The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Episode 8: Women’s Work Recap

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“We do our work in the evenings. She writes, I read. In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we’re heretics.

“I was already on the naughty list. An adulteress. A fallen woman, as Aunt Lydia used to say. But this is new territory for Serena, I think. How does she feel about falling? She seems pretty f**king happy.”

In the background, the Commodores’ Easy plays, with the lyrics, “easy like Sunday morning.” There are cups of tea and baked goods scattered around Fred’s cosy study. If not for their outfits, this could be a working brunch between two professional women before the war.

Episode 8 of season 2, Women’s Work, begins with Serena and June doing the work they were paid to do before Gilead stripped them of their rights and identities. We’ve never seen either woman look so focussed, relaxed and happy.

The episode ends with Janine having saved her baby’s life by instinctively giving her the skin to skin contact, love and affection she’s been missing. Angela/ Charlotte has been withering away due to a condition called Failure to Thrive, which babies succumb to when their needs aren’t being properly met. Naomi may not have meant to neglect her baby, but she also didn’t particularly like or want the baby, who is a product of her husband’s affair with Janine, so she ignored her as much as possible. It’s difficult to meet the needs of a nonmobile, nonverbal person when you ignore them. Janine wanted desperately to keep her baby, and is ecstatic to be with her again. Charlotte is glowing from the reunion with her birth mother. Janine has an instinctive understanding of mothering, while Naomi hasn’t been able to bring herself to mother this child.

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On the way to saving the baby, Serena goes behind Fred’s back and has a Martha brought to the hospital who was formerly a renowned neonatologist. Serena has to forge orders and Fred’s signature to requisition the Martha, but she feels that nothing in Gilead is more important than the life of a child. The Martha is a black woman. Fred feels that nothing is more important than maintaining the new social order, and this woman can’t possibly know more than the doctors already on staff. Serena created the concept of Gilead expressly as an antidote to rapidly falling birth rates and high infant mortality rates. It goes against everything she’s worked for, sacrificed for, and believes in to let the child die rather than calling in a woman to care for the baby.

The episode also ends with Serena being whipped by Fred with a leather belt in front of June for the sin of bringing the Martha to the hospital after Fred had specifically told her not to. Over the course of the season and the episode, we’ve seen what makes Serena Joy tick. She needs a cause and to believe that what she’s doing matters. She needs attention, and to be able to use her fierce intelligence. She needs to be able to maintain her pride, social standing, maybe even to lead. She believes in faith, marriage and children as the cornerstones of society.

Gradually, everything that matters to Serena is being stripped away from her. She no longer has her writing and speaking career. She isn’t even allowed to read the words of others. Her husband cheats on her with other women and barely speaks to her. He rarely consults her about professional matters anymore, when they used to be equal partners. She’s given up the lifestyle she once had, where she traveled, ate in restaurants, was well read, dressed fashionably and lived in a trendy area. All she has at this point are her status as Fred’s wife and the baby that’s on the way.

When Fred whips her in front of June, using the belt as a strap across her butt with Serena bent over a chair like a child, he believes that he’s just re-establishing his dominance as the man of the house. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s also killing what’s left of his marriage, and making Serena move from trying to make their marriage work to barely tolerating his presence because she actually hates him.

By degrading her and humiliating her in front of the lowest status person in the house, Fred has signalled that he views Serena on the same level. The one thing of her own that Serena has had to cling to was her own righteousness. She is a married woman of faith and the wife of a Commander. She is deserving of respect, unlike the sinners and unwomen. Now Fred has reduced her to that level, and she’s at June’s mercy. June could spread the story far and wide. Rita could have heard the beating and could also tell others.

Fred has left Serena with little to no reason to remain loyal to him, beyond habit and fear, the same motivations that the nation of Gilead uses to keep people in line. Everything is the same, day after day, until the people are nothing but scared, bored drones. But, as with Serena, if you take away everything good in people’s lives, everything they live for, fear and habit won’t keep them from starting a revolution.

All Serena has left now is the baby, which isn’t really hers and isn’t born yet. They’ve emphasized that pregnancies are still tricky in Gilead, and babies don’t always survive, so a healthy child is not a sure thing. If something happens to the baby, what would be Serena’s motivation for continuing to stay with Fred and live by Gilead’s rules? Her pride?

There’s a good chance that Serena won’t end up with this baby, in order for the writers to complete her downfall from the architect of Gilead to a woman who has nothing but regrets and anger.

