Also: Eden’s Choice, Handmaid or Surrogate? & Emily and
Herr Friar Commander Lawrence
This week on The Handmaid’s Tale, the characters try again to make their lives make sense. They tell themselves whatever lies or fantasies are necessary to keep going in Gilead. But, as always, the truth wins out in the end. What makes this a fascinating show is the combination of what each character is striving for, with how they cope when they inevitably lose their dream. Reality can never live up to the fantasy of a long hoped for dream, so even success is a form of loss, when you have to accept the imperfect real world in the place of your perfect imaginings.
This episode looks at the consequences of getting what you wish for. June is out of the Waterford’s house. Serena has her baby. Eden has found true love, after her marriage didn’t live up to her expectations and nothing she did could turn it into a happily ever after. Commander Waterford has the prestige and promotion that come with being a father.
But June is lonely, bored, and misses Holly. Serena is essentially a single parent and her baby is continuously fussy. Eden’s love is forbidden. And Fred knows the child didn’t spring from his own loins, so he doesn’t even try to bond with her. To him, the baby is a status symbol, tool to help him control Nick and bait for getting June back.
Nick and Emily have each been living in a dread-filled limbo, while he waited for the baby to be born and she waited for her new placement. They were both hoping that their futures wouldn’t turn into the horror shows that they were fearing. This week, Nick’s neglected child bride was executed in front of him, while Emily’s new Commander is either a sadist or a rebel. I’m not sure which would be worse for Emily. June, Eden and Isaac’s captures show us that escape isn’t necessarily as easy as Moira made it look. Omar and his family’s punishments mean that everyone in Gilead really is watching everyone else, and ready to turn them in. Other than suicide, there’s just no easy way out of Gilead.
Postpartum begins with Serena and her sweet angel Nichole, formerly known as Holly, bathed in golden light as Serena fulfills every fantasy of perfect mother-daughter bonding that she’s ever had. The baby coos quietly while Serena bathes her, and makes adorable baby motions with her hands. She lies quietly in Serena’s arms, swathed in layers of handknit baby items, and takes a bottle, while Serena, with not a hair out of place, sits in the rocking chair she bought just for that purpose, in the nursery she spent months, probably even years, planning. It was all worth the wait.
Anyone who’s had a real baby knows that’s not going to last, but we do all cherish those brief moments.
Quick cut to the more usual silvery blue tones of this show, and a close up of June’s chest while she pumps breast milk with an industrial breast pump. She’s now the handmaid equivalent of a factory farmed dairy cow, living at the Red Center and pumping every few hours while 2-3 aunts stand over her, counting every drop of milk she produces.
Aunt Lydia is full of good cheer as she checks in with June on her healing “down there” and her current level of milk production. She’s producing less milk everyday, but Serena has forbidden June from seeing the baby, so they have to work with what they’ve got.
June has become the superheroine of the handmaids after her amazing birth story- or at least the version of it that’s been officially passed around. In the version that’s fit for public consumption, she and Nick were out for a drive when she suddenly went into labor. They stopped at an empty house for her to labor in, but Nick was taken by overzealous Guardians. Nick was eventually saved by Fred’s intervention, then June was found by neighbors after giving birth alone.
It’s close enough to the truth to fool everyone. Even Lydia is willing to buy it. After all, 2nd babies can come ridiculously fast. Just ask anyone who’s given birth in a car, elevator or their master bathroom, all true life stories from my own friends.
June’s notoriety and survival skills have made her a popular girl, and several Commanders have already put in bids to be her next stop on the rape and baby theft tour. One even sent a basket of baked goods. Lydia offers June a muffin. June says she deserves a whole cake at this point, but Lydia says that prideful girls will go hungry. June waggles her head to say “fair enough”, and takes a bran muffin.
Fred has earned his paternity promotion, and is now in charge of media expansion. He humble brags to Commanders Horace and Grinnell that he really didn’t want such a huge office, but the committee insisted. Nick is helping unpack and decorate. Fred gives him credit for protecting the baby during the big childbirth adventure.
After Grinnell and Horace leave, Fred thanks Nick again for using discretion on the day of Nichole’s birth. He says to Nick, as if he’s trying to will it to be true, “We always look out for each other, don’t we?” Nick agrees. What else was he going to say?
Fred: The future’s full of possibilities. Things are going to happen for you.
Nick: I appreciate that.
Then Fred asks Nick to hang up a brand new family portrait of himself, Serena and Nichole in the place of honor over his desk. Nick stares at it longingly, while Fred says, “Inspiring, isn’t it?”
Inspiring Nick to think many sinful thoughts, for sure.
Serena, meanwhile, explains to Eden that she has a baby now thanks to God, who granted her a child due to her patience, service and sacrifice. Certainly it took some patience and sacrifice to knit the trunk load of baby clothes that she has at the end of her bed. If she knit some for others, that would have been a service.
Nichole Holly is there, being raised as Serena’s child, because of war, enslavement, rape, violent abuse, kidnapping, and child theft. The patience, service, and especially sacrifice were all June’s.
