If you put aside the fact that Elisabeth Moss is no one’s ugly older sister, Offred is as much the Leah as she is the handmaid to Serena’s privileged but sterile Rachel. The sisters were bitter rivals, and while Serena and Offred aren’t blood relatives, their headstrong personalities, mutual resentment and shared home, sexual partner and future offspring make their relationship something close to familial. (Nick’s 15-year-old econowife, Eden, is also a Leah of sorts: Forced upon an unwitting husband, she’s the only woman in the Waterford household who is expected to serve as both a spouse and a biological mother.)
It’s that future offspring who brings Offred and Serena together in “First Blood.” Remarkably healthy after both Offred’s hemorrhage and her fall, the fetus appears on an ultrasound at the doctor’s office, and Serena pulls back the screen separating the two women so that Offred can see. Moss and Yvonne Strahovski, who deserves more credit for her finely calibrated performance, perfectly convey the intensity and ambivalence of this scene. Offred’s grievances are obvious. Serena, who isn’t stupid, surely understands on some level that her impending motherhood is an act of kidnapping. But, for a moment, the pregnancy binds them together. They tear up, watching the tiny creature who still belongs to both of them.
Their truce continues at home, where Serena moves Offred into her plush sitting room and throws her that incredibly awkward gathering. One night, Serena, who will presumably never bear a child of her own, asks her handmaid, “What’s it like to feel that life inside of you?”
A flashback to the time before the coup suggests just how emotional the prospect of having a child is for Serena. She and Waterford arrive at a college where she’s been invited to speak on a topic that’s close to both of their hearts: the need for all fertile women to procreate. Even before she takes the stage, protesters are waving “resist” signs and calling her a Nazi. It’s a scene that recalls episodes of “no-platforming” on college campuses that have arisen in response to visits by far-right provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Meanwhile, supposedly liberal men in the audience hit Serena with misogynist slurs.
Booed off the stage, Serena gets in a few pithy salvos on her way out of the building: “The future of mankind depends on what we do today!” she shouts over the crowd. “Embrace your biological destiny!” Then she gets shot. Despite Waterford’s request that she retire from public speaking, Serena is determined to take advantage of the moment. “People are listening right now,” she insists from her hospital bed, while also scolding him to “be a man.” What appeared to be a story line about how a smart, tough woman had suffered for beliefs that later silenced her suddenly becomes a demonstration of how much stronger Serena is than her husband, and how ruthlessly she fights to get her way.