The Explosive "First Blood" Promises To Change Everything In 'The Handmaid's Tale'

(We're going to kickstart our weekly The Handmaid's Tale review by answering one simple question: Who suffered the most?)

This season of The Handmaid's Tale has been an exercise in dangling hope in front of our eyes, only to wrench it away immediately. But in the explosive "First Blood," that hope may finally stick around.

The sixth episode of season 2 finally turns the tide on the dour mood (even more than usual) that has overtaken the series for the past few episodes. But despite a riveting final few minutes, the rest of the episode stumbles through some lurid love triangles and a questionably sympathetic portrayal of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) pre-Gilead.

Who Suffered the Most? Serena

An odd choice, I know. But then, so is the episode's choice to heavily focus on Serena to the point of making her sympathetic. Though now that I think about it, I have been asking for that.

It's smart to pivot the episode away from June (Elisabeth Moss) after we've been so heavily embedded in her oppressive POV, and Serena is a fascinating character who is in dire need of an arc. Once a powerful motivational speaker who helped endear the American public to Gilead's fundamentalist regime, Serena found herself shut out of the very system she helped create — left with only the option of having a baby to cement her status in Gilead's power structure. It was a striking moment toward the end of season 1 when she was literally shut out of a meeting of Gilead's founders, just as she seemed on the verge of regaining her influence. But Serena is better in concept than in execution. Since season 1, she has been left little to do but stew in her own self-contempt, taking out her frustrations on Offred while attempting to settle into the Stepford Wives life she has built for herself. But finally, we get another glimpse at pre-Gilead Serena Joy, and the fascinating dynamic between her and her husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes).

The flashback follows Serena during one of her first campus speaking engagements for her book "A Woman's Place," proselytizing the value of women fulfilling their "biological destiny." But the thing is, she starts to make sense. While she's greeted at the campus like the Ann Coulter stand-in that she is — with angry student protestors calling her a fascist and a Nazi — we can see why it was so easy for her and Fred's fundamentalist mission to take over the U.S. government. As she rattles off dire statistics about the falling birth rate and calls her audience spoiled brats living in "an academic bubble" (though stopping short of calling them snowflakes), you can't help but see her side of the picture. And that's the most frightening part.

I'm not sure if it's a failing on the show's part or their intention, but it feels unnerving. When the students curse and jeer at her, their accusations of "Nazi" or "fascist" ring false, partly because Serena is so shaken and visibly upset, and partly because of the show's clumsy approach to race. The Handmaid's Tale continues to insist that this world exists in a post-racial society, but it doesn't jibe with the white supremacy inherent in the fundamentalist Christianity that provides the building blocks for Gilead. That white supremacy doesn't exist in The Handmaid's Tale, and for better or for worse, it makes their society less repugnant. Race plays such a huge part in the fear-mongering of today's current political climate, but its absence in the show only serves to make Serena and her cause more sympathetic.

And nothing's more sympathetic than martyrdom — which is what Serena finds as she's basking in the ecstatic reception to her speech. Shots ring, and her assistant dies while Serena is shot in the gut. But it only helps her in the end — she gets to label the shooter a terrorist, and we get to feel a twinge of pity for the pain-wracked Serena.

Before and After

Meanwhile, June is recovering from her fall to rock bottom, discovering that her excessive bleeding was due to a subchorionic hemmorage. A completely normal condition, the doctor tells her and Serena, though it doesn't stop Serena from being overbearingly protective for the next few days. June's scare even pushes Serena to extend a sort of olive branch to June, allowing her to see the sonogram and setting her up in the living room to sleep.

She even goes so far as to surprise June with a dinner attended by her handmaid friends, but the tense atmosphere makes the event feel more like an enforced playdate than the fun gathering that Serena intended. Serena seems almost desperate to please June, even serving the girls pie, until her enthusiasm dies when she sees that Ofglen's tongue had been cut out. But June cuts through the awkwardness by chatting about an old brunch place that she once frequented in Boston, to which Serena surprisingly interrupts with the name of the restaurant. "Who knows, maybe we were there at the same time," Serena chuckles. "Serendipity." The scene's delicate balance of levity (that's right, this may be the funniest scene you get all season!) and dread dissipates when she says this, and Serena is left feeling isolated once again as June and the other handmaids gather around her pregnant belly.

Unfortunately, Serena's last attempt to bring peace between them ends with their relationship being more fraught than before. Serena gives June a peek of the nursery, to which June responds by tearfully begging to see her daughter. But Serena, betrayed that June would try to manipulate her so, forbids it and banishes her back to her room.

Rachel and Leah

Gilead frequently refers back to the Biblical Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob who both gave their handmaids to their husband to bear children in their places. But "First Blood" also nods to the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, two sister-wives who constantly vied for the attention of the husband. The two woman are polar opposite archetypes — the wife vs. the mother — and the two are caught in a jealous battle for their husband's affections.

But the love triangles that spring up in this episode feel more lurid than Biblical. Serena, June, and now Nick's child bride Eden, dance around each other in games of cat and mouse, while the men are either brushed away or easily manipulated. Serena and June offer the most standard Rachel and Leah conflict (Serena, the privileged wife who wants to be a mother, and June, the mother-to-be), but Eden is supposed to be an amalgam of both: the dutiful wife, mother, and general pious pain in the ass. Unfortunately, her presence only turns the soap opera vibes up to 11.

Serena is grappling with her inadequacies as a mother, Eden is struggling to be the perfect wife for Nick, and Nick and Fred are pining for June, who finds herself having to mediate the increasingly ludicrous tangle of love affairs. But even as she encourages Nick to have sex with his eager wife (who worries at one point that Nick is a "gender traitor") and flirts with Fred to get a picture of Hannah, it at least feels like June has the upper hand, Moss carrying herself around with a bit of a swagger and a smirk. She won't soon forget her promise to her unborn child.

But "Rachel and Leah" doesn't solely speak to the episode's soapy love affairs. It's also the name of the new Red Center being built to house and train new Handmaids — its sleek, modern structure a far cry from the old school gym. But as Fred christens the new, intimidating building in front of Gilead's most powerful officers, something happens that will finally shake up this season for good. Ofglen slowly makes her way into the center, surprising the handmaids standing in ceremony outside and greeted with an irritated wave of the hand by Fred. But as he orders her to return to her place, she suddenly raises her hand to show that she's holding a grenade. The handmaids flee and Ofglen triggers the bomb, bringing the room crashing down in a blaze of fire. And that glimmer of hope returns once again.

Tale Tidbits

  • June's personality is back! "When is her bedtime anyway?" Classic.
  • Fred holding the knife between him and June during their midnight snack is a very on-the-nose image, even for this show.
  • It's clear in the flashbacks that Serena holds the upper hand in her marriage, especially when she coldly commands Fred, "You stop it. Stop it and be a man." Cut to Waterford later finding the shooter and killing his wife in front of him.
  • The easy camaraderie between Rita and June is subtle but one of my favorite parts of this season. It's nice to have a trusting relationship between two women that isn't mired by hate or fear.
  • "I love you." "She's your wife." The dialogue in this show sometimes...
  • If the child bride scene didn't gross you out, the hole in the bedsheet will.