It’s feeding time for baby Nichole. Rita brings a bottle and Serena sits down to feed her. Up until this point, Serena and the baby have both been calm. Eden has been helping with the baby. She knows how because she helped her mom with her younger sister. The baby was relaxed and cooing in Eden’s arms.
Then Rita mentions that their supply of milk is running low and that June’s milk is drying up since she’s not with the baby. Serena tenses up and the baby starts to fuss.
Fred and Nick bring Nichole to the Red Center so that June can see her, hoping it will stimulate her milk flow. June is brought into the room without being told what’s about to happen, just like with her visit to Hannah. This time, she knows how hard it will be to say goodbye, and she doesn’t want to bond with a baby she’ll lose.
As soon as June sees Nichole, she pulls back and tries to leave the room. Nichole fusses and makes noise. Lydia stops June, and tells her that she needs to stay, because it might stimulate her milk to let down. Fred picks up Nichole and “introduces” her to June. Milk promptly leaks through the front of June’s dress, making Lydia very happy, and turning Creepy Fred on.
Nick just keeps staring straight ahead, in guard duty position. He can’t express any of his current emotions safely.
Lydia mentions how much the baby resembles her father, again. Someone needs to tell her the truth, except for how against the rules using Nick for stud services is. Or maybe Lydia’s already figured it out, and can’t resist getting in that little dig on occasion.
Fred prepares to pack up the baby and go home, without letting June within 10 feet of the baby, as per Serena’s instructions. June asks if she can nurse, and Lydia tries to talk Fred around, but he says to send what June pumps to the house.
Then Lydia goes for the gold. She suggests that it would be more efficient and much better for the baby to have June pump for Nichole at home. Otherwise, they’ll just have to keep bringing the baby back to the Red Center every few days. She gets June to ask Fred to let her come back and be of service, begging, with tears in her eyes and the front of her dress still wet, “May I be worthy?”
The only thing that could have made it more of a turn on for Fred would have been to put June on her knees. Eventually, we will discover that Lydia ran a sex business of some sort, mark my words. Or she sold cars. She definitely has Fred’s number.
June’s room at the Waterfords is waiting for her, unchanged. Her suitcase is red, which is a nice touch from the props department.
Meanwhile, Serena melts down over June’s return. After ascertaining that Fred didn’t let June touch the baby, she decrees that June will continue to be denied contact with Nichole, and must pump in her room.
This is Gilead. Where else was she going to pump? At the dinner table??
Fred acknowledges Serena’s orders with a quietly sharp, “Mother knows best.”
Aunt Lydia moves from her golden child to her black sheep, as she takes Emily to a new posting. Emily has become that hard to place child that no one understands. Four couples refused her before the brilliant and important Commander Lawrence agreed to take her on. This is Emily’s last chance and she has to make it work.
You’d think she’d killed her last commander herself.
Commander Lawrence is considered the architect of Gilead’s economy. In other words, he’s the one who decided that enslaving the women was a good idea, because it saves a lot of money when you don’t have to pay half of your workforce. Lydia asks what she has to say for herself. Emily uses her tongue to feel the spot where she lost a tooth in the Colonies, then says, “I’m wondering why such an important, brilliant man would take in such a shitty handmaid.”
That tooth is her internal reminder of everything she’s lost, and everything she’s seen. It reminds her of why she needs to keep going, even though she’s given up on her own life. There are still wrongs to be righted, and there’s still vengeance to be had. She’s waiting for her chance to be a dark, avenging angel.
Commander Lawrence’s one-eyed Martha answers the door and lets them into a house that’s very different from the Waterford’s classic, organized home. The Lawrence home is cluttered, chaotic, and filled with modern art, some of it probably considered blasphemous. The Martha is rude and swears, then wanders off.
The Waterford home is swathed in teal. Lawrence’s house has a base of red. I don’t know if that means something, but it’s striking.
Commander Lawrence stumbles down the stairs, greets Emily, and basically throws Lydia out. The Martha crashes into something, and he yells at her to be careful, or she’ll get a beating. She responds, “Try it, old man.” He follows the sound of her voice as they continue bickering, leaving Emily alone in the room. She looks around, noticing an open graphic novel on the coffee table. Just as she leans down to look closer, the Commander discovers her.
He asks if she knows what the penalty for reading is these days, and insists she answer. Emily, looking frightened out of her mind. says it’s the loss of a finger, for a first offense. He notes that it was the entire hand, during the good old days of early Gilead.
They probably realized that they were going to have too many handless handmaids if they didn’t change the punishment.
June pumps milk from her exile in the attic while listening to Nichole cry in the room below her. She’s reduced to lying on the floor, trying to hear a little better, and peaking around door frames, hoping to catch a glimpse of her baby.
She runs into Eden on a trip to the kitchen to put milk in the fridge. Eden is in the mood for some girl talk with the only person in the house who listens to her and answers her questions honestly. But June is distracted with her own problems and doesn’t realize that she’s become Eden’s source of serious motherly wisdom. Eden starts with some harmless chatting about pumping and babies, then segues into her real topic: Would God want her to stay in a loveless marriage, or be with the person she’s found mutual love with? Only Eden isn’t quite that direct, so June doesn’t understand what she’s asking.
