Synopsis of 1×06: A Mexican Ambassador visiting Gilead questions Offred about her life as a Handmaid. Serena Joy reflects on her marriage and the role she once played in Gileads inception.
Let’s be honest, I love Serena Joy. Yvonne Strahovski is able to play her with such delicate precision, from her refined and restrained expressions to her boldness and frailty, Serena has fastly become one of the most interesting characters of The Handmaid’s Tale. “A Woman’s Place” puts Serena’s position in the revolution and her position now as Waterford’s wife into sharp perspective.
The episode starts showing Offred and Nick having sex again, who have Serena’s permission to attempt a pregnancy since Fred is most likely sterile. The handmaids are gathered to clean up the wall by the river where they hang any dissenters in preparation for diplomats from Mexico, a grim scene made darkly humorous by the handmaid’s who make comments like, “It looks kind of weird without all the dead bodies, doesn’t it?” While the previous episodes have obviously centered around the female characters of the story, this one seems to show sympathy to unlikely antagonists like Serena and also Aunt Lydia.
Serena advises Offred to speak wisely when she is presented to the trade delegates from Mexico. The episode circles around Serena and she holds much of the power in the episode despite the men around her who seek to silence her. A flashback to pre-Gilead shows a Serena donned in pink and black skirt suits, writing novels, sexually dominant, and essentially a woman who takes charge of the world. The Serena of the novel was not far off, she was a televangelist who had her own empire and success before the fall of America.
When Offred meets the Mexican ambassador, she is surprised to see that she is a woman. She does her song and dance for the ambassador while listening to their idle conversation about produce production and a handmaid’s “sacred position.” The ambassador herself targets Serena with questions, having read her novel A Woman’s Place, and quotes it, “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.” This is the first time Offred has heard of Serena’s past and the wives and men in the room don’t seem happy about it. The ambassador questions Serena’s loyalty to a society “in which women can no longer read your book, or anything else.” Serena deftly sidesteps the question, though is visibly shaken by the approach.
Although the men inevitably blame Serena for potential derailment of their plan, she is prepared and has a plan. By no means is what she’s doing good, but her technique and her ambition is admirable. It speaks to her character, which is stronger than almost all of her peers, including her own husband. Vignettes into her past show an independent woman who shaped the revolution and creation of Gilead as much, if not more, than Fred did. It shows a powerful woman who lost all her power when the regime finally came to light.
Offred, on the other hand, gets a rather shallow story throughout the episode, primarily taking the part of the spectator. She is enjoying her off brand flirtation with Nick, while also playing a weird game of manipulation with Waterford. She takes a backseat in the episode, having gained some measure of control and power in the household.
As a massive banquet is prepared to honor the Mexican trade delegates, the handmaid’s are lined up to have dinner with the guests. Janine, particularly, is excited to go to the banquet and enjoy the night of splendor, but Serena quickly puts an end to that. She comes down to inspect the girls and tells Aunt Lydia to remove the damaged ones. Surprisingly, Aunt Lydia stands up for the girls, especially after seeing Janine’s excitement. It’s an interesting turn for such an inherently dislikable character. This is the woman who lorded over Emily after her mutilation, who watched as June was beaten, who has a hand in who knows how many horrible deeds. But tonight, she’s standing up for Janine.
It’s all in vain, of course, because even among the oppressed there is a hierarchy and Serena sits on top. She comforts a desperate and sad Janine, and tells her that she’ll bring her desserts afterwards. It’s a soft side to Aunt Lydia that doesn’t erase what horrors she’s done, but it shows that even the cruelest of people have their limits and their boundaries. She’s not horrible for the sake of being horrible.
As the handmaid’s are lead into the banquet hall, they sit down and Serena stands up. In another change of pace, she speaks to the crowd instead of Fred, who sits silently aside. In her flashbacks, we see a Fred who is both loving and respectful of his wife. While Fred is certainly no outward menace, this past version shows a sensitivity that seems to have been numbed in the years since Gilead has aged. However, he is wise enough to let Serena take the lead. She honors the handmaids and then presents to the banquet the vertiable fruits of their labor, the children birthed by the handmaids.
While Offred is confused, Ofsamuel (Jenessa Grant) tells her that there is only one export that Gilead is good for, and that’s handmaids. The trade delegation isn’t here for oranges or produce, it’s here for wombs. The dinner is a resounding success and Fred is man enough to admit it. Meanwhile, Offred is panicking, she goes to Nick and worries over the fate of the handmaid’s with the Mexico trade deligation. She told the ambassador she was happy, and she worries that it played a part in the cementing of the trade. In the process, she reveals her real name to Nick.
She is set back into motion, the ambassador comes to visit with a gift of chocolates for Offred and Serena, and she takes her chance to speak with the ambassador candidly. She lays it all out on thetable, they raped her, they torture them, they imprison them. “What are you doing to trade us for? Fucking chocolate? We’re human beings. How can you do that?” But it’s all fallen on deaf ears. The ambassador comes back at her with a story about her hometown, which by definition is barren. “My country is dying,” she tells Offred. “My country is already dead.
“My country is dying,” she tells Offred. “My country is already dead.
“My country is already dead,” Offred replies.
As the ambassador meets Fred, she is taken away, unshaken by Offred’s confession. Not given much time to wallow in her own mistakes, the ambassador’s aid wants to help her. He reveals that he knows June’s husband, Luke, and proves it. And shockingly, he reveals that Luke is alive. He offers her a chance to get a message to her husband, and she takes it.
Serena’s story is by far the most interesting part of this episode. Watching her switch from pre-Gilead Serena to Gilead Serena is entrancing. She’s a woman who is willing to stand by ideals that not only disparage her, but both imprision and insitutionally rapes most of her gender. She’s complicated in a way that is so enjoyable in television. And while Offred certainly took a backseat in this episode, Serena’s spotlight is enough for me to give this episode the highest rating.