There is no turning back from some choices.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) only seem like an unlikely pair of allies on the surface. This was always going to happen. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is in the hospital, and the ladies have taken over his study.
“You really are a very good writer,” Offred says. “Do you miss working?”
“I do truly detest knitting,” says Serena. And they smile at each other, almost slyly. It’s companionable, being heretics together. Reading. Writing. Orders go to the hospital. The Commander signs them. It’s all good.
Then, the king comes back to his castle. He’s grateful to Serena for “taking so many risks” to preserve her husband’s power in his absence. But the power balance has tilted again, and this time it’s more dangerous because both women have remembered what it feels like to be proficient at something and to have some agency. Most of us don’t let go of that lightly.
Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) pretty bouncy—compared to the Colonies, Handmaid detail doesn’t seem so terrible. (Emily, played by Alexis Bledel, disagrees. Strongly.) But when the pediatric ambulance goes by, Offred has to tell Janine that it’s Angela, the baby she still calls Charlotte, who’s ill. And Janine’s… a little freaked out.
So, the baby’s very sick, actually. And as it turns out, Serena believes “Gilead is not exploring every doctor available to them.” It seems there’s a world-class neonatologist in town. She’s a Martha. Serena asks her husband to give the woman a one-day transfer so she can try to help the baby. Fred’s not into the idea.
But Serena’s not 100% committed to what Fred thinks. Not anymore. Soon, she’s talking the Putnams into letting Janine see the baby. And the next thing we know, a baffled Martha is being led secretly through the hospital corridors. So she can do her work. Her real work. She concludes there’s nothing they can do for the baby, and they take her off life support and wait for her to die. After an angry moment, the defeated Mrs. Putnam (Ever Carradine) allows Janine to come in and say goodbye to the baby. The exhausted “parents” fall asleep on the couch. Janine holds the baby, taking off her surgical mask, her gloves… her clothes.
Fred Waterford is not pleased to discover “he” signed the order to let the doctor out of her Martha-cage. And makes Offred watch while he whips his wife with his belt. (Scripture demands it, of course.) Offred says, in voiceover, “Someone once said that men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” That someone was Margaret Atwood—well played, scriptwriters.
While not as richly layered with visual symbolism as some previous episodes, “Women’s Work” advances the narrative a great deal and, in particular, shows each of the primary characters what is at stake for them—what happens to them, specifically—when order is maintained and when it is disrupted. Neither comes without a price. Once you’ve taken the packet of letters out of your husband’s trunk, you’ve crossed one dangerous line, and once you’ve gone Gilead on your child-bride for touching your stuff, you’ve created the conditions for other problems when she’s tired of being treated like a pointless piece of furniture. Once you’ve told the batsy Handmaid she can say goodbye to the baby she gave birth to, you’ve opened a certain door. Janine can’t respect the rules, she can’t be polite; by the time the Putnams wake up she’s in her underwear on the windowsill playing with the miraculously recovered baby. It saves the baby, but it changes the question of who Angela’s mother is. Once you’ve let your Wife draw up your paperwork for you, she’s going to start remembering she has a mind of her own, and she might use it. Once you’ve whipped your wife in front of the Handmaid, you’ve enforced order at the expense of trust, which is a bad trade for most men, though for all of recorded history they’ve been weirdly slow to notice it. Once you’ve done that, you’ve identified yourself as someone who feels entitled to violence against women. Which probably means you’d beat a child, too, if they “deserved” it.
This episode’s master image is boxes. Thinking outside them, opening them, closing them. It’s Nick’s (Max Minghella) trunk with the taboo letters, and the musical jewelry box Serena leaves for Offred; it’s the incubator Angela’s in and the boxy window frame where she’s re-incubated by her biological mother. It’s about getting your ears boxed, as in being beaten. It’s Serena sending Offred “back to her room” like a punished child when she tries to help. It’s about things that, once you let them out of the box, they’re not going to fit in there ever again. It’s about what we call Pandora’s box, though in the actual myth she technically has a jar, not a box. But either way, when she turned it upside down, she unleashed on mankind every kind of chaos and disarray and malady and confusion; she dumped the whole human condition onto the world. One thing stayed lodged inside. It was hope.
Whether it was kept from us, or for us, is still being debated.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.