June thinks Eden is still worried about June coming between her and Nick, and tells Eden not to worry about her. She tells Eden to grab love wherever she can find it, thinking she’s giving Eden her blessing to take Nick back. It doesn’t really make sense, but June’s been through a lot, and isn’t thinking straight. She hasn’t been at home to see Eden and Isaac’s relationship grow. She can’t imagine what Eden’s going to do with the advice.
In reality, I think that Nick and June’s devotion to each other is what’s inspired Eden’s devotion to Isaac. Even though she’s only seen the edges of it, theirs is the only relationship that Eden would have seen since coming to the Waterford’s that looks like what a young woman wants in a marriage.
The next morning, Eden is missing. Nick asks Rita and June if they’ve seen her, since she was gone when he woke up. Rita tells him she’s not keeping track of his wife. Then Rita gives June her shopping list, including starchy foods for the nursing
mom surrogate incubator, and cinnamon because it’s one of the baby rewards.
After Rita steps out, June says that she hasn’t seen Eden either, but she heard there was a sale at old navy at the mall. Nick actually cracks a rare smile. That breaks the ice.
Nick: Our baby’s so beautiful. I wish I could hold her.
June: Me too.
Nick: We should just run away somewhere, start over. Be a real family.
June: Where would we go?
Nick: Out west…the coast.
June: Still Gilead.
Nick: Hawaii, then.
June: Maui. She’s gonna love the beach.
Nick: She can play in the sun.
June: She’s gonna try to eat the sand.
Nick: She is?
June: Yeah. All kids do it.
Nick: She won’t. She’s too smart. Like her mom.
June: Holly. That’s what I want to name her. After my mom. I mean, if that’s okay.
Nick: Holly. That sounds right.
They have almost as many tears in their eyes as I do, but come back to life over the course of weaving their fantasy. This stolen moment restores something inside both of them.
Fred, of course, has internal radar that alerts him to when they’re having a moment.
After starting the conversation several feet apart, they’ve drawn closer together as they’ve talked. Now, they’re close enough to kiss. Instead, Fred interrupts to tell Nick that Guardian Isaac didn’t show up for work today. Nick realizes, with Eden also missing, they have a situation.
Fred takes his concerns to Serena, who appears to be unable to leave the nursery this episode. He rants about the damage Eden is doing to his reputation, after he was so good to her:
Fred: “Do you know what this looks like for me? I gave her the opportunity to elevate herself. To be a wife, a mother. To be associated with the Waterford name.”
Okay, let’s be real here. She’s a young, fertile woman. She wasn’t going to be given the opportunity to be anything other than a wife and mother, just like her mother. There was no elevation in making her an econowife at 15. And associating her with the Waterford name? Well, that’s always teetering between glory and disaster, isn’t it? One minute they’re losing a handmaid or avoiding a Jezebels scandal, the next Serena’s arranging a coup. Could Fred be any more sanctimonious and self-absorbed here? Is his position in the government so tenuous that it depends on the actions of a couple of hormonal teenagers?
Serena argues for Eden’s goodness and piety, but now Fred is busy imagining Eden getting caught up in her own selfish lust. He’s
turned on filled with righteous anger and needs to find her. He doesn’t mention Isaac, because the woman always draws the innocent, rule following man into sin, just as Eve drew Adam into sin before they were thrown out of Eden. See the connection?
Serena throws Fred and his bad vibes out of the nursery. She wants to be left out of the Eden scandal for now. Nichole is crying inconsolably. Rita offers to get a bottle, but the baby just had one. Rita offers to take Nichole for a while, but Serena won’t put her down, and won’t let anyone else hold her.
That doesn’t bode well for the future. Maybe the kid needs a break from Serena’s stress.
Instead, Serena has Rita leave, then closes the nursery doors. She opens her dress, and tries putting Nichole to her breast, as if she were nursing. Nichole latches on for a moment, but then rejects the strange nipple. Serena replaces her clothing and holds Holly close, apologizing for trying something that didn’t work.
But it really wasn’t a terrible idea. Nursing babies will often stay on the breast for ages, if you let them, using it like a pacifier even after the milk is gone for that session. It was worth a try to see if the warmth and closeness to Serena would be soothing.
But, in addition, I’ve been surprised that adoptive nursing and induced lactation aren’t standard practices for the wives of Gilead. There are ways for an adoptive mother to produce her own breastmilk for her baby, especially if she has months of advance warning to prepare, as the wives in Gilead do. There are also supplemental feeding systems that allow the mother and baby to have the experience of breastfeeding even if the mother isn’t producing milk, or enough milk. It seems like the wives would at least insist on sharing breastfeeding duties with the handmaids, or taking over at 3 or 6 months. I don’t understand why this isn’t a regular part of the pregnancy and childbirth training that goes with having a handmaid. If they want to pretend to have sex while their husband rapes a handmaid, then pretend to be in labor and give birth, they would certainly want to actually lactate if possible.
