'The Handmaid's Tale' Shifts The Power In The Dramatic Fallout Of "After"

(We're going to kickstart our weekly The Handmaid's Tale review by answering one simple question: Who suffered the most?)The Handmaid's Tale is at a turning point. Not just in its dour mood, but also in the actions and agency of all of its characters — from our intrepid hero June (Elisabeth Moss) to her domineering mistress Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). As glimmers of hope increasingly threaten to crack through the oppressive atmosphere that dominates The Handmaid's Tale, we see the scales of power begin to tip. Gilead can't be overturned in one day, but it takes only a few words to start a rebellion.

Who Suffered the Most? Moira

Moira (Samira Wiley) has stolen each of her scenes as the outspoken, LGBT advocate who shoulders the heavy burden of being the show's main representation of people of color. So it's unfortunate that for much of The Handmaid's Tale, Moira has been relegated to the periphery of June's story. She's appeared mostly in June's rosy memories of "before," the idealistic rebel that June wishes she could be. But even when she appears in flesh and blood at the season 1 brothel Jezebel's, her struggle as a person of color in the white supremacy-coded Gilead (the show still refuses to acknowledge the racially coded Jezebel stereotype applied to black women!) remains a mystery.

So I cheered when we finally got a Moira flashback in this episode. And then grimaced a little when I realized how heavily it revolved around June. The scenes mostly feature Moira and June as Moira becomes an in vitro surrogate for a couple in England — with a few cameos from Moira's mostly unseen fiancee, Odette (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a lovely blonde doctor who is fridged just as soon as she's introduced. The build-up of Moira and Odette's relationship is organic and earned, but it feels a little hollow that she was introduced so late and for so little time. I hope we see more of Odette in future flashbacks so that she eventually becomes more than a body that Moira ID's in a cabinet room full of victims, and more than the beautiful picture that Moira lays on a memorial.

This Means War

It turns out that Ofglen's bombing of the Rachel and Leah Center was more of a loss than a triumph. The vast majority of deaths were handmaids, with quite a few commanders making it out of the explosion with no more than a few burns. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and the surviving handmaids carry out the funeral for the dead women, with Lydia mournfully leading the chant "We remember them." It's a surprisingly lavish ceremony for handmaids — who remain on the lower tier of Gilead's society — as ostentatious rituals tend to be reserved for high-class individuals. But Gilead has shown to be nothing if not skilled at further indoctrinating their citizens, and this ceremony reeks of mass propaganda.

The brief moment of harmony is rudely interrupted a few moment later, as the handmaids are driven through a neighborhood decorated by the bodies of wives, handmaids, commanders, and Marthas hanging in front of their houses — part of the new Security Commander Ray Cushing's war against the terrorists. Cushing turns the streets into a war zone, targeting and executing any suspected terrorists, and terrifying Rita when he suddenly arrives at the Waterford's house to question June. Greg Byrk gives us our most compelling male villain yet in Ray Cushing, drilling June on her escape and threatening both her and the Waterford's lives. It's somewhat odd that even though this is a patriarchal totalitarian regime, the male oppressor has mostly remained faceless. There's Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), to be sure, but he turned out to be a weak-willed, almost pitiful character compared to his powerful wife. The commanders, when they congregate, come across less like active threats to the women of Gilead than like foppish bureaucrats.

Byrk's bulging eyes and borderline campy performance gives us the most sinister character we've had since Aunt Lydia. But perhaps the most frightening thing he pulls is getting June and Serena to unite in defiance against him — forming a sort of tenuous partnership for the first time in their fraught history.

What's in a Name?

While the handmaids didn't seem to have won the battle, the aftermath of the bombing gives way to smaller victories. "After" depicts a quiet shift in power dynamics (shocking for this incredibly unsubtle show!) as June and Serena Joy timidly take back their agency.

Buoyed by the success of her power play against Cushing, Serena Joy is finally beginning to seize the power she has always craved. With the help of Nick (Max Minghella), Serena deploys her injured husband Fred's power against Cushing to have him accused of treason and arrested, stripping him of his power and gaining June as an unlikely ally.

But the biggest success here is for June, who finds herself surrounded by friends and allies once again (there's only so long you can make Alexis Bledel cough up blood and teeth). The emotional reunion between June and Emily (Bledel) prompts June to do the most radical move toward rebellion she has ever done: share her real name. It creates a ripple effect among the other handmaids, who begin to share their names with each other at the store — while Eden suspiciously watches.

Tale Tidbits

  • The funeral scene is a stark reminder of how gorgeous this show is. The snow falling like ashes! The blood red veils! Stunning.
  • This is the show's first reference to in vitro fertilization, a procedure that was barely more than a pipe dream when Margaret Atwood's novel was published in 1985.
  • The irony that Moira volunteers to be an in vitro surrogate before she becomes an involuntary handmaid is as on-the-nose as this show will get.
  • Everyone can see you kissing in the (public!) hospital hallway, June and Nick.
  • I know Luke's nonchalance is a choice but it's a bad choice.
  • The parallel between June clicking the pen and Lillith pressing the grenade button is good.