Episode 2, Nightshade, uses the title as a pun, referring to both the poisonous plant that grows on Mrs Keyes’ farm and the country club version of Jezebels that June visits to make contact with Mayday. It could probably also be used to refer to Nick and his love for hanging back in the shadows, then stepping out into the light at the perfect dramatic moment.
This is an episode of transitions, where fateful choices are made with far reaching, unpredictable consequences. It’s becoming clear that the themes of this season are sacrifice, choice and consequences. Freedom is never really free and even within oppression, there are choices to be made that will eventually affect others. Finding the line where you can live with yourself and with the cost of those choices, whether living in freedom or oppression, is the hard part facing June and the rest.
An official car arrives at the Keyes’ farm, making the handmaids jumpy. June assures them that when they come to round up the fugitives, they’ll be in multiple vehicles. She sends the rest of her gang to hide while she eavesdrops on the conversation between Mrs Keyes and the Guardians. Commander Keyes is too out of it to answer any questions.
The Guardians are searching for Guardian Pogue, the rapist Mrs Keyes executed in episode 1. She tells them she hasn’t seen him and that the Marthas are busy bottling cider. The Guardians explain that there’s no rush, since Pogue is prone wandering off and passing out in odd places. They expect he’ll turn up on his own eventually, so they’ll come back to question the Marthas another time, rather than interrupt their work. They turn down Mrs Keyes’ offer of lemonade.
Once they’re gone, Mrs Keyes asks June how she did. June praises her performance, but says it’s time for the handmaids to leave. She offers to wash a half empty glass for Mrs Keyes, but the younger woman jerks the glass away.
Out in the barn, June pulls out some old maps as her gang discusses their options. June wants Mayday to help them go west to join the fight in Chicago. Alma wants to go to the Republic of Texas, but June doesn’t think her information is solid enough to act on. Alma doesn’t think Mayday is any safer, but June and Janine disagree. Brianna doesn’t want to fight. June says no one did in the beginning. Brianna looks like that’s not going to change for her- June is probably remembering having a similar conversation with her mother in the Before Times. David the Good Guardian tells June that he’s arranged a meeting for her with Mayday, but he needs to take her to them.
In Toronto, Luke speaks at a fundraiser about his beautiful, capable and amazing wife, June. Then he introduces Rita Blue (she has a last name!!), former Martha, as another one of the women responsible for making Angels’ Flight happen. Rita is nervous as she speaks. This has to be very strange for her, after so many years in Gilead. She tells the audience a little about June, then says, “Gilead has a way of bringing out the worst in people. But in June it brought out the best.”
After, that she breaks down and Luke joins her on the stage. He reminds everyone that June is still alive, so they still have reason to hope. The mission is ongoing. Then he shifts the subject to money, since the unexpectedly reunited families need help.
Moira tells Rita how surprised she was that Luke is so good at fundraising, then she thanks Rita for agreeing to speak. Rita says she didn’t feel like she could say no to Luke. Moira laughs and tells her she could, because she’s free now. Rita looks uncomfortable and says she thanks God everyday for June and for the gift of her freedom.
David brings June to a Jezebels that’s housed in a former rural country club. After he leaves to make a pick up, a Martha comes to get her from the truck. She’s taken through the grounds and building, then out to a greenhouse, where one of the prostitutes waits for her. The woman, Daisy, is wearing a hooded robe and smoking a cigarette. She doesn’t want to be seen talking to June.
The first thing she says is that she thought June would be taller, presumably because someone as infamous as her should loom large in real life. Elizabeth Moss is 5’3″ (160cm), which isn’t that short, except when you’re hanging around with tall former model-actresses all day.
Daisy knows that June killed Commander Winslow and asks where she got the knife. June corrects her, since she stabbed him with a pen, but doesn’t tell her that she finished the job with a heavy statuette to the head. Daisy also knows about the Angels’ Flight. She tells June that Gilead has tried to keep her exploits a secret, but they haven’t been successful. She’s inspired others to small acts of rebellion: “People are doing stuff. Slashing tires, cutting power lines. Someone blew up a checkpoint.”
When Daisy marvels that June was able to free so many kids, June snaps, “They took my daughter.”
