The expansion outside of Gilead continues, as Handmaid’s Tale regulars Mike Barker and Kira Snyder—who directed and wrote “Seeds,” respectively—take us to the Colonies for a lengthy (read: distressing) visit with Emily and Janine. While the two of them debate about the best way to endure what’s effectively a death sentence, June/Offred’s alternately defeated and wry voice-overs have come to a temporary halt back in the Waterford home. There’s also a rescue, a rally, and one of the most fucked-up mass weddings ever. And with that, welcome to another Handmaid’s Tale Roundtable.
Danette Chavez: We could probably devote this entire discussion to child brides and Janine’s surviving-a-death-camp tips, but what I’m most struck by is the many ways in which characters are put in their place. Everyone from Serena Joy to Offred to even Commander Waterford is reminded of their place in all… this. Some positions are more mutable than others—take the early scene with Aunt Lydia, Offred, and Serena Joy. Offred is meek following her capture, but though Aunt Lydia is shown kneeling at times to get this or that measurement, she’s eager to assert herself in front of the Waterfords. When she lectures Serena about smoking and proper prenatal care, she makes sure she’s standing above her. Then, to rub a little salt in the wound, Aunt Lydia waves the book of measurements or whatever in front of Serena’s face one last time before bailing on the invitation to tea.
These are subtle reminders of how limited Serena’s agency is, though she’s obviously still much better off than most women. Once again, she takes her frustrations out on Offred, sniping at her to make more conversation, then hovering around new “couple”—shudder—Nick and Eden. I doubt Serena knows the extent of Nick and Offred’s relationship, but she seems aware that something is going on. The way they’re positioned during the wedding scene is telling; Offred is forced to watch over Serena’s shoulder as Nick marries a teenager. Before her reassuring speech to her baby, Offred appears to have learned her place, giving perfunctory answers to questions while not questioning any of Aunt Lydia’s orders.
This week, the men’s roles are also more clearly defined, though in the Commander’s case, he’s now on shaky ground. There’s also the necessary if unsettling reminder that, as a Guardian, Nick doesn’t have a whole lot of autonomy either. And now he’s more complicit than ever.
Laura Adamczyk: Indeed, everyone’s rights in Gilead are limited, even Commander Waterford’s, who has some of the most power among the characters we see. It’s worth noting, too, how much it’s frowned upon to question the status quo or mildly break the rules, even for those higher in the hierarchy (the reaction when Waterford suggests promoting Nick, Aunt Lydia reprimanding Serena Joy for smoking). Under a totalitarian government, everyone polices everyone else.
Throughout this episode—which, despite featuring a double funeral and Emily losing a tooth out in the Colonies, felt tame compared with the gruesome violence of the season’s first two episodes—I found myself wondering about happy endings. In the book (which concludes where the first season ended), it’s suggested that the black van full of men who take June away is a group of May Day rebels disguised as Eyes, meaning that she possibly escapes Gilead at the end. With season two moving past the book’s plot, it’s hard to say how hopeful we should expect what comes next to be. With even more dystopian cruelty and violence on display this season, will the showrunners feel the need to “reward” viewers with a happy finale—either at the season’s or the series’ eventual end?
Through the book’s much debated ending, we know that far in the future, the Gilead regime is overthrown and dismantled. But what about what happens to June and Moira and Emily and Luke and Nick before that? I don’t think viewers are owed happy endings, perhaps only true ones, however that may be defined by the work that’s come before. But it’s a strange feeling to think that a miscarriage would be the best thing to happen to a character like June, without also wanting to believe that she will escape her awful circumstances.
What do you think, Caity? How much despair and hope is the right balance for a show like Handmaid’s?
Caity PenzeyMoog: This show is difficult to watch for a number of reasons, but seeing June lose herself in Offred and lose her will to fight back showed a hopelessness that’s almost unbearable to behold. So long as June is June—so long as she’s resisting the regime, be it in an escape or only in her own mind—there’s a shred of hope that she can make it out of Gilead intact. Elisabeth Moss’ deadened eyes this episode were almost worse to see than her unsuccessful bid for Canada the episode before. When June first sees that she’s bleeding, I thought her way of rebelling was to keep this one thing within her control by not sharing it, but “Seeds” slowly, horribly reveals that she doesn’t tell anyone because she wants to die.
So to answer your question, Laura, there has to be at least a little spark of hope in The Handmaid’s Tale, and June gets it back after waking up in the hospital room, her fetus apparently still with a beating heart. It would seem that June was trying to ignore her first trimester, and now that she didn’t die, she’s accepted both her pregnancy and her need to fight back with a new resolve to get out. And it makes sense that a failed escape attempt would be bleakly disheartening—to think you’re out of a horrible situation, then find yourself right back where you started—but June is still June, regardless of what the Waterfords call her and Aunt Lydia’s attempt to “bring her to heel.”
I think a happy ending is still possible for June, though with Hulu renewing the show for a third season, I’m guessing that any good outcome is a long way off. Perhaps all those episodes will allow the show’s writers to imagine just how the regime of Gilead was overthrown, something Margaret Atwood makes clear did happen, without explaining how. June could escape the misery of being a Handmaid at the Waterfords but remain in Gilead, and season three could be all about the underground resistance. Having set up the horrifying oppressive reign of Gilead, what could be more satisfying than watching it crumble?