Oh, you thought you were protected, obedient woman or man on The Handmaid’s Tale? Figured you could toe the line, say your prayers, and any minor transgressions would be forgiven in the face of your faith and allegiance to the cause? Tough titties, folks. You’re never safe in Gilead.
The penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season two, “Postpartum,” isn’t a particularly big episode. But it is significant. It deals with the fallout from the masterfully executed “Holly,” with the Waterford household moving on from June’s near-escape. Serena Joy finally gets her baby, June is forced to pump breastmilk offsite like a dairy cow, and Commander Waterford is being a fucking creep toward everything and everyone.
It’s clear the Waterfords are desperate to see their lives as perfect, now that they’ve gotten everything they wanted. For example, the first shot of the episode turns Serena Joy into a glorified Norman Rockwell painting, draped in a golden filter, the perfect wife and mother. But it’s a false image, as pasted on as the portrait Commander Waterford hangs in his new office. There’s no going back for this family—these two have opened a wound in their lives that will never be healed. The one who seems to know that the most is the baby, who cries constantly, despite Serena’s best efforts. She even tries to breastfeed the child, yearning for a connection that isn’t there—not because she’s adopted, but because of the world she’s been adopted into.
Of course, their household dysfunction isn’t limited to the Waterfords themselves. June is finally brought back home to help with breastmilk production, against Serena’s wishes. This causes the commander to creepily insist she “behave” as Serena struggles to contain her anger. June is being played like a pawn, an object of hatred that the Waterfords can hurl all their awfulness onto, and she knows it. Plus, she’s wracked with guilt over not be able to be with her daughter, and her broken promise to birth her outside of Gilead. In short: It really sucks to be June right now.
In a moment of frustration and despair, June wrongly tells Nick’s wife Eden to follow her heart, after the teenager asks for her advice. In this case, following her heart means running off with Isaac, the young Guardian she shared a kiss with in a previous episode. It doesn’t take long for them to be caught—this is Gilead, people, and these kids aren’t the best covert agents. They’re told that if they repent their “sins,” all would be forgiven (10 bucks says Eden would’ve been sent to the Colonies and Isaac would’ve been fine because Gilead is sexist). But neither of them relent. Instead, they’re tied to kettle weights, tossed into a pool, and drowned. Star-crossed lovers, butchered for the crime of being young.
This moment feels like it’s going to leave a lasting impact on the series. Granted, this isn’t the first time that so-called sinners have been drowned in the local swimming pool (the number of kettle weights at the bottom can attest to that), but this latest offense shows how much this self-professed utopian society is dangling by a thread. No one wanted to watch Eden die. No one thought she deserved it—except the privileged few men making the call. She was a devoted believer whose only crime was navigating emotions she hadn’t been raised to understand. Killing Eden for the crime of passion may cause some believers (maybe even Serena) to question what Gilead has become.
Gilead wants the world to believe it’s raising a generation of pure, obedient children. But, like every society that’s been or will ever be, what they’re actually doing is raising a generation of humans. If there’s one thing we know about humanity, it cannot be contained—not forever, anyway. While oppression can affect people for years, decades, or generations, the curve of humanity will always bend toward justice. The cracks will grow. The water will rise. And the tide will flow. Gilead cannot drown its problems away.
- I don’t even know where to start with Emily’s new home and commander. It. Was. Terrifying! Every scene with her was an exercise in stress and fear. This is the closest we’ve gotten to something like horror in the series, and it was powerfully effective. I’m curious to see what this guy’s deal is.
- For the past couple of episodes, I’ve been curious what kind of message The Handmaid’s Tale has been sending regarding adoptive mothers versus birth mothers. Given how the two Gilead babies we’ve seen needed to be soothed by their birth mothers, is the show sending a message that the birth mother connection is more vital? The short answer is no, but there’s a lot to explore. I’ve been chatting with adoption counselors and adoptive mothers about this, and will have a piece out about it later this week.
- I bet Nick’s feeling pretty shitty right now.
Update: Added photographer’s name credited to Handmaid’s Tale photos.