At the moment, it’s lost on June that Gilead took away almost everyone’s children. They took almost everything from almost everyone. Very few have been as brave (and maybe reckless) as her, Emily, Lilly and some of the Marthas, willing to directly risk their own lives to make Gilead pay.
June asks if Mayday has a safehouse ready for them. Daisy tells her to walk to a yellow farmhouse, 13 miles west of the Keyes farm, sticking to the woods. They can’t go until tomorrow, because Daisy can’t send a message to the Murrows, who live there, until then. If they go early, they’ll be shot.
As Daisy walks away, June asks how she knew about Winslow’s death. Daisy says she worked at the Boston Jezebels. After Winslow went missing, they cleared the place out. She was one of the lucky few who were transferred to a different Jezebels.
It’s not clear if everyone else was killed or if some were sent to the Colonies, where they could continue to spread June’s legend.
June asks about the military Commanders who are visiting this Jezebels. Daisy tells her they’re having a last hurrah for a few more days before they’re sent to the front in Chicago to lead a new offensive. June notes that the Commanders are vulnerable while they’re at Jezebels- Mayday should take advantage of it. Daisy gave up on Mayday doing anything for Jezebels long ago. June reminds her that Mayday isn’t a hierarchical organization. It’s just a bunch of self-appointed cells, free to act when they see an opportunity.
It seems like the Martha network is more than a little snobby about who they work with and save- first they wouldn’t work with the handmaids, now Daisy says they don’t care about the Jezebels. And they’ve intimated most people into remaining passive unless the Martha network gives them permission to act, the way they tried to stop June from coordinating the Angels’ Flight last season.
June is more successful at getting things done because she builds trust across lines. That ability to empathize and network brings her opportunities and then the resources she needs to flesh out her opportunities. Her passion and devotion convince others to risk their lives and then help console them that the subsequent losses were worth it.
Serena undergoes a thorough medical exam as part of her legal case. She has to admit that Fred frequented a brothel and that he beat her. She defends his physical abuse of her and the amputation of her pinkie finger as being acceptable punishments under Gilead law.
It was all perfectly normal in the lifestyle she freely chose and eventually had to trick her husband into escaping from.
Except the lifestyle Serena advocated for in her books wasn’t the world that Gilead created. Someone should give her back her own books to read so she can start her deprogramming by remembering how badly Fred betrayed her in those early meetings where the rules of Gilead were decided on. She didn’t come up with the Ceremony, the handmaids, the amputations or the reading and writing ban for women.
Serena’s attorney tries to convince her to claim that Fred abused her repeatedly, so that she can show that all of her actions came from fear for her life. That would allow them to get the sex offender charges dismissed. Then she’d be able to have her visitation with Nichole restored and she’d once again be seen as a credible witness against Fred.
But Serena won’t go for it. She’s forgetting how Fred incrementally tore her down during the revolution and afterwards in order to force her compliance. She’s still defending Fred to Tuello because she remembers what he was like before Gilead. She’s forgotten that he was a leech on her talents even then who was just waiting for the chance to push her into the background and take credit for her work. She’s sure she can still reach him and get him to drop the claim, so she asks to see him alone.
Moira and Emily are in charge of placing the child refugees from Gilead, which is a huge job, since every family has to be vetted. It’s cutting into Moira’s time with her hot girlfriend. She has to miss a dinner date tonight.
June explains to Alma, who is hesitant about the mission, that she’s compelled to take out the Commanders at the country club for several reasons: she wants to help the people in Chicago by disrupting Gilead’s military plans; she wants to help free the women at the brothel; and she can’t pass up the chance kill so many Commanders at once. But she doesn’t have a plan for what she’s actually going to do yet. Janine suggests a time bomb, but they don’t know how to make one. Alma still doesn’t agree with June’s need to go on the offensive rather than acting only to save herself or others.
Except that’s the point- this is an action that will ultimately save others, even if it involves the deaths of people other than the Commanders at Jezebels. By killing or incapacitating so many of Gilead’s military leaders, the course of the war with Chicago will be altered, because Gilead won’t have as many experienced, trained leaders to prosecute it. Just like the deaths of Commanders Winslow, Pryce, etc. very probably changed the course of events in Gilead, but also involved other casualties (more handmaids were killed by Lilly’s bomb than Commanders).
