Warning: This post contains spoilers about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Season 2.
“She’s just a teenager,” Sydney Sweeney impressed upon me when we spoke over the phone.
Sweeney was talking about Eden, the 15-year-old Gileadean wife she played on this season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The 20-year-old actress was unprepared for the strongly negative reactions that Eden, a rural teenager who is “given” to 30-something Nick as a wife, elicited from the show’s fans. She expected people to resent her character for separating Nick and June, one of the series’ central couples, but she was taken aback by the extreme suspicion Eden brought out in viewers. Fans surmised that she was Serena Joy’s spy, that she was truly meant to be with the brutal and abusive Commander Fred Waterford. My co-worker and I wondered whether she would be Nick’s downfall.
“Never underestimate a zealous teen,” I wrote.
“Nick’s New Wife Is Definitely Going to Be Trouble,” declared a Vanity Fair headline.
As of the penultimate episode of the season, we know that Eden wasn’t trouble at all. She was, as Sweeney said, just a teenager ― albeit a teenager raised with little access to peers or education in an oppressively theocratic society. A teenager who was married off to a 30-something man without having a choice in the matter. A teenager who was taught that her only duty in life was to build a household and bear children and who rarely experienced any empathy or affection.
So why were so many of us hellbent on mistrusting her? Perhaps because she’s a teen girl.
Of course, audiences were primed to question Eden’s intentions from the start. Not only was she an impediment to a popular romantic subplot, but also she was framed as one of Gilead’s true believers. Eden questioned whether Nick was a “gender traitor” when he wouldn’t sleep with her. She gaped at the handmaids when they whispered their real names to each other in the supermarket. She found the contraband letters intended for resistance group Mayday. At every turn, she could have upended the lives of the other people who live in the Waterfords’ home. And yet … she didn’t.
Instead, she wondered what it might be like to have the opportunity “for love and a baby.” After June urged her to grab love wherever she could find it, Eden tried to do just that. She unexpectedly ran off with a young guardian named Isaac ― the person who gave her her very first kiss ― with the sole hope of making “a real family.”
And for that “sin,” Eden and her young lover paid the ultimate price.
She and Isaac were sentenced to death for the crime of adultery. They were taken into a gymnasium filled with spectators, their families and the entire Waterford household; they were escorted to the top of a very high diving platform; and they were pushed off it with weights tied to their hands and ankles. It’s an end almost no fan saw coming and one that will set into motion the major arcs of the season’s finale. The death of a character that few understood — or even bothered to take notice of — will have a ripple effect that could bleed into the already anticipated third season of the show.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller teased this pivotal scene when we spoke before the first episode of Season 2 was released. He explained that the drowning was an updated version of dunking, a method of execution historically reserved for women suspected to be witches.
Sweeney said she found herself screaming at Eden (and crying) while reading the scripts for her final scenes. Ultimately, she found empathy for her character ― a 15-year-old who wants to find God and love and makes choices according to those guiding principles. In Eden’s final moments alive, the camera is right in Sweeney’s face. Eden’s eyes water, full of fear and confusion and horror and resolution.
“There was definitely a lot of thought behind Eden’s eyes during all those moments,” Sweeney said. “Is she doing the right thing? Will God save her? Is love enough? But she chose love.”
It would be easy to believe that Eden is a pious idiot for giving up her future in favor of staying true to her values and desires. But as I was watching Eden make her heart-wrenching exit, all I could think about was how much I had underestimated her ― how the confused reactions of fans and even the characters surrounding her in the show mirrored the way we see teen girls in real life.
In both Gilead and our world, teen girls are alternately dismissed and feared. They are silly fangirls, lovestruck fools, narcissistic selfie takers too young to be truly listened to. And yet, despite the fact that teen girls are constantly belittled and condescended to, they are still considered a threat. Their knees and shoulders can destroy entire school days for their male peers. They can take down behemoth brands with their fickle preferences. They can tempt older men into falling in love with and assaulting them. And if one deigns to explore her sexuality, she is labeled, as the commander labels Eden, a “slut,” a woman “swept up in her own selfish lust.”
In both Gilead and our world, teen girls are alternately dismissed and feared.
“I gave her the opportunity to elevate herself. To be a wife, a mother, to associate herself with the Waterford name,” the commander rages before Eden’s execution, worrying what her actions will mean for him and his power. Until this point, she was below his notice. She barely mattered until her quest for love and a baby — exactly what she believed Gilead demanded from her — conflicted with his veneer of control.
In Gilead, teen girls are terrifying precisely because they might call into question the motives of powerful men and act in ways that run counter to the narrative Gilead tries so hard to push. The autocratic regime claims to care about nothing more than children, then turns around and murders two of them in a swimming pool.
It’s difficult to believe that the commander’s attempts to punish Eden into submission on Gilead’s behalf will prove fruitful. So much is conveyed in the various characters’ silent reactions to the pool scene. It is one thing to watch adults be tortured but quite another to watch a child. Given that there is now a baby girl in the house, Serena, Nick, June and Rita ― all of whom have an investment in the child’s future ― will have to decide how they will protect her from a society that offers so little to and takes so much from girls.
When I asked Sweeney how her character’s death might affect the others, she paused and then answered forcefully:
“They will never be the same.”