The Handmaid’s Tale Creates a Hothouse Atmosphere in “First Blood”

(Episode 2.06)

TV Reviews The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale Creates a Hothouse Atmosphere in “First Blood”

I was wondering when I was going to get to sing it: There is a bomb in Gilead.

There. Thank you for not clicking on an ad while I got that out of my system.

So: The eternal mud-wrestling match between Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) would appear, at first, to be ended, or at least suspended, or at least different. Serena might literally be trying to kill Offred with kindness; it’s hard to say for sure. But she certainly isn’t leaving her side. It’s not just kooky stuff like letting Offred see the ultrasound of “their” fetus, though that was definitely not something Serena had to do. (The OB-GYN seems surprised that the “uneducated” Mrs. Waterford can read the ultrasound herself, noting that the hemorrhage was not a miscarriage but a “subchorionic hematoma,” and even knows how to treat one—them’s pretty big words for a lady, even if we’re talking about lady-parts! Oh, the untested depths of these Divine Vessels! Who even knew?) When Serena asks Offred if she’d like to see the baby on the monitor, there’s a very enigmatic look on her face. It’s hard to tell if she’s fighting the impulse to be cruel, or fighting an impulse to be kind. Here, Offred, in your delicate condition, you can’t go up and down stairs, please sleep in my sitting room while I make annoying sounds with my knitting needles and stare at you. Maybe I’m worried about your health. Maybe I’m just making real damn sure Nick (Max Minghella) can’t be alone with you.

Maybe it’s not even that. Maybe part of her actually wants to be close to Offred, or at least to the experience. There’s a very startling moment of what appears to be genuine feeling here: Serena makes the absolute biggest display of vulnerability we’ve seen, asking Offred what it’s like to have “life inside her” (yes, I am pretty sure you are supposed to hear two meanings there) and Offred invites her to feel the baby moving. “It’s a miracle,” Serena whispers.

“Yes,” Offred says simply. “It is.”

And Serena is swept back into a memory of getting booed and hissed off a college campus for trying to speak as an early initiator of the ultraconservative movement that would ultimately result in Gilead. Seeing her in pants, trying to shout over the crowd of shrieking undergrads, is a shocking reminder that Serena used to be a person and that Gilead used to be Boston, home to the densest population of colleges and universities in the United States. (“She has a right to speak,” Fred Waterford screams at the security guard escorting his wife from campus. “This is America!” Heh.)

Here, Offred, let’s have your Handmaidenly besties over for brunch, aren’t we having a simply delightful time? Why isn’t anyone talking? I mean, except for you, Ofglen II (Tattiawna Jones), since your tongue was removed and all, it’s perfectly understandable you’d be a little taciturn (and have trouble appreciating the quiche). Here, Offred, let’s be buddies, I mean we are in this having a baby thing together! Come and see the nursery! Do you think the wallpaper is too much? I really want you to like it!

Offred’s convinced enough of Serena’s goodwill to ask to see Hannah. Oops.

As Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) points out to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), “The dynamics between a Wife and a pregnant Handmaid are always challenging, but if you’ll forgive me for saying it, you have been blessed with a particularly willful pair.”

Waterford’s overseeing the construction of the new Rachel and Leah center, which is about to host a huge delegation of officials from other districts. He and Offred have a strange encounter in the kitchen, where she seems to be half challenging him and half flirting with him. Finally she decides whatever she’s doing isn’t working, and leaves with an airy “under His Eye,” to which Fred Waterford utters a deep-throated and decidedly ironic-sounding “Yeeeessss.” One could be forgiven for hearing a very specific double-entendre in that too, as if he knows there is an Eye in his house and that Offred has indeed been under it.

Meanwhile, Nick’s having trouble with his child-bride, Eden (Sydney Sweeney). He isn’t the statutory rape kind of guy, I guess, and the fact that he was forcibly wed to a complete stranger who appears to be both faintly brainwashed and barely past puberty is not giving him a lot of warm fuzzies. You’d think that would be OK with Eden at this point, but she’s apparently eager to do “what God expects” of her, which is of course to be boned by the chauffeur as many times as it takes to successfully get knocked up. Once Eden confides to Offred that her inability to attract her husband with her feminine wiles has led her to conclude that he’s queer and the authorities must be informed, Offred confronts Nick and demands that he consummate his marriage. It’s interesting. She seems more attached to Nick than you’d think given that she’s been given reason to believe Luke is alive, but of course, that’s one body she really doesn’t want to see hanging from the Wall. He does. He also asks to be reassigned.

“First Blood” isn’t as literally blood-dominated as the previous episode, but of course it alludes to Eden’s deflowering, as well as the start of the war for Gilead and the blood soaking through Serena’s white pants (she appears to have been shot through some pelvic organs that might have been key players in her being able to bear children) and Ofglen’s terrifying final bow as a suicide bomber. Even the accidental snip Serena gives herself with her garden shears when she accidentally almost says she’d thought she and Offred could be… was she going to say friends?

But the blood’s figurative, largely. Here, the master image is the hothouse, whose glass walls shelter Serena’s seedlings (you get the metaphor, right?) and also provide her with a place to cut them down, but which also represent privilege (women not educated at the School of Hard Knocks are sometimes still referred to as “hothouse flowers”) and transparency (um, because you can see through them) and being trapped and constantly observed (echoing everything from the ultrasound in the first scene to the strange moment where Serena asks what it feels like to be pregnant and they share a bizarre bonding moment, to Nick being scrutinized by Eden for signs of potential Gender Treachery-an Eye for an Eye, anyone?). Potted plants in a greenhouse are safe from the elements and incubated, not unlike a baby in a womb. They are also distinctly and specifically tamed, shaped, and contained by their gardener. The glass panes that make up the greenhouse echo the many shots of windows and the downward-angled glances through the facets of crystal light fixtures in the Waterford house. The lingering shot of a wall of windows in the college lecture hall where Serena gets screamed out of the building and shot. The light slanting through the windows of the nursery and the room Offred’s sent back to for having the gall to ask for a glimpse of her daughter. It also has a hideous funhouse mirror reflection in the modernist-looking glass-walled Rachel and Leah center.

You know what they say about people who live in glass houses.

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.

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