Wednesday, July 4, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - The Waterford House Is Shocked Once More by a Tragedy in 'Postpartum'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 2.12 "Postpartum"

Offred is sent to a familiar place. Emily is assigned to a mysterious new house.

Despite everything that has happened across the entire series, June always finds herself being returned to the Waterford home. There have been so many threats to her in that house while there also being so many opportunities for her to escape. This has fundamentally been a season about the search for freedom and the pain that trauma can inflict on a person even after they are safe and loved. "Postpartum" also highlights that despite all of the things that June does in order to escape this household and the Waterfords no longer wanting her there out of fear that she'll ruin their family further she remains in that environment. She is still a tool that is important and necessary there. Meanwhile, it also delves into the many tragic circumstances of Emily and Eden as they make countless mistakes and are then immediately punished with significant changes to their lives. They have been ripped away from their homes and expected to start over in a strange and new environment a couple of times already. June lashes out at this world as well. She's the one preaching a message of hope that escape is possible. And yet, she also has stability in the Waterford house. Of course, it's still a traumatic and abusive environment. This time it seems like Commander Waterford only welcomes her back into his home because he wants to have sex with her again. He and Serena Joy had their big fight last week while they were desperately searching for June. He needs clarity on where she was hiding in that house before he can move forward with his abusive seduction of trying to get her to submit to him once more. That's absolutely terrifying and makes it so that the audience can still want June to escape from this place as soon as possible. But it also highlights a pattern for the show. One that could become predictable if it's not uprooted soon. This hour shows that true horrors still permeate throughout Gilead with even some of its strongest believers being horrified by what the law commands of them. That could foster change in this place. And yet, there is also the feeling that the show just wanted to craft a big death while heading into its season finale.

At the start of "Postpartum," June is seen as nothing more than a machine. She's an object being used to deliver breast milk to the Waterford household. Aunt Lydia is trying to lift her spirits by marveling at how strong and brave she was to give birth all by herself in that abandoned house. She wants her to know that she is already a popular handmaid being requested by many of the Commanders and their families. That's a striking detail to include here as well. Offred continues to be upheld as a prop that showcases the best of this society. She had the opportunity to run. And yet, she felt the call to service to deliver this baby and ensure it got to the family that deserved her the most. She was fulfilling her duty. As such, that's a respected narrative that makes her very desirable to so many households. It sets the clock for how much longer she can be in the same place with Commander Waterford and Serena Joy. They said that they didn't want her around the house anymore after the baby was delivered. This hour begins with Aunt Lydia upholding that promise. However, it's also clear that this separation is having a significant impact on the production of milk for June. She's in agony right now because her daughter was stolen from her. Much like Janine, she is depressed because her daughter has been ripped away and given a new name. Serena Joy wants her baby to be known as Nicole. It's a name that has no personal significance for June though. When she was in that abandoned house with her baby after failing to escape, she bonded with her as Holly. It meant so much to her to name her daughter after her mother. She got the strength to fight and resist from her. And now, so much of her identity is reduced down to her being the source of milk for this child.

And so, the show does have to contort itself in order to reasonably explain why June is once again serving as the handmaid for the Waterfords. They aren't going through the ceremonies anymore. Some time has passed so that June has healed after going into labor. But it's all to make it convenient for the transition of having this baby in the house. Serena Joy is doing her best to be a mother. She has wanted this for so long. And now, it has finally happened for her. She is joyous by this new addition to her life. And yet, the baby also serves as a constant reminder that she's not her own biological child. She wants this to be her daughter. She is making that connection and trying to keep the dysfunction of the house away from her. But even in the most personal moments, Serena Joy struggles to actually feel wanted and loved by this child. She desperately wants to be the one who is breastfeeding her. That's such a striking moment because it shows that Serena Joy wanted to go through this entire experience herself. She wants to be the body that gives her daughter life. Instead, she is relying on June to pump as much milk as she possibly can. In the early going, she's not filling much up at all. It takes actually seeing her daughter again to open her up. She returns to the household because everyone agrees that it's a smart idea that is in the best interest of the baby. Again, Commander Waterford agrees to it mostly because he wants June in his life again. He demands answers from her especially because she has tried to run away from him multiple times now. But this familiar environment once again highlights how people who live in the same house can be so far removed from each other's lives as well. Serena Joy doesn't want June to have any contact with the baby whatsoever. And so, it's devastating when June is just listening to her daughter cry through the bathroom floor.

