The Handmaid's Tale's sixth episode, 'A Woman's Place', digs into the past of Serena Joy, the Commander's wife, as well as introducing us to Mrs. Castillo, the ambassador from Mexico. It is another example of the show going beyond the novel and giving its viewers a sense of the world within which Gilead exists. Not every show successfully expands upon its source material, yet so far it has consistently worked for The Handmaid's Tale. Despite how narrow its focus is, the threat feels omnipresent and palpable. So far this threat has seemingly only extended to the Handmaids, whose whole life has been curtailed to their functional wombs, while the other classes of people seem to enjoy relative freedom and privilege. That was until 'A Woman's Place', in which Serena Joy largely takes centre stage. Margaret Atwood's novel gives us only the slightest hint as to Serena Joy's past or feelings. The quote below is one of these small hints:
"Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.Serena Joy once gave public speeches about what the role of women should be while not ascribing to those roles herself, arguing she only did so because someone had to, not because she had a voice she wanted to use. While the show's past for Serena Joy sticks largely to this narrative, it uses its medium to give the viewer much more, while driving home the message that women can be their own, and each others, enemies.
So far in the show, Serena Joy has been a very conflicting character. She is needlessly cruel to Offred and yet also clearly as helpless and closed in. She is consistently reacting, rather than acting, and desperate to have her baby, no matter how humiliating and violating the Ceremony is to Offred and herself. There is a kindness in her, which hardly ever shines through, as well as a steely pride which allows her to be blind to her own misery. The Handmaid's Tale frequently uses flashbacks to Offred's life pre-Gilead to build her character as well as to emphasise the strong contrast between Gilead and our world now. 'A Woman's Place' uses the same technique to contextualise Serena Joy and presents her to us as a once strong-willed and capable woman. When the Commander's hope in establishing Gilead flounders, Serena Joy restores him and doesn't take no for an answer when she decides on a night out. She contemplates a second book, after a successful first one on a woman's place in societ, shows of her legs and is in lust with her husband. She is alive, she has a purpose and a dream. Whenever the episode cuts back to Serena Joy now, the starkness of her dresses and her posture has become emphasised. Her stillness and erectness now show itself as an endless amount of controlled emotion, and her face now reveals traces of deep hurt and sadness. She is a caged woman. The episode's name is also the name of the book Serena Joy wrote, the same book she is now forbidden to read, and this emphasises the prison she has helped create for women. This 'place' she advocated and defended is one that now limits her.
Serena Joy defined the place of women as being in the household, argued that their sacred duty was to be fruitful and be a homemaker, and was willing to condemn countless of women to servitude and misery to see this vision fulfilled. And seemingly never once did she think she herself could be a victim of of her own conviction. When the Commander receives word of their revolution's imminent beginning, Serena Joy is the one who calms his fears, who seems almost excited at the news. He is the one, seemingly, considering the room of unsuspecting people around them, who can see how not only his own life but also theirs will change. A few minutes later we see Serena Joy calmly yet anxiously waiting outside a conference room ready to make her case, now that Gilead has started. She will not be allowed to do so. As a matter of fact, she will never truly be allowed to do anything anymore.
While the Commander races around and makes history, she is already cast in her teal uniform, almost as restricting as the Handmaids' costume, trying to "make a home". Her unhappiness is clear, and the episode's consistent flashbacks make us feel almost sorry for the independent and opinionated woman that has disappeared. Instead of being proactive she is now reactive, she can still dominate a room, as this episode also shows, but only when she has been told to do so. There is nothing in her life, nothing which she would truly consider worth living for anyway. The only hope she has to feel worthwhile is to have a child, a hope that reveals she does not feel that this 'woman's place' she has created is really true or natural for women. Being a housewife does not suit her, obeying her husband in everything does not work for her, but perhaps, or so she visibly hopes, being a mother will make this worth the sacrifices she has made and the humiliation she feels.
It reminded me very strongly of those Donald Trump voters who now find that his government and his policies, which they so loudly defended and supported, have a very direct and very negative impact on their own lives. While they were happy for other people's rights to be curtailed, for other people's lives to be impacted, they never imagined the same could and would happen to them. Their helpless outrage, whether it shows itself in a sudden denial of everything Trump or a blinded wilfulness to see this through to the bitter end, is very similar to Serena Joy's actions and expressions. She used her gift with words and her power to impress to make her vision for others become reality. Yet this reality is not what she had hoped for herself, even if it is what she had hoped for others. So it has made her bitter and cruel, lonely and desperate. When the scene ends on a shot of her book being put out with the rest of the trash, it is not just the book that is being rejected. So is everything Serena Joy may have hoped for her own life, her vision of what Gilead should or could be, and her power to put her thoughts into words. She is now as silent and restricted as the Handmaids. Yet unlike them, she did this to herself.
