Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Season 2, Episode 13: “The Word”
Directed by Mike Barker
Written by Bruce Miller
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Postpartum” – click here
* For a recap & review of the Season 3 premiere, “Night” – click here
We find that those executed as “heretics” are used to feed the pigs. After the executions of Isaac and Eden, things have most certainly changed. June (Elisabeth Moss) thinks about all the words that binds women in Gilead, whether it’s heretic, prisoner, bitch, or any other sort of word used to denigrate and, effectively, cage women by trapping them in boxes from which it’s so difficult to escape. Language, after all, is power. Some people don’t seem to understand that— men, I mean. Women understand the dangerous power of language, all too well.
June goes to see Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), carrying a Bible belonging to Eden. Inside are “notes all over it,” as well as little pictures. She never gave up. She never relinquished that part of herself. Mrs. Waterford sees it as a “multitude of sins,” not women holding onto their autonomy and their freedom. Ultimately, June rages at her collaborator captor, because women aren’t even allowed to read yet they’re supposed to follow “His word.” I’ve given Serena her chances, thinking she’d snap out of her internalised misogyny. But she’s simply lost, brainwashed beyond the point of return.
Eden’s father, Mr. Spencer (David Tompa), goes to the Waterford house, apologising for her supposed “transgressions.” Naturally, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is trying to make it out like the girl was all at fault, such is being a fascist and all. Turns out that the Spencers called the authorities on their own daughter. A stunning blow on top of everything else. More and more, June knows she has to do something. What she does is snap at Fred, prompting a slap. Then she slaps back! He gives her a mini sermon full of vitriolic misogyny before walking out. Wow. I never expected ANY of that.
“What are you gonna do when they come for your daughter?”
In a quiet moment later, Nick (Max Minghella) and June get to hold their daughter together like a real couple, mom and dad. They marvel at their creation. Holly – her real name – meets her father for the first time officially. Such a sweet, tender scene amongst all the terror through which June’s had to suffer. A rare one in Gilead.
Suddenly, motherhood is striking Serena differently thinking about her daughter and how it’ll be for her growing up in Gilead. Like many men who have to be fathers before they understand the plight of women, Serena’s beginning to wonder how she’ll personally be affected, when her daughter’s got to subscribe to the teachings and rule of their little nation-state.
Emily (Alexis Bledel) is dealing with her new assignment, under Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). His house isn’t the typical sort of Commander’s residence we’ve come to expect from Gilead. She’s looking for some kind of answers, secrets, anything about that place. One thing she finds out is, Cmdr. Lawrence has no intention of having sex with her. That’s a bonus, at least. Just makes me curious as to why he’s got her there.
In front of the Gilead’s council, Serena Joy has come to propose an amendment. She’s there along with all the other infertile wives, concerned about their daughters. This is a bit of rebellious move the all-male council certainly isn’t used to, and Fred particularly looks concerned it’s his wife there as the mouthpiece. The wives want their “sons and daughters” taught to read the Bible. Considered a “radical proposal” by the misogynists. That’s when Serena takes out a Bible and starts reading. The repercussions of this could be spectacularly bad, depending on how things go from here. Even some of the women start walking out on her.
Afterwards, Fred comes to speak with his wife. Right before a couple Guardians take her away. Oh. My. God. This is getting more fucked up by the minute. As if it weren’t already totally, psychopath-level fucked up already!
When Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) comes to check up on Emily, she gets a knife right in the back. Literally. Following that is a tumble over the stairs. There’s only so long you can tell a lesbian she’s “perverse” and in need of curing, after all that they’ve put her through in that place. It’s also a perfect metaphor for internalised misogyny. That’s to say, men and their misogyny pits women against one another, to the point they either figuratively (or sometimes even literally) destroy one another. Lydia’s collaboration in the misogyny of Gilead has led to Emily’s vicious, bloody attack.
June is there when Fred gets home with a shaken Serena. I’m terrified to know what’s happened to her. There are so many ugly things running through my mind. The Commander calls it a “difficult day,” but the Handmaid knows something bad occurred. There’s no telling what was done. It ranges from rape to forced sedation. Men are monsters in suits of flesh. And then Serena reveals she’s had a finger lopped off when she and June are alone together. Crushing to see the tiniest bit of effort she put into dialling back the terroristic misogyny of Gilead was rewarded with such brutality. Although not surprising. Meanwhile, Fred’s offering June a chance to stay in the house, which comes along with more rape and forced impregnation, of course. Yuck. However, the rebellion in this Handmaid has been unleashed, and it’s not going to stop. She even tells him direct: “Fuck you, Fred.”
After the attack, Emily is taken by Cmdr. Lawrence in an SUV with a Guardian escorting them. Joseph even turns up a bit of Annie Lennox for them to listen to, as the Handmaid’s preparing herself, realising she may just be headed to her death. Sort of a cruel joke that it’s Annie playing, too. She’s been a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community for ages, before it was fashionable for celebrities to do. Juxtaposed with Gilead it’s darkly funny. Like hearing someone in Putin’s office listening to Freddie Mercury.
“We all have our roles to play”
Suddenly, Rita (Amanda Brugel) comes to June, frantic, telling her she can get her and the baby out of there. But it has to happen RIGHT NOW. This sends the Handmaid off running with little Holly in her arms. Outside there’s a fire truck, some Guardians checking the street. The place is lit up with all sorts of lights. This makes Fred suspicious, so he goes to check on the baby, realising she’s gone, and his Handmaid is, as well.
All enough of a distraction for June to make a run. Except she’s stopped by Serena, who won’t let her child go. Until the Handmaid makes her see the truth: Gilead is no place for any woman. Just desperately sad Serena’s gone this long before finally understanding it. Letting the baby go is an act of redemption for her, though she’ll never fully redeem the misogynistic terror that’s been done to other women with her help.
Off June and baby Holly go, into the night, helped along by Marthas from various Commander’s houses. They rush June, house by house, through the backyards of the town. They get her and the baby outside to the edges of town, then instruct June to wait by some train tracks. That’s when she thinks of Hannah, still stuck there and separated from her parents. Hard to escape knowing her little girl’s left behind.
Soon, an SUV arrives for June— it’s actually Cmdr. Lawrence dropping Emily off, helping her escape Gilead. Whoa, I didn’t see that one coming. Maybe Joseph is seeking redemption, too. Either way, these two women are on their way to being former Handmaids.
But at the last minute, June hands Holly off, and she decides she can’t leave when her other daughter. Not in a place like that. A heartbreaking decision. I can only imagine how things will be for June now, going back to Serena with no baby. Holy fuck. What a setup for Season 3! Perfect to end the credits with “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads. I love it. Already itching for the next round of episodes. This ending really threw a wrench into things, I’m all for it. We’ve got a wait ahead of us, but it’s worth waiting for, I think. Love this show, despite it being incredibly disturbing, and all too close to life for a piece of dystopian fiction.