There will be blood.
You’d think an episode called Seeds would be full of metaphors for growth and fertility, especially since the main character is pregnant. Those metaphors are there, to be sure, but only in the most macabre, twisted versions possible, as befits the malignant culture of Gilead, which relentlessly suffocates anything that tries to grow.
Fittingly, the seeds of the title are seeds of destruction and rebellion. The tiny kernels of hate, hope and despair that push characters over the edge into that realm where they have nothing to lose or something worth fighting for. It’s a different motivation for each character, and a deadly rollercoaster ride through the episode to get to the point of resolve. Women’s blood is spilled, and Nick, the one male ally in Gilead, has his heart broken. But the seeds are unwittingly planted by the agents of Gilead itself.
Seeds picks up soon after the June’s complete demoralization into Offred at the end of episode 4, Other Women. June is still in hiding, having given way to the Frankenstein meets Yellow Wallpaper-like creation of Aunt Lydia, Offred.
In the middle of the night, Offred gets up for a drink of water, and finds the handwritten women’s stories delivered to June by Mayday in season 1. She takes them to the kitchen and burns them in the sink. Nick finds her there, and stops her while there are still a pile of untouched letters. In a flat, robotic voice, Offred tells Nick that she’s not allowed to have them, and goes back to bed, leaving him to deal with the mess.
In the morning, Aunt Lydia visits for a pregnancy check up. The measurements are fine. Offred’s pregnancy appears to be going well. Lydia and Serena talk over her as if she were a child, or not there at all. Other than physically, she isn’t.
Serena notices that Lydia keeps written notes in a binder. Lydia explains that Aunts have a special dispensation to read and write. She assures Serena that it’s more of a burden than anything, in a tone of voice that makes sure Serena understands the power Lydia has because of her dispensations. Lydia is also allowed to move through the world more like a man than a woman.
Serena invites Lydia to stay for tea. When Lydia joins Serena in the sitting room, they clash. Lydia reminds Serena that there’s more to a successful pregnancy than the medical aspects, and that’s what Lydia is there to gauge and help with.
The Waterfords’ home is really not a Godly and harmonious environment fit for a child. Is there a healthy atmosphere in any of the Commanders’ homes?
On her way out, Lydia runs into Fred. She’s as pleasant and deferential with him as she was the opposite with Serena. But she messes up when she talks too much about the baby in front of Nick, especially about the way she thinks the baby will take after his father. Fred is clearly left with a bad taste in his mouth.
It’s morning in the Colonies and only two unwomen have died, so it was a good night. Emily encourages Janine to take on bed duty (picking up the bodies) because she’d get an egg for breakfast as a reward, and live longer. Janine will trust in God keep her alive.
She’s distracted by the obvious affection between a lesbian couple, but then shocked when she later discovers that one of them is close to death. While Janine is fond of quoting Lydia on religion (God holds us all in the palm of his hand.), Emily shares practical wisdom with Janine (We come here, we work, we die.). Like June, Emily tries to bring Janine down to earth to help her survive, but Janine has her own set of survival skills.
Offred discovers blood on her underwear and the toilet paper when she uses the toilet. She ignores it.
Serena and Offred go for a walk and run into Naomi with Baby Angela. The baby is fussy, which Naomi explains away by blaming teething. She’s annoyed with Angela and shows no affection toward her, no inclination toward sympathy or caretaking. Angela momentarily stops fussing when Serena pays attention to her.
As they walk away, Serena becomes annoyed with Offred, chiding her for not carrying enough of the conversation. The walks are to make sure that the baby hears Serena’s voice, but she doesn’t want to do all of the talking.
After all of that effort to stop June from expressing herself, Serena finds that she misses her, which anyone could have predicted. June is the only challenge left in Serena’s life.
Serena’s also frustrated that she can’t pick up and soothe the fussy baby, like anyone with a normal maternal instinct would be inclined to do. Every time she sees Angela, she thinks about what she’d do if she were the baby’s mother, and is frustrated that Naomi doesn’t appreciate the gift she’s been given. Serena, of course, takes that frustration out on Offred. Serena also doesn’t appreciate the gifts she’s been given.
Nick pulls Serena aside to express concern about Offred’s mental state. Serena’s first reaction is to assume that this is a manipulation by June. She asks Nick if Offred told him to talk to her. Nick says no, he’s the one who’s concerned. Offred doesn’t have anyone to look out for her. Serena replies that, “Apparently, she does.”
But he’s not allowed to, is he, Serena?
Serena has breakfast with Fred, who works throughout the meal and ignores her as she tries to make conversation. She eventually brings up her secret weapon. She mentions that Nick met her and Offred after their walk to check on Offred. It’s really sweet how concerned Nick is about Offred
and his baby.
