'The Handmaid’s Tale' Recap: Two Women Looked Out From Prison Bars; One Saw The Mud, The Other Saw Stars
Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale: Aunt Lydia’s mission to retrain June seemed to have been successful, with June disappearing into the identity of Offred. It stung. It was excruciating to watch. In case you missed it, here’s my recap for episode 4.
With your standard SPOILERS, SPOILERS EVERYWHERE warning, let’s get into episode 5! These episode titles are really carefully planned, so this week’s title, ‘Seeds’, sounded like a promising one. Did we get the promise of new life, a glimmer of hope, a sense that something had taken root? Yes and no. Mostly no, but a teeny little bit of yes. It just took a while to get there.
I shouldn’t have wondered about the letters last week. Poor, broken Offred opens the episode by burning them, destroying the testimony of countless handmaids, their pleas for help and recognition going up in smoke over the kitchen sink — much to Nick’s horror. I’m getting a bit bored and skeptical about Nick, as some of you were last week as well. What exactly is the point of Nick? Episode 5 gave us some answers to that, but did it make us less mad at him? The jury’s out …
I’m back to calling her Offred again, as June left the building last week — and much of the episode centres on the extent to which she is “quite unlike herself” after her breakdown in episode 4. There’s something vacant and ghost-like about Offred as she endures the scrutiny of Aunt Lydia, being weighed, measured, and sniffed, her bowel movements discussed while she stands there, mute. Serena’s very frosty to Aunt Lydia, who again shows surprising emotional sensitivity when she asks, “Have I let myself become a bother?” Her spider senses are also picking up some warning signs about Offred’s state of mind. Although she thinks that Offred’s “attitude seems much improved,” Aunt Lydia can’t resist a little reminder to Serena of the work involved in creating New Offred: “no small effort has been made to bring Offred to heel.” She also points out that there is more to a successful pregnancy than a doctor knows, and it’s a warning that Serena bristles at, but seems to take on board.
In fact, Serena seems to miss the old Offred later on, trying to invite her to gossip about Mrs. Putnam, who (I’m going to go ahead and judge horribly) IS A TERRIBLE MOTHER. I say ‘miss’, but it would be more accurate to say that Offred’s new compliant meekness mostly pisses her off. Does Serena want to bond? Does she think that the breaking of Offred went too far? She doesn’t take kindly to Nick’s concerns about Offred’s mental state, simply referring to her as “the handmaid” now, as if even a patronym is too humanizing.
Is Nick on thin ice as well? Serena only seems to like Nick when she can use him to torment others. Fred does not want him around anymore. There was a lovely moment early on where Aunt Lydia suggested to Fred that the baby would be a “fine boy, just like his father,” and Fred smiled while glancing in Nick’s direction. Just as Offred’s presence is a slight to Serena, Nick’s is to Fred, and so it’s not a surprise when Fred tries to arrange a ‘promotion’ for Nick that would get rid of him. The only problem is, the guy he asked about it, Commander Price, was the guy who planted Nick (SEED!) in the Waterford house to spy on Fred in the first place, which we found out in last season’s WHAT IS THE POINT OF NICK? episode. Fred is encouraged to “find a way to keep him around.” This must make Fred look shady as hell, right?
Let’s jump ahead to the Prayvaganza, which Serena sells as a special treat for Offred, even joking about the event’s truly lame name — the work of Fred and his special branding skills. This one is to honour some Guardians, including apparently-not-pointless-but-might-as-well-be Nick. And he’s getting married. I mean, yes, this is awful for him too, as he has no choice in any of this (neither does his bride, who looks about 12). This clearly wasn’t his idea. But whose idea was it? Both Fred and Serena look very pleased with themselves; Fred has found a way to keep Nick around but keep him occupied and not encroaching on ‘his territory’ with his pesky sperm (MORE SEED!); Serena has stripped Offred of a lover and an ally, and gets to enjoy making Offred watch as she is left all alone. Did they plan this together? Who was the mastermind behind this? Fred quietly takes the credit later, bragging that he had to “pull a few strings”, but wanted to take the opportunity to thank Nick for all he’s done. YEAH, RIGHT. But he waits until he is alone with Nick to claim this, when the men and women separate to have The Talk about wedding nights, ‘family values’ and duty. Is he pretending? Or is it a convenient moment where Fred and Serena’s needs converge?