🎵I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so
I only know I never want to let you go
‘Cause you started something, can’t you see
That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on me
I happens to be true, I only want to be with you🎵

Janine sings Dusty Springfield’s song about longing to be with the one you love to Charlotte in an episode filled with longing. The Martha/neonatologist’s longing for her old life is visceral. So is Serena and June’s, though Serena would never admit it. The longing for a healthy child is pervasive. We’ve never been so clearly confronted by the reason for Gilead’s existence as we are in this episode. Serena longs for her marriage to go back to being a marriage of equals.

Emily longs for peace, an end to life as a handmaid, and to return to her family. She also praises the bomber. Her longing may be turned into violent action against Gilead before we’re done. Eden longs for a husband who appreciates her. She’s a confused young woman with nothing to do but wait for a husband who doesn’t want her. That longing for love could turn out to be as dangerous as the oppression of the handmaids, in the end.


While the Commodores play, June edits and Serena writes. June asks Serena if she misses working. Serena says that it’s a small sacrifice for God, but she does hate knitting. June tells Serena that she’s a good writer. Serena says that she won’t forget June’s help. June gives Serena a few editing notes. Serena drops the bombshell that Fred is coming home in the morning. This is their last night of working together.

Serena lines up the women of the household to greet Fred at the door. He goes down the line in his singularly creepy way. He’ll be sleeping with Eden by the end of the season, just wait and see. 🤢 After he’s gone, Eden asks June if she thinks the Commander liked her present. Eden just might try to trade up husbands from Nick to Fred. 🤢🤢🤢

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Serena escorts Fred to his office. She lingers, hoping to continue to help him as he recovers, but he pushes her away in no uncertain terms. She’s devastated. Without realizing it, she’d gotten her hopes up that he’d continue to want her help.

June finds Serena’s music box from Season 1 and a rose lying on her bed, both thank you gifts from Serena. She enjoyed working with Serena, too.

Eden suggests she redecorate the house a bit, but Nick is as easygoing and uninterested as ever. He agrees to whatever she wants and rushes out of the house. Eden is in tears. She can’t figure out what she’s doing wrong.

In the big house, Rita grumbles to June about Eden borrowing honey and not returning it. Eden doesn’t even have a friend among the other women in the house or neighborhood. Where are the other drivers’ and guards’ econowives?

Serena prepares to go out. She pulls June aside to tell her that Baby Angela is sick.

June and Janine walk to the store together. When June greets her, Janine responds with, “May the force be with you.” She comments that June is getting to the fun part of the pregnancy, when the baby’s foot pokes out of your belly like an alien. June doesn’t respond, so Janine asks if she saw the movie Alien. June says she liked the sequel better.

That sounds like an inside joke, but I don’t know what it is.

At the grocery store, the handmaids discuss Fred’s return home and his general creepiness. Janine reflects that her new posting is great, since she doesn’t have to give blow jobs any more. Emily walks by and bitterly responds that getting raped every month isn’t okay, and the bomber had the right idea. Anyone who helps Gilead deserves to die.

June wonders if Emily would think she deserves to die if she knew that June had been helping Serena and Fred. She feels like Gilead will corrupt them all, in the end.

The thing is, June was saving people from an even worse witch hunt than normal. Gilead was destabilized, but in no danger of falling. Just killing innocent people during the power struggle. She, Nick and Serena got that part of it under control. Now they can peacefully focus on doing more, if they want to.

An ambulance drives by the store and somehow everyone knows that it’s for a child. They kneel down to pray. Brianna tells them that she heard from her Martha that Angela is sick. Janine gets upset, but June talks her down. On the walk home, Janine panics again. June tries to help, while the guards loom threateningly. June ends up promising to find out what she can, and to try to get permission for Janine to visit Angela.

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That evening, Serena visits June in her room. She explains that Angela isn’t doing well, but the doctors haven’t figured out why. There is one doctor that Gilead hasn’t made available to examine Angela. It’s against the law for the doctor to practice medicine now. Serena asks June what she thinks. June says that if it were her baby, she’d want everything possible to be done, law or no law.

Serena goes to Fred and explains the situation. The world class neonatologist is serving as a Martha. Serena asks for a dispensation for one day to bring the woman there and let her examine the baby. Fred was open to the idea, until he learned that the doctor is a woman. Then he shut the idea down and wouldn’t budge. He decided that the hospital’s doctors were good enough.

