The Handmaid’s Tale’s “Women’s Work” Reveals Poignant Truths About the Nature of Female Relationships

*Spoiler alert for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, Episode 8.

Aunt Lydia, Janine, and baby Angela on The Handmaid's Tale.
Aunt Lydia, Janine, and baby Angela on The Handmaid’s Tale. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

This episode of The Handmaid’s Tale brought something new and poignant to the table. The show has not shied away from focusing a great deal on its female friendships. Indeed, even under the oppressive thumb of Gilead, these women somehow find a way to care for each other, and love each other. However, this episode didn’t show us love between friends, but love between enemies.

Serena and June have been clawing at each other’s throats since day one. There have been moments this season where we’ve seen Serena be nice to June, and it seemed as if there was a rapport developing there. All too often though, it seemed Serena was just trying to placate the woman carrying “her” baby, and the old viscousness would come back with a vengeance. This episode was different. When the episode starts, June says that she and Serena have been working together the entire time the Commander has been in the hospital. A record is playing, and they’ve made the study their home as Serena writes, and June edits. They seem comfortable with each other; they speak to each other candidly. Breaking the law together. As the scene wraps up however, Serena tells June that the Commander is coming home from the hospital the next day, and you know the peaceful interlude is over.

When the Commander comes home, he retakes control of the study. He personally escorts Serena out of the room, shutting the door in her face, and we are left with Serena on the other side of that door – shut out of the room with the books, the knowledge, and the power.  Things don’t completely go back to normal, though. Bonds have been created between June and Serena, and they won’t go away so quickly. June finds a gift from Serena on her bed – a music box and a rose. “It was nice working with you too,” June thinks in the voiceover.

Their bond goes far beyond objects, though. When it’s revealed that baby Angela, Janine and the Putnams’ baby, is sick, she goes to June for advice. There’s a doctor that could help the baby, she says, but the doctor is a woman (an African American woman, no less). June convinces her that taking the risk to get this doctor’s help is worth it. She also advocates for Janine, and asks Serena if she can get Janine in to see the baby. In the past, Serena would’ve punished June for even asking. But now, she considers it. When Serena brings it to the Commander though, he shuts her down. He’d rather let the baby die than let a woman help.

Normally Serena plays at the good little wife, but it seems these past few weeks of freedom have left her feeling bold. She forges the papers to get the doctor, now a martha, into the hospital, and she convinces the Putnams to let Janine in. One of my favorite parts was one of the doctors on staff gushing to the female doctor they brought in about how he had been following her work before Gilead, and she trained his mentor. After she does everything she can though, the doctor says she can find no reason why this baby’s health is failing.

Janine, meanwhile, is watching all of this, and breaking down over the news that her baby is dying. June convinces Serena to convince the Putnams to let Janine in to kiss the baby goodbye. This turns out to be a godsend. All night the Putnams, Aunt Lydia, and Janine sit in the room with the baby. The Putnams and Aunt Lydia fall asleep, and when they wake up, Janine is down to her underwear and tank top, singing and holding the baby, who is suddenly perfectly fine. Maybe the baby just needed skin-to-skin contact. We’ve seen Mrs. Putnam show her disdain for Angela in the past (and Mr. Putnam doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship at all with her). Maybe she just needed some love. Whatever it was, a miracle happened, and Angela is ok, and Janine holding her all night must have had everything to do with it. It’s unclear if this means that Janine will be allowed to have a relationship with her daughter (who she calls Charlotte over Angela) in the future, but one can hope.

In the meantime, while all this is happening, Eden tries to make her and Nick’s home more, well, homelike. This seems like an innocuous storyline enough, until she finds the batch of letters Nick’s been hiding. For once, the fact that women aren’t supposed to read, and Eden is completely brainwashed, comes in handy. She didn’t read them. Didn’t even think anything of them, until Nick freaks out at finding out that she found them. He’s almost cruel as he interrogates her, and demands that she never touch his stuff again, but I’m worried that while she hadn’t cared about the letters before, she may be suspicious of them now.

Of course, the Commander didn’t take too kindly to Serena forging those papers, or June helping her. He whips Serena with his belt in a truly harrowing scene, as Offred is forced to watch. When June tries to reach out to Serena later that night, offering help, offering to be a friend, Serena, her pride broken, responds with her old bitterness. The walls between them are back up, all the work done on their relationship undone in one fell swoop. Offred even tries to apologize to the Commander after Serena turns her away, trying to get back into his good graces.

In previous episodes, different characters, Aunt Lydia especially, have led us to believe that Serena and June having cat fights every other day was on them, and that the Commander was the one that needed to be the peacemaker. This episode showed us that the only thing keeping June and Serena against each other is the Commander himself. You can see how the show is using this as an example of a larger problem, one very applicable to our own lives. People like to say that women can’t get along with each other because we’re all catty, and jealous of each other. But the problem isn’t with us, it’s with the men who purposefully pit women against one another. Serena and June get along perfectly fine on their own. It’s the Commander who’s the problem.

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Author: Linda Maleh

Entertainment writer, feminist, and New York City native. Personal blog is tvtotalkabout.com.

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