Elsewhere, tragedy strikes Gilead after Eden and Isaac try to run off together because they are in love. It's a jarring development that has happened suddenly. The show got so much rich and nauseating tension out of Nick being married off and having to have sex with this underage girl. Eden believes in the traditions and faith of Gilead. She was frustrated with the lack of reaction Nick had after seeing her kissing Isaac. But now, she comes to the decision to run away because she's following the advice from June about needing to find love wherever one can get it in this world. It's the personal kind of advice for June because she has had to find messages of hope and peace from just the smallest details in this world. She has been oppressed and tortured in so many agonizing ways. She needs those brief moments of release in order to keep her sanity and the hope that she'll one day escape. Of course, she's still failed to do so despite multiple attempts. And now, Eden and Isaac are quickly captured as well. It further showcases that there are problems in the Waterford household. They probably shouldn't be upheld as the standard of what families should aspire to be in Gilead. And yet, the show always needs to keep Commander Waterford in a position of power as well because he grants so much access to what the leadership of Gilead is currently thinking. He is baffled by why a woman would run away from a life with so many opportunities in it. He doesn't understand why Eden would throw it all away after everything that he gave her. He wants to just label her as a slut who is ungrateful for everything she received from Gilead. And yet, Serena Joy and June understand just how pious Eden is. She was agonizing over this decision to run away with the man she loved. But she also has no regrets for doing so. This is the relationship that she wants to be in. This is the connection that could actually flourish into something meaningful. She doesn't want to apologize for that especially since Nick is in love with another woman. Her refusal to do so though means both she and Isaac are killed. That's such a destructive and visceral moment because it shows that the rulers of Gilead really have no empathy or willingness to see the nuance of the situation even when the person at the center of the scandal is one of the most pious people in the country. Serena Joy knew that Eden was pure of heart. And so seeing her die is the exact thing that causes enough of a breakdown to allow June into her daughter's life once more.

Eden was killed because she had also proven herself unworthy in this world. When she got married, it was with the intention of getting pregnant and thus showing that she's the epitome of what a woman should be. That's all that Gilead expects from woman. They are the incubators for new life who have to stay at home and cherish those young minds. Because Eden failed in getting pregnant, the system of Gilead was quick to kill her. Meanwhile, Emily is given several chances despite her being noncompliant on multiple occasions. She has value because she has gotten pregnant in the past and delivered a healthy baby. She was already sent away to the Colonies once. She has a new lease on life according to Aunt Lydia. And yet, the world at large mostly doesn't want to give her any more opportunities. Aunt Lydia struggles to find a new placement for her after her previous one died from a heart attack. Emily gladly stomped on his privates as vengeance for the raping. And now, she is given such a strange and peculiar posting. Aunt Lydia states that Commander Lawrence is a brilliant and important man who designed the economy of Gilead. However, Emily rightfully questions why someone like that would request her as a handmaid. Moreover, the audience should question why such an important commander to Gilead has never been seen before. Commander Lawrence has never been seen socializing with the other commanders or formulating strategies for how to move forward. This story highlights how he is the man responsible for the creation of the Colonies. That revelation was enough to drive his wife insane. She doesn't obey the rules of Gilead. She wants to know the handmaids and help them run away. But it's also clear that she doesn't have any power in this house. Commander Lawrence values discretion in this world. He expects it from his handmaid. And yet, it's so absolutely terrifying for Emily in that moment because her new commander knows absolutely everything about her entire life and she is still just scrambling to understand what's actually going on in this house. It's a story introduced fairly late in the season which means it's bound to build to a quick climax in the finale. But it also produces some truly great moments of acting from Alexis Bledel and Bradley Whitford.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Postpartum" was written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Daina Reid.
  • Who brings a baby to an execution? That just seems like such a horrible parenting decision. Sure, Serena Joy probably wasn't expecting Eden to be killed in such a public way. She probably thought that Eden would renounce her sins and be welcomed back into their home especially since June keeps coming back. But her execution was always on the table as well. Sure, this society expects the wives to always be caring for their babies. If not, they are being neglectful. Serena Joy wanted to be here for Eden. But it's not a place for a baby whatsoever.
  • Emily can't quite make sense of Commander Lawrence just yet. He's a man who is labeled as brilliant and the architect of so much destruction in this world. But he also seems to be yearning for the good ole days. That possibly explains why he hasn't been seen so far. He wants to go back to the rules where any woman caught reading would lose an entire hand and not just a finger. But he also doesn't punish Emily at all. Plus, his Martha is very cavalier around him as well.
  • Of course, Aunt Lydia has a strange reaction to Commander Lawrence's house as well. Emily presumably isn't the first handmaid who has been assigned to this house. As such, Aunt Lydia must have some kind of relationship with the family to feel comfortable delivering a handmaid to them. They have to be deemed worthy in some way. And yet, she is also mystified by the artwork on the walls and Mrs. Lawrence not appearing at all. It's slightly odd.
  • It also feels like Eden's death is more about the reactions from the other characters instead of it being a devastating twist to an important character for the season. It mostly just means Nick is cold and distant afterwards because he blames himself for what happened. He pushed Eden away because he wasn't the vision of a husband she always expected for her life. He couldn't commit to her like that. As such, she fell in love quickly with Isaac and didn't want to change her mind no matter what.
  • There absolutely is tenderness in that final scene between June and Serena Joy. It's one woman handing over her baby to her biological mother in order to save all of them. Serena Joy is struggling because she can't seem to calm this child or be the mother she needs right now. Meanwhile, June has that touch simply because they spent so much time together already. It just took Eden dying for Serena Joy to loosen her grip a little bit. And yet, will it become tightened once more in the finale? It really could go either way.