Dandelions, or Taraxacum officinale, spread their seeds after they flower. Once the bright yellow florets have dried and fallen away, a “parachute ball” opens up, covering the head of the flower in puffy white parachutes. The seeds mature, and when they do, the tiny white parachutes fly away on the wind, ready to land and create a new dandelion, another bright patch of yellow on the landscape.
They are also considered weeds.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in “Seeds,” we see what spreads and what sprouts. This episode, which I didn’t even really notice goes without flashbacks until sitting down to write about it, divides its time fairly neatly between The Colonies with Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Emily (Alexis Bledel), and Gilead’s house of horrors, where June (Elisabeth Moss) seems to be silently having a miscarriage as Nick (Max Minghella) gets a child bride. Much of what happens isn’t sudden, but something that’s grown gradually, perhaps beneath the surface. One piece of it is lovely. The rest is nightmarish.
Let’s start with the loveliness, because lovely it is. It seems impossible that this episode, credited to Kira Snyder, could find a moment of beauty in the colonies, but it does. With it comes one of the show’s best, and best-delivered, pieces of dialogue to date.
EMILY: Gilead took your eye. They took my clit. Now we’re cows being worked to death, and you’re dressing up the slaughterhouse for them! That’s the fucking problem!
JANINE: Cows don’t get married.
Cows don’t get married. In its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale did a lot of hand-holding, telling its audience what to feel and when to feel it. To be fair, that still happens a bit, if only through the sheer tonnage of misery and its accompanying customary ominous drone. But a less thoughtfully written episode might wring its hands a bit, reminding us that Emily also had a wedding once; it might have shown us Kit losing a tooth before Emily loses one, too. Instead, we get a nearly perfect, desperately sad little snapshot of a day-and-change in the Colonies, Janine’s presence the only thing making it different from any other day. But it’s a huge difference.
Cows don’t get married. Forget “nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” cows don’t get married should be the thesis statement that defines this show. “They do not own you,” a somewhat recovered June says to her baby in the episode’s closing moments, “and they do not own what you will become.” Emily moves around her camp at the Colonies like a very tired, sometimes avenging angel, offering relief when she can and trying to keep everyone alive one egg-for-bed-duty at a time. Bledel continues to do great work this season, and any concerns I had that she’d be great at the big, horrific stuff but not the quiet moments have well and truly evaporated. For me, her final “It was a beautiful wedding” is the emotional thunderclap of the episode, and Bledel gives it all the heft it deserves—sincerity, apology, regret, longing, fear, gratitude. It’s quite a performance, and that it’s so simple makes it all the better.
Madeline Brewer has one very specific thing in common with Bledel, aside from being very good at her job: She’s a perfect fit for the stark, gray color palette director Mike Barker uses in the Colonies. As such, your eyes leap to her, to that red, red hair and her big eyes—well, eye—which allows her, like Bledel, to play things very simply in a landscape that might swallow other such subtle performances right up. Brewer’s big accomplishment here is finding a way to marry Janine’s innocence and unsteadiness to something more grounded; you can see the passage of time whenever she’s got something matter-of-fact to say. The Janine of “The Bridge” could never have said “We come here, we work, and we die” in such plain tones (even when she does finally latch onto the truth in “The Bridge,” it emerges as a howl, almost involuntarily.)
It’s to Snyder’s credit that the show doesn’t demean Janine’s unshakeable faith that God is watching out for her, but nor does it agree. It’s just what she’s got, and for all her foolishness, in spite of every “Aunt Lydia says,” it takes Janine to remind Emily, and the rest of the Unwomen, that cows don’t get married. What sprouts here is beauty and gentleness, and that it grows in such a horrible place—and with the help of one of the show’s most tortured characters—makes it all the more remarkable. Cows don’t get married. Damn.
The brilliant thing about that line, those four perfect words, is that they viciously slice through the big fiction at the heart of the Gilead storyline this week. The Commander and his fellow upper-crust assholes would have us believe that cows do get married, but Janine (and Flora and Kit and their rabbi) are conveniently here to show us a real marriage. What Nick and the other Guardians participate in is a horror.
The Gilead story this week is absolutely compelling, not least because of the excellent performances from Yvonne Strahovski and Elisabeth Moss, but I have to admit that the reveal of these young girls flipped some sort of off-switch for me. From a plot and character standpoint, it’s a smart, upsetting choice, making it impossible to separate Nick from the system he’s helping to run, whether he wants to or not, and offering another visual representation of how complicit these people, and the wives in particular, are in a system that treats women like breeding mares and nothing more. But something about the casual way in which it’s approached put me off. Another day, another horror might be the reality, but this feels like a moment designed to shock before we quickly move on.
Still, it’s an effective sequence. Mike Barker’s choice to leak the muted palette of the Colonies over to Gilead ensures that only three colors really pop: the red of the Handmaids’ dresses and June’s blood, the turquoise of the wives’ uniforms, and the white of those dresses (and June’s undergarments). So in that horrific “Prayvaganza” (“Not one of the Commander’s better efforts”), your eyes go to them immediately, and it’s impossible to forget what’s happening beneath June’s conveniently-colored gown.
And that’s the real brilliance of “Seeds.” Serena (Strahovski) and the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) are so busy punishing the members of their household and stroking their own wounds that they’re willfully blind to June’s obvious and considerable distress; they can’t hear the absence of voiceover, as we can, but they can both see the problem. As Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), a monster who is also in this case correct, reminds Serena, there’s a lot more to creating a healthy environment for a pregnancy than measuring the physical health of the breeding stock. So when June sees blood, she tells no one. When she takes one of her mandated baths and it fills with blood, she tells no one. When she takes off her gown and sees so much blood, she starts to tell someone, then stops and sits. Then she limps off to die in the rain.
I’m not suggesting that there’s a way this household could be a healthy place for June, but what grows under Serena Joy’s roof is so poisonous, so toxic, that Nick’s warning that June needs help goes unheard, that Rita doesn’t mention seeing June sway on her feet, and that Serena Joy makes no effort to find out what’s actually going on. More importantly, there’s no universe in which it would make sense for June to tell someone she needs to go to the hospital. Who would she tell, and what would it cost her? This is, after all, her fault.
If there’s one truly off-note in “Seeds,” it’s Joseph Fiennes. His Commander is almost comically villainous here, right down to the “Psalms?” I’m not saying he needs to be sympathetic, but Strahovski, Dowd, and the writers have made Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia compelling, layered and deeply villainous characters. The same can’t be said of the Commander. If The Handmaid’s Tale wants me to be interested in him, it’s going to have to work harder than this.
- I am too tired to make this happen now, but I’d love to see a count on the exact number of instances in which “Mrs. Waterford” gets uttered here.
- This is absolutely the most interested I have ever been in Nick. Not saying he’s suddenly wildly compelling, but making him a more direct perpetrator, however unwillingly, is a fascinating choice.
- Any idea why some of the wives have lighter dresses than the others? Is it financial? Because they “have” children? Naomi has one, and she’s both more well-to-do and in possession of Angela.
- How hard do you think it was for Bruce Miller and company to resist calling this one “Two Weddings and a Funeral”?
- Either Mike Barker really loves hands, or he’s trying to say something about how often we can give away what we’re feeling by fiddling with our fingers. (He might just really love hands.)
- Musical corner: Anyone know that last song? It sounded familiar but I couldn’t exactly Google “ethereal piano and choir.”
- I now spend every scene in the Colonies searching the frame for Cherry Jones.
- For the Leftovers fans: