Seven episodes after incorporating Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” The Handmaid’s Tale directly invokes the song title—that’s one of the few demonstrations of restraint in the latest installment, which rushes through the aftermath of the Rachel and Leah Center bombing, Serena Joy and June/Offred’s all-too-brief alliance, and another revelation of just how little autonomy women have in Gilead (bonus meta-ness: an apocryphal Margaret Atwood quote). Overall, “Women’s Work” inspired some mixed reactions from The A.V. Club staff, which you can read about below.
Gwen Ihnat: This Handmaid’s season lost a lot of momentum for me after June’s (re)capture, so I was pleased to see the added energy brought to the series in the wake of Ofglen’s sacrificial bombing. Like last week, with Serena and June appreciating each other as colleagues, and this week when Serena is destroyed by this horrific social structure that she had a hand in creating. The considerable skills of Serena, June, and baby Angela’s neurosurgeon highlight just what Gilead is missing by ignoring the talents of fully half of its citizens. (Also, how amazingly bored must those women be, with nothing to read, or watch? Even Lionel Richie’s “Easy” sounds like heaven.) We’ve needed a win for so long this season, the subversive machinations of June, and most surprisingly, Serena, so that Janine can see her baby, are cheer-worthy (not sure what the show is saying about non-biological parents here, though, since Angela only thrives in the arms of her birth mother, who, unlike the testy Mrs. Putnam, loves her wholeheartedly).
Janine’s joy was so absolute, I almost thought this was the season-ender, but that would have left us with a devastated Serena Joy, who now somehow has to live with a man who says, “Forgive me, my darling,” before beating her with a belt in front of a handmaid, making her humiliation complete. The wholly patriarchal system is so corrupt that even Nick, ostensibly a good guy, turns into a bully, frustrated with the child bride Gilead has saddled him with. Part of me wants to know what the hell Serena was thinking when she wrote A Woman’s Place in the first place, but Yvonne Strahovski’s performance still manages to wring some surprising sympathy from me. The only thing that puzzles me on this episode: Why did June then go to the Commander? Like her VO indicates, was she looking for some momentary comfort? But since she was so filled with disdain at his return to the house, I found it the only false note in an otherwise stellar episode.
Laura Adamczyk: This season as a whole has been mixed for me, too, Gwen. There have been a number of amazing, often horrifying scenes (life in the Colonies, the child-bride joint marriage), but many of the show’s attempts to create tension and new plotlines have been off, at times outright unbelievable: June allowing herself to be manipulated into believing she’s responsible for the death of her escape driver, Moira having served as a surrogate in pre-Gilead times, and, in this episode, Serena Joy and June working together to let Janine see her sick baby. I believe that the two might form a loose alliance to order hits on Gilead leaders, but making a good-will offering to a Handmaid doesn’t seem like the fight that Serena Joy would get behind. I believe she wants to fight for something, regaining some semblance of the power she once had, but not this.
The rest of Serena Joy’s arc in this episode is rather incredible, though, and highlights the constantly shifting roles people play under the Gilead regime, the ways in which nearly everyone but those at the very top must lead double lives. It’s not just in having to hide what one is really thinking—a Handmaid seeming overjoyed at something as small as good weather, e.g., when she is being enslaved—but also in pretending like the pre-Gilead days don’t exist, everyone suppressing their past selves in the present. Which is partly what makes it so interesting when people assume their old roles. The transition that the Martha undergoes in this episode—first not knowing why she’s been summoned to the hospital, then realizing she’s not just being given permission to act in her old role as a physician but being more or less mandated to by a Commander’s wife—is really something, and further underlines everyone’s complexity and doubleness. Everyone has another story here, one that is itching to get out.
Danette Chavez: I was equally struck by Serena and June’s reversal of fortune, Gwen, or rather, positions. Mrs. Waterford has witnessed and overseen Offred’s abuse—it was only a few episodes ago that she fairly reveled in watching June suffer through Nick’s wedding to Eden. Serena might not realize the true nature of June and Nick’s relationship, but she knows at the very least that June felt she was losing an ally. That kind of cruelty and ongoing flexing of her limited influence kept me from feeling much sympathy for Serena—just look at the way she lashes out at June at the end by sending her away. Serena is sparing herself the embarrassment, not June. It’ll always be nearly impossible to watch any woman be hurt or subjugated, and I’m not suggesting that she deserves to be punished by the Commander. I don’t give a single fuck that she “betrayed” that incompetent fool, I care that she’s betrayed women, and continues to do so.
I’m still wrestling with that scene and this season overall; to the latter point, The Handmaid’s Tale season two has made only nominal efforts at inclusivity. Moira is still underwritten, even when the show crams in a season’s worth of backstory for her into an episode. When black women and women of color are featured, it’s all too briefly. Karen Glave played one of the world’s most prominent pediatricians, but what’s the likelihood that we’ll ever see her again? Especially now that it looks like baby Angela is on the mend. But I can still be happy that Janine’s baby is okay, and that mother and daughter were reunited, even if it won’t last long. Like Serena, June/Offred exerted her own influence in orchestrating that meet-up, which I might have enjoyed more if I’d ever seen a similar display of agency from characters like Moira. If the writers would just investigate why June and Serena still have some power in Gilead, it’d make for a much more compelling story overall.