Rita brings a load of laundry into the kitchen and finds June doing some dishes. She tells June it’s fine, and that Serena changes the baby’s clothes every 10 minutes, so she’s swamped with laundry. Then Serena calls Rita back to the nursery.
Serena’s so excited to have a baby to wear those clothes that she’s putting them all on her at once. Maybe Nichole is just hot for the entire episode.
June fondles and smells the baby’s laundry. I expected her to pocket a couple of pieces, to help with the nursing, but Serena probably counts everything, anyway.
Fred bustles into the kitchen and tells June that they’re still looking for “that slut, Nick’s wife.” June hopes she’s ok, and Fred reassures her that they’ll bring her home. Then he asks June why Eden would risk so much to leave.
The sad thing is, I think he’s drank his own kool aid and believes what he says.
June: I don’t know.
Fred: Don’t you? Where were you hiding when we searched the house?
June: The attic.
Fred: So you heard us.
June: Honestly, my heart was beating so fast, I couldn’t hear much of anything.
Fred: You were that frightened.
Fred: Yet you preferred to hide in the attic, to avoid coming home…with me.
June: I had just said goodbye to my daughter. And you know what? I wanted to spend some more time with my baby before she was born.
Fred: So how was your reunion?
June: With Hannah?
June: I was surprised to see her.
Fred: It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? It’s what you asked for. I’m glad I made it happen. For you.
June: Thank you.
Fred: Is that all the thanks I get?
Wait a minute you disgusting perv, wasn’t the visit with Hannah an apology for the rape???? Now she has to pay for the visit in sexual favors and attention, too?
June doesn’t fall for it: We could play Scrabble sometime.
June: Yeah. It’s been a while, and I think it would be fun. Don’t you?
Fred: We’ll see.
Fred can’t understand why June isn’t over the rape already. It’s been weeks! And she heard the argument, so she knows it’s Serena’s fault!
After Fred leaves, June wonders how she’ll pay for this bit of defiance.
Late that night, Emily is in her bedroom when Lawrence’s wife, Eleanor, creeps in to talk to her. She asks Emily’s name, and Emily replies, “Ofjoseph.” Eleanor wants to know her real name. Eleanor asks Emily not to tell Joseph that they’ve talked, because he wouldn’t like it.
Then she starts to cry, and says that Joseph is a monster who did a terrible thing. He came up with “the whole thing, the Colonies. He planned everything. He figured it all out. And I said real people are digging up that dirt and it’s poison! It’s poison!”
Joseph comes in and restrains her, then drags her back to her bedroom and locks her in. He speaks softly and gently to her the entire time, telling her what he’s doing, while she screams that he’s a monster who knows what he did.
So, the architect of the Colonies sent all of the crazy old ladies there except his own wife, is what I’m getting. I hadn’t thought about how gothic this season is until now, which was dumb of me, with Offred literally living in an attic and getting abandoned in empty houses, not to mention all of the blood and candle symbolism.
But the addition of the locked up mad woman clinches the deal. It doesn’t answer the question of whether Joseph is good or evil, since the husband can be the one who drove his wife mad or he can be her devoted protector.
Joseph lingers at the door a moment, then notices Emily watching, and tells her to come downstairs and join him at the table. Only he uses ominous one word sentences. “Come. Sit.”
Once he’s poured them each a glass of wine in mismatched glasses, he says that they value privacy in this house. It’s an order, even if it’s not phrased like one. Emily asks if Eleanor is okay, and Joseph says that life didn’t turn out the way she wanted it too. She’s an art professor and she wanted everything to be beautiful.
Beautiful doesn’t mean beautiful for everyone?
Then he pretends to chat with her about her life, but soon proves that he actually knows her story in great detail. He asks her some uncomfortable, very personal questions, which she doesn’t answer. It’s as if he’s trying to provoke her. He finishes by asking if she knows if her clitorectomy has fully and properly healed.
He’s trying to see how easily she’ll break when questioned, but why? For his own sadistic purposes? To find out if he can trust her with the secrets of the house? Or to bring her into the Resistance? Let’s hope that testing how well she stands up under torture isn’t part of the test.
The next morning, Rita wakes up June to tell her that Eden and Isaac have been found, together.
In the high school locker room that’s being used as her holding cell, Nick tries desperately to get Eden to say something to the authorities so they’ll let her go free, but she refuses to lie. They’ll charge Isaac as a deserter either way, but she can say that he took her by force. Nick will do whatever it takes to get Eden through this safely, but it’s not up to him.
Eden says that she loves Isaac, and he loves her. All they wanted to do was make a family and have a baby together, like God expects of them. She doesn’t love Nick and she doesn’t want to have his baby. She’s sorry, and she wants Nick’s forgiveness. Nick thinks that she’s the one who should forgive him for being a lousy husband. Eden says they need to forgive each other then.
He tries again to convince her that she has her whole life ahead of her, but, what whole life? What is it he thinks will be so great for her if she lives a long life in Gilead? Especially now, when she could be made a handmaid, then be sent to the Colonies. If not this time, then it will happen on her next offense. Eden’s been shopping with handmaids who are normal young women, just like her, every day for months. While living at the Waterfords’, she’s seen all that Gilead has to offer women, and none of it is better than what she just tried to make for herself.