This is how war works. It’s ugly and messy. Gilead brought it to June. She didn’t ask for it. And we heard from Daisy that June has inspired others to fight more openly, just like Lilly inspired June. Thanks to June, Gilead is fighting at home, not just on its borders. Every single attack helps weaken them.
They all stop talking when Mrs Keyes enters the room. She notices and isn’t happy about it. She’s also worried about the Guardians searching for Pogue the missing rapist. When she goes back to the kitchen, June follows to reassure her. Then she tells Esther that the handmaids need to leave tomorrow night. Esther begs to go with them until June gives in.
June says they’ll need to “do something about the Commander.” Esther looks up at the herbs drying above them. June finally figures out that Esther has been poisoning Commander Keyes to keep him under control. Esther says she learned how from her Martha.
My guess is her lemonade packs a punch. I’m willing to bet the Marthas pass around wisdom on birth control and abortifacients, too.
Esther just happens to be brewing up some of her potion now. June asks to learn low. Esther says she didn’t start using the nightshade on her husband soon enough. “He’s not a good man. Maybe there are no good men in Gilead.” June thinks there are good men everywhere, but Gilead makes it hard to be good, so it’s complicated.
June is talking about herself and Nick here. If there were as many good men as she thinks there are, they wouldn’t have let Gilead do the things it’s done. But she wants to believe in Nick and she wants to believe that she’s still good, despite the things she’s done, so she gives the benefit of the doubt to Gilead’s men (and its women by extension).
Speaking of men June is wrong about, Serena and Fred meet in the hospital chapel to discuss her sex offender case. They reminisce a little and bond over the lack of religion among the Canadian infidels, but then Fred pretends that Serena is the wrongdoer in their marriage and on the world stage. He tells her that he won’t let her manipulate him anymore, plus he’ll make sure she doesn’t get Nichole or her freedom. He manages to say both that he is as she made him and that he GAVE her too much freedom. He walks out with the implicit threat that if he ever gets her back to Gilead, things will be much worse for her.
For her part, Serena finally realizes how power mad he became in Gilead and that she didn’t deserve what he did to her.
Moira visits Asher, one of the rescued children who was taken in by his aunt, but it’s not going well. He misses his home and family in Gilead and she keeps expecting him to act like a Canadian kid rather than helping him work through his culture shock and the other disruptions to his life.
Moira tries to help, but his pain touches on her raw nerves about leaving Gilead and then becoming a caregiver herself when she and Luke took in Nichole, even though she never planned on becoming a mother. Later, she vents her anger to Emily, blaming June for once again acting without thinking through the consequences. Emily understands Moira’s feelings, since June handed her Nichole and stayed behind. Moira is tired of feeling guilty. Emily doesn’t think they’re terrible people.
June leaves Janine in charge of preparing everyone at the farm for the long walk to the next safehouse, then she and David leave for the country club to poison Commanders.
Moira brings Rita to visit Asher for an overnight. He remembers her from the plane. She’ll be his Martha for a day and cook some Gilead favorites to make him feel more at home.
Hopefully this is something Rita wants to do and not something else she felt obligated to say yes to.
Moira brings Thai take out to surprise her girlfriend, who’s only got 8 minutes before she has to leave town for a week. They decide to have an 8 minute speed date on the front steps. When the Uber arrives, Moira’s girlfriend suggests she come with her.
June brings a bottle of poison to Daisy, who’s now dressed up and on duty. She tells Daisy to poison all of the visiting men, then steal their car keys, radios, everything. Daisy is having second thoughts, so June starts to shore up her confidence, but they’re interrupted by an aunt.
June moves down the hall, into the kitchen, and tells the aunt that Daisy was looking for a snack. Aunt Wendy tells them that Commander Lowe is looking for Daisy, so she needs to hurry up. She calls Daisy “little piggy”, then says she shouldn’t eat anything too fattening. Before she leaves, she says she wants some tea.
Now that Aunt Wendy’s done her work for her, June tells Daisy that it’s up to her whether or not to go through with the plan. Daisy decides that it’s “better to die on your feet than on your knees.” She invites June to stay and watch for a while.
Serena tells Tuello that she wants her attorney to separate her legal interests from Fred’s immediately, like, yesterday. Tuello changes the subject. Her medical exam showed she’s pregnant. He says, “Congratulations” and leaves.
