Now well into its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale delivers an episode that explores outside the boarders of Gilead while providing backstory for one of the most complex characters: Serena Joy. Straying from the original novel, The Handmaid’s Tale gives us something we as fans of the novel desperately wanted. We wanted more information on the world outside of Gilead. While this episode is arguably the weakest so far, it’s still a quality episode that hits all the necessary marks.
The latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Serena Joy and while it’s an incredible reveal of her past, the episode is very uneven. Up until this point the subtle horror is what The Handmaid’s Tale thrives off of. This episode takes a more “shake you until you understand” approach. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Yvonne Strahovski previously thrives on subtle performances and it would’ve made this episode even stronger if the storyline was just that, subtle.
Looking at Strahovski, she does an incredible job at creating one of the most chilling villains in the series. While the men in The Handmaid’s Tale are seen as the true enemies, there’s something to be noted about the women like Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia. These two women could be the most terrifying enemies The Handmaid’s currently have. Strahovski is quietly terrifying, which makes for the perfect threat in this universe. She’s giving one of her best performances to date as she strips layer after layer away from Serena Joy.
One of the best addition to The Handmaid’s Tale is Serena Joy’s backstory this week. We learn that she was an incredible activist, she even wrote a novel. Serena Joy also knew of the plan to create Gilead long before it happened, thanks to The Commander. While this revelation may not be a surprise, seeing their pre-Gilead is chilling because oppression is non-existent. In Offred’s backstory, we see her fight for her rights alongside other women. In Serena Joy’s backstory, she goes to the movies, complies with The Commander and is silenced. It’s a chilling juxtaposition that makes Serena Joy’s backstory all the better. Strahovski has become the perfect villain in The Handmaid’s Tale. From her stoic acting to the camera choice to hold on her face, Serena Joy is thrust into the front in a great backstory filled episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia highlight one of the biggest horrors in this society: complacency. Serena Joy knowingly gives up her power. She gives up her own job and allows the society to strip women of their rights. Aunt Lydia upholds institutionalized rape as she commands The Handmaids. In this episode in particular, it’s made clear their complacency. Especially when Offred might finally have an ally.
Visiting Mexican ambassador Mrs. Castillo is a great addition to The Handmaid’s Tale. Her introduction expands this horrific world outside of the United States. One of the best scenes for Elisabeth Moss in this episode happens when Offred tells Mrs. Castillo exactly what’s going on in Gilead. The final ten minutes of this episode make up for the rather slow beginning. After being in the background for a majority of the episode, Moss steps back up to the front and gives a breathtaking performance. The writing in this episode is superb coupled with Moss’ brilliant delivery. Offred tells Mrs. Castillo about the monthly rape, the mutilation and killing. By the end of the brilliant monologue all Mrs. Castillo can muster is “I’m sorry,” to which Offred offers up the best “clap back” on TV:
“I didn’t choose this. They caught me. I was trying to escape. They took my daughter. So don’t be sorry. Okay? Please don’t be sorry. Please do something.”
While there have been several crucially important moments in The Handmaid’s Tale so far, this is truly one of the strongest. Moss delivers a gut wrenching monologue as we dive deeper into a possible resistance in Gilead. Our only problem here is that the monologue feels very out of place in a world where Offred could be killed for even having a hair out of place. The resistance seems to be too easy and even talking about it in the open seems like something we would never attempt. While The Handmaid’s Tale has built this incredibly brutal world, it’s moments like this that pull us out of it. We love Moss and her character, but it’s this not-so-subtle moment that places “A Women’s Place” below the other episodes this season.
Another complex character is introduced in this episode. Mrs. Castillo not only represents the world outside Gilead, but also the horrific reality that people would rather protect themselves than stick their necks out. Even after Offred’s omission, Mrs. Castillo says she knows the system is poor, but she’s willing to go down with it to save her country. Another example of complacency in this society.
By episode’s end we find out Luke is alive and Offred can get a message to him. This is the definition of “too many emotions.” The female actors in the show continue to elevate it to new heights as it becomes one of the best new series TV has gifted us in recent years. The Handmaid’s Tale continues to surprise us as we sit with our mouths agape for an hour every week.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently streaming on Hulu