The Handmaid’s Tale continues to surprise me. In a welcome twist, the show takes a step back from Offred and puts us in the shoes of the women complicit in her oppression… proving enablement is a crime all its own.
“A Woman’s Place” opens on Offred (Elisabeth Moss) still in an afterglow after her night of passionate lovemaking with Nick. She knows it cannot happen again, so she seems determined to hang onto every shred of hope and courage that it inspired. That courage is needed as the handmaids are put through the paces during the visit of a delegation from Mexico. The Gileadean government is desperate for a trade deal, as their currency is on the brink of collapse, so the government is focused on showing Gilead at its best. This includes, of course, lying about basically everything.
There’s a scene where the commanders and their wives are entertaining the female Mexican ambassador at Commander Waterford’s home, and Offred is presented as a sort-of prized animal for inspection. The commander (Joseph Fiennes) revels in how Offred and her fellow handmaids graciously volunteered for their sacred duty, which the ambassador is shocked but humbled to hear. She asks Offred to confirm that she volunteered (which she does), as well as if she’s happy in her current life (she says she is, albeit after a near emotional breakdown). Offred knows she can’t reveal the truth about her forced servitude to this woman, especially after a reminder from Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) to behave… a command that Serena Joy understands from experience.
In flashbacks, we see Serena Joy and the commander in the weeks prior and during the government takeover, giving us a better glimpse at how the insurrection was executed. In the TV adaptation, Serena Joy wasn’t a televangelist, she was an author and public speaker advocating for women to return to traditional values— she even got arrested for inciting a riot, showing her temper is a recurring problem (as seen during her confrontation with Offred in episode three). We see the original relationship between Serena Joy and the commander, which was faith-based but passionate, as well as how it deteriorated once Gilead was in place.
Serena Joy is a clearly intelligent woman, one who helped shaped Gilead’s ideals and morals, but she was cast aside once men had seized power, and has suffered in submissiveness ever since. Every time Serena Joy was held back, the commander just shrugged and said, “Sorry babe!” but Serena Joy didn’t do anything about it… and she still isn’t. She’s complacent in her own oppression. For example, in a poignant moment, the ambassador questions why Serena Joy, who wrote a book to help women, would want to live in a world where women could no longer read it. Serena Joy defends her new world, but you can tell part of her doesn’t believe in it.
Likewise, Offred feels remorse about concealing her true feelings from the ambassador for the rest of the episode, but she does her best to hide it— including in a scene with the commander, where she safeguards her internal disgust to stay in his good graces. However, there’s only so much Offred can stand, and she’s pushed to the breaking point after learning the truth about what the trade deal with Mexico is all about, during a diplomatic party where Gilead’s children were paraded like trophies. Offred discovers the Mexican government wants handmaids to fix their crippling population decline, meaning Gilead would be conducting human trafficking in addition to forced slavery.
In the last scene of the episode, Offred finds herself alone with the Mexican ambassador and her associate, and decides to take a risk. She cannot let the ambassador go on thinking that she and the other handmaids are actually happy, and so she lets everything out, hoping a female leader will understand her pain. She blurts out every disgusting secret about Gilead’s forced servitude—the capture, the beatings, the regular rape. Only thing is… the ambassador doesn’t care, at least not enough to do anything about it. The ambassador is faced with a terrible truth, and instead chooses to be complicit. This is a key moment in the series, the minute you realize how much this world will excuse out of desperation—not just in Gilead, but everywhere else, too.
Luckily, there’s one moment of hope amidst all the pain: We learn that Offred’s husband, Luke, is still alive, and the ambassador’s associate promises to secretly get a message to him.
This might be my favorite episode of the show so far, and may go down as one of the best of the season. As much as I’ve loved exploring Offred’s point of view, it was interesting to look at the oppressive world of Gilead through the eyes of the other women affected. Whether they’re in a place of power, like the ambassador, or a position of domestic imprisonment, like Serena Joy, it asked a simple question of them: How could they be so willing to forgive such atrocities? It’s a question that doesn’t get answered, and I honestly don’t think it ever will. It’s something we all have to think about for ourselves.
- As much as I like Nick’s involvement in Offred’s life, giving her a bit of sexual release, he isn’t being very responsible, and I’m worried about how his actions could affect Offred. She even points out that getting caught would mean she’ll get punished, while he (as an Eye) would be excused.
- I’m so glad that Luke is alive, giving Offred a bit of hope. I’m curious to see if we’ll explore what happened to him after they got separated.
- Watching Serena Joy, along with all the other women of Gilead, throw out their old clothes in favor of their single-colored uniforms was very depressing. It felt like she was getting rid of her old identity, only to put on a new one that didn’t fit her quite right.
- Seriously, screw that ambassador.