Mother Knows Best: The Handmaid’s Tale, “Postpartum”

Patience. Service. Sacrifice. These are the qualities that Serena Joy claims have blessed them with their baby, after losing their Handmaid several times over and failing to have the birth according to Gilead’s standards and structures. But we know the Waterfords to be quite impatient, and their idea of sacrifice always requires a figurative lamb in place of themselves. Just like they rename someone else’s child, they cover up the messy details with a perfectly posed family portrait. The Wife gets the baby, while the Handmaid struggles with being postpartum.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×12 “Postpartum”

Last season, we witnessed Janine’s difficulties after Angela’s birth, wrapped up in her delusional affair with Commander Warren and her belief that the three of them would run away together. June is more clear-eyed about her fate, having accepted that she’ll pump milk from a Red Center while snacking on bran muffins brought in by other couples courting her like she’s some virgin bride, except completely the opposite of that. It’s not that she wants to be separate from baby Holly, but she knows that Serena will never let her near that child again.

Except when Fred decides that the Handmaid is not producing enough milk, and ambushes her with a surprise visit, next to a baptismal font, no less. Fred steps to the side like he’s revealing a hostage tied up, and Offred’s breasts begin producing milk, just like that. It’s such a disturbing moment—not the biological action, but the way that Fred treats it like he’s turning on a car that won’t start. He needs something to happen, he does whatever is required.

The Handmaid's Tale 212 Postpartum television review Eden Isaac death

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

“She looks just like her father.” Aunt Lydia is SAVAGE, and I refuse to believe that she doesn’t at least have a clue about Holly’s parentage. At any rate, she is able to negotiate bringing Offred back long enough to nurse Holly, now Nicole, until she can do without her.

So, Offred is back in the Waterfords’ home; did we really expect things to go any other way? Trying to keep her from the baby was a cruel move on Serena’s part, not just to the Handmaid but also to poor Nicole, yearning for a breast to suckle on that will actually produce milk. Though, oof, that scene with Serena trying to give Nicole at least the sensation of breastfeeding was so sad, especially when she starts apologizing for it not being what the baby needs.

Yet, being Serena, she won’t let Offred make direct contact with the baby, instead pumping in her room as Rita ferries the precious milk back and forth, bringing what little support she can to the isolated Handmaid on the return trips.

The Handmaid's Tale 212 Postpartum television review Eden Isaac death

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Meanwhile, Emily is hard up for a new posting; there are no baskets of bran muffins to woo her. Lydia brings her to a mysterious new household belonging to Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford). Although Emily sasses about who would want such a broken Handmaid, she gets her answer when she steps into The Haunting: a dark house filled with bizarre paintings and shadowy people who flit around and seem to know about some hidden horror that she doesn’t. Lawrence doesn’t quite have a madwoman in the attic, but close enough: His Wife emerges from her room to give an oddly tender hello (at least, compared to Emily’s past experience), but then is dragged, kicking and screaming by her husband, away.

Because Lawrence was one of the original architects of Gilead, who actually said things like “You know what we should do with the Unwomen? Have them dig up irradiated earth. Awesome.” He knows an awful lot about Emily, down to her missing son and her cliterectomy, yet it’s unclear if this knowledge is meant to break her down or put them on more even footing, as they have a frank conversation over beers during a dinner at which his Wife is not present. This is a house of contradictions, but it’s unclear if this is a man who doesn’t quite jibe with Gileadean society or one who practices even crueler takes on the typical dystopian horrors.

The Handmaid's Tale 212 Postpartum television review Eden Isaac death

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Yet even with these developments, the Handmaids are not the focus of this week’s episode. That goes to Eden Blaine née Spencer, who seems unthreatened by the fact that Nicole’s true parents are together under the same roof. Instead, she asks a bewildered June questions about God’s intentions: “He’d want a child to be raised by parents who really love each other, wouldn’t He?” Not understanding, June tries to subtly tell the young Wife that she won’t interfere with her marriage, and that “I think, in this place, you grab love wherever you can find it.”

Oh, June, no. It’s not her fault—she was busy giving birth while Eden was smooching Guardian Isaac, and doesn’t know what subtext was lining the young girl’s question. But her blessing of sorts inspires the young lovers to try to escape Gilead. Whereas June and Nick will joke about bringing Holly to Hawaii, they know how risky it is; Eden and Isaac don’t think that far, and instead just make a break for it.

They get dragged back almost immediately, of course. And while Eden has the chance to beg for forgiveness, the way she did after Nick saw her kissing Isaac, this time she doesn’t want to. She’s trying to reconcile the teachings she was raised with, with the reality of a forced marriage to a man who’s clearly in love with someone else. “All I wanted was to make a real family,” she tells Nick. “Isn’t that what Gilead wants of its servants?” It mirrors Serena’s justification for signing those executive orders in Fred’s absence, claiming that a child’s well being was the greatest responsibility in Gilead, only for Fred to counter that it was actually obeying one’s husband.

The Handmaid's Tale 212 Postpartum television review Eden Isaac death

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

So, it’s not surprising that Gilead makes an example of Eden and Isaac. Their death at first seemed too performative, and I’m truly surprised that they would waste a potentially viable uterus. But it would appear that the greater “gain” of drowning someone’s daughter, and someone’s son, in a swimming pool is to ensure that no other families allow their children to indulge in such whimsy.

Then again, the dozens of weights littering the bottom of the swimming pool imply that this lesson hasn’t yet taken hold.

The Handmaid's Tale 212 Postpartum television review Eden Isaac death

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Serena starts the episode by parroting empty platitudes about service and patience, but she ends byquoting Isaiah. Eden’s death seems to hit her hardest—perhaps both as a Wife who has herself seen the less-than-shiny truth of Gilead’s reality, and as a new mother worrying that it could be her daughter up on that diving board someday. She also allows Offred to come in and nurse Holly; she’s able to watch it with a small smile instead of jealous rage, because she knows it’s the best thing for her (their) daughter. “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away,” Serena says under the guise of quoting the Lord, “and the prey of the terrible will be delivered, for I will contend with he who contends with you. And I will save your children.”

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Scraps

  • I was racking my brain to figure out what meaning Nicole could have, as I could see Serena having picked out the name back when she was packing that chest of baby clothes. It is Greek and means “victory of the people” (lololol), then it finally occurred to me: NICOLE. NICK. Seems too nice of Serena for it to be intentional, but still.
  • Eden reciting the “love is patient, love is kind” Bible verse that Fred read the night of their wedding, oof.
  • I so wanted Commander Lawrence to be a secret rebel, with his eclectic paintings and freely-speaking Martha, but nooope. That house is still a fucking horror show, though. Not exactly sure where this plot is going.
  • How did I never notice that Handmaids carry red suitcases? Gilead really has its branding down.
  • Season finale next week! How do you think things will shake out after Eden’s death, and what will be Emily’s fate in her creepy new household? Will we go back to Canada?

Natalie Zutter feels kinda bad for hating on Eden so much this season. Theorize about the finale with her on Twitter!

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.