The Handmaid’s Tale recap: we need to talk about that Friends cameo

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Kayleigh Dray
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Friends cameo in The Handmaid's Tale

Friends finally made it into The Handmaid’s Tale – and for good reason, too…

Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode two of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale – created by Bruce Miller and based on Margaret Atwood’s classic novel of the same name – found critical acclaim in 2017 thanks in part to the timeliness of the terrifying tale.

While the story (based on real-life events) was first conceived by Atwood in 1985, the dystopic drama quickly gained new relevance and meaning with its arrival in the thick of Donald Trump’s America – particularly when examined alongside the president’s stance on abortion, women’s health, immigration and feminism.

However, the plight of Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss), Moira (Samira Wiley) and her fellow handmaids, though, still felt incredibly removed from our own realities. And this is why the show’s use of flashbacks, pop culture references and contemporary music is so very, very important – it reminds us of who these women were before the red capes and white hoods, back when they still had names of their own and full control of their own bodies.

In the third episode of the first season, we saw June, Moira and countless others standing shoulder to shoulder, waving banners and placards in protest over open misogyny – just as so many of us did at the Women’s March. Because, just like us, these women had been born into a world that recognised them as autonomous individuals, with rights and needs and wants all of their own. As such, they believed they had freedom of speech. That those in charge would always listen to their concerns. That fairness, justice and common decency would always prevail.

They were wrong. 

We watched in horror as the peaceful protest transformed into a massacre. Machine guns were fired, their bullets tearing through windows, cars, store fronts and unarmed citizens – a not-so-subtle nod to the infamous Kristalnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass’), which saw the Nazis launch one of their very first violent attacks on the Jewish community.

But it was the eerie tones of Debbie Harry, singing out the lyrics to Blondie’s Heart of Glass over the scenes of carnage, which tied the world of Gilead explicitly to our own. Just as June’s love for her iPhone did during those early flashbacks. And her familiarity with online banking. And the way she blasted out Don’t You Forget About Me within the confines of her own mind during her small act of rebellion.

And… well, all of those other subtle, tiny references to our own lives.

In the second episode of the second season, though, show bosses have gone one step further and used an explicit Friends cameo to hammer home the fact that Gilead holds up a dark mirror to our own world.

In the beginning of the episode, June stands with a noose around her neck as she prepares to be hanged. Come the end, though, the tone has shifted dramatically: she’s sat in her safe house (provided via Mayday) in the offices of The Boston Globe – and, yes, she’s watching an episode of Friends on a laptop.

It’s not just any old Friends episode, either: it’s The One With Phoebe’s Uterus, which sees Monica (Courteney Cox) sit Chandler (Matthew Perry) down and give him a pretty comprehensive breakdown of a woman’s main erogenous zones – along with a firm reminder that it’s never OK to skip on the foreplay and “set up camp” at zone seven.

“You want to hit ‘em all and you wanna mix ‘em up,” explains Monica, to a baffled Chandler. “You gotta keep ‘em on their toes. You could start out with a little one. A two. A one, two, three. A three. A five. A four. A three, two. Two. A two, four, six. Two, four, six. Four. Two. Two. Four, seven! Five, seven! Six, seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven!”

In the real world, of course, Friends is as comforting as an old blanket. Through June’s eyes, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the sitcom had a hugely important impact on our society – particularly when it came to breaking taboos around female sexuality.

Over the 10-year run, Monica, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) enjoyed one-night stands, discussed safe sex (remember when Monica and Rachel fought over the last condom?), considered artificial insemination and dated lots of guys that DIDN’T turn out to be The One. And, in the process, their attitudes became the norm – no small thing, considering NBC executives originally wanted to write Monica out of the show for being a “whore”.

Thankfully, Marta Kauffman (one of the show’s creators) refused to comply with this ridiculously misogynist demand, and made a point of using her primetime TV slot to teach Nineties audiences that women like having sex. That women don’t just have sex with people they’re in committed relationships with, but for fun, too. That women are complex and multi-faceted sexual beings, with vital wants and needs and desires of their own. 

That women, above all else, deserve more.

It is for this reason that, while June clearly finds Friends a pleasant (albeit temporary) escape from all the horrors she has endured, this scene is so tinged with sadness.

The juxtaposition between the character’s past and present only reinforces the notion that June is trapped. That she has lost so much already – and stands to lose so much more. That she has forgotten what it feels like to do something as simple as smile along to a canned laugh-track, to drink coffee, to lose herself in the minutiae of a fictional world. Because it’s never the big things we miss the most when they’re gone, it’s the little everyday banalities – the TV shows we enjoyed, the music we listened to, the books we read from cover to cover, the frothy takeaway drinks we picked up at our local coffee shops, and all the hours we whiled away doing nothing, solely because we had the luxury of time to waste.

However, this is The Handmaid’s Tale, so we imagine producers used the easy familiarity of this Friends scene for a more practical reason, too: to lull us into a false sense of security.

June (Elisabeth Moss) builds a shrine to the fallen at The Boston Globe in The Handmaid's Tale

Yes, Mayday have provided June with this safe house. Yes, they have gifted her with a laptop and a stack of DVDs. And, yes, they seem to have her best interests at heart. But we suspect that they will soon prove to be yet another enemy for June and her fellow handmaids.

“Mayday is not the handmaid rescue organisation – it’s the anti-Gilead organisation,” Miller told the New York Times previously. “And the anti-Gilead organization is not necessarily a friend to June or a friend to Handmaids.

“If I was going to try to hurt Gilead, the first thing I might do is kill all the Handmaids. You’re trying to weaken the state.”

We guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens in episode two, eh?

Next episode: Baggage 

Previous episode: June 

Image: George Kraychyk