In 'The Handmaid's Tale,' The Greatest Threat Is A Woman With A Pen

In Season 2, Episode 7, Serena and June finally meet as equals.

Warning: Spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” below!

There’s power in a name. 

In Episode 7 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, which takes place in the  aftermath of the suicide bombing carried out by Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones), we see the handmaids name themselves and share those names with each other. We also hop over to Toronto, where Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) await the names of the dead. It turns out that Ofglen was named Lillie Fuller. 

There’s also power in a pen. It’s something that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) learns as she tries to clean up the destruction wrought by Commander Cushing (Greg Bryk), which ultimately enlists both Nick (Max Minghella) and June (Elisabeth Moss) to help with.

The episode, titled “After,” explores what happens after the escape, after the revolt, after the trauma, after someone you love is no longer there. The answer is that life happens ― in all its twisted, complex, layered glory.

Let’s dig in.

Emma: I really want to make a joke about the pen being mightier than the sword here, but for the sake of both of us, I will refrain. What I will say is that this episode is continuing on the trajectory of giving us some modicum of hope that maybe, just maybe, things could be at least (temporarily) more hopeful in Gilead.

But first, we have to talk about the bleak: That funeral, which happened in the aftermath of Ofglen’s suicide bombing mission and apparently killed 26 commanders, including Commander Pryce, and 31 handmaids. (Another reminder that the cost of a violent revolution is never one-sided.) This season is truly giving us every life event/ceremony, Gilead-style. And ― spoiler alert ― their funerals are both creepy and artful too!  

Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd, in "The Handmaid's Tale."
Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd, in "The Handmaid's Tale."

Laura: That funeral was so well-choreographed. Did they rehearse the musical chairs move from coffin to coffin?

I was surprised by the fact that the handmaids were allowed to mourn one another, considering that this explosion clearly arose from a suicide bombing, or “terrorist attack,” as its being called. Instead of punishing the handmaids for the insurrection, Lydia emerges as the “comforter in chief,” telling them (albeit disingenuously) that she tried to give them a “world without pain.”  

Emma: And yet I think Aunt Lydia truly buys the bullshit she peddles. She seems to really believe that this world, where handmaids are serving the purpose she thinks God intended, is what will make these women fulfilled and blessed. (This will serve as my weekly nudge to Hulu to give us a flashback episode for Aunt Lydia. Both the people and Ann Dowd deserve this!!)

Something that struck me about the funeral scene was that even though they were allowed to mourn their fellow handmaids, they had to mourn these shadow versions of the people who died ― “Ofryan, Ofleo, Ofhal, Ofzev.” June and the other still-living handmaids discuss how they never knew most of these women’s names, even Ofglen’s. Gilead has stripped these women of their humanity and identity, even in death, which is why it was so stirring at the end of the episode to see them start to share their real names with each other, and hear the ambassador in Toronto name each of the women killed in the attack. Seeing Ofglen as Lillie Fuller ― her hair beautiful and curly and unstyled ― brought me to tears. It was another reminder that even in moments of compassion in Gilead, there is something fundamental missing.

Laura: Yes, that scene in the grocery store where the women start introducing themselves to each other was one of my favorite in the series. It was so striking because these women have obviously been through so much together already ― funerals and ceremonies and torture and secret bonding and attempted revolutions. The fact that many of them didn’t know something as basic as one another’s first names seems unimaginable.

I think this is the real beginning of the resistance ― the full recognition of each other’s real identities. This is where the handmaids start to gain back their agency. And Serena doesn’t realize it, but she’s playing into it too by, for the first time, acknowledging that June was an editor. She hands June a pen and finally treats her like a human, an equal, with skills and a career. Now that June and the other women are remembering and fully reclaiming their old identities, it will be impossible for them to fully resume their pious handmaid roles. It’s a bell that can’t be un-rung.

Emma: I agree completely. There is so much power in a name, power in the ability to express oneself through speech and written word ― all things that Gilead has tried its best to quash, especially for women. I want to dig more into Serena’s progression. We have been watching her do this dance all season long, considering how best to position herself in relation to June. She’s tried ignoring her, berating her, beating her, creating a dreamy but false veneer of friendship. This episode, she does something new: Comes to her with a mission as, as you said, an equal.

The setup for this uneasy alliance (and its certainly uneasy, because Serena’s complicity and stake in Gilead’s structure are also bells that can’t be un-rung), comes out of necessity. Commander Waterford is gravely injured, but alive, in the bombing, so he is essentially out of commission while recovering in the hospital. And since Commander Pryce has died, this leaves a power vacuum, one that the other commanders are eager to fill. Commander Cushing steps in to fulfill Pryce’s security duties, and it turns out that he’s more vicious than both Pryce and Waterford. Gilead becomes a “war zone,” as Serena puts it ― people shot in the street, almost at random, hangings of entire households who are presumed to have a connection to the underground resistance in any capacity. Gilead was always terrifying, but this feels unsettling on a new level.

At one point, he shows up at the Waterford house unannounced to question June. He clearly doesn’t believe that she was kidnapped for the months she was missing, and he wants to know who helped her. She doesn’t change her story, insisting that she was “taken against [her] will,” but it becomes obvious that Cushing suspects Waterford, or is at least looking for reason to take him out. It was an odd moment of realization ― as much of a tyrant as Waterford is, he also offers a layer of protection to the members of his household, June, Serena, Rita and Nick. How did you feel watching the stakes change so quickly? Suddenly, June and Serena have a common enemy. 

