As in all things, there are degrees of difficulty in television. It’s harder, for example, to stick the landing (Lost) than it is to create a perfect pilot (also Lost). Neither are remotely close to easy, but the to-do list is so much longer and the margin of error much smaller when you’re bringing something to an end.
It’s not as tough a proposition as a series finale, not by a long shot, but a second episode has a much higher degree of difficulty than a pilot. Gone, for the most part, are thrilling character introductions. Much of the world-building has been dispensed with, and there’s not the same need for a sexy hook designed to lure viewers who may have just been testing the waters. Instead, writers need to create the groundwork for much of what’s to follow without losing the momentum with which they exited the pilot. A few series have pulled off second episodes stronger than their very strong pilots—The Americans and Breaking Bad come to mind—and now The Handmaid’s Tale joins that group.
Perhaps that’s a surprising assertion. Certainly “Birth Day” doesn’t pack as many big scenes as its predecessor—there’s no particicution, no “her fault,” no race through the woods. Instead, the writers’ room packs the episode with tiny rebellions, each thrilling in small ways, and each offense somehow pulled off without consequences. It’s a slow growth of power and strength in the face of grotesque debasement that’s both exciting and a little warming, a gradual release of tension that feels like a breath of fresh air after the last episode’s non-stop nightmare. Offred’s got a friend, a little tiny piece of power, and absolutely no macaron crumbs on her mouth. Thank god, a chance to take a breath.
Then they take the hand that released us from that vice-grip and use it to deliver a savage blow. They knock that deep breath right out of us.
To be clear, “Birth Day” would be an exemplary piece of television even without that final “I am Ofglen” (though my god, what a note on which to end). It’s finely wrought from moment one, focusing both on the labor of “batshit crazy one-eyed Janine” and on the tiny pleasures Offred finds in this waking nightmare: remembering the smell of maple syrup (probably toxic) in her Craigslist car; spitting the macaron out of her “little whore” mouth and offering herself a slight smile in the mirror; touching a Scrabble tile; flashing her knee; talking about her real life, her old life, with a new friend; getting information she can use to help the “us” to which she suddenly belongs. They’re such small victories. Laced with horror, but victories nonetheless.
That they can be called such teaches us more about the world than any piece of exposition ever could. “This will become ordinary,” Aunt Lydia tells the handmaidens in episode one, and here, we see that become reality, just a little. The rape that was (and is) so horrifying and traumatic has become somehow tedious to both Offred and Serena Joy, so much so that the memory of that robin’s egg blue car and her daughter brings a smile to her face, even as the Commander is grunting away. Their enslavement remains a gross violation, and yet Offred finds the distance to joke, both in voice-over—“Justin, are you down there?”—and actually out loud, with the Commander. Then he jokes back, and it’s just not fucking funny anymore. Not until she’s back in her room, that is.
It’ll probably grow routine in time, but it has to be said again: Elisabeth Moss is doing remarkable work in this series. (Also excellent in “Birth Day:” Madeline Brewer as Janine.) It’s hard to say which is her finest moment: her trip to the empty hospital nursery, her realization that Ofglen has disappeared, or that collapse into giggles after history’s most deeply fucked-up game of Scrabble. In a way, it’s every bit as absurd as the wife’s pretended labor, every bit as much a piece of acting—“Thank you for coming,” the Commander says, as if she had a choice. Because there’s an “us” now, she gets information, and because she’s not an idiot, she lets him win. The ghoulishness of the day, her afternoon of fear, and the release of tension could only have led to that place, and yet it’s somehow utterly unexpected and completely natural.
It’s not flashy, that moment of giggling. It’s not epic. It’s completely and utterly human, a small moment of not-quite-joy in a sea of horror. It’s this perfect episode in miniature, and if this is what The Handmaid’s Tale does on a light day, then there’s no imagining the heights to come.
- Hey, commenters! You’ve been amazing so far. Just a tip for anyone talking about the events of the book: please use a spoiler tag (<spoiler>stuff from the book</spoiler>) so that people who are waiting to read it until after the show can have the full experience. I’ll also note anything I want to bring up about the book in this section, with a big bold header (and it’ll be spoiler-free).
- Quick note about the next episode: A lot of you have mentioned that this was borderline too difficult to watch. If you’re in that group and have any difficulty watching violence on screen, you may want to go into the next installment ready to hit pause and walk away for a moment. Don’t skip it, if you possibly can—it’s brutal, but vital—but don’t be a hero. Take care of yourself. (I needed a big minute afterward.)
- Surprisingly funny moment of the episode: Offred’s “I wish he’d fucking hurry up,” underlined by the exasperated look on Serena Joy’s face.
- Ofglen (and Alexis Bledel) have got the gallows humor down pat: “Trusting anyone is dangerous, especially a carpet-munching gender traitor.”
- Here’s an interview with costume designer Ane Crabtree (referenced in the comments yesterday). She specifically mentions the boots.
- Moss, yesterday: “I wanted to say ― and I’ll just say it right here, right now ― OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show.”
- The “Everything’s Fine, Nothing To See Here” Of The Day: “At Archbishop Ryan High School in Pennsylvania, all female students submit a photo wearing their prom dress, or bring it to school, for approval by a three-person committee.”
- Book stuff: I’m more and more appreciative of the casting of Serena Joy. That ridiculous “birth” scene had an added layer of complexity because Yvonne Strahovski makes it clear that Serena recognizes it as the ludicrous, offensive play-acting that it is, and as Offred’s near contemporary, her participation in the rape sequences is more horrifying. She’s old enough to know better and too young to have built up some sort of distance from the act.