Fred tries not to react outwardly to the comment, but the arrow hits home. That stealth bomb went after Nick, Offred and Fred, simply because Serena was feeling bored and neglected in the moment.
Later, Fred plans the opening of the new Rachel and Leah Center (the handmaid training center) with Commander Pryce. When the official discussion is done, he asks Pryce to promote Nick out of Fred’s employ, on the grounds that Nick is just too talented to be stuck as a driver. Pryce, who is Nick’s mentor and friend, unbeknownst to Fred, questions why Fred would want to get rid of such a trustworthy employee. Pryce specifically placed Nick in the Waterford household as a spy, and if Fred wants to get rid of him, Pryce assumes there’s a cover up going on. He practically orders Fred to keep Nick on or face consequences.
Offred bathes, and is bleeding so much that the water is blood red. She’s so disconnected from her body that she ignores it. She wraps toilet paper around her undies to act as a sanitary pad, then gets dressed and eats lunch.
Next it’s time for the walk to the Prayvaganza, praise be. The word really is one of the Commanders’ worst efforts. Putnam or Cushing probably came up with it.
As Offred gets up from the table, she stumbles for a moment. Rita notices, but Offred says that she’s fine. It’s the kind of thing that can happen while your blood pressure is adjusting to standing quickly, so Rita lets it go.
The meeting is actually a surprise arranged marriage ceremony for the most decorated Guardians. Nick is one of them. Fred couldn’t have him moved, but he could force Nick’s attention away from June and their baby. Commander Pryce leads the group ceremony. The brides’ faces are obscured by heavy veils.
Serena comments to Offred that Nick looks especially handsome. When Nick uncovers his bride, she’s cute, but 15 years old. He’s being married to a child, and sex with her would be considered rape according to our current laws.
Offred’s life’s blood continues to bleed out, as she grows pale and gray. She stares straight ahead and claps for the new couples.
Janine admires a weed with puffy seedheads that’s so hardy it flourishes in the contamination of the Colonies. She and Emily talk about what a scandal it would have been for such a plant to grow in one of the wives garden’s in Gilead.
Kit’s condition is worsening, but she’s still forced to work.
The Waterford household gathers in the sitting room to welcome Nick’s wife, Eden, to the family. Nick reads aloud the popular bible verses from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that are often read at weddings. They’re an ironic joke here. The only relationship that’s come close to practicing Paul’s advice is Nick and June’s, which the rest of the household does everything in their power to squash.
Serena invites Eden to sit with her, and Nick sits near June. This prompts Serena to dismiss Offred and Rita from the room, so that the married couples can socialize alone and bask in their superiority.
Every time I think Serena can’t get more petty or hateful, she proves me wrong.
By now, Offred is walking very carefully and delicately, but no one pays attention. When she undresses, she discovers that her underwear is soaked with blood. She starts to go to the stairs to tell someone, but then stops and goes back to her room and sits on the window sill, leaning on the wall in a stupor.
She’s had it pounded into her that her only purpose and value, her entire identity, comes from the baby she’s carrying. She’s finally found a bit of peace in the household, even if it’s the peace of a prisoner. If she’s not Offred, if she’s June, she’ll be executed.
She’s already been psychologically stripped of everything, purposefully broken down into nothing, and not built back up into anything. Lydia left a shell called Offred around the womb carrying June and Nick’s baby, because that was the only way that Serena and Fred would let the Handmaid survive.
Now, there’s nothing left inside of Offred that can muster up the physical or psychological energy to risk changing the status quo by telling the household that she might be losing the baby. Offred could be blamed for endangering the baby. She could be blamed for manipulating Serena into another doctor’s visit. She could lose the baby and be sent to the Colonies, sent to a new household as a handmaid, or left with the Waterfords to get pregnant again. None of these is a palatable choice. This is a no win situation for Offred, and she can’t pull herself out of her depression and apathy enough to act.
Emily uses the contaminated water to wash her face, then uses her finger to brush her teeth. As she’s rubbing, one of her molars falls out. Emily is horrified.
She finds one of the Unwomen who is a rabbi performing a wedding ceremony for Kit and Fiona. Kit is close to death and lying in bed, and the only decorations are two small bouquets of flowers, but the two women love each other deeply, and the community of unwomen love them both. It’s a joyous occasion with meaning for everyone involved.
Janine tells Emily that the wedding was her idea. Emily pulls Janine into another room to angrily spell out why this is a terrible idea, with number one being that the aunts will punish them severely if they’re caught. She’s trying to keep Janine alive. Gilead has done, and continues to do so many terrible things to them. Dressing it up in flowers won’t change anything.
