So many names. Our names mark us as individuals and also imply something about where we came from. We might choose new ones, but the names we are given when we’re born are part of what defines us as unique beings. That’s why they are among the many things Handmaids aren’t allowed to have.
At the end of “First Blood,” the last thing you see is Ofglen II (Tattiawna Jones) clicking the detonator on a bomb inside the spankin’ new Rachel and Leah Center. At the end of this week’s episode there’s another potentially explosive click.
But first, can we just take a moment to ogle the unbelievably beautiful photography and production design as the Handmaids walk through the snow to the mass funeral of the Handmaids who died in the explosion? Cloaked in charcoal and veiled in scarlet, they are now utterly indistinguishable from one another, unless you’re Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and visibly pregnant, chanting in a call-and-response as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) says a prayer: “We will remember them.” Does Aunt Lydia mean it when she says “Girls, I wish I could give you a world without violence?” Does this sadistic tool of the system actually have a beating human heart? Is she in her own way actually trying to save lives? Is she simply trying to keep herself in a power position? Is she merely the most soulless hypocrite ever? The more screen time this character gets, the more I begin to wonder: How did she become Aunt Lydia? Who was she before Gilead?
“In their names, dear Lord: We will remember them.”
It’s just so freaking rife. Long past the ending of the narrative in Margaret Atwood’s novel, this show continues to channel her esthetic so perfectly, the narrative moving like a figure skater over the icy surface of an unfathomably deep lake. Atwood consulted on the production of the second season—I hope she loves this adaptation half as much as I do.
It’s not looking good for anyone associated with the resistance. The Eyes have hanged bodies everywhere. Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is injured but alive. Commander Price (Robert Curtis Brown) is not, which is bad news for Nick (Max Minghella). Actually, it’s bad news for everyone, because he’s replaced by Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk), who immediately establishes martial law, and establishes himself as a good deal more vicious than his predecessor.
As it happens, that viciousness is a blessing in disguise. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) gets it. She doesn’t like him, even “from before,” and once Offred tells her he was in her house conducting an interrogation… well, that changes a few things. She knows this man can mess with her household, arrest her staff, harm “her” baby; could execute them all (he’s already done it to Ofglen’s household). Commander Waterford’s in intensive care. As a woman, even a Wife, Serena is powerless on her own. Only she’s not on her own. She has a driver who is highly motivated not to be associated with Offred’s escape. And she has Offred, who reminds her that Commander Waterford is “not here. Serena.”
This episode is, in a nutshell, about reclamation. Thirty-one Handmaids and 26 Commanders go, if you’re Gilead-pious, back to God. So many of them that Gilead reclaims Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) from the Colonies and puts them back in their red cloaks. Offred reclaims the story of her “abduction” when Commander Cushing attempts to pressure her into naming names. In Canada, Moira (Samira Wiley) reclaims a big piece of her past, the memory of a baby she had as a surrogate ($250K for a healthy baby!) and, after days looking though the vast archive of unclaimed, unnamed victims of the war, proof that her partner, Odette (the obstetrician who cared for her during the pregnancy) is indeed dead. Offred reclaims her humanity in the moment she calls Serena by her first name. Later, on seeing Janine and Emily back from the Colonies, she finds herself moving through the market whispering to the other Handmaids, “My name is June.” Before long, they’re all doing it. They transit, from the faceless, interchangeable bodies we saw in the first scene, to the people they used to be. They remember themselves. In Canada, a roll call of victims of the bombing is read, giving names to the dead in echo of the suppressed names of the living. June is not mentioned.
Serena reclaims her own power, forging Commander Waterford’s signature on paperwork that results in Commander Cushing’s removal. And, in an amazing move, she reclaims Offred—not by force this time, not with the threat of violence or the humiliation of servitude, but with collusion. It’s as if she’s just finally realized that she could have an ally instead of a rival. Offred is asked into the study upstairs not by Commander Waterford but by Serena, who discloses her intention to file “new security orders.”
“You’re an editor, right? Read over these for me.”
“I’ll need a pen.”
And we close in on Offred’s hand, the retractable pen poised over the draft. Click.
Welcome back, June.
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.