The Handmaid's Tale is not a show that's exactly known for the funny moments. Although there are scenes of stolen pleasure and joy in the world of Gilead, most of the smiles and the laughter only exist in the memories of the characters when they reflect on life before they were so oppressed. Episode 2 of the new season is particularly grim, which is why after a horrible death sequence, the sound of canned laughter cutting through the soundtrack is quite jarring. As is the source of said laughter: a Friends cameo on The Handmaid's Tale. Wait, what? Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 follow.
Yes, a Friends cameo. No, not Matt LeBlanc or Jennifer Aniston turning up in a guest star turn, but Friends, as in the actual TV show. Offred's last scene of the episode begins with her watching Friends on a laptop. Not in a memory either, but here and now, in Gilead, as she sits in her safe house provided via Mayday, in the offices of The Boston Globe.
What episode of Friends is she watching? Why, it's Season 4 Episode 11, "The One With Phoebe's Uterus," and the famous scene where Monica sits Chandler down and tries to explain to the man how the female body works. Offred finds a DVD of the series and the juxtaposition of the happy show with her grim reality is almost hard to stomach.
This isn't the first time The Handmaid's Tale has tied the world of Gilead explicitly to ours. From the very first episode, we've seen flashbacks to the "time before Gilead" which clearly are set the United States, and clearly our own time. There are some changes, of course, namely the infertility crisis the world is experiencing. But everything else is exactly like our own.
One of June's first flashbacks is of tapping away on her iPhone when she meets up with Moira to go clubbing. Then there's use of "Don't You Forget About Me" as part of the soundtrack of the first episode's closer seems to suggest this is the song playing in Offred's head as she triumphantly gets her first piece of information to pass along to Mayday. And, most memorably, there's the protest Moira and June go to when Gilead first starts stripping them of their rights, which only needed a pussyhat or two and would have been ripped straight from the Women's March on Washington.
And now, we have confirmation the 1990s happened, and it's culture still somehow lives on after the fall of the United States of America, in this scene, as June begins to relax and enjoy her stay somewhere that isn't the Waterfords.
The horror of what happened at The Boston Globe is still there, in her face, and it's something she's grappling with, as we see in the ending moments as she builds a shrine to the fallen. But at the same time, the realization, for the moment, she is safe, and no one knows where she is, has lightened her load considerably.
She's able to sit back and laugh at one of the more famous moments from another time. It's also a scene trying to teach a man how to have sex properly with a woman, that comes directly after her own sex scene with Nick merely reinforces the notion she's back in a place where the world makes sense, where men are supposed to care about their partners, and where it's okay to smile along with a canned laugh track again, drink coffee and remember what it's like to be a free and human woman again.