She answers by quoting a bible verse to him, Isaiah 43:2, implying that God and her faith will be enough. Eden is saying that God will be with her, supporting her and making her stronger, as she does what she needs to do now, even though it will end in death. She wants Nick to find the same kind of faith.
Eden is brought out to a high school pool and forced to climb up onto the high dive, where her sentencing and execution will take place. Her family, the Waterford clan, and several other people, probably belonging to Isaac and the government, sit in the bleachers to watch. It’s a mockery of the benign school competitions that Isaac and Eden would have taken part in just a few years ago at their ages, when they would still have been considered too young and carefree for adult responsibilities.
Eden and Isaac are handcuffed and chained, in preparation for their execution. The judge reads the sentencing order:
“The accused have been found guilty of infidelity, in violation of Exodus, Chapter 20, Verse 14. By the laws of God and his Servants here on earth, they have been sentenced to the Common Mercy of the State. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us, and cleanse us all from unrighteousness. Renounce your sins and plead for his mercy.”
Eden and Isaac look at each other, but remain silent. Everyone on the bleachers watches with pleading, tearstained faces, except Fred, who can’t forgive them for sullying his name.
The judge repeats, “Children of God! Children of God, renounce your sins and plead for his mercy!” He’s entreating them to take advantage of the out, rather than go through with the execution. Eden’s mother calls out to her, hoping she’ll snap out of her silence and save herself.
Instead, when Eden speaks, it’s to recite what should have been her wedding vows with Isaac, a verse from the Bible that speaks of the selflessness of true love. Isaac remains silent.
Serena Joy has brought Nichole with her to the execution. Best to give her an early start on her education. June is seated close by and is distracted throughout the sentencing by the baby’s noises. Now she rolls her eyes at Eden.
She’s a bit of a hypocrite here. How much has she risked and given up for the people she loves? It’s just luck and pregnancy that have kept her off the wall, as so many people around her have died or been maimed. Is she starting to take that for granted, now that she’s the popular girl?
Gilead has a short memory, and this week’s favorite is next week’s display on the wall. Eden and Isaac are shoved off the platform into the pool, with kettlebell weights attached to them by chains. The number of weights that are already in the pool shows how frequently this punishment is used.
Cue shock and horror in the bleachers. Even Fred doesn’t look like he thought it would go this far. Eden and Isaac die facing each other.
That night, June finds Nick in the kitchen brooding, instead of Fred. She sits with him and puts her hand on his arm to comfort him. He ignores her until she touches him, then he looks annoyed and leaves the room. She’s now the literal Scarlet Woman, the adultress who ruined a marriage and another woman’s life, once again.
June heads back up the stairs and finds Serena crying silently in the nursery.
Because she never leaves. June asks if Serena’s okay, and Serena gives a tiny nod. June walks a few steps closer to the baby, finally getting a good look at her daughter for the first time this episode. Serena speaks a Bible quote, Isaiah 49:25, out loud:
“Thus says the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: For I will contend with he that contends with you, and I will save your children.”
She can barely get the verse out, because the God who promised to save the children, no matter what, failed today. She’s calling on her God to remember that promise and live up to it for Nichole. But this verse also says that God will fight whoever fights against Israel (“I will contend with he that contends with you.”). In the surrounding verses, God promises to return whatever the enemy has seized from Israel and free Israel’s people from captivity, then also to slaughter and punish the enemy mercilessly.
It’s a vicious, gruesome section of the Bible for Serena to be sharing with her infant. It’s also a call to arms and promise of vengeance. Just what is going on in Serena’s head, and who is she viewing as the enemy?
She sounds and looks like someone who’s ready to take back what’s been taken from her and all women, with God’s help, but Serena is hard to predict. She may also want to slaughter anyone who helped Eden and Isaac in their escape attempt.
Nichole begins to fuss, no doubt sensing Serena’s agitation. June offers to get them a bottle, but Serena stops her. Maybe because June made the first, selfless move, or maybe because Serena knows that she and June work well together when they don’t allow Fred to come between them, Serena tells June to wait. She goes over to the seat by the window and looks at June to invite her over to breastfeed Nichole. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Serena look more vulnerable.
June joins Nichole/Holly, takes the baby from Serena, and sits down with her. She spends a moment just being with her daughter again, cuddling and rubbing her face against Holly’s. Then, almost defiantly, she unsnaps the shoulder of her dress and opens it up to nurse.
June’s slightly startled reaction to the moment that the baby latches on echoes the moment that Fred penetrated her during the rape. Obviously the situations are completely opposite otherwise, except that both were initiated and watched by Serena. And unlike Fred’s self-serving use of the visit with Hannah as an “apology” for the rape, this is a real moment of emotional understanding between the two women.
They are both survivors who have done things that they aren’t proud of, or even regret, to get where they are, but that also makes them fighters. That little baby girl is going to need fighters in her corner, and they both know that Fred won’t be one of them. Serena and June may not always like one another, but they have a certain amount of respect for each other, and the ability to work together toward a common goal. Nichole is the most important common goal they could ever have.
