The Handmaid’s Tale: “A Woman’s Place” Recap


By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

Episode six of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “A Woman’s Place,” opens on the icy riverfront of what once was Boston. We find Aunt Lydia overseeing the Handmaids cleaning the blood of hanged and tortured “sinners” off of the walls.

One of the Handmaids (real name Alma) informs the others that they’re cleaning the blood to make everything “look pretty and perfect” for some visitors. She tells them they’re government people, diplomats from a foreign country. And she specifically tells Offred they’ll be dining at the Waterford home that very night. How does she know this? “My commander. Small dick, big mouth.” (I personally get so much pleasure from hearing the Handmaids say crude stuff like this.)

While Offred’s in the bath washing the blood from earlier off, Rita walks in and tells her Mrs. Waterford wants to see her in her room when she’s finished. Offred dons a nice, new, pressed Handmaid dress for their guests and enters Serena’s bedroom. Serena sweeps in all greenish-blue grace and icy facade, informing Offred that their visitors are a trade delegation from Mexico, and that the Commander worked very hard to arrange the visit. As Serena gives her a once over and deems her presentable, Offred says, “Red’s my color.” It’s the smallest exchange, but it’s a really good one. For a moment, Serena looks like she’s thinking, “Did she really just…?” And then she stops and says, “Well that’s lucky.” Offred gives her a nonchalant, adorable little “Yeah it is” type shrug. There’s almost connection there. ALMOST. Just a moment of humor between them. But the moment ends as Serena gives her another one of her Don’t screw this up shpiels. Is Offred playing with fire using the tone she uses with her mistress in this scene? It’s the same tone I use with my dad when he spouts conspiracy theories he got from unsourced, weirdo websites. (“Oh, yes. I’m sure. …Definitely. …Oh, experts you say? Hmm!”) Serena isn’t stupid. There’s only so much insubordination Serena Joy will take from a Handmaid, whether she relies on her fertile womb or not. This whole scene is a top notch smart woman versus smart woman face-off. A delicious battle of wills. BUT WHO WILL REIGN SUPREME?

As Serena walks downstairs, she spots her husband in the hallway, pacing, fretting, nervous. And we see her remember a time in her life before the Republic of Gilead took power, before Gilead drove a wedge between her and her husband. Fred and Serena race one another up the stairs of their home to have sex, trying to have a baby. It’s warm, exciting, almost sweet even…and very different from the cold stand-offishness we’ve seen between them so far. Serena smiles a little at the memory and goes down to her husband to assuage his fears and instill some confidence in him.

Offred is summoned down to the sitting room where the Waterfords have received their guests, the Mexican delegates and a few of the other Commanders and their Wives. (Oh hello, Janine’s mistress who looks like soulless, colder version of Angela from The Office!) Before she enters, she shares a seemingly erotic hand-brushing moment with Nick (God, these people are so sexually repressed), and then we’re immersed in a completely unsettling and difficult scene. In so many ways, this is just a rough, stressful scene. Offred is paraded in front of the Mexican delegation like a pet, almost. Worse yet, like an animal in a zoo. A rare specimen for them to boggle at and ask questions. You feel almost a sense of hope, though, knowing that Mexico has not shirked the idea of women having important roles in the government. Not only that but Ambassador Castillo is wearing pants. Whoa, now! Castillo asks Offred pointed questions that are almost anthropological in a sense, things like “Did you choose to be a Handmaid?” and a real doozy, “Are you happy?” Offred almost looks to be physically struggling with the question and a part of you wants her to scream “NO!” and just tear everything around her to pieces and punch people and hit the Commander with a lamp, more than anything, you want her to lie and say yes, to stay alive another day. And that’s such a crushing realization – at least, it was for me.

