After last week’s crisis of faith, The Handmaid’s Tale engineers an emotional reset with a more low-key, worldbuilding-centric episode. That is not to say that it lets up on any of the dystopian horror, because that would be too gentle. But while June retreats into Offred, other female characters from both sides of Gilead’s hierarchy get to move the needle on their respective storylines. And what better way to look into women’s minds and hearts than with a double wedding??
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×05 “Seeds”
Am I the only one who shouted “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU BITCH” when Offred started burning the other Handmaids’ letters? I fear that I am not sympathetic enough to her emotional breakdown from last week, probably because it reads more like the Hollywood version of a break from reality: the blank eyes, the bland Stepford voice, the complete lack of irony attached to phrases like “I’m not supposed to have these.” It feels too much like a performance, is my problem. What I took more seriously was the complete detachment with which Offred regarded the bloodstains that have begun appearing in her undergarments and in the toilet. Something is not right with the baby, but as long as she doesn’t tell anyone, it doesn’t become real; because the moment that Aunt Lydia gets a whiff of something wrong, June is done for, because of course they’ll assume she’s sabotaging the pregnancy.
Speaking of Aunt Lydia, she is far overstaying her welcome in the Waterfords’ household… and dare I say, I feel some sympathy for Serena Joy? Lydia presides over the pregnant Offred, taking notes with a pencil—”a special dispensation for Aunts,” she explains faux-apologetically, “really a burden more than anything.” Serena Joy can’t write, can’t read, can’t feel the baby kick—her interactions with this pregnancy are limited, and each one must be fought for.
Like how she tries to make conversation both with Offred, gossiping at the park about the other Wives’ unfortunate-looking babies, or with Fred, giving updates on the fetus over breakfast, and in both cases it’s like pulling teeth. Offred can’t muster up enough energy beyond a “Yes, Mrs. Waterford” or “No, Mrs. Waterford,” and Fred is too busy thinking about the Canadian border or the new Rachel and Leah Center being built. It isn’t until Serena Joy makes a pointed comment about Offred’s womb that Fred is finally needled enough to notice her… and then to consider what Nick’s presence in his house means.
This episode is all about small shifts in various dynamics, prodded along by events that explore new corners of Gilead. Case in point, the Prayvaganza (loved Serena Joy scoffing at the name).
In the book, the Prayvaganza is yet another horror of Gilead, observed rather numbly alongside the Birth Days and Particicutions as a perversion of something once beautiful, once beneficial to society. Because Offred does not know any of the participants, its sole purpose is to shock—with the impersonality of a mass wedding, where it doesn’t matter who is behind the veil because the point is to pair up fertile bodies to repopulate Gilead; with the gasp-inducing moment when the veils are lifted and teenage faces gaze back at their husbands, the grim reality that Gilead is indoctrinating its youngest early. As Offred realizes, soon there won’t be any young women who remember life before Gilead.
By layering in the personal dimension of it being Nick’s wedding, the Prayvaganza takes on new horror. It’s a convenient tactic to get Nick out of the way—dreamed up by Fred, who is clearly threatened by seeing the man who impregnated his Handmaid walking around his household like he’s not responsible for Fred and Serena Joy’s little miracle. But the true cruelty comes from Serena Joy; while Fred knew that Offred and Nick had fucked, Serena knew that they had fallen in love. So, when she says to Offred, “He looks very handsome, doesn’t he?”, she’s trying to crack the facade. If gossip or girl time won’t get through to her near-catatonic Handmaid, perhaps this will.
And it does, but Offred won’t give Serena Joy the pleasure of watching her make a scene. Instead, she lets Nick go with a blink.
Except that it’s not so easy to let him go, considering that his wife Eden is coming to live at the Waterfords’. I don’t know why I thought that Gilead might have newlywed housing ready for its Guardians and their brides; or maybe it does, but not for those who were added to the wedding party at the very last minute. At any rate, Offred must suffer the further indignity of Nick reading the requisite “love is patient, love is blind” wedding Bible verse at the nightly prayer and then be summarily dismissed so the husbands and Wives can have the most awkward wedding-night double date.
It was surprising and rather audacious that Serena Joy made sure to impart to Eden that sex doesn’t have to be just for conception, but that the woman could take some pleasure out of it, too. Poor Eden doesn’t seem to get it:
“But lust is a sin.”
