So, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is experiencing a little moment, and depending on your interpretation you might call it a “dissociative episode” or a “guilt spiral” or a “bottoming out” or a “revelation.” She has realized she is in truly deep shit, in ways she wasn’t even connecting with before, and she has realized that trying to fight the system has cost not only her, but a multitude of other people, freedom, sanity, body parts, marriages, lives. At the end of Season One she was starting to see her red cloak and white wings as a military uniform. Now, she’s experimenting with the idea that her anonymity, sameness, facelessness, is her only hope. She even starts burning the packet of letters she’s been hiding behind the bathtub, as if by destroying them she can somehow escape the whole idea that there is someone else she used to be. Luckily, Nick (Max Minghella) finds her and stops her. “I’m worried about the Handmaid,” he says to Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). “Her mental state.”
“The Handmaid is not your concern,” she says, a little too firmly given that they both know exactly why he’s concerned.
This episode has plenty to say about Offred, but just as “Other Women” was about Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), “Seeds” both is and is not about the protagonist. A lot is going on in this episode, much of it an investigation of power hierarchies in Gilead and in the Waterford home in particular. As Aunt Lydia examines Offred and asks her questions, Serena oscillates between answering for her about when “their” last bowel movement was and staring thirstily and confusedly at the pencil with which Lydia is making notes. The lady of the house is finding that vicious imperiousness is not giving her the pole position with anyone. Offred is “The Lord’s Chosen Vessel” and carries the currency of fertility, possibly the scarcest and most coveted commodity in Gilead. Lydia has not been denied the ability to read and write, and though she makes a Serena-soothing moue about it being “a burden more than anything,” they both know it’s not: That pencil is all but throwing sparks. The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) is awfully busy with work, and getting his attention takes a reference to Nick’s position in the household to force her husband’s eyes away from his laptop. Commander Waterford knows his wife probably wasn’t lying when she said Offred’s baby wasn’t his, and he presumably knows who actually impregnated her. You’d have to be pretty damned blind not to.
The fascinating thing is that now that Offred has become docile and silent, it turns out that Serena can’t deal with that, either. “Yes, Mrs. Waterford, no, Mrs. Waterford: What is the matter with you?” she asks after repeated failures to engage Offred in gossipy chitchat on a walk. One could almost be forgiven for thinking Serena’s frightened by the change in her previously bright, defiant and rather household-threatening Handmaid. Now, why would she be afraid?
Everyone can see that there is something wrong with Offred; she’s practically catatonic. What they don’t know is that she’s losing a disconcerting amount of blood. A smear. A spreading stain. A bathtub full of scarlet-tinged water. If you’ve had a miscarriage, you’ve experienced the uniquely helpless hormone-tailspin a non-viable pregnancy leaves in its wake. If you’re six weeks pregnant it’s messy and emotional. If you’re far enough along to be showing, it’s a terrifying shit-show. Offred’s looking at what I believe in medical circles would be known as “a crap-ton” of fresh, red, oxygenated blood. It can’t be good. Yet she does nothing, says nothing. It’s hard to tell if she’s scared, or sad, or numb, or something else. She has pretty much, at least for now, lost it.
But there’s something to be said for losing it. In some situations, a fugue state is practically a vacation. Back in the Colonies, Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) total give-in to loopiness seems to be providing her a measure of immunity from the misery. She’s like a wide-eyed child (one wide eye, anyway) with an ironclad belief that God is holding her, and Emily and everyone there “in the palm of His hand.” Emily (Alexis Bledel) is a little more focused on the bodies that are piling up, which is understandable. Janine notices a dandelion in the poisonous field and grabs a line that had been Offred’s in the book: “I like them. They’re happy for you no matter who you are, they don’t care.” She blows at the withered seedhead, making a wish on them, like a kid. (For those of you playing Imagery Bingo, please note that the dried samaras you blow off a dandelion are commonly known as “clocks.” Time flies!) The seeds disperse in the wind, and like most everyone in this poisonous landscape they have little hope of bearing fruit.
Nick is “issued a woman” in a mass-marriage ceremony. The “woman” is approximately 14 and Nick doesn’t want anything to do with her. You know who does? Serena. She’s kind and solicitous to the teen bride. (“Did your mother tell you what to expect? You know, it can feel wonderful, for you, as well as for him… It can bring you closer together. Should, anyway.”) It’s almost… well, it’s almost maternal and it’s almost sisterly and it’s almost human. And it’s almost as if Serena Waterford has more of an emotional landscape than you’d think at first. Nick has a celebratory drink with the Commander and trudges off wishing he were not expected to consummate a marriage. Luckily, he doesn’t have to. Unluckily, it’s because he finds Offred unconscious in the courtyard, in her underwear and covered in blood.
In the Colonies, there is also a wedding ceremony. Janine has orchestrated it; Emily finds she has a bit of a problem with it. But palsied Fiona and dying Kit are finding something in it, a moment of normalcy. By morning, Kit’s gone, and Emily’s rage at Janine has died. “It was a beautiful wedding,” she says. The scientist and the lunatic share an anguished glance before they go to bury the dead.
Offred, however, is alive. She wakes up in a white hospital room, and as Serena rushes out for the doctor, Offred becomes aware of a strange beeping sound. It’s a fetal monitor. The baby’s alive.
Good news, bad news: June’s got something to fight for again.
Losing it. A pregnancy. Your mind. Your life. The battle. The war. Sometimes it seems like the safer thing, like the last refuge. In an inhuman landscape, one’s humanity can be a serious liability, and a little time away from you can be a mercy. The Janines might inherit the Earth. I’m still trying to work that out.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.