As they enjoy their hors d’oeuvres, Commander Waterford insults our ears with a horrific accent as he tries to use the Spanish language to incur favor with the ambassador. (It’s truly the stuff of nightmares.) But we quickly forget about that once the ambassador turns to the Wives huddled in the corner and asks, “How does the quiet half of the room feel about Gilead?” You can see the “oh shit, did someone really just ask for our thoughts and opinions?” in their faces. And Fred’s wavering smile as he slowly turns like, “Ahhhh uhhhh.” The Wives obediently answer with stock robotic we’re so blessed and grateful answers, but the ambassador keeps going. She mentions a quote from Serena Joy’s book, A Woman’s Place, that was published before Gilead. We see Serena quickly glancing at her husband, and we know there’s some pride in her somewhere. She’s being recognized for her work and thoughts for the first time in what must be a long time. But she can’t show it. And then this doozy from Castillo: “You were arrested for inciting a riot, if I recall.” Oooohhhh!! Was. She. Now? Castillo doesn’t pull punches, asking if Serena ever imagined a society in which women can no longer read Serena’s book or anything else. And Serena is quick to answer that God asks them to make sacrifices but will repay them with blessings. Followed by the breaking of a very awkward pause with the quintessential, “Shall we have dinner?” Keep giving us more of these battle-of-wills conversations between smart women, please, show, because they’re so good.

When someone asks you for your opinion for the first time in years…

Once the guests leave, Fred lectures Serena after the situation – like it was her fault. She ignores the barb about her being arrested and goes into business talk. She wants to go over the issues he’ll be discussing with the delegation, and the details of the reception. Again, she’s brushed off: “I’m sure you’ll make it all look perfect.” It’s so condescending, especially with the smarmy smile he gives her before he leaves her alone.

We’re thrust into a flashback – and this time we’re given a window into Serena Joy’s existence before Gilead. Fred comes home as she’s making a flower arrangement. He’s tired, harried, frustrated. But he’s talking to her about these so-called meetings he’s going to. Some of the other members are apparently being followed by FBI, perhaps. And we know this must be the beginning stages of the coup – when the plans were being made. There’s a real warmth between Fred and Serena – a partnership that doesn’t seem to exist in Gilead now. And Serena seems free to make decisions and demand things from him, insisting they go to the movies. It’s really weird watching these two in a setting that is so starkly different from Gilead. Talking about how much butter to put in popcorn, surrounded by people texting, laughing freely, with non-conformist clothing and haircuts.

Serena comes off as the idea woman here. And, in fact, we learn that Gilead must have gotten its whole “fulfill your biological destiny” idea from Serena. She tells her husband she wants to write a new book about fertility as a national resource, “reproduction as a moral imperative.” Fred’s like “That’s a great idea!” and we’re out here like NO. BAD IDEA. GUYS, NO. As they wait for the movie to start, Fred gets a text. (Again, it feels so weird to see him with a cell phone.) Apparently “they” issued the orders, what “we” proposed. They’ll attack Congress first, the White House, and finally the Court. Serena apparently had way more influence than we imagined in how Gilead came to be. As much as Serena and Fred seem to believe in her words – “We’re saving them. We’re doing God’s work” – it’s undeniably chilling to see the beginnings of the destruction of our American democracy. (Note: Serena must have enjoyed gardening before it became one of the only things she’s allowed to do in Gilead. Also, she was totally listening to Nina Simone.)

Back in present-time, Nick comes to Offred’s room and tells her the Commander wants to see her in his office again. Before Offred heads down there, she lets off some steam by making out with Nick. IN THE HALLWAY. WHERE ANYONE COULD POTENTIALLY WALK BY AND SEE THEM.

Commander Waterford seems like he isn’t in a great mood as they play Scrabble this time. He’s angry mumbling about the ambassador and the rest of the delegation. Grumbling things like “Who are they to judge us?” and “What are they doing to save the planet?” He confronts Offred then, asking her in a snotty voice if he’s boring her (um yeah…kinda, Fred). When she apologizes, he says in the same tone wife beaters use before they go on a drunken rampage: “Being in here is a privilege.” That quiet semblance of kindness he usually has with her is gone. Because you might have forgotten while watching that flashback, and through the previous Scrabble games, that the Commander is continually perpetuating the gross oppressive society Offred is living in. He tells Offred to go, but before she does, she turns and looks at him with a simpering smile. She apologizes and asks if she can stay with him. He makes her stand in front of him and he strokes her in a way he probably hasn’t touched a woman – especially not his wife – in a long time. Then he tells her to kiss him. She pecks him on the lips. He tells her to do it again, but like she means it. (SO SO ICKY!) She does, and then we see her brushing her teeth in her bathroom until she makes herself bleed.

