Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June’s latest escape attempt was foiled by a sturdy garage door — and some contractions. Like a boss, she gave birth all alone, and got to enjoy a few precious moments with baby Holly before a mysterious car arrived… Here’s the recap for episode 11 if you missed it!
Is it worth doing a spoiler warning? You know the drill by now, right? Besides, once again, not much has happened. OK, OK, there was a Big Thing that happened, but we somehow ended up right where we were a few episodes ago, in an episode that seems to be arranging all the pieces for next week’s finale. Hear that? One more week to go! SO CLOSE!
So where are we with all the main players? Serena is all over the place, veering from Fierce Mama Bear to ambiguously friendly. After a brief sojourn at the Red Center, June is stuck in that damn house again. Aunt Lydia — well, Aunt Lydia seems to be keeping her promise to look after the baby, by persuading the Waterfords to allow June to go home with them. Nick is back, unscarred and fine. That whole plot line was just a way to isolate June for an episode. And Fred is still a git. Plus ça change.
There are changes afoot elsewhere. Emily has finally got a new posting, and that’s not looking creepy and terrifying at all. Nope. Sure, the house has an Addams family vibe, there’s a crazy wife roaming around, and her new Commander looks like a German cannibal, but I’m sure it’s ABSOLUTELY FINE, NOTHING TO SEE HERE. THERE PROBABLY ISN’T A SECRET LAB DOWNSTAIRS!
Nick has also realised that he’s been a bit of a dumb-dumb and he’s regretting some of his life choices right now. But the big change comes from Eden and Isaac; as predicted, they end up the drowned bodies in the pool, but rather than some sort of revenge killing spree, they are apparently star-crossed lovers who are prepared to die for love. Yep, that’s the same Eden who was heartbroken that Nick didn’t love her two episodes ago, and the same Isaac who beat up Janine for speaking out of turn. They are now heroic martyrs for love. With each other. Right.
Let’s get into this one then, eh?
There’s a Serena vs Cersei think piece brewing in my head at the moment, and so this episode gives us a chance to flesh out that comparison. If Cersei’s redeeming feature is her love for her children, how does Serena measure up? She is delighted to have a baby to play with, to dress up, to occupy her time. She’s fiercely protective of Holly/Nicole. But she also takes a baby to an execution. A baby. And while part of me wants to view her sympathetically, as a woman who finally became a mother after years of wanting, SHE TOOK A BABY TO AN EXECUTION.
Then there’s the faux-nursing moment. Were we meant to be sympathetic to her here? Because what possible purpose could this serve? Serena isn’t going to spontaneously lactate. If she knows this, then she is just pretending. She’s playing at motherhood. And it’s embarrassing. Serena isn’t an idiot. She’s a cold-hearted bitch, but she’s not an idiot. Does that mean it’s a delusion? An unhinged Serena is not something that anyone wants… Is she trying to appropriate June’s role further? June might provide the breastmilk, but Serena wants the experience? Is she just trying to bond? Because parents can bond with bottle-fed babies just fine… Even worse, is it a violation? If it serves no purpose, I’m pretty sure sticking your nipple in a baby’s face is inappropriate…
Like Cersei, Serena can be ruthless and cruel, but she also has moments of intense vulnerability, and that’s what we got by the end of the episode. She was genuinely shocked and devastated by the execution of Eden. (She clearly didn’t care a hoot about Isaac, and that’s fine. It’s relatable.) It can’t just be because it was too close to home, because violence has been on the doorstep of that house before. But like last time, external threat brings Serena to her senses. She needs to be personally confronted with the horrors of Gilead in order to see how awful it is. (White women, huh?) And again, like last time, she reaches out to June when she’s threatened.
June’s offer of emotional support was far more than Serena deserved, but it felt more genuine than strategic. The final tableau of June finally permitted to nurse Holly/Nicole under the watchful but kindly eyes of Serena may have been designed to convey a return to Team Waterford Women. I’m not sure I’m cheering that on anymore. Episode 10 ruined that. But if they must form an alliance again, this time it is based on wanting to protect Holly/Nicole from the terrible fate of Gilead’s daughters. (Again, neither gives a crap about Isaac.)
Although I’m sure we’re all sighing at the idea of Serena waking up to the abuses of young women by the magical process of becoming a parent (“as the mother of a daughter, I’m totally woke now!”), allowing June to breastfeed Holly/Nicole is perhaps the most maternal thing we’ve seen from Serena yet. This decision is the first one that’s not about her; it’s about the baby. She finally stops pretending to be a parent and acts like one.
Unlike that time when SHE TOOK A BABY TO AN EXECUTION.
Eden and Isaac
Look, I love a star-crossed lovers story. I’ll happily have a good cry watching a film where Leonardo DiCaprio dies before his time because he just loves Daisy, Rose, or Juliet too damn much. But I’m not sure that the show earned this tragic love story moment. It was all money shot with no build up. Eden’s speech was meant to be one of those profound romantic sacrifices, but it just came across as another one of her sad delusions. It was still a horrible tragic moment, because she’s a child and she’s being executed by a stupid, awful, cutting-nose-off-to-spite-face regime. But instead of being a sacrifice in the name of love, it felt like she was dying for a principle she never really had in the first place. Come to think of it, that might be worse.