Not the coconuts and treason Mark was hoping for when he invited Serena to defect.
There’s a wild party happening at the Jezebels country club, ironically to the tune of David Bowie’s Suffragette City. June pours some of the nightshade poison into a few bottles of liquor and, of course, Aunt Wendy’s tea, to really get the party going. The men do shots, the women do not.
June is becoming quite the Angel of Death.
Every light in the farmhouse and barn is lit up when June and David return from Jezebels. June brilliantly deduces that lights on when they were supposed to be sneaking out to a new safehouse means trouble, but she doesn’t tell David to turn around and drive away. Instead, they get out of the van. When they find bullet casings on the ground, she tells him to go, but he refuses to leave her. He reaches for his gun, and a shot to his head comes out of nowhere.
Once again, June is covered in blood and there’s a body next to her. As soon as she drops to the ground and puts her hand on David’s gun, she has half a dozen guns aimed at her. She freezes. Nick steps outside, but remains in shadow, like the evil Nazi SS officer in a film from the 1940s. He asks, “Where are the handmaids?” When June doesn’t answer, Nick bends down next to her and whispers, “I’m trying to keep you alive.” He touches his fist to her shoulder as he stands up again. There’s a targeting laser aimed at the same spot, one of the several red beams that are still aimed at her.
Nick moves a few feet away and waits. June slowly takes her hand off the gun, then stands up, staring at him the whole time. As soon as she’s upright, the Guardians turn on spotlights attached to their guns and close in, surrounding her.
Would June have let anyone take her alive but Nick? If it had been anyone else, I think she would have picked up that gun and gone down in a blaze of glory. Nick knew it, too. That’s why he stayed close enough that it would be hard to shoot her without hitting him, too. He looks like he’s standing guard over her in the screen cap above with the targeting lasers on her. I have my doubts about which side Nick is really on or whether he’d ever help June escape the country for good, but I don’t doubt his feelings for her.
This is a show full of obsessive, possessive men, particularly in Gilead. In fact, it’s the Gilead model. Either you’re a kinky/promiscuous rapist or you’re obsessed with one woman or both. The one thing we know for sure about Nick is that he’s loyal to the core. That doesn’t mean he’s capable of the selflessness involved with letting June leave Gilead. I can’t help but wonder if he’s responsible for the tips that get her caught each time she’s on the verge of escape. Like Fred, he was nothing before Gilead. Now he has power. He may have a fantasy that he can reform the system enough to make it livable for the two of them, the same dream that Joseph and Eleanor shared. The same dream that Fred and Serena founded Gilead on. So far, that dream has been great for some men and ruinous for almost all women.
I think fantasy/dreams vs reality may be another theme for the season. As sporadic resistance strengthens into an actual war that can be won and more characters escape to Canada or even Chicago, the characters are moving outside of the cocoon of Gilead’s control and have to face making decisions for themselves. That’s a big deal when all but the smallest decisions have been made for you for years. It’s overwhelming to be faced with so many choices to be made and the possibility of making mistakes, especially when punishment for mistakes has been so harsh in the past.
I can’t get over how much the final scene reminded me of a World War 2 film where the Nazis discover the European locals are harboring Jews or American soldiers in the barn. Nick has always been enigmatic and with every episode I become more certain that his core identity in the Gilead government is still as an Eye. He might even be the head Eye in the region now. Which means that while he may be loyal, as spy he’s also inherently untrustworthy and all about strategy and game playing.
If we know what Luke’s pre-Gilead work was, I can’t remember it. Maybe he’s found his calling as the public face and chief fundraiser for the Gilead Refugee Foundation or whatever. Now that he’s getting attention and praise for his suffering, he’s okay with it.
I hope Rita’s getting the kind of therapy we saw Moira and Emily get when they first escaped. It sounded like she may have deferred to Luke’s request because he was a man, not because she wanted to, and she might even have said yes to Moira because deep down, Rita saw her as a higher status woman who she had to obey.
Rita also has to deal with the guilt of leaving June behind, a condition that seems to plague half the population of Toronto. There should be enough of them there now to form a support group. But June didn’t actually ask anything of them once they got to Toronto, other than Luke.