Serena goes back to June, who is appalled. Serena tries to uphold the party line with June, but she can’t muster any enthusiasm. June brings up Janine, and asks if Janine could see the baby, since this might be her last chance. Serena is fairly negative, but does bring it up to the Putnams. Naomi won’t hear of it, but Warren is open to the idea. Serena reminds them that Angela is a gift from God, brought to them by Janine.

June and Aunt Lydia bring Janine to the hospital. Aunt Lydia is livid that Janine was told that Charlotte is sick. She tells June that she’ll hold June personally responsible if seeing/losing Charlotte again breaks Janine.

Charlotte is in an empty isolation room, in an isolette, connected to tubes. The Putnams watch her from behind glass on one side of the room and Janine and June watch from behind glass on the other side of the room. Charlotte has no way to know that anyone is even there for her.

Janine becomes teary-eyed when she sees her baby again. She talks to Charlotte, even though the baby can’t hear her, telling her about the curly red hair they share. Serena steps into the room to tell them that she’s going to see if the doctors know anything more.

Perhaps moved by Janine’s tears, Serena has the neonatologist, Dr Hodgson, brought in. Dr Hodgson, Dr Epstein (the regular hospital doctor) and Serena are all visibly moved when Dr Hodgson realizes that they want her to practice medicine again and takes her true identity back.

I was crying, too.

Dr Hodgson reels off a list of tests she wants performed and then examines Angela.

Meanwhile, Creepy Fred hobbles his way up the stairs to June’s room. When he discovers she’s not there, he goes in and searches her room. He finds the flower and the music box, and realizes that June and Serena have been working together. An insecure, inferior man like Fred isn’t going to be okay with his two talented, superior women, who he’s trying to oppress and control, teaming up for anything. He wants them divided and conquered.

It’s one of the patriarchy’s most effective tools.

When Dr Hodgson is done, Dr Epstein brings her report to the Putnams. We view the scene from the handmaids’ perspective and can’t hear the dialogue, but it’s obvious from Naomi’s angry reaction and Serena’s stunned, sad reaction that it’s bad news. Janine is shattered. Lydia tries to take care of her. June suggests that they ask if Janine can at least kiss the baby goodbye.

Serena chases after Dr Hodgson and asks how she can give up on the baby. The doctor explains that they’ve done a thorough investigation. “There are no anatomic, infectious or metabolic causes that explain this baby’s condition.” She says that all they can do for Angela is to unhook her from the machines, help her feel safe and warm, and pray.

Janine is given permission to hold the baby. Everyone in the room is swaddled in layers of fabric and wearing masks and gloves. Janine removes her mask and gloves, then moves cloth away from Angela’s face so that she can kiss, pet and caress her.

Serena and June go home. Nick tells them that Fred wants to see both of them in his office immediately. Fred has already heard that the Martha was brought in to examine Angela and that his name was forged on the order. Serena is unrepentant, asking what greater service there can be to Gilead than saving the life of a child. Fred has a ready answer for that: Obeying your husband.

Serena reminds him that she’s been helping run Gilead for months now in order to help him retain power. Plus, she used to read over his work in the past on a regular basis. He firmly tells her that all of that was in the past and to act as his conduit, with his permission. Now she’s even involved the handmaid. Clearly her small brain has been overwhelmed by having to cope with both a uterus and reading and writing.

Now, she has to be punished  give in to his sick fantasies  finally admit that Gilead is nothing but an excuse for men to abuse and rape women  make amends for her sins. He reads aloud parts of a few bible verses that he’s cobbled together to make them say what he wants and justify his violence toward his wife.

Then he pulls a chair into the center of the room and removes his belt. The way its shot could be the prelude to a beating or a rape. Serena looks both resentful and ill. Fred calls her over to the chair and bends her over the back in a way that could once again be for sex or violence.

He whips her 13 times that we can hear, 1/3 the standard biblical number of times a person would be flogged as punishment for a crime. Did he actually give her the whole 39 lashes off camera? Or did she get a reduced sentence because it’s her first offense/she’s a woman/he’s not healed up enough yet to administer 39 lashes?

He makes June stay and watch, both as a threat and punishment for June and as additional punishment for Serena. June tries not to watch or to listen to what’s happening.