“Not between husband and wife. It can bring you closer together. It should, anyway.”
Compare that to Fred’s advice to Nick:
“A good woman will lift you up. You’ll see. To good women.”
Let me clarify that even these flickers of sympathy for Serena Joy do nothing to detract from her part in creating Gilead, from the kind of woman she represents—one who would subjugate other women to ensure a place at the top. However, it’s clear that this arc of the season is focusing more on Gilead’s architects, as next week’s episode covers more of her backstory.
Of course, Offred is a little distracted from this post-wedding celebration by the increasing amount of blood trickling out of her. Losing Nick seems to have sharpened her focus on the state of her womb. Having avoided the doctor, she has absolutely no idea if this is normal or her one chance for life slowly bleeding out of her. Which leads me to one of the episode’s big questions: Did she stumble into the garden, or fall, or jump? It seems too far for the latter, and yet she looks pretty bloodied and broken by the time Nick comes across her. Perhaps she stepped outside instead of falling out her window, but at any rate, she seemed intent on winding up in the rain, at the mercy of the elements. If she had already lost the baby, this would be a better death than execution.
Nick was supposed to have one bloodied bride, but instead he got another. And while the Prayvaganza is the publicly celebrated wedding, the true celebration of love and commitment happens under the radar, away from Gilead’s center, in the Colonies.
Newcomer Janine seems in denial about her situation, not unlike Marisa Tomei’s unfortunate Wife from the beginning of the season: She believes that God holds her in the palm of His hand, to which an exasperated Emily has an excellent response of “He couldn’t hold you in the palm of His hand somewhere else? Like Bora Bora?” When Janine still doesn’t get it, and is literally trying to pick dandelions out of irradiated ground, Emily snaps: “We come here, we work, we die.”
All of which is true, but there are still small moments in between those actions for camaraderie, for love, for a rabbi to lead the other Unwomen in morning prayer and preside over a deathbed wedding for lovers Fiona and Kit before the latter succumbs to her injuries. The wedding is Janine’s idea, a tiny moment of joy and hopefulness, like making a wish on the dandelion—but it rattles Emily, who covers up her fear with anger:
“This place is hell. Covering it up in flowers doesn’t change anything.”
“So what? We come here, we work, we die. Kit’s going to die happy, so what’s the problem?”
“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 is the fucking problem.”
No doubt some of her fear comes from the fact that she has just lost a tooth, and is inching closer to Kit’s state than Janine’s. By the episode’s end, Emily has given up some of her anger, able to muster up tenderness for Fiona and Kit’s brief happiness. But what will motivate her to get out of the Colonies? It wasn’t revenge-poisoning the Wife. It isn’t this wedding, which ends with Fiona having to dig her wife’s grave like any other day in the Colonies. I do believe that Emily will get the other women out of the Colonies, but at the moment it’s unclear how.
Back in the Gilead city center, back in a hospital, June emerges. Miraculously, her baby is all right; and the close call seems to have given her new resolve to escape:
“Hey, listen to me, OK? I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They—they do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us out of here. I promise you. I promise.”
June is determined that her unborn child will not become like Eden. But what about Hannah, who is in more pressing fear of being owned by Gilead? Still, baby steps.
- Interesting how the Unwomen’s outfits in the Colonies seem to be a cross between the pale green of the Marthas and the gray of the Econopeople. I wonder if they’re clothed in castoffs from either or both populations, or if it’s actually its own style of dress.
- It looked like Nick palmed his ring during the ceremony (would that technically invalidate it?), but he’s wearing it by the episode’s end.
- I don’t know if this Vanity Fair interview with Sydney Sweeney is hinting at a larger role for Eden or what, but this take will likely come in handy for next week’s episode: “I hope that they see that she is just a little girl. She’s still trying to figure out the world, and she doesn’t know what love is. She thinks she knows everything, like most teenagers do—and you fully realize that she doesn’t… I hope that people feel for Eden. Even with the choices that she makes, I hope that people will feel for her.”
- I do wonder if the key to rebellion will be the Wives deciding to revolt and joining up with the Handmaids. Otherwise, I’m not sure how, barring an attack from Canada, Gilead will be overthrown.
Natalie Zutter is so glad that Nick salvaged most of those letters and is even more convinced they have to play a part in the end of the season. Talk dystopian wedding ceremonies with her on Twitter!