Eden quotes Corinthians before she is murdered. Here’s the full passage:
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, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
She hasn’t had poetry or music to frame the notion of love for her, at least not since she was very young. She hasn’t even read Twilight. Hormones, idealism, and the Bible are all she has. I can’t imagine this passage being read out by her father at home, so there’s some potential mystery here too. Does she even understand it? Here’s Bruce Miller’s take on it:
“There are forces of nature that are a lot stronger than any government, and when two teenagers like each other, sorry, but that always wins.”
(Episode 12 featurette. Please note that this video starts with a trailer for the finale, just in case you want to avoid any spoilers!)
It is definitely her strongest moment, because she is taking a stand for what she believes in. And she believes in love. I appreciate that she stood up for her principles. I’m just not sure that this love is one worth believing in… That might make me a cold-hearted cow, but if the show wanted us to think that dying for Isaac was a moving choice, maybe they could have spent a bit of time making us care about either of them… Did Eden just take June’s advice too literally?
Poor Emily. She can’t seem to catch a break. It’s no surprise that so many households see her as she sees herself: “a shitty handmaid”. She had an affair with a Martha, and went Grand Theft Auto and splattered a Guardian. Her last Commander died seconds after doing his ceremonial duty and she may or may not be radioactive. To say she’s not anyone’s first choice would be an understatement. So why does this mysterious Commander Lawrence choose her?
There aren’t any answers yet, but it’s definitely weird. His house seems relatively relaxed in some ways, and terrifying in others. There’s art on the walls, and his Martha (aka One-Eyed Magenta) seems quite relaxed and jovial. He asks her questions about her life and her beliefs, though we don’t know whether he’s testing her or not. He asks invasive questions, but he pours her a drink. He leaves books open, and quizzes her on the punishment for reading (Gilead have downgraded the offence from lose-a-hand to lose-a-finger), but doesn’t seem to want to punish her. He is a bigwig in the regime — being the architect of the economy — but doesn’t seem to buy into it.
We are as confused as she is. And the revelation that the Colonies were his idea is definitely setting us up for something interesting in the finale. Remember Handmaid Justice? Remember that Emily thought the Colonies were hell on earth? Why would he choose someone who had returned from the Colonies? Is he seeking atonement? Or is she just a morbid curiosity? We’ll have to wait to find out.
June is doing the best she can. She endures the separation, perhaps fearing proximity to her baby more than anything else. She (rightly) sees the ‘prime the pumps’ visit from Fred and Nick as cruel. She’s almost become a victim of the promise she coaxed from Aunt Lydia, who is in full Breastapo mode this week, though I very much enjoyed the neat way that Aunt Lydia manipulated Fred and Serena into taking June back to the house. It sucks for June, but Aunt Lydia will give the baby the best possible chance, even if that is at June’s expense. This is what happens when you make her an unofficial godmother, June.
Being in that house hurts. Holly/Nicole’s cries keep the milk flowing, but June is close to breaking. She shows admirable restraint, but there are some moments that show how hard this is for her, like when she lies on the floor above the nursery, or when she smells the laundry. She gets to play a cute game of ‘what if’ with Nick, who is also struggling. Fred seems to enjoy emotionally torturing him too, making him hang the new family portrait on the wall, while praising him for his loyalty and discretion. Somehow, the Waterfords managed to spin the Big Bad Wolf incident from last week. They really are Teflon, aren’t they?
June’s also got to contend with Fred making more advances. She’s playing along again, but this time she hasn’t got her pregnancy as a shield. It takes a true bastard to flirt with a woman he raped a couple of episodes ago. What with this, and his ‘WHAT ABOUT ME?’ attitude to Eden’s disappearance, I’m praying hard for some Freddy comeuppance in the finale. Come on. Make it happen. PLEASE.
We were debating the reasons for a pool-themed execution recently, and it seems like it’s an execution method mainly for Econo-people. That feels a little anticlimactic.
I struggled this week, because I was trying to weigh up the tone of the episode, whether I was feeling the way the show wanted me to feel, and if I didn’t, was I being a bitch? And whilst trying to figure out all of that, an uncomfortable question came to me: Are the babies of handmaids miserable because they are not with their biological mothers?
The show seems to be trying really hard to tread a fine line between condemning Gileadean forced surrogacy and not upsetting adoptive parents. I’m not a parent, and I know precious little about babies, but Holly/Nicole seems to cry a lot — is she crying more than a ‘normal’ baby? Angela/Charlotte also seemed very unhappy. Is it just that Naomi and Serena aren’t exactly great maternal figures? Is it because the babies have been stolen rather than given, and the babies kind of sense that on some level? I’m finding this quite uncomfortable…
Going back to Serena’s attempt at breastfeeding, this was probably the thing I struggled with the most. Because the urge to judge was almost overwhelming. And I did, a bit, above. And I was wrestling with it; Serena has crossed too many lines for unconditional sympathy, but that desperation for a child is so human, so common, and so heartbreakingly relatable, that it felt cruel to judge too hard. And in another round of ‘things I’ve Googled because of The Handmaid’s Tale, and now the Internet thinks I’m a mum and I’m getting terrible adverts, damn you cookies’, maybe Serena is suffering from post-adoptive depression, and it feels wrong to be too hard on her. BUT she encouraged her husband to rape a pregnant woman while she held her down, and then she stole her child, so… MORAL QUANDARY.
I’m hoping next week’s finale gives us some moral clarity — as well as some action, some resolution and most importantly, some pain for Fred, in the general vicinity of his trousers. At least.
What’s on your wish list for the finale?
(Seriously, Internet — I’m not a mum. When I went online to put this post together, all my ads were pregnancy tests. I’M JUST A WRITER GOOGLING THINGS! WAAAH!)