Glass has a number of interesting properties. It is transparent but solid. It conducts heat, but not all bands of light, which is why you can hang out in a greenhouse without getting sunburned. It can be a one-way barrier, meaning energy can enter a glass object but it cannot get out, which is how greenhouses stay hot. It can be delicate or incredibly sturdy. It’s smooth but brittle, and it shatters into pieces that can cut you to ribbons. It often has low tensile strength, meaning it will break under too much weight, but high compressive strength, meaning you can apply a lot of pressure to it without it budging. It transmits visible light (which means illumination as well as understanding; there’s a reason why we refer to revelation as “seeing the light”). Depending on how it’s treated, it can also reflect light, which is what is going on with mirrors. Curve it at the right angle and it can focus the light of the sun and start a fire. Nonetheless, it is also a symbol of fragility: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
OK, class over. Watch for glass in the Season Two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Word.” Windows. Light fixtures. The greenhouse. Glass is the connective tissue of the episode—we even get a very, very brutal example of what women have long known as “the glass ceiling,” which is of course perilously low in Gilead.
Have you ever had to go through the things someone left behind when they die? It’s always eerie and nearly always sad, and unless you’re seriously made of stone it’s an uncomfortable confrontation with your own mortality. But usually there are little secrets, things people can’t let go of, that they tuck away, and finding them can be poignant, funny, outrageous or singularly joyful. Eden’s (Sydney Sweeney) tucked-away secret? Literacy. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) finds the girl’s Bible hidden amongst her possessions, every passage covered with scribbled notes. She wasn’t just reading Scripture; she was studying it. Thinking critically about it. Investigating it. Dissecting it. Offred suffers a new level of fear for her infant daughter, and goes to Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) demanding to know what she, what educated, intelligent Serena Waterford, intends to do about raising a child who will be forced to be illiterate because she’s female. “She will obey His word,” Serena says icily. “She cannot read His word,” Offred shoots back. Serena orders her out of the greenhouse and we get a fabulous long, lingering shot of them on opposite sides of the glass. It’s interesting to note a certain strange power shift here: Offred is on the outside but she doesn’t seem “shut out” so much as free. Serena’s the one who’s trapped, and they both know it. She can’t admit it yet, but Offred’s words have clearly pierced Serena’s shell.
It’s when Fred (Joseph Fiennes) asks Eden’s father about his other daughter, and the father notes that he was the one who turned Eden in, that the full impact of those words really hit home. “What are you going to do when they come for your daughter?” Offred growls at the Commander.
He pivots. “Mind your tongue.” Then he slaps her. And Offred does exactly what I did when someone once slapped me across the face: She slaps him back. Hard. It’s interesting. He grabs her face and shoves her onto the couch—we know he’s capable of justifying rape, beatings, and certainly acts of psychological violence. He’s just been given a big old reason, yet all he can do is mutter some Old Testamant kinda hoohah about the mouth of a woman being a dark pit. She gives him her signature “try me, asshole” stare. (As an aside, the stuff between the lens and the retina of the eye, which makes up most of the mass of the eyeball, is called the “vitreous” body, meaning glassy.) Anyway, Fred Waterford seems to be losing his grip a little. He’s becoming increasingly… brittle.
So, you’ve probably noticed that Emily (Alexis Bledel) is completely falling apart. She says some things to Offred on a walk that sound a hell of a lot like goodbye. Her first ceremony at her new posting isn’t exactly what she’s expecting. There’s 1960s pop playing and the ceremonial pillow is strewn on the couch. Commander Lawrence (a seriously and gloriously freakazoid Bradley Whitford) isn’t even there, much less his addled wife. She even has time to find a knife at the bar and stash it in her dress. But there’s no call for it: Commander Lawrence says he has no intention of doing that.
But she still has the knife—unfortunately for Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who says just one sentence too many. Aunt Lydia’s gonna be feeling that in the morning. If she lives. Probably: She’s a tough bird. Emily is not. Emily has become extremely breakable. Glass-like, arguably. Those walking-dead eyes of hers glow with elation and adrenaline for a minute over what she’s done. And then she remembers who she really is, or was. And I’m pretty sure that’s not anger or fear anymore, but desperate remorse.
Serena and Fred come home and Offred discovers the hubs has had one of Serena’s fingers cut off for having had the temerity to read John at the Gilead Town Hall meeting in an entreaty to allow girls to read the Bible. “I tried,” she whispers, showing Offred the mutilated hand. OK: This is new. For the whole series, whenever Serena has been threatened, humiliated or in any way disempowered, she has taken it out on Offred. Now she’s been pushed too far. She understands that she and Offred are in this shitshow together in a way she and her husband never have been. Offred, who has known that for a while now, simply sits on the bed next to her and clasps Serena’s other hand in her own. Downstairs, Fred doubles down by suggesting that if Offred’s “obedient,” he could let her stay there, with her daughter. “We could try again,” he says. “For a boy this time.”
“Go fuck yourself, Fred.”
Now, you’d think saying that would get Offred another slap, if not an appointment with the Gilead Tongue-Removal Team. But it’s like he doesn’t even hear her. He keeps upping the ante, saying he could arrange more visits with Hannah. Wow. I think it’s just possible that Fred Waterford is desperate for a new ally, and that he realizes he is indeed fucked without any of the women in his corner. Why do so many men only realize this when it’s too late? Y’all have had centuries to get it through your craniums, seriously.
Commander Lawrence escorts the anguished Emily into a car (with an awesome use of Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass!” Presumably to her death. (Or not: Commander Lawrence is truly a wild card.)
A fire breaks out across the street from the Waterfords and suddenly everything’s chaos: Rita has arranged a network of Marthas to get Offred and the baby out of Gilead. There’s a crazy chain of mad dashes, but she has to get past the greenhouse, where of course Serena has taken refuge.
Serena protests, but she can’t bring herself to consign that baby, the child she wanted more than anything in the world, to life under the regime she helped design. With a tearful blessing, she lets them go.
At the end of the line a darkened car is waiting. In it are Commander Lawrence and Emily. At the exact moment it dawns on Emily that she’s being freed, not executed (“I’m getting myself in deep shit,” Lawrence quips), we see that something has dawned on Offred, too. And that she isn’t getting into the car. She hands the baby to Emily, says “Call her Nicole,” and turns back. People have risked their lives, set fires, pulled guns on their Commanders, all for her, and she turns back. Away from the baby and into almost certain death.
I gotta tell you, I don’t think she goes back for Nick (Max Minghella). Or even Hannah, notwithstanding the “I’ll Be Your Mirror” flashback (another masterful song choice). The look on her face is not about longing for her daughter. It’s that something happened when Serena let that baby go. June Osborne remembered that, according to the Bible and many non-mythological sources, there is something about self-sacrifice that puts you beyond the reach of blind, stupid tyranny. She knows that unlike Emily, she can withstand it, and she knows that just getting out, while so many others are suffering, is not going to be enough for her any more.
I have the feeling she’s going back for Serena.
Read all of Paste’s episodic reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two here.
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.