At the reception, the Handmaids gather in the lobby as Aunt Lydia gives them their orders. They get to be guests at the reception, “just like everybody else.” Serena approaches and tells Aunt Lydia to line them up. She walks down the line of Handmaids, critically eyeing every single one of them, and then she goes back to Aunt Lydia: “Please remove the damaged ones.” It’s like a gut punch hearing her say something that horrid. Talking about human beings like she’s talking about an arrangement of flowers or some cookies on a plate. These women were “damaged” by Gilead, tortured and beaten, limbs removed, eyes gouged out, as punishment. When Aunt Lydia politely tries to say these Handmaids have deserved this privilege like the others, Serena tells her you don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate. Any Handmaid with any kind of scar, limb missing, eye missing, is forced to step forward, and they’re then removed from the pack. Ofwarren (Janine) is shaken and upset, as excited as she was to get to be at the reception and it’s heartbreaking watching her protest while Offred tries to calm her. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to go to the party.” It hurts so baaaad. Aunt Lydia steps up and shows a rare softer side. She agrees it’s unfair, “But sometimes we have to do what is best for everyone. Not what is fair.” Then she appeases her with a promise of “a whole tray of dessert.” Ugggh.

The Handmaids walk into the dining room where Commanders, Wives, and the Mexican delegates all sit watching them as they enter. It’s very neat, tidy, orchestrated almost like a dance, and supremely freaky.

As Serena waits for we don’t know what yet, we’re thrust into another flashback. Serena waits in another hallway, looking at notecards. Fred steps out of a room and tells her they won’t let her speak. She concedes, thanking him for trying, visibly upset but putting on a brave face. “You should be a part of these decisions,” he says. As she leaves, one of Fred’s colleagues steps outside and gives anybody watching this show in 2017 that has an modicum of respect for women soul deep rage. “This is our fault. We gave them [women] more than they could handle. They put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, we let them forget their real purpose. We won’t let that happen again.” Join me in stabbing the nearest pillow repeatedly with a sharp object while rage roaring, won’t you? What kind of a dude hears another dude say that about his wife, and then doesn’t punch the living daylights out of him? A weak dude.

Serena enters the reception where everyone is seated and takes her position beside her husband. He seems frustrated someone hasn’t shown up, and she calms him: “Patience. Even the righteous need a little show business.” She stands up to make a speech and things get incredibly messed up from there. She talks about the great strides Gilead has made in tackling their most pressing problem (infertility), and how they would not be able to do it without “this group of girls.” (Girls?? Say whaa? They’re all around your age, Serena.) She makes the Handmaids stand and the room applauds for them. It’s patronizing and downright sickening, considering these women were kidnapped and forced into this. Then Serena announces a special treat for their distinguished guests. Much to everyone’s surprise, the children of Gilead are paraded through the room, playing and giggling and endearing in that childlike way of theirs. It’s almost numbing just how insanely cruel this stunt is. The Handmaids gave birth to these children. These are their children. And they have to stand there and watch this. This might be the first time some of the Handmaids have seen their children since they were babies and taken away from them to be given to the Commanders and their Wives before they were traded off to another household. Disgust is evident on Offred’s face, anguish on some of the other Handmaids’ faces, and longing is on Serena’s face. But you can’t really make yourself feel for her in this moment. This is a brilliant maneuver, showing the Mexican ambassador the proof that Gilead’s system works, letting them interact with children (they probably haven’t seen children for who knows how long). It’s also horrifically ruthless. Alma turns to Offred and asks what she heard at the meeting. Offred thinks Gilead is trading oranges to Mexico, but Alma tells her what’s really going on. She says Gilead is trading “red tags,” meaning the Handmaids. Trading human beings, how nice!

As Serena gets a triumphant look on her face, we go back to when the Waterfords were first moving into their new home after the rise of the Republic of Gilead. She’s in her green dress now, handing off the rest of her clothes to guards and telling them to take it to the trash. We see her open a box and remove her new wardrobe: more green dresses! Fred walks in wearing his Commander’s uniform for the first time. He’s headed off to a meeting Serena isn’t allowed to go to. When he adds (almost as an afterthought), “You should be coming with me,” she doesn’t seem to have an answer. And she tells him she’s going to “make this place a home.” Ahhh, Wifely Duties. Get used to it, Serena Joy. As he leaves for his meeting, you see the frustration and feeling of uselessness in her face.

