“You leave your body.”
When my first child was born, things went seriously sideways. It was the kind of birth where, had we been out on a farm somewhere, she would have asphyxiated, and I would have bled to death. This used to happen all the time, but in modern medicine we have “interventions.” And sometimes they don’t work. A Pitocin drip will not help labor progress if the baby is twisted around like a nine-pound pretzel in a position that inherently prevents delivery.
Ritual rape is also, as it turns out, unreliable in its outcome. So when Offred (Elisabeth Moss) embarrasses Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) by seeming to be in labor for just long enough to stage the big birthing party, Serena’s a little… let down. I mean, there she is in her fake givin’ birth gown, with all the Wives in the neighborhood praying over her and doing Lamaze breathing while a harpist plays angelic obbligati in the corner and the men all gather in the ever-so-masculine portion of the house and smoke cigars, and the labor… stops? It freaking stops? I don’t think so. “You might consider timing the contractions next time,” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) says with an insufferable passive-aggressive little smirk. I mean, at least Aunt Lydia doesn’t suffer the fuckery of Wives any more graciously than that of rebellious Handmaids. That’s something.
Guess what: There are chemical compounds in semen that have an observable effect on cervical softening and the onset of labor. It’s a “natural” induction method. Natural, as in not intravenous Pitocin. At the Waterfords’ house, there are generally speaking zero circumstances in which semen makes an appearance that is remotely natural. And Offred’s protesting this time. Begging even.
Begging her. “Serena. Please. Stop.” Because despite what the casual glance might suggest, Offred knows who is actually raping her.
See, nothing good comes to being in society without a potential for terrible abuse, and nothing monstrous comes into being without the kernel of a good idea in it. The crazy thing about the Gilead birthing ceremony? If not for the unbelievably sketchy pantomime version by the sterile Wives, this would be a much kinder and more supportive way to handle childbirth than what contemporary American women are generally put through. It’s warm. It’s communal. The Handmaids all gather together and do what they can to help; the proxy-mother is surrounded by other women who understand what this feels like, what it means. There’s a home environment, a soft bed, non-harsh lighting. No one is left alone for hours in a freezing room hooked up to machines. No one is handled like something on a butcher shop counter or put in restraints. From personal experience, I will note there is something to be said for that. Considering the brutality that gives rise to it, giving birth in Gilead is not going to be the worst thing that happens to you there. It’s actually got elements we’d be better off if we had. Yeah, I just said that. Seriously. The ceremonial purity and communality of that scene are—they are sweet. It’s hard to separate them from their context, but if you have ever given birth in an American hospital I defy you to say in all honesty that there aren’t some advantages to what is going on in that scene.
It’s just that we cannot separate what is going on in that scene from its context.
Long story short: This episode is about violation. Physical violation (there are two rape scenes), sure, but also violation of codes, of rules, of mores. At the end-game stage of the pregnancy the gloves are seriously off. Fuses that were lit all over the other episodes are buzzing rapidly toward powder kegs. The balance of control between Nick (Max Minghella) and mealy-mouthed Eden (Sydney Sweeney) shifts again. The eternal power struggle between Serena, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Offred oscillates almost constantly. In the opening scene, we see Emily (Alexis Bledel) enduring a “ceremony,” upon completion of which her Commander promptly dies of a heart attack. Emily stomps him in the groin on her way out of the room. Later, Offred basically does the same thing to Fred Waterford when he waxes imperious at her request to be reassigned to her daughter’s district, letting him know who has the real power by reminding him that the baby isn’t his. And the mother (pun intended) of all battles for control ensues in the strangest place: An empty house where Offred is brought face to face with her stolen daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake, and OMG excruciating).
The Handmaid’s Tale walks an odd little tightrope on the subject of order and control. There are things about Gilead that don’t actually suck, if you have consented to them. A kind of relief from infinite complexity and baffling decision-trees, for example. Ironclad protection for pregnant women, whether they got there by choice or not. There are things about Gilead that epically suck regardless of whether you consented, were violated and stripped of your power and control, or whether you indeed made the laws under which you are now suffering. Freedom and bondage are a Janus, the kind of rhetorical opposites that aren’t exactly opposite and only really exist in relation to each other. The Gnostics would, I believe, have called this a syzygy. Carl Jung would almost certainly have used that word. Conjoined opposites; without one you can’t have, or can’t perceive, the other. (Oh, P.S., you also need both to conceive a baby.) “Ceremony” is a hideous word for what is done to Handmaids, but it’s worth something, ceremony is. We use ceremonies to mark important rites of passage and significant dates: A birthday party is a ceremony. So is a wedding. A funeral. A Mass. A bar mitzvah. A Christening. My daughter’s teacher sounded a note on a Tibetan singing bowl when it was time to pack up; even that is a ceremony. To be “unceremonious” is to ride roughshod on manners and customs and niceties. On the other hand, a certain dismissiveness of ceremony as mindless and pointless (or covering up an atrocity in the name of tradition, for that matter) has been around for a long time, too. We’ve used the word “ceremony” to connote a brainless formality since at least the 16th century. I expect that partly has to do with how ceremony is connected to hierarchy. Generally, someone presides over a social ceremony and that person has the control. Until they don’t.
In service to this idea of balancing (and unbalancing) power and agency, look for the interesting use of focal point in this episode. If this has been a common directorial move in this season, it went over my head until this episode, where it suddenly… well, blasts into focus. There is an ongoing use of a static focal point in a given scene, so that one character is blurred and another is sharp, or someone walks across a room and either fades into an Impressionist blur or wheels into sharp relief. (Pay attention to the scene where Eden confronts Nick about “liking the Handmaid,” or when Offred starts to walk out of Waterford’s study, changes her mind, and walks back to the desk for one last devastating line. It’s pretty rife.) Occasionally, when we’re in Offred’s POV, even the sound does it, distorting to a muffled blur. It’s an interesting echo and very, very Atwood.
There’s a mofo of a cliffhanger ending to this episode, and I can’t tell yet who has been set up by whom, though it definitely looks like Fred Waterford figured out a way to have the last word. (“You deserve this,” whispered to Offred as he hands his Driver a scrawled address, is as ominous as it gets.)
All I know? At a certain point, there is no time to stand on ceremony.
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.