Entertainment

Conservative Women Should Watch This 'Handmaid's Tale' Episode

In "A Woman's Place," being the Cool Girl backfires for Serena Joy.

by Genevieve Valentine
May 17 2017, 4:00am

George Kraychyk/Hulu

"They won't let you speak. I'm sorry."

We couldn't stay in Offred's head forever. As the show sets the stage for a multiple-season arc, we see more of the world beyond Gilead and more of the people around Offred.

The trick about a dystopian show in dystopian times is that the things that make it timely have also screwed with the audience's empathy. Conservatives in the real America are doubling down on the moral high horse even as they vote against healthcare, education, and safety measures. And those frantically fighting them aren't going to have much of a fuck to give about ol' Serena Joy's realization that in playing Cool Girl for the conservative agenda, she played herself.

The show's smart enough not to ask for much sympathy in this backstory. "Reproduction as a moral imperative," she breathes into the Commander's ear at the movies, in case we're not sure she's complicit. She writes books about why women should stay silently at home. She's every conservative-woman pundit you can name. Serena Joy helped build the prison she lives in, and it's hard not to feel a certain grim satisfaction as she supports an agenda that implicitly sets her lower—every time she accepts the Commander's smiling empty support or his earnest empty promises—only to lose.

"You're an amazing woman" doesn't mean much when you're denied education, public voice, open access to power. You're amazing, he means, because you let yourself be silenced. And now there's nothing left for Serena Joy but to host and smile and offer placid answers to an ambassador asking what it's like not to be permitted to read. "Speak wisely," she'd scolded Offred—nice to still have power over somebody—but we know that's empty too. The time to speak wisely was when you could still speak. (Every conservative woman should see this episode; few of them would see themselves.)

Even though the show is careful about asking too much sympathy for Serena Joy, this is also the episode that exposes the awkwardness behind the show's diversity. Gilead breathes on the back of white supremacist Christian terrorism. The novel's very specific about who was allowed to stay and go (who was allowed to live). In the theocracy responsible for the show's status quo, the presence of people of color means the government was awful enough to take away women's rights, but not awful enough to be white supremacists. (That would, apparently, be really bad.) I get that it's hard to portray white supremacy with an entirely white cast if a lot of TV already looks like white supremacy, but this aspect of the show continues to sit uncomfortably, especially as the scope of the show gets wider, and other beats hit so close to home.

Speaking of which: Offred is a trafficked woman, and this episode hits another of its white-fear beats when Offred's forced to admit she's happy because she'll be killed if she doesn't. Later, knowing it's a potential death sentence, she tells the truth; in front of fairy-tale winding ivy, Moss delivers a short list of dehumanizations, and we get to watch the ambassador absorb all that from the outside.

But we—those of us who look down on Serena Joy—already know with the sluggish horror of a nightmare that nothing will be done. The ambassador offers sympathy, and that's all. Sure, what's happening to Offred is terrible and trading lives for goods is wretched, but you see, it's really important, so. This, too, is close to home—maybe too close, the agenda of so many groups who claim to be progressive and promise to help the marginalized, in just a little while. Nothing's ever been so well-timed as this episode's cliffhanger: If the ambassador's assistant hadn't offered help, we'd be facing something too bleak to bear.

"I guess you get used to things being one way," Janine muses, and Offred looks at her with quiet horror, because it's true; Offred's attempt not to lose her mind in imprisonment has become, by degrees, a life. She's been joking with Rita, hooking pinkies with Nick; she was surprised, for a moment, that the Mexican ambassador was a woman. She grips that notepad both like a lifeline and a foreign object, and we see that for a moment, she'd truly feared being pushed under by it all. Now things move outward and forward—and for Offred, not moment too soon.

Before We Go:

  • Even Aunt Lydia got a rude awakening about the limits of collusion. "They deserve to be honored just like everyone else," she pleads—a twisted moment of advocacy for the "damaged ones" they maimed to make them docile—but it's Serena Joy's turn to push down.
  • Gold and yellow are so rare on this show that the ballroom seemed the belly of a dragon and Castillo's butter-yellow pantsuit felt like a scrape.
  • Everyone without power parrots power. Even Offred stands at the bed and grips the post, as if compelled to understand how the Commander can do what he does.
  • Floria Sigismondi gives us one of the series' most visceral shots (literally), with Offred staring at the blood-smeared wall as the suds come down; that faceless shot finds its nightmare reverse later, in Moss's looming death's-head smile with the deep-sea study doors behind her.
  • "Are you happy?" The pause lasts just under 30 seconds and feels like three years.
  • There's a tab on the back of Serena Joy's cocktail dress. In Gilead, not even a zipper can be naked.

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