Janine says that it’s not Emily’s job to keep her alive. God is still watching over them. When the situation is so bleak, what could it hurt to bring some flowers and happiness to it? What’s wrong with allowing Kit to die happy, when she’s going to die, no matter what?
Gilead can’t take that away from them.
Serena brings Eden to Nick’s apartment over the garage to help her get settled in and ready for her wedding night. Eden is nervous around Serena and in awe of the people she’s living with now. Eden is from a small farm in a small town. Serena asks if Eden understands what happens between a husband and wife on their wedding night. Eden’s mother explained it to her. Serena quotes a bible verse and explains to Eden that the acts can bring pleasure to the woman, and that’s okay when it’s between a husband and wife. Eden doesn’t believe her, because lust is a sin.
Eden definitely plans to lie back and think of Gilead.
Fred and Nick share a drink in Fred’s study. The conversation is made up entirely of them covertly sniping at each other, as Fred lets Nick know that he had Nick married off to keep him away from Offred, and Nick reminds Fred just whose baby Offred is actually carrying. Good times.
When Nick leaves to go back to his own apartment, it’s pouring rain. His sixth sense tells him to go look on the patio and he finds June collapsed there, still in her underwear. It’s not clear how she got there. Her bedroom window has bars, but she could have jumped from another room while the married people were together. Or she could have been deliriously wandering and slipped on the wet pavement. Nick pulls June into his arms and yells for help.
The next morning, Kit has died. Fiona says goodbye, then the unwomen take her outside to bury her. Her wedding flowers become her funeral flowers. Emily tells Janine it was a beautiful ceremony.
June regains consciousness in the hospital. Miraculously, she’s still pregnant. Serena Joy is in a nearby chair. She leaves to get the doctor.
June sits up a little to look at her belly, and puts her head under the sheets to talk privately with the baby:
“Hey, listen to me, ‘kay? I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us out of here. I promise you. I promise.”
June’s baby is now real to her in a way that she hadn’t let it be before, and her baby is now HER baby. June now has a reason to live and stay present in her life that’s immediate and visceral.
Lydia tells Serena that she used to smoke, and understands how hard it is to quit. In what former life was that? Aunt Lydia puts up an impenetrable front that never wavers. When will we get a glimpse into what’s behind the robes and title?
That slip up Lydia made by getting too personal about the baby in front of Nick was interesting. Do the Aunts have any idea how many of the babies are conceived using donor sperm? She’s so confident that she’s in on every secret, yet this is a huge secret involving many layers of Gilead society over a long period of time, and she didn’t seem to have any sense that she might need to tread lightly after it took so long for the Waterfords to achieve pregnancy. Then again, there is a side of Lydia that likes to stir up a bit of drama, even as she keeps herself out of it.
You’d think someone would have noticed how many babies look like Dr Donnie, and how many look like the closest fertile male to the family (driver, gardener, husband’s brother or best friend…). Who’s the real daddy? is a time-honored subject for gossip in every society, Gilead can’t be any different behind closed doors. Obviously no one would discuss it publicly, and no one would bring charges, because of the embarrassment and the fact that they need the babies. But everyone would whisper.
I have a feeling Lydia is going to discover some enlightening truths about the home lives of the Commanders by the end of the season that will shake her commitment to Gilead’s laws.
On the other hand, Serena didn’t know that the Aunts are allowed to read and write, despite Serena’s involvement as the architect of Gilead’s cultural order. You could see a switch flip inside her. If God and the Commanders think it’s okay for Lydia to read and write, why not Serena, who is the equal to the men in charge, and created most of the doctrine they live by?
Giving up her connection to the world and her ability to use her intellect through print was not in the original plans for Gilead. The Commanders specifically created that rule to disenfranchise Serena and other educated, intelligent women who might eventually rebel against Gilead’s strict repression of them. Women born in Gilead won’t even be taught to read and write, and there will undoubtedly be heavy punishments for anyone who attempts to.
It’s much harder to form and plan a revolution if you can’t transmit your ideas and plans in writing to a large group of people. What the Commanders didn’t take into account was how much time this leaves the women to think and be creative about accomplishing their rebellious goals. If Serena ever turns her energies from petty sniping to trying to change things, she’ll be a formidable weapon in the struggle, even if she doesn’t use printed language.
It might take a while for this seed to bear a full harvest, but Serena giving herself permission to take up writing again won’t be good for Gilead’s survival in the long run.
Whatever they pay Ann Dowd, it will never be enough. Ditto for Yvonne Strahovski, who doesn’t get enough attention for Serena’s subtleties. TV Serena is very different from the book, almost completely a creation of the writers and Stahovski’s tightly wound acting. This show wouldn’t be the same without her to act as June’s foil.