Serena sits as close as possible and watches June nurse their happy baby with a smile on her face as golden light streams in the nursery window.
Fred needs to believe that he’s loved, respected and admired by everyone around him. Inside, he knows he’s a fake, so he needs continuous propping up. Anything that threatens the self-image he’s trying to maintain on the surface is a major threat to Gilead, in his mind. Thus, Eden isn’t a misguided young woman, she’s an evil slut. June is either in love with him or a whore. Serena is either totally submissive or a total bitch. Nick is either completely loyal or… well, Fred can’t even go there. Nick knows where the bodies are buried. He could take Fred down with him.
The scene in Fred’s office is a silent conversation with Fred trying to convince Nick to let him be his new patron, now that Pryce is gone. Fred wants to pretend that he got Nick a wife to have him move up in the world and as a reward, rather than as part of a scheme to get rid of Nick. He also wants to look at Nick’s stud services as a favor to him, rather than the favor to Serena and June that it was, and have Nick voluntarily agree to give up all rights to the baby in return for Fred’s patronage. After the visit with Hannah, Nick and June didn’t run, and haven’t talked about it to anyone else, so he’s becoming confident that they won’t. But he’s as afraid of having it get out that he isn’t the father as Serena is of having her beating get out. He needs to make sure that he’s secured Nick’s complete loyalty, so he plays the benevolent, grateful patriarch.
Nick always watches everything, and generally keeps his own counsel. It’s fair to say that he hates Fred, but he’s as trapped as Serena at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to watch his child grow up, at least for a while, and be there to protect her from Fred if need be. No one in that house is going to forget that beating anytime soon. The one thing we know for sure about Nick is that he takes care of his people, even if it’s to his own detriment. When Pryce took Nick under his wing before the war, Nick had been moving from job to job because all of his energy was going into taking care of his elderly father and mentally ill brother. Now he’s failed at taking care of Eden, so he’ll be laser focussed on Nichole.
It seems obvious that Nichole is named after her birth father. I wish we’d gotten to see the argument when Serena told Fred what the baby’s name was going to be. They can explain it away publicly with their whole story about what a hero Nick was when Nichole was born. But privately it has to grate on Fred.
Eden’s Bible verse on the high dive is 1 Corinthians 13:4, the one frequently used at weddings. She was telling them that this was her true wedding and this is what Gilead does to true love and true faith. She was throwing their corruption and cynicism in their faces.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking.”
Her Bible verse in the locker room when she said goodbye to Nick was Isaiah 43:2: “The Lord said, when thou passest through the waters I shall be with thee. And through the river, they shall over flow thee. When thou walkest through the fire, Thou shalt not be burned. Neither shall the flame kindle upon me.”
God promises his people to be with them as they go through their trials and tribulations, supporting them. Rather than saving them from life’s disasters, or even death, God allows people to suffer so that they can be made stronger.
Eden accepts her fate, and will face it head on, with God and her faith at her side. She trusts her God to keep his promise to support her through this time. She’s being true to the tenets of her faith. She has no reason to believe that God will abandon her to H*ll, so she’s not afraid.
Eden went out as a freakin’ warrior. We all knew that her story wouldn’t end well, but I didn’t see this coming. I knew Eden and Isaac were Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t think the show would be so literal about it. After they died, I half expected the Prince of Gilead to come out and start yelling that, “All are punished!” Maybe in episode 13.
You can look at Eden and Isaac as two people who were too young to know their own minds, and dismiss her as her foolishly dying for puppy love. That feels like a very ageist, misogynist cop out to me. Eden didn’t rush blindly into what she did. She talked to June and Serena. She tried hard to make her marriage work. But she had no other options in life.
Maybe Eden and Isaac were naive about how far they’d get when they ran away, but I haven’t seen anyone say that about Moira or June’s escape attempts, so why theirs?? Isaac would have had some idea about how the Guardian system worked, and have been wearing his uniform. It should have given them an advantage in moving through populated areas.
I think the reality is that the escapes have become a problem, both as a political embarrassment and as a drain on their population of fertile breeding stock. Gilead has stepped up their border patrols and it’s become much harder to get out since Moira’s escape. Since the suicide bombing, they’ve become more paranoid during routine neighborhood patrols, as we saw with Nick’s capture last week.
So, I don’t think Eden and Isaac were caught because they were naive and stupid, I think they were caught because Gilead has become a supermax prison. I also don’t think Gilead intended to execute them. As always, Gilead wanted to humiliate and frighten them, and use them as an example for others. The set up was similar to the almost hanging we saw the handmaids put through at the beginning of the season, but this time they made the mistake of trying to force a confession of guilt, thinking a teenage girl would be so scared she’d quickly beg for her life.
That’s why she wasn’t sent to be a handmaid straight away. They didn’t expect to go through with her execution. But Eden, pious, good, true believer Eden, called their bluff. She forced them to look at their own complicity in leading her to that high dive. To look at how much they ask of women, while giving nothing in return, not even the love of their husbands.