The night after the reception, Serena takes her hair out of her restrictive bun and changes into a nightgown that’s a paler green in color. When her husband walks in, she congratulates him, and tells him he should discuss things with the rest of the commanders. But even as she speaks, he closes the distance…and touches her. Not just any touch…it’s tender as he admiringly tucks some of her hair behind her ear. “You’re an amazing woman…I forgot.” They kiss, embrace, and in spite of them being two very problematic people who do horrible things and created this horrible world, the relief and longing in them is moving. They try the whole “We should stop” thing, signifying that this kind of connection outside of what happens in the Ceremony (yeah, remember THAT WHOLE THING??) is forbidden in Gilead. But they can’t stop. And they end up having sex.

That same night, Offred waltzes right into Nick’s room and lets loose. She paces. “I should’ve told her what they do to us,” she says. Nick tries to talk her down as she despises herself for saying she’s happy. “What choice did you have?” Nick asks, and he makes a very valid point, but it doesn’t help, and Offred tries to leave, knowing she shouldn’t be there in the first place. He holds her back and she curses at him, addressing all the ways his existence is so much easier than hers is (and she’s very right). When he calls her Offred, she tells him that’s not her name, and she gives him her real name. She’s definitely playing with fire here and if you’re not nervous, you should be. Remember…Nick’s an Eye.

Ambassador Castillo and her assistant arrive at the Waterford home the next morning, and as they wait for the Commander, Offred wanders into the room with them. Castillo thanks her again for being so honest with her and Offred is the picture perfect Handmaid, polite and demure. And then she turns on a dime, and calmly tells Castillo that she lied. She then details all of the terrible things they do to Handmaids, what they put Handmaids through in Gilead. Castillo listens, speechless, a little confused maybe, but also seemingly disgusted by what she’s hearing. “They took my daughter, kay? So don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry, just do something.” And you think, Oh thank God. This woman in a high position can go back and tell her government what’s happening, tell the world how nightmarish Gilead is and how they treat people like animals, and they’ll fix this…

But then Castillo tells her she can’t help her. Another gut punch. Offred asks what she’s trading them for, her voice shaking with anguish and rage. She asks Castillo how she can be okay with trading human beings. The ambassador informs her that in her city in Mexico, there hasn’t been a child born alive in six years. “My country is dying.” Looking her right in the face, bitterness in every facet of her being, Offred says, “My country is already dead.” Remember way back in the episode one recap when I called this a cautionary tale? Yeeeah.

The Commander arrives and takes the ambassador away for business again, leaving Offred alone with Castillo’s assistant. Remember him??? As she tries to leave the room, obviously distraught, he tells her he wants to help her. He tells her he doesn’t know where her daughter is, but he might be able to get a message to her husband. She tells him her husband is dead, and he lists off a bunch of details about Luke, his full name, his birthday, where he was born. (whoa!) That gets her attention. “He’s alive,” the man says. And he takes out a notepad and says her real name as he tells her to write a note to Luke. The episode ends there, on quite the cliffhanger!

Real talk: Serena Joy has shown us cruelty, selfishness, and a number of other kind of terrible attributes, but one thing is for certain: she is a damn powerful person to have in your corner. Her determination and strength is through the roof. Her drive is relentless, almost scary. The way she says “They’re having dinner at the home of a very powerful commander. Let them be nervous” gives me full-body chills. “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness” is a quote from Serena Joy’s book, as Ambassador Castillo reminds us. And in spite of the situation Serena has found herself placed in (partly by her own hand), this quote still seems to live inside of her throughout the episode. Outwardly meek and kowtowing to the power of the men in society, while engaging in machinations to get shit done in a way that won’t be intrusive or invasive to the Commanders. This is pure strength and badassery, and even though it’s necessary to emphasize the bad in that – she’s downright cruel in this episode – this is a prime example of purely female ingenuity, enterprise, and intelligence. How do you do your job well without making men around you feel threatened? It’s something so many women are forced to master to get through life, isn’t it?

Honorable mention moment for the episode: When Rita pops in on Offred while she’s taking a bath and tells her Mrs. Waterford wants to see her in her room, Offred’s sarcastic straight-faced “Awesome” made me bark-laugh. The way only her eyes are poking up over the rim of the tub… Elisabeth Moss is a treasure.

Did you enjoy this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? Let us know in the comments!

    One Comment

  1. MegMay 20th, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    This was a perfect recap! The part with the children reminds us just why this dystopian society was able to get formed. I loved Offred’s determination at the end, even though she is falling for Nick and Uh Oh her husband may still be alive!

    Can’t wait for the next one. Rock on, Karen!

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