CULTURE & ARTS

'The Handmaid's Tale' Lays Bare The Utter Hell Of Raising A Daughter In Gilead

In Season 2, Episode 12, a death rocks the Waterford household.

No child is safe in Gilead. Well, more accurately, no girl child is safe in Gilead.

In Season 2′s penultimate episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), June (Elisabeth Moss), Nick (Max Minghella) and Rita (Amanda Brugel) learn this with certainty. Eden (Sydney Sweeney), who has spent weeks on the edges of the show and of Gilead’s notice, makes the brash choice to run off with her Guardian lover. They are caught and dragged back, only to be punished with death. Nick pleads with her to save herself by lying, but instead Eden is true to herself and her faith to a fault. She refuses to renounce her “sin” ― being a teen girl in an oppressive society who wants both love and a baby ― and is killed because of it. This death, which the entire Waterford household is forced to witness, shakes every one of its members to her core.

We also see Emily (Alexis Bledel) placed with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, in an incredible guest starring role). The Commander is a fascinating character, a man who supposedly created the model for Gilead’s economy and the colonies, but who fills his home with art and books and music. He oscillates between potential ally and potential abuser, and we leave the episode still unsure which he will end up being.

Emma: Women are both the lifeblood and biggest threat to Gilead, and this episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” made that very clear.

The episode, aptly titled “Postpartum,” both opens and closes on two women mothering a baby girl ― specifically, Serena and June mothering Nicole/Holly. Both women, in their own way, care deeply about this child, and we see how Gilead expects to regenerate its population and continue building its society. At the beginning, the tasks of mothering are separated: Serena mothers and June pumps. By the end, they’ve reached some sort of dark and twisty symbiosis, bound by the baby girl they both consider their own. For a season that started by focusing on the way women oppress each other, it feels like “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 is hurtling toward its end driving home the message that no matter how complicit some women are in this society and how integral they are to sustaining it, it’s only the white powerful men who truly see any benefits. And there are some things that women will always turn to each other for.

What did you think when you realized that June’s baby had ended up back with the Waterfords?

Laura: At first I thought it was a dream sequence, because of the dream-like way the scene was shot of Serena cradling the blue-eyed baby in the soft light. But I think they chose to shoot the scene that way so they could contrast it with the harsh, bleak scene of June pumping milk into a machine, staring hopelessly forward, like a cow being farmed.  

I think this episode really explores the difference between the natural bonds created among humans ― between mother and baby, for instance, or two teenagers in love ― and the unnatural bonds forced upon those humans by this cruel patriarchal dystopia they’re trapped inside. It’s not that a woman raising another woman’s child is necessarily a bad thing; adoption can be a beautiful, loving choice, of course. But for Serena, who is cruelly keeping June close enough to hear her baby’s cries but not close enough to hold or breastfeed her while Serena offers the baby an empty breast, it is a deeply cruel and selfish choice.

We see the agony on Serena’s face as she is unable to breastfeed the baby she so desperately wants to be hers, which almost made me feel empathy for her again. But it really drove home the fact that even when Gilead works as its supposed to, and the handmaid produces the child for the rich woman, it’s still not a sustainable model for a society. Serena still has to reckon with her own cruelty, the choices she made that helped to create this fucked up system in the first place, and she’s realizing the pain and frustration and desperation that come along with motherhood.  

As you said, Serena and June are now bound by the baby girl, and Serena finally realizes that she needs to allow June to breastfeed her for the sake of the child. But as we know from episodes past, these moments of tenderness and empathy never last long in the Waterford house.

Emma: You’re right, and as we’ve said before, there is no “redeeming” Serena. But she’s never been all bad or all good, and I like to believe that she has the capacity to grow (at least a bit). I also think that we’re seeing her shift her actions bit by bit ― not out of some desire to be kinder to the other women around her, but because the walls are closing in on her own access to power and safety, and her ability to protect those she loves, namely Nicole.

But to talk about Serena’s shifting perspective, we need to talk about Eden. Eden, who we have alternately dismissed and been suspicious of in these chats. In this episode, she runs off with Guardian Isaac, incurring the wrath of Gilead’s judicial arm. It turns out that our worst instincts about Eden were all wrong. She’s not a spy or a snitch or an impediment to our heroes finding love. She’s a 15-year-old girl growing up in a hellscape, trying to understand God and her faith and her sexuality. There are few creatures Gileadean society, and our own society, are more fearful of than curious teenage girls.

Rita and Nick and Serena largely treat Eden as a nuisance, and even June only shows a few moments of compassion for the girl. (Reminder: Even though she’s Nick’s wife, Eden is most certainly a girl.) Fred hardly notices Eden’s existence, considering her a mere reward to Nick for his loyalty ― that is, until she threatens the Commander’s standing. When she does that, he’s terrified of her, specifically of her sexuality. To Serena, Eden is a “pious girl.” To Fred, she’s a “slut,” “a married woman swept up in her own selfish lust.” In reality, Eden is a young woman who simply wants “to make a real family,” and dares to imagine a world where she could pursue love and motherhood on her own terms. But this is Gilead, so instead her potential is cruelly extinguished. 