Over in the unnamed Colony, morning has broken (like the first moooorning, blackbird has spooooken etc etc) and the daily ‘bring out your dead’ ritual commences. Janine and Emily are now Colony BFFs, though Janine’s cheerfulness grates on Emily for much of the episode. Personally, I think it’s adorable. Emily and Janine seem to embody that famous quote:
“Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw stars.”
Emily is all bitter cynicism; Janine radiates optimism. That title, ‘Seeds’, is nudging us towards Team Janine, and I’m all for it. Amidst the radioactive waste, a dandelion waits to shed its seeds. Janine, with all the innocence of a child, makes a wish as she blows them from the stem. There’s hope and life in this wish; it’s an idea that starts with her and spreads, carried on the wind.
Emily and Janine have both suffered, have both lost much to Gilead. The last time we saw Emily, she was serving Handmaid Justice to Marisa Tomei. She has been working in the Colonies for much longer than Janine, and it’s taking its toll on her, physically and mentally. Janine — as much as she still quotes Aunt Lydia, and despite only having the one eye — manages to see past some of the horror and see something comforting. Both women were spared death; Janine sees this as divine intervention, whereas Emily sees it only as postponing the inevitable and extending the cruelty. Janine needs Emily’s experience to help her to navigate her new life; for instance, Emily suggests that Janine volunteers to help with the burial team as she will get extra rations. That would involve facing the reality of death, and Janine’s not ready for that at first.
Emily thinks Janine is naïve, but there’s much more to Janine than that. Remember that Janine was the first handmaid we saw who was broken. When she arrived at the Red Center with June, Janine was the one offering sullen defiance to the Aunts. It cost her an eye. Janine was ritually shamed, had a breakdown, faced tough love from Moira, had her baby taken away, tried to commit suicide, and was nearly executed by her friends. CUT THE WOMAN SOME SLACK, EMILY. If she can look on the positive side, don’t you think she deserves some comfort?
Emily doesn’t entirely realise it yet, but she needs Janine too. She lambasts her for “dressing up the slaughterhouse” but what Janine is doing is restoring some dignity, some hope and some happiness. Show Janine is a bit of a bless, to be honest. When she sees Kit collapse, she instantly wants to change her wish. And you know what? She makes it happen.
When I talked about the Colonies before, back in the episode 2 recap, I talked about how there were some freedoms to be found here. It seems like a strange thing to say in a place that is basically a death camp. But there is some religious freedom, and even a chance for a desperately moving wedding for Fiona and Kit. And it was Janine’s idea. Gay women in Gilead are forced to have sex with men; they are mutilated; they are executed. But in the Colonies, we have a gay wedding. A quiet one, admittedly, and one that wouldn’t be legally binding, but it is emotionally binding. It means something. We saw Gilead-approved weddings at the Prayvaganza; they were cold, generic and impersonal. This one, in contrast, is sweet, affectionate and both parties know what they are getting into. They see each other clearly. They want to be together. The young girls in Gilead are married off purely to procreate Under His Eye and provide life for the state; Kit and Fiona are creating some happiness and solace for themselves before they die. Gileadean hets have it terribly wrong in so many ways, but the gays in the Colonies seem to get it right.
Emily is furious, warning Janine that even though it seems like there’s nothing more that can go wrong for the Unwomen, there’s always worse. It’s hard to see the positives when your teeth are falling out.
Emily: “This place is hell. Covering it in flowers doesn’t change anything.”
Janine: “Kit’s going to die happy.”
Not so naïve, after all — Janine doesn’t think she can start the revolution and save everyone, but she can try to make the world a slightly less awful place before the end. And the two perspectives seem to rub off on each other. After Kit dies, (sigh, this show isn’t immune to the ‘bury your gays’ trope) Janine helps the burial team; she has faced the reality of death. Emily brings flowers; she has learned that although flowers can’t fix everything, sometimes a gesture, a symbol, is worth everything. At the funeral, Janine holds Fiona’s hand. Another gesture, another symbol. Solidarity, compassion, love.