Eden stood up and said that if her only purpose, her only option, in life was to serve as wife and mother, then she’d rather have a short period of real love that was HER CHOICE than a lifetime of enslavement in a loveless, forced marriage. SHE DIED FREE.
She didn’t question the overall goals or rules of Gilead. She wasn’t a political rebel. She was simply a good girl who stood up to an injustice that affected her, that has and will affect every young woman in Gilead. She’s someone that most of the population of Gilead can sympathize with and rally behind. Hers was an unjust killing if ever there was one in Gilead.
Her life was short, but its impact will be huge. This isn’t a sinful handmaid who tried to run, or someone who tried to commit a treasonous act. These were two of the truest of true believers that Gilead has raised. A fertile young woman in a world where humanity is becoming extinct, and a fertile young man in a world where those are also more rare than Gilead will publicly admit, but probably secretly knows. And they couldn’t find a way to give them a second chance and let them be together.
Gilead goes for theater rather than justice, and this time there was no mercy or forgiveness without Eden publicly admitting that choosing who she wanted to love and have children with was wrong. That’s all she wanted. She wasn’t complaining about anything else in Gilead. She even chose an appropriate man, by Gilead’s own standards.
But Eden making her own choice is an affront to the Commanders, like Fred, who’ve grown to enjoy their ability to treat women as property, and to see personally subjugating women as one of their inalienable rights. As time goes on, the young women being put in this position aren’t going to be anonymous girls from the country. They will be the Commanders’ own daughters. And their sons.
The rules that maim and murder teenagers for a first offense will apply to their own children, and that will be a different story. We’re already seeing the rules loosen up, because they’ve killed so many of their people and cut off so many hands. They probably don’t take out as many eyes any more, either.
Even if the Commanders want to continue with their draconian form of government, the wives who waited so long and fought so hard for their precious children, and now each only have one, will not be willing to see them destroyed so easily. The women who helped the Sons of Jacob win the country, and were then betrayed by them when their own rights were stripped in ways they never expected, will rise up to fight for their children/daughters in ways they wouldn’t fight for themselves.
We can see this in Serena’s reaction to Eden’s death. Suddenly the things that had seemed so important before, fall away, and she can see that Nichole’s health and future are all that matter. Getting her there in the healthiest way possible becomes the priority, not Serena’s ego. It’s not hard to imagine Serena wanting more for Nichole than knitting and gardening as she gets older.
Serena starts to realize that sharing the baby with June is the best course of action. She’ll go back and forth on it, probably for the next 8 seasons, but eventually she’ll figure out that June is a way better coparent than Fred. Especially since Fred currently isn’t a parent at all, and will be abusive if he ever takes an interest. I shudder to think of how twisted and manipulative he’d be with Daddy’s little girl. And he’ll never forget that the child is June’s, not Serena’s, biological child, or let Serena forget it.
Meanwhile, Nick brushes off June, because he thinks Eden’s death has tainted their love. It’s going to take a while for him to get over it. Maybe eventually June can tell him to snap out of it, because Eden’s choice was an affirmation of love. She didn’t want him to feel guilty or sacrifice what he had with June. She wanted to have that kind of love, too, and for both couples to be able to be together the way they wanted to be. She died fighting for that right.
Herr Friar Commander Lawrence
When Emily finds out that Joseph created the work-camp system for the Colonies and decides to kill him, it’s the most alive she’s looked since she ran over the Guardian’s head in season 1. Finally, a challenge.
Joseph’s wife and everyone in that house is batsh*t crazy. I don’t quite know what to make of it. Joseph is outwardly rude and harsh, but he watches and takes in everything. Unlike Fred, he doesn’t care about being liked. He seems to enjoy playing a cat and mouse game, with the women as his prey. That’s what made Emily interesting to him. She could be a worthy adversary before he drives her completely insane. These Gilead Commanders love to take down strong, accomplished women.
But there is the alternate theory that he’s part of the Resistance, or is at least providing a safe haven for a few women (and some -likely forbidden- art). His eccentricities, the artwork and the presence of the graphic novel Maus 1, which tells a personal story of the Nazis and the Jews in the form of cats and mice, argue that this is a possibility.
The Lawrence Collection. The Lawrence household is full of art world Easter eggs: two Basquiats, plus works in the recognizable style of O’Keefe, Matisse, Cezanne. If Gilead ever falls, the Lawrences’ art collection will hopefully make a nice foundation for the reconstituted modern wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus I lies open. Perhaps Lawrence appreciates Spiegelman’s work, but there’s the more sinister possibility that he’s studying how populations react to authoritarian takeover.
This episode, and season, have also had many references to Romeo and Juliet. The priest who marries the doomed couple is named Friar Laurence. He also helps Romeo escape Verona, helps Juliet fake her death, and is in the tomb when Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead. He tells the families the whole story of what happened between their children. Could Joseph Lawrence be named after Friar Laurence? As we’ve already seen, helping the Resistance will not be an endeavor with a 100% survival rate.
Eleanor tells Emily not to tell Joseph that they’ve spoken, because he doesn’t like her to talk to “the girls”. Have they already had enough handmaids to refer to them as “girls”? Or does she mean the “girls” that he’s helping to escape on the Gilead underground railroad? Have we finally found it? Is this the reason that the Lawrence household values privacy so much??!!
