Saturday, April 29, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - The Tension Escalates in a Birthing Ceremony and a Game of Scrabble in 'Birth Day'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 1.02 "Birth Day"

Offred and her fellow Handmaids assist with the delivery of Janine's baby, prompting Offred to recall her own daughter's birth. Offred draws closer to Ofglen while dreading a secret meeting with the Commander.

"Birth Day" is just as horrifying, chilling and depressing as the series premiere of The Handmaid's Tale was. But it also has a few more moments that allow June to breathe and rebel against this world. The series premiere was so striking in a number of well-executed ways. It painted a stark portrait of June's life as Offred, the Handmaid to Commander Waterford. This society is a waking nightmare for her. It's so oppressive and debilitating. Every move the characters make is very deliberate and well considered. It's a society where all these new rules are in place. It's already becoming normal and ordinary as well. It's a bleak worldview that shows the distance and divides amongst people even when they are in such close proximity to each other. But June found a genuine friend in Ofglen. She found someone she could talk to about her life from before and after the world changed. That friendship has given June new agency and purpose. She's acting out in small ways throughout this hour - showing more leg, spitting out a cookie, etc. They are little actions of rebellion. But the hour ends with a crushing reveal of just how brutal and devastating this world is still capable of being as well.

Of course, all of the flashbacks to June's previous life are important and chilling too. They show the world falling off of its axis. A simple trip to the hospital to give birth is no longer as simple or commonplace as it once was. This hour reveals that the world's infertility crisis extends far beyond less and less women being able to get pregnant. The entire nine months of pregnancy are an arduous journey that largely ends in tragedy. Only one out of five babies survive being born. Those are horrifying numbers. It's led to crowds of people gathering around hospitals praying for healthy babies. But it's much more devastating to watch once it becomes personal to June. She learns that she gave birth to the only healthy baby of the day. It's a grim and emotional sight. It's a devastating realization for her. But she also proves that she's willing to do anything for her daughter starting on that first day. She has to protect Hannah from a woman who refuses to accept the death of her newborn baby. That horrifying sequence shows just how easy it is for all of this to break people. June too could have gone crazy if Hannah had died during the delivery. Instead, she survived but is trapped in the world of Gilead.

Births are very important throughout this episode. Janine gives birth to her baby here as well. It shows the new birthing ceremony that has risen throughout Gilead. This is a place where doctors have been killed for bringing this crisis onto the world. So instead, it's all the handmaids yelling orders at Janine. It's an uncomfortable sight. It's not calm and peaceful. June is a voice of comfort amidst the chaos for Janine. It's an elaborate show to prove to God that they are worthy of a healthy baby being born. If they pray hard enough, then that is the outcome that will occur. And yet, it's silly as well because Janine is simply a surrogate for a commander and his wife. This is her baby. She has a deep and personal connection to it. But the moment her daughter is born, she is given over to the lady of the house. Everyone acts as if she just successfully gave birth. That's the importance of this ceremony. It's symbolic of how personal the relationship is between the handmaids and the couples of the house. But ultimately, the handmaids have no power and are easily cast aside afterwards. For them, it's simply a blessing that they rewarded another couple with a healthy baby.

It's fascinating to see Serena Joy throughout the birthing ceremony as well. On the page, there isn't a whole lot of depth to that character. But Yvonne Strahovski pulls some intrigue and mystery out of these circumstances to reveal some depths. She isn't the woman welcoming a baby into her house. But she is present to help with the birth and support the person who will be seen as the mother. Her disdain for June has been made clear throughout these opening two episodes. She doesn't like how her husband has to fuck her. And yet, she's not as casually dismissive of her and the other handmaids as the other wives are. She sees how silly all of this really is. But she's probably going along with all of it simply because it's the way the world works right now. It's horrifying and crazy but she's thankful that she has more power than the handmaids do. This world is oppressive to her too but in very different ways. She's just trying to maintain some normalcy and power throughout all of this.

The other main focus of this hour comes from an illicit meeting between June and her Commander. He invites her into his quarters late at night. Well, it's more of a demand than an invitation. It's a special room where no women are allowed. Not even Serena Joy can go in there. June's walking into a completely unknown world not knowing what to expect. She's been conditioned to fear what will happen next. She believes she's going to be punished for something - which she may not have even done. Instead, the Commander asks her to play a game of scrabble with him. That's a surprising moment that leads to the most intense game of scrabble ever. It's a very telling sequence. It reveals that the Commander is perfectly fine breaking the rules of this world. And yet, he's still a bad guy because he has all the power and is doing nothing to change anything about Gilead. He can get this new pleasure from June but that's all that he's using his power for at the moment. It proves that he's complicit even though he's not as bad as some of the other people in this world.

June's reaction to all of this once she gets back to her room is an incredibly humanizing moment as well. It's a burst of laughter and tears. It's her finally getting to release all of the tension she's been bottling up for so long. It all comes rushing out in this moment. It's a relief for her to know that this is all the Commander wanted. She can use that to build a stronger rapport with him as he wants this to become a regular game between them. This will allow her to gain crucial intelligence in the grand war of "us versus them." Ofglen gave her that purpose through her friendship and insight. June craves being able to share everything she has just learned about the Commander. That's what makes the final reveal such a knockout punch. When June leaves for her daily walk, Ofglen has been replaced by a new handmaid. A handmaid who carries the same name. That's a tease that shows just how dehumanizing this world and position really is. The handmaids can just be replaced and forgotten about in an instance. They are interchangeable and being ripped from any identity. Ofglen gave June new purpose. And now, she's adrift in the nightmare all alone once more. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Birth Day" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Reed Morano.
  • So, what happened to Ofglen? How did she get caught? She definitely seemed to be more bold with her actions here - especially during and after the birthing ceremony. Perhaps she wasn't as sneaky as she thought she was. And now, June is without an ally.
  • June and Ofglen both had careers in the former world that this new society doesn't look too kindly upon. And yet, they are both still alive right now because of their fertility. Once that's gone, they are both as good as dead.
  • It's equally as devastating to see Janine hold her baby for the first time when she has to breastfeed her. This world can't refuse to ignore that connection completely. But that's also the only time it's acknowledged that the child is Janine's and not the lady of the house's. Plus, this scene reveals that Janine previously had a son too.
  • In more details about the war outside Gilead, churches are being blown up everywhere, war is being fought in Chicago, the Commander is traveling to Washington, D.C. and the United States now only has two states - one of which is Alaska.
  • What exactly is going on with Nick? He's still just this other presence in the house who delivers messages to June from the Commander. However, he's caught looking at June as well. What's that all about?
  • Of course, Ofglen notes that the drivers of the commanders often also work as the Eyes. So, Nick may be the person Ofglen warned June about. However, Nick also tells June not to trust Ofglen. So, it continues to be be a world of mistrust and suspicion. Definitive answers should probably come soon though.
  • Even though she's largely known as Offred throughout this story, I prefer to call her June in these reviews because it serves as a reminder of the humanity she still has. She's not simply a handmaid like this world wants her to be.