Janine is the sort of friend who would end up in all sorts of trouble. She would click on links in phishing scams; she would get in unlicensed cabs; she would believe the guy on the phone who tells her there’s something wrong with her computer; she would be a total liability on nights out. But she would hold your hand when you were sad. She would use her only wish to bring a little light to the darkness. Poor crazy Janine might just be my new favourite character, and now I want to write some fan fiction where she escapes from the Colonies with Emily, they run off to Canada to find Emily’s wife and son, they make friends with Moira and all live in a big house together where Janine can paint pictures, light candles, get tipsy and dance around, while Moira and Emily roll their eyes affectionately but defend her with gusto if anyone is ever mean to her. Luke would definitely call her ‘little sis’, right?
And with that, I’m pretty sure I’ve sealed her fate, and that she’s doomed. Damn it. SORRY!
But the big thread that runs through the episode is Offred’s pregnancy. Is her baby a seed in peril? The bleeding starts small, but it doesn’t stop; there’s more and more each time we see it. And all the while, Offred is silent. I spent a long time trying to figure out what was happening with Offred’s silence. Is it denial? Is she just pretending it’s not happening? If she is a True Believer, she would be desperate to save the child, right? So does that mean staying silent is a form of rebellion? Is she almost willing this miscarriage to prevent Serena from getting what she wants? Or is she just terrified to ask for help in case she is punished? We know from episode 1 that the pregnancy was the only thing protecting her from harm, so it could be self-preservation. Or is she terrified that Hannah will face the consequences? This was the reason that made most sense to me in the end, as both June and Serena made it explicitly clear to each other that the fates of the stolen child and the unborn child would be the same. But surely, in this case also, Offred would want to seek medical attention straight away. So has she just lost her mind? Is she so disconnected from her body that she isn’t understanding the warning signs of the blood? Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments…
It’s also not entirely clear how Offred got from her windowsill to the garden. The placement suggests she fell out of the window, but the window doesn’t open, so that’s not it. Did she just take herself out into the garden to die? Or was she looking for Nick? Either way, Nick manages to dodge his wedding night duties with the creepily earnest and clearly underage Mrs. Blaine, in order to save Offred — or the baby, it’s not fully clear. Hopefully both. SORT OF A POINT FOR NICK! Huzzah!
As she wakes in the hospital, Serena’s relief is palpable. Perhaps she realizes that she went too far. Perhaps she feels guilty. Perhaps she is just pleased that her baby incubator is still apparently functional. Perhaps that’s a question for another day. She rushes off to tell the doctor that Offred is awake. But it’s not really Offred who wakes up; it’s June. She’s back. This latest crisis has rebooted her; it wasn’t a miscarriage, more of a Control-Alt-Delete. Maybe hearing the baby’s heartbeat appeals to a more primal instinct in her. No more comforting retreats into Offred. June isn’t going anywhere.
“Listen to me, OK? 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.”
THANK GOD, INDEED. If last week wiped the slate clean, this week might just show the start of a new determination in June. She has a purpose, a reason to go on, and a name again. Unless, of course, Serena sneaked back into the room while June was under the covers talking to Bump, in which case, she’s utterly screwed…
Aunt Lydia is allowed to write down notes AND READ THEM! Scandal! The rules don’t matter when there are babies to prepare for!
“So….that happened.” Rita is also becoming a favourite. She might have been wary of helping out with the letters, but she is looking out for Offred/June and trying to bond. She’ll have to be careful; if Serena doubts her loyalties, there will be trouble.
Fred’s been working on a new Rachel and Leah Center, and it’s HUGE. There’s a big state visit coming. There’s a lot resting on Fred’s shoulders; he’s a Very Important Person right now. Know what that means? Scrutiny. Bring it on.
The presence of a Rabbi among the women reminds us how Gilead deals with those from other religions. In the Historical Notes, we learn that Book Gilead expelled Jews, promising to transport them to Israel, though the Professor notes that many of the passengers being transported were simply killed at sea. It’s one of those little throwaway moments in the Historical Notes that strikes the heart. Did Show Gilead just send Jews to the Colonies?
My goodness, there were a lot of graves in the Colonies. As far as the eye could see. I guess the chances of Offred’s mother still being around somewhere are pretty slim, right?
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