Nick may technically be married, but there were multiple ways he almost lost June and the baby in this episode, between Fred trying to have him transferred, the forced marriage, and June’s accident and blood loss. His motivation to protect June will be strong, but he’ll also have to take care of and watch out for Eden (in the sense of taking care of her, and in the sense of being careful she doesn’t turn him in).
Why child brides? On a practical level, Gilead may have to resort to girls that young in order to find enough fertile brides who haven’t been affected by whatever environmental crisis is wiping out women’s ability to bear children.
On a population level, Gilead fought a war and before that, any woman who could, fled the country. That cuts down on the number of available women. Since then, Gilead has brutally punished women for the smallest transgressions, including using executions as punishments. That cuts into the fertile female population.
Then there are the strict rules for who gets to be a wife at all, and who becomes a handmaid. Going by the transgressions we’ve seen among the handmaids June knows, you are no longer wife material if you’ve been raped, done drugs, committed a political crime while fertile, were too uppity while fertile, were any religion other than Christian and didn’t convincingly convert, slept with a married man, slept with someone else while you were married, had a child out of wedlock, were any sexuality other than straight, were married more than once, or were married to someone who was married more than once.
That cuts out a significant portion of the adult female population, maybe even the majority. They probably have to turn to girls who hadn’t reached adulthood before Gilead was formed to find brides who meet their strict purity criteria.
The two wedding ceremonies and the two couples contrast each other, with the Guardians’ brides young, pure and fresh in white, but part of a barbaric ritual that’s marrying them off to strangers while they’re children. Is this what Serena Joy planned for Gilead?
Fiona and Kit are older, unwashed and in rags, covered in sores and physically infirm, but the love that shines out of them and flows between them makes them beautiful. There’s no doubt that their marriage is real, though it was short and isn’t legally sanctioned.
Serena and Fred are legally wed, but have a loveless, sexless marriage. Nick and Eden also have a loveless marriage, and it’s clear that sex will only be what’s required for procreation.
Nick and June also have no legal ceremony binding them, but they have June’s pregnancy, and have both said words and acted in ways that prove their commitment. It may or may not be as strong as a marriage, but it’s the strongest relationship in the Waterfords’ house.
I found it so powerful that Fiona was so devoted to Kit that she stuck with her all the way to the very end, right up through filling in her grave. Fiona loved Kit, but faced the reality of her loss, and kept going. Janine was there, adding her strength to support Fiona, along with the Rabbi.
We rarely see anyone in Gilead face reality so head on. We see wives pretending they’re pregnant and giving birth. We see handmaids forced to pretend that their hearts aren’t breaking. We see Commanders sniping at each other and grabbing for power while pretending they all respect each other. We see Guardians and Marthas looking the other way. Absolutely no one, top to bottom, says or does what they really mean. And everyone hides behind their Gilead uniform, withdrawing behind yards of cloth or a formal suit and a cold stare.
I don’t think we should count out the women in the Colonies as part of the uprising. There’s anger and passion there, and most have nothing left to lose.
Janine, with her irrepressible pluckiness and uncompromising belief in what’s right, is becoming one of my favorite characters. She represents the untamable, irrational spirit of life and hope that can’t be kept down, even in the worst of situations. No matter what’s done to her, she finds a way to turn it into something good. She’d been gang raped before Gilead, and kept going. Aunt Lydia and Gilead have singled her out for some of their worst punishments, including death, but she’s risen above it.
She’s the only one of the handmaids we’ve seen carry a pregnancy to term. In order to survive, she became the devoted handmaid Aunt Lydia wanted, and it almost crushed her. But she found a way to have it both ways, making Aunt Lydia’s teachings her own, opening them up to include the love, warmth and hope that Gilead suffocates out of its citizens. She’s the show’s physical embodiment of the Julian of Norwich quote that Serena used in episode 4: “All will be well.” Janine has learned to optimistically bask in God’s love, even as she’s suffering, and to spread that love to others.
While Emily was trying to keep Janine alive in the Colonies, Janine brought something back to life within Emily, who’d all but given up and could only see enslavement and death in her future, to the point that she’s losing pieces of herself. Emily had to be remembering her own marriage and family during Kit and Fiona’s wedding, which would be part of why she couldn’t stay to watch. The Gilead version of Emily seems to have two settings, angry and hopeless. At least Janine has brought her back to angry, and brought out a bit of warmth as well, which gives Emily a fighting chance at survival. Emily’s family made it to Canada, as far as we know. She needs to live so that she can be reunited with them.
ETA: Interesting Indiewire interview with the show’s Emmy-nominated costume designer Ane Crabtree, in which she discusses how she developed the look of the Colonies, along with the inspiration and symbolism behind some of the other striking looks this season.
Images courtesy of HULU.