The Handmaid’s Tale has always been about women. But Season 1 focuses almost entirely on the control men have over women. It shows us the extent and scope of the depravity visited on the bodies of women by Gilead’s oppressive theocracy.
That focus is shifted in The Handmaid’s Tale 2×08 “Women’s Work” and 2×09 “Smart Power,” giving us several intimate stories of how women work with and for each other. We see how the minds work, and what work the minds offer, of the women characters.
It is not that each of the women is engaging in professional-type work– but they provide their intelligence, wit, creativity or care in a way that is separate from the role they’ve been assigned under the oppressive Gilead.
The women are given individuality and agency in a refreshing and intriguing way, making “Women’s Work” and “Smart Power” two of the strongest episode of the entire series.
What Do You Think?
Serena asks June, “What do you think?” Then, later on, “Women’s Work,” Serena asks the martha for her expert medical opinion. On “Smart Power” Mark Tuello, played brilliantly by Sam Jaeger, asks Serena to write a whole book with her analysis.
After each of these inquiries, the show takes a deep breath. The pauses allow viewers to feel the weight and meaning of such questions.
In the world of Gilead, women have been reduced to their roles in reproduction. Whether a martha, a wife, or a handmaid, women are no more than what they can offer to support the making, birthing, and raising of children.
As June says on “Smart Power:”
That’s what I am now. My circumstances have been reduced.
This is true for her, but it also true for every woman in Gilead.
In this context, the very simple act of asking a woman to contribute her mind, rather than her body, is like breaking shackles.
All three women powerfully show in their facial expressions and line delivery how much they miss being able to use their minds.
The deep ache June feels towards holding a pen in her hands. Serena staring longingly at the computer. These women yearn for work as people yearn for an ex-lover. It is intense, emotional, and outright romantic.
The Handmaid’s Tale understands that work is important to women. The show gets that having the opportunity to provide mental labor is an essential aspect of bodily integrity, even if society says that the women’s only work is motherhood.
May the Force Be With You
Importantly, Janine provides her work on “Women’s Work,” and it is the act of mothering. She knows that her baby needs skin to skin contact and sweet caresses to be healthy.
Even though this type of work is square within the realm of what Gilead has forced on women, Janine caring for her baby is different. It is on her own terms and it is what she, Janine, has to offer from her expertise as a mother.
That is a very key difference. Where the expertise of mothering comes from Gilead’s capturing of the circle of life, often signified by the use of circle formations or images, it has been tarnished and poisoned. However, Janine offers her expertise, her work, in mothering and it is messy. It is wild and free.
The scene where she is sitting on the windowsill bench, cradling her cooing baby, is awash in bright light. It is asymmetrical and naked.
This scene, where Janine is able to use her instincts and her knowledge of her child to save her child’s life, indicates to us that women are the creators and sustainers of life.
But, when they are limited, controlled, and trapped, as they are in Gilead, they are dead women walking and cannot possibly fulfill their purpose.
Serena responds to her beating by squaring up against June and insisting that she leave the Waterford household right after her child’s birth.
June realizes that she needs to find someone to look out for her daughter because she “needs to know kindness.” It is a heartbreaking development in the ever more complex relationship between the two abused women.
The development smartly provides an opportunity to understand Aunt Lydia’s multifaceted identity and motivations. We learn that her nephew died as a small infant, while under her care. Aunt Lydia quickly asserts that it wasn’t her fault.
That admission shows that Aunt Lydia carries a deep guilt that informs her obsession with babies.
This history as a failed godmother also does great work to explain how Aunt Lydia can justify her cruelty. She is filled with fear.
You can get a sense from her performance in the scene with June about being a godmother that Aunt Lydia believes she has to atone for the death of her nephew. That need for atonement colors all of her choices.
The revelation of Aunt Lydia’s past is a brief and surprisingly powerful meditation on how guilt and shame seep into our lives and can make us do the most callous and evil things.
But, there is kindness there too. Rita can be trusted to show kindness, but so too can Aunt Lydia.
There is empathy between these women, who know intimately the weight that the others carry. They have felt that weight on their shoulders too.
In that shared pain, these women form trust and a bond that supersedes the systems operating to hurt them.
It’s a rather beautiful thing.
“Women’s Work” and “Smart Power” are focused sharply on the women’s perspective and it carries the episodes to new and extremely relevant territories.
What did you think about The Handmaid’s Tale 2×08 ” Women’s Work” and 2×09 “Smart Power”? Let us know in the comments!
The Handmaid’s Tale airs Wednesdays on Hulu.