I think she wants Luke to raise Nichole and that she has the right to expect it, since she’s working to rescue Hannah, their daughter, who he would be raising if it weren’t for Gilead. Luke is a good dad, for all his other faults. I don’t think he’ll willingly abandon Nichole. But June can’t force him to raise Nichole. If he wants out, he can have her placed with a foster family or look for relatives of Nick’s.
And the same goes for the rest of the guilty new Canadians who blame June for their stress. June made her decisions, then moved on. We haven’t heard anything from her about who should help the children from the Angels’ Flight and that’s as it should be. They can let government officials and other private organizations take over if they don’t want to be responsible.
It’s the refugees’ own sense of right and wrong telling them that they escaped earlier than others, so they owe it to those they left behind to continue working for the cause. June’s actions just force them to confront what they’ve left behind in Gilead and their guilt about leaving, instead of comfortably ignoring the situation now that they’re out and going on with their lives.
Do they have the right to move on or are they obligated to help those left behind? I’m not sure they’re anymore obligated to help than any other citizen of the world. Everyone should feel outraged and want to help, but they won’t. Everyone’s inclination is to ignore as much as they can and grab whatever normalcy they can. Probably the most important way for the refugees to help is to keep their stories in the news, so that Gilead isn’t forgotten or normalized and more people are drawn to help the cause.
But it’s also true that the people who lived in Gilead are the only ones who understand what it’s like to be those kids right now. If they can handle helping them settle in, they’ll probably find it to be an incredibly rewarding experience in the long run.
Speaking of therapy, now that there are dozens of children from Gilead in Canada for the first time, somebody needs to get them some professional help and develop Gilead specific protocols for child refugees. Moira and Emily seem to have forgotten the culture shock they went through when they got out. Imagine what it’s like for kids who either have no memories or barely remember the outside.
That doesn’t mean June shouldn’t have gotten them out. It means they need extra layers of counseling, medical examinations and education that the adults don’t require. For example, the girls weren’t taught to read. All of the school aged kids will need special tutoring, since even the boys will have been taught a super biased religious curriculum which emphasized their roles as future rapists, torturers and slavers.
We’ve seen very little of how boys are raised in Gilead. I hope we follow the adventures of Rita and Asher as he tries to adjust to his new world and explains to his aunt that he’s supposed to be the head of the household.
Serena is just too proud to view her time in Gilead as abusive, although Fred finally opened some her eyes in the chapel. If she allows herself to see it that way, then she has to admit to how badly Fred and the rest of the founders of Gilead used her. So far, she’s continued to believe that she retained some control of the situation because her ideas were enacted.
Fred has now realized that his actions are indefensible outside of Gilead, especially without Serena’s support. His only hope is to double down on his belief in the Gilead way of life and become a vocal advocate for his country in Canada, with the hope that Gilead will come to his rescue. If Gilead becomes part of the UN and then declares him a diplomat with diplomatic immunity, the charges against him might not matter. Crimes against humanity fall outside of diplomatic immunity, so Fred would still be on the hook for those charges, but I’m willing to bet something could be negotiated.
Or maybe his ploy won’t work and Fred’s time is almost up. The pregnancy is a wild card. Serena might want to have Fred executed as quickly as possible so he can’t work to bring her and the baby back to Gilead. But Gilead, especially Lawrence, will be thrilled with the proof that their program works to restore fertility and will use it to bargain for more influence on the world stage. Fred might just be able to use his biological child to finally become the golden boy he’s always wanted to be.
But there’s one other wild card- did Rita use a poisonous plant to keep the Waterfords from conceiving for years? It can’t be a coincidence that we learned about Mrs Keyes and her Martha’s use of poison to control her husband in the same episode that we learn Serena got pregnant as soon as she and Fred stopped living with Rita. She would have conceived on the drive up to Canada, when Fred hadn’t eaten Rita’s cooking in quite some time. Rita lost her only son to the revolution, after he was drafted. She has an excellent motivation to stop the Waterfords from having a child of their own. And Rita was also the one who decided to get Nichole out of Gilead, depriving them of their adopted child.
Rita could feel guilty and uncomfortable around Luke because the Waterfords wouldn’t have needed a handmaid at all if it weren’t for her. She might feel responsible for June coming into their home and everything that’s followed- June’s affair with Nick, Nichole’s birth, many of the other present day events of the series.
Images courtesy of Hulu.