Laura: I’ve been fascinated the whole season by June and Serena’s evolving relationship, and what made this episode so interesting is that we really see how much they respect each other. They are both forces to be reckoned with, and if the two of them team up, they could potentially run Gilead. Of course, they’ll never fully trust each other, but I got the sense in this episode that June almost relished in the fact that Serena listened to her, seized the power in the household and crushed Cushing without lifting a finger. Serena clearly respects June too ― they seem to understand each other beneath the bullshit that Gilead has taught both of them to spew.

Of course, it will be interesting to see how long this alliance lasts, considering that their missions are ultimately at odds. Right now, both of them want to protect themselves and June’s baby. Beyond that, June will likely emerge as a leader in the resistance, and Serena will have to figure out how to battle her without ending her own hopes of motherhood. But for now, the powerful combination of June and Serena makes the Commander look pretty useless ― impotent, even ― and that’s incredibly satisfying to watch.

Emma: I admit that for a moment I allowed myself to indulge in a fantasy where Serena and June could somehow wipe the slate clean and team up for good. They are both just wonderfully powerful and fascinating women, both too smart for the lives Gilead has decided they deserve. (Or in Serena’s case, the life she helped craft.) There was a moment of normalcy between the two of them where you could almost imagine they were just two girlfriends sitting down at the table to have a glass of wine and decompress about their terribly shitty days.

“We knew Ray and Sonja from before ― Commander Cushing,” says Serena. “We used to vacation together. Went to Antigua once. They had the most amazing beaches, picked up some sea glass. Ray was a blowhard even then.” I imagine that before Gilead, Serena had no time for blowhards. I imagine that she sees right through terrible, useless men, and that’s part of why Commander Waterford was so drawn to her. Now her subtle power is mostly wasted propping up those terrible men, but in this case, she draws a line in the sand, because Cushing is coming for her life, for her family. Serena’s story is a familiar one of a woman who has so much magic at her fingertips, wants to do what’s right, but is ultimately only concerned about others when it impacts her directly. And yet I still so badly want to see her and June take down Gilead in a blaze of signed warrants and edited orders.

Laura: I loved that line from Serena as she takes the reins: “The Commander will forgive me my trespasses.” Even in Gilead, she is not a woman who asks for permission.

One thing that struck me about this episode ― entitled “After” ― was the contrast between the bizarre mourning ceremony inside Gilead and the all-too-familiar scene in Toronto, where the anxious crowd is waiting to hear the full names of the bombing victims in the same way we might wait for names after a school shooting or a plane crash. We see a lot more of Moira here as she discovers the worst news possible: that her fiancée, Odette, is among the many women who have been killed by the Republic of Gilead.

Emma: The Toronto scenes also highlighted the difference between how Moira has coped in the “after” of escaping Gilead and how Luke has. Luke has thrown himself into a routine. He shows up to the Little America embassy to get information, but doesn’t stick around, doesn’t want to dig for more. “You don’t wanna know that she’s OK?” asks Moira, referring to June. “She’s not OK,” Luke responds. “She’s alive. I have faith that she’s alive.” “That’s not knowing,” says Moira.

This moment makes us ask a question: Is it worse to not know or to know the worst? By the end of the episode, Moira confirms what she almost certainly knew ― that Odette, who we find out was the doctor who treated Moira during her pre-Gilead pregnancy (!!!), was murdered when she was rounded up before the war. So, is confirmation relief? Both yes and no. At the very least, Moira can name her pain. She can memorialize Odette among the other Americans who died in Gilead. She can place a photo of the two of them among hundreds of other photos, and lean on Luke for support. Meanwhile, Luke is just going through the motions. He can’t quite grieve a permanent loss, but he also can’t ignore that his wife and daughter are probably in pain.

Laura: I think it’s a testament to the writing on this show that the characters are so well-developed and nuanced in their reactions to what is happening. We see it not only with Luke and Moira, but again between Emily and Janine ― who are back in Gilead as the regime starts to run out of fertile handmaids. Janine is bubbly and optimistic (or in denial?) as ever as she expresses to June how thankful she is to be out of the colonies. Then June approaches Emily, who is having the opposite reaction. Tears are streaming down her face, because she knows that even though she endured some of the most miserable and inhumane conditions imaginable at the colonies, that was maybe better than being raped every month ― especially after having endured painful genital mutilation. Emily is a realist, while Janine seems to have an amazing ability to blank out the bad stuff.

Emma: It’s so interesting, because I read that moment between Emily and June differently. I took it as Emily being overcome with emotion at seeing these women she probably thought she’d never see again. I think she had resigned herself to dying in the colonies, and now suddenly she’s back ― still in hell, of course, but also still standing, still alive, still resilient.

And that was the glimmer of hope we saw. These women have named themselves and named one another, and maybe one day, like Moira, they will be able to name their pain. Plus, June has a pen. In Gilead, does it get much more symbolic than that?

Laura: You know, as a journalist, there is nothing more exciting to see than a woman with a pen. I hope she spell-checks the living hell out of those documents. Take that, Gilead!

To read more of HuffPost’s “Handmaid’s Tale” coverage, head here.