This brings me to another woman we get to know in 'A Woman's Place', although this is a new character and one that does not exist in the book: Mrs. Castillo, the Mexican ambassador. When Offred enters the room she assumes that one of the men is the ambassador, showing how much her world view has already been skewed by Gilead. But Mrs. Castillo makes for a jarring yet delicious break with what Gilead has attempted to establish as reality. Here she is, in a white pantsuit (could this have been a shout out to Hilary Clinton?), her hair down, seemingly at ease and with the men aiming to please her at every turn. It is a glimpse behind the curtain of Gilead that gives hope that the world outside of it may remain "normal".
When Offred is asked to speak toMrs. Castillo, to tell her of her life as a Handmaiden, the audience cannot help but wish for her to speak out while being very well aware she can't. Surrounded by Commanders, Offred would never get away with it and the psychological pressure of it all shows perfectly in Moss' acting. When Mrs. Castillo asks her whether she is happy, the look of barely held back desperation, fear and misery on Offred's face cannot be denied, yet Mrs. Castillo accepts her confirmation that she is, indeed, content. There is a sympathy in the ambassador's eyes, however, which gives the audience hope that she may have understood, that she knows in the way that women have learned to read each other's misery. (Sidenote: this ability was brilliantly showcased by Big Little Lies in its finale.) Offred is given a second chance to speak, this time away from the Commanders and after finding out that the true reason for Mrs. Castillo's visit is to negotiate a trade deal in Handmaidens. Shocked to have been used by the Commanders to help them spread her own suffering to other countries and other women, she tries to correct the image given to Mrs. Castillo by her own forced subservience. While listening to Offred speak, it is clear she does feel her pain and understands the terror she lives in. It comes as a shock, then, when she declares she has no way of helping Offred since her own country is in dire need of fertile women. The true horror of that statement lies not, necessarily, in her determination to go ahead with the trade deal, but in the fact she doesn't deny Offred's suffering. She can see it, she can be sympathetic to it to a certain extent, but it doesn't change anything for her. Accepting other people's pain and hardship, but not letting it affect your position is impossibly cruel. For Mrs. Castillo, her own desire to see her country flourish again, and perhaps also the desire to see herself be the saviour of her country, trumps the pain of the Handmaidens. She knows she will condemn countless other women to this pain but it does not sway her. She is making exactly the same mistake as Serena Joy, determining a role for women and accepting its harsh consequences for other women, without considering that this will restrict and doom her as well. Serena Joy was caught in the prison she created for others, and by telling this story alongside Mrs. Castillo's, we can see the latter going down the exact same route.
Unlike Serena Joy and Mrs. Castillo, Offred, when she realises she is being made complicit in her own oppression, tries to correct the situation, to take back as much voice as she can and stop the tide. Although it proves ineffectual, Offred ends the episode with her pride, relatively, intact. She resisted, she saw through the mask being pulled over her head and although she is, at the moment, unable to stop it, she tried. What this episode tells us is of the true danger of complicity. I read a review of this episode which argued the following about the show:
"Its female networks are tenuous, if not outright antagonistic or destructive, and it seems generally to lack a self-consciousness about the ways female bodies, physical labor, and carework have already been commoditized." (Source)This struck me as very surprising since this very episode gets to the bottom of why "female networks" can appear to be so tenuous, antagonistic and destructive and offers a possible way of resisting it. It is about wilful blindness, happily condemning others and not seeing how limiting their freedom will limit yours as well. It is one of the key struggles, in my eyes, that feminism is going through right now. The call for feminism to be more intersectional and the warning to white feminists not to close their eyes to what is happening to women all over the world both echo very loudly in this episode. Western women who shout they don't need feminism because they think they chose to be a housewife are, to an extent, complicit in perpetuating many of the patriarchal elements in Western society, which in consequence also dominates in developing areas in the world. I'm not arguing you cannot choose to be a housewife, but feminism is what advocates for you, and every other woman, to have that choice. A patriarchal system does not give you a choice, but it will let you pretend you do so you can tell yourself you're doing fine. Serena Joy had a voice, or so she thought, but once that voice had achieved its purpose it was taken away. Mrs. Castillo still has her voice, but she is in danger of having it taken away as well. Offred technically doesn't have a voice, and yet she finds it and uses it to prevent harm to others, at the danger of harm to herself. By refusing to be complicit to the enslavement and endangerment of other women, Offred doesn't allow herself to be made complicit. And this is where the answer lies, or at least I believe it does.
What can make being a feminist difficult is that it constantly requires work, it demands you to reassess things you have assumed for your whole life, to look beyond the privilege or hardship you have and consider that of others. What made reading The Handmaid's Tale so special for me was Offred's inner voice, the one that constantly resisted what she was being told, even when she wavered. It was outward looking, despite her costume's attempt at shutting her off from the world, as well as introspective, and constantly reassessing. This is the outlook we all need. Not to say the episode only has this message to women, it counts as much for men. After all, it is the man she mistakenly assumed was the Mexican ambassador who brings her news from the resistance and her, assumed dead, husband. Clearly he, unlike Serena Joy or Mrs. Castillo, looked at himself, looked at the people around him, and made a choice. I thought it was a fascinating note for a fascinating episode to end on.
What did you think of the episode, and the show overall? Please do share your thoughts with me in the comments below!