Eleanor is mentally unstable and can’t be trusted with secrets, so keeping her away from strangers would make sense, whether it’s the aunts or the passengers trying to leave Gilead. Keeping the house chaotic and cluttered would help disguise its architectural lines, so that false walls and compartments could be built in, where passengers could hide, and the changes would be hard to spot.
Friar Lawrence was associated with poisons and herbs, a useful talent in Gilead. Emily is also associated with poisons and herbs. Joseph is the architect of the Colonies, and likely has contacts there who keep him informed. Despite the harshness of the Colonies, the women were given a certain amount of leeway- they held a marriage, practiced religions other than Gilead’s Christianity, doctored each other, and literally got away with murder.
Joseph might keep tabs on the women in the Colonies, and help some escape. It’s possible that some of the dead aren’t all really dead when they’re taken (they aren’t quite dead yet 😉). He may have chosen Emily and Janine as two of the handmaids who were brought back because they both have a talent for troublemaking that causes others to question the status quo.
Emily also has the ability to quietly kill people with poisons, and to heal others with very few supplies, which would be useful to the Resistance.
Joseph tries to provoke Emily in a variety of ways throughout the episode, escalating the intensity as time goes on. It feels like some kind of test, but what kind? He tries to get her to respond to fear, anger, humiliation, embarrassment, and threats to herself and others. None of it gets a visible rise out of her, though in her mind she’s clearly plotting his death, over and over, in many creative ways. We’ll have to wait until next week to see if she passed his test and what that means.
Handmaid or Surrogate?
I’ve seen people on various sites arguing that to Serena and the other wives, the Gilead practice of using handmaids is simply a form of surrogacy.
Surrogates have a legally binding contract that protects them, the child, and the other parent. They are fairly compensated for their services. They have an actual, real choice of whether to carry another family’s child or not.
We were shown Moira’s surrogacy specifically to point out that the handmaids are nothing like surrogates. Moira was so well compensated that she got herself out of debt and started a business. During her pregnancy, she continued with her normal life, other than being pregnant. Right up until the time she handed the baby to Odette to bring to the father and adoptive mother, it was still HER CHOICE to give up the baby, and she willingly, if slightly sadly, stuck to the contract. After her contract was completed, she was free and clear to return to life as usual or to enter into another surrogacy contract. Again, HER CHOICE. There were no ongoing ramifications from her surrogacy, other than the baby’s parents keeping her updated on her son, because she chose that. And no one denied that she was the child’s birth mother.
The handmaids’ lives are the polar opposite in every way. The wives know this, because they lived in the same culture that Moira and June came from. They know what surrogacy was actually like, and they know what handmaids lives are like now. The handmaids are called handmaids after the handmaids in the bible, who were also slaves.
Handmaids aren’t called surrogates because that’s not what they are, and the wives don’t think of them that way. The power structure in Gilead doesn’t want anyone to think of them that way. Handmaids are meant to be dehumanized in a way that surrogates, with their legal rights and contracts, simply aren’t allowed to be.
Handmaids are meant to be disposable slaves who are without identities or rights. The mothers think of them as a necessary evil, a living incubator that must be tolerated, who can then be forgotten as quickly as possible. The wife, or anyone with any power, can treat the handmaid as badly as they want, as long as it doesn’t affect the handmaid’s ability to get or stay pregnant. And we’ve seen them treated terribly. Remember, you don’t need two hands or two eyes to get pregnant.
No sane surrogate would put up with that treatment.
I’m more sympathetic to Serena than just about anyone, but let’s not pretend that she’s stupid or innocent. The wives know exactly what they’re doing. No matter how they felt about the Sons of Jacob or religion before, they’ve chosen to subjugate other women in order to maintain their own position and comfort.
Some, like Serena, try to live in denial about how bad the lives of the lower castes in Gilead are, but in reality, they know. They don’t rise up or argue with the men because it would threaten their lives and positions to do so. They go along with the rapes, the torture, the maimings, the beatings, and the murders, so that they can live and get a baby.
And, in reality, they don’t have a lot of choices themselves. For most of them, it’s the wall or behave like a good, compliant wife, so they do what’s expected of them, no matter how they feel about it. I expect there’s a lot of secret drinking. Probably some cannabis and poppies growing in those gardens. Maybe some season they’ll show us the speakeasy greenhouses and knitting circles with special baked goods as the snacks.
But in a choice between death and being married to a Nazi, the wives chose the Nazi. Most of us don’t know which we’d choose if we were one of them. You might think you do, but you don’t. We don’t know how many are secretly Resistance sympathizers, waiting for a chance to help out, and how many are Gilead true believers, wishing they could punish those sinful handmaids even more.
I’ve argued that Serena, and probably many more of the wives, could be turned to the Resistance eventually. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t guilty of helping their husbands hold handmaids as slaves for years, rape them monthly, and then steal their babies. It just means that life, and morality, can be complicated. The difference between a handmaid and a surrogate? Not complicated. And the wives know the difference.