What a horrible show. Just awful, terrorising stuff. The season premiere’s golden coda – that chummy scene of June (Elisabeth Moss), Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and Moira (Samira Wiley) bonding with Nichole over bath time – was no indication of where we were heading.The Handmaid’s Tale only shows mercy for the thrill of taking it away.
Episode one was elegant, showcasing a few storylines and really giving them space. Episode two is the opposite. It feels bitty and rushed, with the exception of a few longer sequences that I found perplexing. What do a state funeral and a ballet have in common that they should be married in a wordless, three-minute sequence? Pageantry, I guess, but why is that meaningful here?
Going home again
“Ballet” opens with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) en route to Gilead, with Mark (Sam Jaeger) by her side as chaperone. After deplaning, she exchanges barbed pleasantries with Nick (Max Minghella) and Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), then quickly drops the charade altogether. Serena wants Fred to have a media circus of a funeral. Correctly assuming that June couldn’t get to Fred without them, Serena blackmails Nick and Joseph into upgrading Fred’s send-off into an internationally televised spectacle.
When we finally see our girl Janine (Madeline Brewer) again, she’s helping Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) ready a new class of handmaids, including Esther (McKenna Grace). It’s very morally compromising work, if you can get it. In a moment that strains plausibility, Lydia even permits Janine to accompany Esther to the Putnams’ house for Fred’s wake, where Esther will be interviewed for a posting as the Putnams’ handmaid. You could argue that Lydia is strategically rewarding Janine for her obedience by allowing her to see Angela, Janine’s child with Commander Putnam. But given their problems in the past, this feels reckless.
“You’re not June. You’re a disgrace.”
The wake is a snooze, as most wakes are. The women fawn over Serena and her baby bump. Guests eat tidy, crustless sandwiches. Joseph and Nick convince their fellow commanders that a big ceremonial funeral will elevate Gilead’s status in the world by demonstrating the universality of grief or some such nonsense. To Lydia’s credit, Janine and Angela’s brief reunion is painful to watch but uneventful. Mrs Putnam even thanks Janine for bringing Angela into the world.
The relationship between Esther and Janine is slippery. Esther hasn’t lost her rebellious spirit and is looking to Janine as a substitute for June. But Janine’s a follower. She doesn’t step in to protect Esther from Commander Putnam, who in a humiliating, menacing private meeting forces the 14-year-old to eat chocolates from his hand. He even makes plane noises as he delivers them through the air. When Esther tells Janine she doesn’t want to be posted, Janine advises her to get pregnant fast – then everyone will be nice to her.
But Esther is June, albeit cruelly demented. She starts to believe Janine, the most open and loving person in Gilead, only used her to see Angela. Esther approaches Janine once more, this time with truffles she nicked from the Putnams. They enjoy them as Janine waxes poetic about the “complete love” Esther will know when she has a child, even if 1) that child is the product of rape and 2) that child will later be stolen away by Esther’s rapist.
But in a June-ian act of treachery, Esther laced the chocolates with some kind of poison that causes them both to end up in a puddle on the floor, spewing blood. My guess is they’ll survive. In Gilead, you always survive long enough to wish you were dead.
Meanwhile in Canada
June is obsessed with Serena. She’s so obsessed with Serena she doesn’t understand how other people aren’t obsessed with Serena. She’s so obsessed with Serena she bullies Rita with bad memories from the Waterford house in the hopes that the former Martha will turn obsessed, too. She does this on game night. Rita had brought homemade bread!
Later, June apologises to Luke for telling Serena she’d killed Fred for no reason except to spook her. Luke convinces June to live in the present, with him, in Toronto. Serena doesn’t matter. She’s not part of their lives. But it turns out Nick might soon be? Under the cloak of Gilead night, he meets with Mark, who suggests the US government in exile might be willing to overlook Nick’s role in the crusades if he continues making himself useful as a spy and saboteur.
In an effort to stay in the present, June and Luke go to the ballet – their first date since June arrived in Canada. After the performance, standing in the middle of Dundas square under the light of all those billboards, they share a Big Kiss – a nice romantic one with a bit of dip to it. And that’s where they’re still standing when we figure out the real reason Serena insisted on so much fanfare for Commander Fred Waterford.
The billboards are wiped and replaced with news coverage, live via satellite from Gilead. June and Luke watch the commanders, including Nick and Joseph, march behind the coffin. They see Serena behind a black veil – the very picture of restrained bereavement. And they’re watching, on a screen bigger than a house, when Serena kisses the forehead of a little girl who was selected from the crowd to bring her a bouquet of white flowers.
It’s the first time Hannah’s parents have seen her in years. She’s eight storeys tall and a million miles away.