world was also kicked off the gradual dissolution of Serena Joy’s life and marriage. As Ferris Bueller said, “You can’t respect someone who kisses your ass.” In order to live with herself, Serena had to surrender herself, and once the Commander saw how willing she was (outwardly anyway) to give up all her power and rights, his love for her began to wane. Small wonder he can no longer see her as the partner, and is trying to make something out of less than nothing with Offred.
A Woman’s Place finds compassion for Serena while acknowledging just what she is willing to do to other women to secure her place and keep her marriage running, if only on fumes. She puts on a truly masterful display of propaganda in order to help make the handmaids themselves her country’s prime export in the creepiest display of children at a political event since Nazi Germany. Seeing evidence of the fruitful multiplying turns Ambassador Castillo from a potential ally of Gilead’s oppressed women to a complicit partner of the oppressors. Her country’s birthrate is plummeting, and she will do what it takes to get new blood flowing again, even if it means that Gilead’s state-sanctioned sex slavery will spread. It’s a grim reminder of how women are also willing to throw other women under the bus.
Offred’s realization of this as she pleads her case as a woman and human being to Castillo is powerful, but the fact that she would even get the chance to speak truth to power rings somewhat false. Nor is this episode big on subtlety, with its rather obvious juxtapositions and heavy-handed symbolism. What it does is explore and expand Atwood’s book while staying true to the what brought it into existence in the first place. Now that the series has been renewed for a second season, it marks a beginning of a new phase that’s as intriguing as it is frightening.