Laura: I loved that line that June tells Eden in the kitchen ― “I think, in this place, you grab love wherever you find it.” Unfortunately, this advice ultimately leads to Eden’s downfall. It’s not the first time June has encouraged a woman to break the rules in Gilead and later seen her abused or tortured or murdered for her “transgressions.”

We see a lot more emotion out of Nick in this episode, finally. Eden becomes a real human to him when she admits to being in love with someone else, because he can finally relate to her. And I think, as you said, that the viewer has the same experience with Eden. She’s no longer a snake in the grass, as it were… she’s just an extremely pious teenager trying to navigate love and hormones.

Nick obviously cares about Eden because he tries to save her, at first advising her to lie and then offering, in what must have been a moment of desperation, to give her the baby she wants. But she’s already decided she doesn’t want to raise a baby in a loveless family. “Nick, I love Isaac and he loves me and we want to be together,” she says. “I don’t want to have your baby, I’m really sorry.”

Nick seems both relieved by her honesty and wracked with guilt for having been so icy to her throughout their (albeit forced) marriage that she is essentially willing to walk the plank to get away from him. “You don’t have to be sorry for that,” he says.

Of course, Gilead always finds new ways to introduce violence into the show, and here we see a weighted drowning, similar to what some societies have done to women who have been deemed “witches.” And judging from the reactions of Serena and Nick and June, it seems that this difficult scene may precipitate a turning point in the plot.

Emma: I completely agree. Nick, Rita, June and even Serena seem shaken to their core by Eden’s government-sanctioned murder. And honestly it’s a relief to see the plot moving forward, as we wrap up this season and head into Season 3. If this show is going to continue, we need new storylines and motivations introduced, rather than retreading the same ground over and over again.

Emily is another character who sees things changing for her in this episode. She is delivered by Aunt Lydia to her new posting ― Commander Lawrence’s home. Commander Lawrence, played by the brilliant Bradley Whitford, is an odd bird. According to Lydia, he’s an extremely important man, the architect of Gilead’s economy. By all accounts, he should be terrifying. And yet he seems far less attached to Gilead’s ideology than Commander Waterford. His house is filled with art and books. He responds to Lydia’s “Blessed be the fruit” with “Glory be.” And he seems to have a sarcastic rather than oppressive relationship with his Martha. He oscillates between totally creepy (“Have you healed properly?”) and totally intriguing (“Do you miss the classroom?”). The whole time I kept thinking: Are you a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Either way, I think he’s going to be very important in Emily’s development and the development of the world of the show. How thrilling that we might finally get a male character whose values are as messy and compelling as Serena Joy’s.

Laura: It’s so interesting how we assumed at first that he was a “good guy” because he seemed so worldly. A man with books and sculptures and paintings and maps all over his house ― whose Martha is comfortable enough with him to respond to his threat of a beating with “Try it, old man” ― must be some kind of savior-type, right?

But there’s a twist in the plot. His wife, who’s apparently living out some kind of “crazy woman in the attic” cliché, barges into Emily’s room and announces that not only is Commander Lawrence the architect of Gilead’s economy ― he came up with the idea of sending people to the Colonies, which are, essentially, concentration camps. “Real people are digging up that dirt, and it’s poison!” she says. Of course, Emily is well-acquainted with the reality of the colonies, having just been liberated from them.

We don’t know why this man chose Emily as his handmaid. She doesn’t either. “I’m wondering why such a brilliant and important man would take in such a shitty handmaid,” she tells Aunt Lydia. But we get the sense, as the two face off across the table sipping beers, that she may be a formidable match for Lawrence. They’re both intellectuals, both extremely feisty; neither buys into the premise of Gilead. Will she partner with him or will she kill him?

Emma: At this point, both scenarios feel equally likely. My gut tells me that he was a brilliant man who created Gilead in the abstract and now feels conflicted about its reality. Sometimes guilt is an effective motivator to do better.

To wrap up, I just want to touch on the quiet beauty of that final scene. After so much horror, we see Serena and June tap into that inexplicable bond you mentioned earlier in the chat. A common enemy can be helpful in uniting women, but a common desire to protect something (someone) might be even stronger. Serena’s eyes have finally been opened to what it really means to have a daughter in Gilead.

Laura: How nice! Serena finally lets her slave breastfeed her own baby. The man who created Gilead may finally be having some second thoughts. As June says when she’s handed a not-so-tasty-looking bran muffin: “Praise fucking be.”

To read more of HuffPost’s “Handmaid’s Tale” coverage, head here.

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