The Handmaid’s Tale Highlights Gilead’s Brittle, Pitiful Men in “Postpartum”

(Episode 2.12)

TV Reviews The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale Highlights Gilead’s Brittle, Pitiful Men in “Postpartum”

Something occurred to me, watching Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), radiantly blissed out, bathing and feeding her newborn: How freaking awesome would it be if we all got someone else to give birth for us? Seriously! Imagine you have been hit by a truck. Now imagine you are sent home from ER with broken bones, sutures, torn-up stuff in places you don’t even want to think about. You’re exhausted beyond reckoning, in a hormonal tailspin, bleeding, haven’t slept for at least a couple of days and realistically more like a couple of weeks, your breasts become so inflamed it’s literally nauseating, and someone hands you a tiny human that will die without basically 24/7 eyes-open attention. Oh, by the way, in case no one told you, breastfeeding hurts like a mofo. And the kid has a circadian cycle of three hours. OK: Go. Parent! Wheeee!

Of course Serena’s happy! Dude! Cut to Offred (Elisabeth Moss) hooked up to a breast pump in the Red Center being grilled by Aunt Lydia (the amazing Ann Dowd) about “down there,” just in case you’re not clear on why Serena’s life is an idyllic wonderland. Of course, women separated from their biological infants do stop lactating. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it doesn’t. So there’s already a fly in that ointment. No problem, we’ll just torment Offred by letting her within smelling distance of the baby to provoke milk production—a phenomenon ironically known as “letdown.” Which leads to a big-league letdown for Serena, because Aunt Lydia won’t drop it: Offred needs to go back to the Waterford house to keep the boobies workin’.

Serena has chosen an interesting name for the baby Offred privately named Holly, after her mother. Serena calls the baby “Nicole.” Giving dear old Fred (Joseph Fiennes) a day-in, day-out reminder that the baby is indeed named after one of her progenitors—his proxy-cuckolding Driver. “She looks just like her father!” Aunt Lydia simpers, as both Fred and Nick (Max Mighella) experience extreme awkwardness.

And Emily (Alexis Bledel) is being delivered to a “brilliant and important” new Commander, an economist and an “architect of Gilead.” (“I’m wondering why such a brilliant and important man would take in such a shitty Handmaid,” she says. We are also wondering that, as a Martha with a gouged eye lets them in and promptly starts swearing a blue streak because she tripped over something in the hall. Depth perception problems can befall the unrighteous in this neck of the woods.) The Lawrence household is… strange. There’s a lot of art on the walls. And there are a lot of books. And the Commander (Bradley Whitford) seems a hell of a lot like he moved to Gilead from… Twin Peaks? “We’re good here!” he tells Aunt Lydia, booting her immediately out the door.

Speaking of cuckolding, Eden (Sydney Sweeney) has come to the slightly unexpected (and strangely logical) conclusion that a benevolent God would rather children be conceived between people who love each other. And she and Isaac are both MIA. Fred just can’t catch a break lately. I mean, his wife is a harridan, his Handmaid runs away twice (not to mention her predecessor having hanged herself), his Driver’s wife has now run off for… love? What the Gilead?

P.S. the sound of a relentlessly screaming baby is designed to freak the shit out of human adults (see above re: will die if not constantly attended to). “Nicole” is having a meltdown to rival Fred’s, and you know Serena knows what will probably fix it, but she isn’t likely to give in. You almost, almost feel sorry for her when she tries to get the baby to latch onto her breast. Hey, Serena: Welcome to Actual Motherhood! That feeling? That you will let them down no matter how hard you try? That’s the real deal whether you physically birthed the kid or not. Blissful, ain’t it?

Fred wants to know what it was like seeing Hannah again. He wants to know if he doesn’t deserve more than a perfunctory “thank you.” (Offred sardonically suggests Scrabble.) Things are well and truly creepy at Casa Commander Lawrence. His wife sneaks in to tell Emily that he was the one who designed the Colonies. She’s a little “Janine-y” over it, and he finds her and both tries to comfort her and locks her into her bedroom. Then he and Emily have quite the chat.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes really puts the pedal to the proverbial metal on “Gilead Masculinity.” Fred Waterford clearly wants approbation, wants connection (intellectual and physical), wants… love, probably. Just not as much as he wants control. Because women scare him. Joseph Lawrence clearly has mixed feelings about what he has done. He flouts the rules behind closed doors. He is a raging cynic about the system, he takes in “stray” servants seemingly at least partially in atonement, and he probably misses the days when his wife didn’t scream “You’re a monster” at him all the time. But he doesn’t want it enough to give up control. Because women frighten him. Both of these men are scary because they can, empirically speaking, end the lives of any of the women around them. But they are brittle, and pitiful. And they know it. That’s what really makes them dangerous.

Offred and Emily are both traumatized, both scared. But Offred’s mastering Gilead in certain ways. Emily is being eaten alive.

As for Eden, she’s found quickly enough. Here’s the thing: Gilead finds Eden, but it’s too late, because Eden has already found herself. The mousy fifteen-year-old girl has more balls than any man in the District. Nick tries to talk her into saving her own life and all she does is turn her lamblike eyes on him and forgive him, and ask him to forgive her for not wanting to have his baby after all. She calmly recites Corinthians until the moment they drown her and Isaac side-by-side in a public swimming pool with the whole town watching.

Sometimes martyrdom is nothing but pointless. Once in a while, someone so completely shocks the world with a calm renunciation of ego that it actually makes something change, if not as deeply or as permanently as one might hope. Now “it’s all about the children” Gilead has officially murdered two children. And now it’s clear that no one is safe. Not Wives, not Commanders. No one can realistically be secure after this. They’ve simply gone too far. They’ve even gone too far for Serena.

Adultery: The word comes from the Latin alter, as do the words “adulterate,” altercation,” “alternative,” and “altruism.” Alter means what it means in modern English: “To make otherwise,” or in the transitive form, simply “to change.” And in all seriousness, God help the change-makers, and the other-wise. Because other people seldom will.

But Serena does ask Offred to nurse Nicole.

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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