When Nick gets home in the evening, Eden has rearranged and straightened his trunk so that his clothes will fit better. She also found the packet of letters written by handmaids and Marthas, which he rescued when June tried to burn them. She claims that she didn’t read the letters, but Nick is suspicious, and orders her to keep out of his stuff. It’s probably the most emotion he’s ever shown toward her, and it’s all negative. She’s scared and bewildered.

Serena cries as she slowly undresses in her bedroom. She looks at her extensive bruises in a full length mirror. June knocks on the bedroom door and offers sympathy and any help she can give. Serena orders Offred back to her room.

June sees the writing on the wall. She no longer has Serena’s protection and support, and Fred is angry with her. She can’t afford to have both be upset with her at the same time, so she knocks on Fred’s office door. When he opens the door a crack, she puts on her best coquette face and apologizes. She tells him that she was only trying to help him and asks for forgiveness. He doesn’t give it, just sends her to bed, but he doesn’t act angry either, so at least she’s made some progress.

As June walks away from the office door she smiles, then her face crumples into tears and she collapses to the floor. Keeping up with the mental and emotional abuse dished out by both Waterfords is exhausting, and is taking a toll on her own mind.

In the morning, Janine is still holding and playing with Charlotte. Both are stripped down to their underwear. Janine sings a love song to her baby, who is now awake, alert, and bright-eyed. The Putnams and Aunt Lydia have fallen asleep on various couches and chairs in the room. Lydia wakes up and checks on the baby. She’s mesmerized by Charlotte’s recovery. Lydia comes to life as much as the baby did, cooing and talking with Charlotte delightedly before she wakes up the Putnams.

The episode ends on a high note, with Janine singing to her now healthy baby girl.

 


TVLine.com named Yvonne Strahovski their performer of the week for this episode.

The handmaids’ conversations are very secular and open, compared to what they were allowed last season. The current crop of Guardians must be too bored to keep them in line.

Lydia’s devotion to her girls and to bringing healthy children into the world is shown to us more clearly than we’ve ever seen it in this episode. Like Serena, she’s not just a true believer in Gilead in the religious sense. Her real cause is saving women and  children from anything that might ultimately bring the extinction of humanity closer to reality. Even when she’s being cruel to the handmaids, in her mind she’s being cruel to be kind. Her goal is their safety and fertility, just as she says.

What will Aunt Lydia do when she realizes that Gilead has become toxic to healthy reproduction and to keeping infants safe? She’s now been confronted with an infant who was neglected to the point of near death, despite being the child of a high status family, and she knows that Putnam took advantage of Janine sexually outside of the ceremony. She can only lie to herself that they are an isolated incident for so long.

Dr Hodgson gave Serena the diagnosis she asked for, and the proper treatment, if you pay close attention to what she said during their conversation in the stairwell. But there was no way a Martha, or even a hospital doctor, was going to be stupid enough to tell a high ranking commander that his baby was dying from neglect. They’d both be sent to the Wall before they left the building.

I love that Dr Hodgson still has the confidence to respond to Serena’s, “You’re supposed to be the best in the world!” with a calm, “I am.” I also wonder if Dr Epstein already knew that the baby was suffering from Failure to Thrive, but was relieved to get a second opinion and thrilled to meet one of his professional heroes.

June quotes Margaret Atwood in this episode. Referring to the whipping, she says, “Someone once said, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

According to AVCub commenter DreamSteam, Fred’s pre-flogging bible passage was patched together from bits of Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:7, and 1 John 1:9. He had to Frankenstein the bible to make it justify beating his wife for saving the life of a child.

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Fred’s office is the site of the women’s independence, camaraderie and fulfillment when the episode begins. By the end, it’s become a torture chamber and horror show. Serena is whipped and humiliated, then June humiliates herself in an attempt to keep something worse from happening.

Fred and Eden both lurk and loom through the episode, unhappy with the relationships that Serena, June and Nick begin to form when left to their own devices. Fred is a master at inducing jealousy and insecurity in Serena. Eden is only beginning to learn how to manipulate her situation, but she’s unhappy enough and self-absorbed enough to be a quick study.

Something in the balance of power has shifted in the Waterford household. Both Fred and Serena go to June’s bedroom in this episode, rather than making her come to them, or in Fred’s case, having someone else search the room. June has become a real person to them, not just the handmaid, even though they’d never admit it. Their relationships with her are colored by the roles they play in Gilead society, but all 3 have shown their true selves to each other now, and that can’t be taken back.

 

Images courtesy of HULU.

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