Episode 6 of The Handmaid's Tale takes the viewer by surprise. Right from the beginning of the series, we've been following the martyrdom of June (aka Offred, that is to say, one of Fred’s possessions, the master of her new home), through flashbacks. Sometimes, Emily’s point of view (Alexis Bledel), another surviving victim of the intolerance and cruelty of this life, is put forward. But we never knew what was going through Serena’s head, one of the series’ villains, superbly played by Yvonne Strahovski.
The episode "A Woman's Place" (a reference to a pseudo-feminist book written by Serena before Gilead’s regime), shows us the first flashbacks from her past and that of her husband. It is a shock to discover this chilling and terrifying character, who psychologically and physically abuses another woman, June / Offred (Elisabeth Moss), in a context where she behaves normally. The subtle script, allied to Strahovsky's talent, reveals Serena's journey so intimately that she becomes the heroine of the episode. And as is always the case with The Handmaid's Tale, it's both extremely uncomfortable and exciting.
They do exist for real, these women who are women’s worst enemies and who manage to make their way up to a position of power by advocating ultraconservative and violently anti-feminist values. Their names are Sarah Palin, Christine Boutin, Marine Le Pen. In the United States in particular, blogs and beautifully designed book by self-appointed dutiful housewives are legion, babbling away on the pleasures of caring obediently for your children, your husband and your home.
Serena’s character is like that. She’s an intelligent woman and a fine strategist, who wrote a first book, A Woman's Place, dubbed a work of "domestic feminism", before turning her attention to her country’s birth rate issue, seeing fertility as a national resource and reproduction as a moral imperative. Yep. Thanks a bunch sista.
"Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness"
It is not clear to what extent Serena’s principles influenced Gilead, but she clearly supported her husband and her ideas are the basis of a new brutal regime that led to the suppression of women's rights and, ultimately, the establishment of a type of modern slavery, be it domestic (with Martha) or sexual (with the Handmaids). Ironically, after stealing her ideas, the future leading body (obviously male), will refuse to listen to her or include her in any debate. She will still have a decisive influence in the background though.
She is also the one who convinces the ambassadors from Mexico, a country that faces the same infertility problem as the old United States, to set up a trade of Handmaids (in other words to legalise human trafficking). At first reluctant, the ambassadors are finally seduced thanks to the arrival in the dining room of the babies of the Republic of Gilead (a rigmarole imagined by Serena). These babies have been stolen from their mothers and were the results of rapes (cue striking close-ups of devastated Handmaids).
In The Handmaid's Tale, women are their own worst enemies. Two other edifying moments confirm this: a scene between Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), who became emotionally vulnerable because of the tortures she went through, shows us a woman blatantly oppressing another. The most troubling of all is the intimacy that Lydia manages to establish with her victim. She is the executioner, but also the only maternal figure to whom the young woman can cling, a clear case of Stockholm Syndrome.
A little later, June has the opportunity to speak alone with the Mexican representatives. Having understood the nature of the exchange between the two countries, she tells them everything: torture, murder, rape... The woman she speaks to seems shocked, then desolate, then resigned. "I cannot help you," she says to a distraught June. No baby was born in the country for six years. It. too. is dying and that justifies the enslavement of fertile women.
The episode ends with a glimmer of hope though (and ironically given by a man) but, in a nutshell, the lack of solidarity between women is one of the reasons why the Gilead dictatorship can endure.