In a world where not even your body is yours, it’s the small victories that count, as we learn in “Birth Day,” the second episode in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
This is a comparatively quiet episode. There aren’t any big Moments, or anything shocking. What we do have a the tiny rebellions that start movements. Offred and Ofglen finally “meet” and get to know more about each other, forming a forbidden friendship that doesn’t revolve around their uteri. With this trust comes an “Us and Them” mentality, as Ofglen tells Offred that there is a network of people resisting and asks for information on Commander Waterford. Offred waits just a second to re-cover her knee when Nick the driver is looking. These little stands are what keeps the human spirit moving, even if no one else knows about them.
“Birth Day” is about exactly what you think it’s about. Bat-shit crazy, one-eyed Janine is in labor and all of the handmaids are sent in a Birth Mobile (I shit you not) to attend her. Upon arriving at Janine’s post, Offred looks in on the “mother” group of barren women performing the most ludicrous farce of birth. It’s sad and ridiculous to hear the “mother” saying “it hurts” and doing breathing exercises as if there is any connection to the true work being done down the hall. Even Serena Joy seems to acknowledge in her face that this is ridiculous. That doesn’t stop her or the other women from treating “the little whores” like dogs, offering Offred a treat for being so well behaved. I love the little smile Offred gives herself in the mirror after spitting out the macaroon in the bathroom. It’s a small amount of agency, yes, but in this case, she gets to control what goes in her body.
The birthing scene is shown with intermittent flashbacks to when Hannah was born, and the only baby to be born healthy in the whole hospital. The maternity ward’s silence is eerie, until Offred wakes up to the sheer hell of her baby missing and the alarms sound. Hannah is recovered from the woman who lost her mind to grief over the death of her own baby, but between this scene and the people shown praying outside the hospital, it’s clear the infertility wasn’t a quick happening. With only a 20% chance of having a healthy baby carried to term, the panic is understandable.
With all the other action going on, Offred tells Ofglen that the Commander asked (through Nick) to see her privately, and Ofglen offers to make quiet inquiries as to what he might want. Once Janine is ready to push, they call in the “mother” and Janine is put in a chair between her legs as she mimics the act of bringing life into the world. Once a healthy baby girl is born, the “mother” climbs into bed and is given the child, named Angela, while Offred and the other handmaids comfort Janine. This whole ritual reinforces that the handmaids are not considered people at all. The are nothing but wombs, and it’s heartbreaking to see Janine realize that the life she brought into the world will not be hers. When both of my children were babies, and crying or nursing, much like what happens later with Janine, I used to sing Three Little Birds to them
It was the soundtrack of midnight feedings and diaper changes. So it breaks my heart to see Janine singing it to her baby as she nurses her. Handmaids are not only wombs, but also wet nurses to their own children, making this whole thing even more cruel as the bond grows deeper (kudos to Madeline Brewer for her performance this episode).
Back at the Waterfords, Offred goes to the forbidden office of The Commander, where he thanks her for coming as if she had some kind of say in the matter. The whole episode is full of dark little moments like this. Of course she wouldn’t disobey his request, and the two of them sit and talk, before he asks her to play a game of Scrabble. It is the most tense and creepiest fucking game of Scrabble I have seen, given a fine point when The Commander asks if Offred can “squeeze him in” her schedule for another game when he returns from DC. The pressure only releases once Offred is back in her room, where she can finally laugh. She has a little (very little) power in this moment. She let The Commander win, and found some new information to pass to Ofglen at the same time.
It’s with new purpose, and the somewhat startling music cue of “Don’t You Forget About Me” that Offred goes to meet Ofglen the next morning. She wonders if Nick, who is always watching her (but who knows if it’s as an Eye or just with a longing gaze for “before”) knows about her illicit meeting and thinks Ofglen will be proud of her for letting him win. The whole episode is filled with tiny wins and moments of rebellion, inch by inch, and so it’s with some shock to us and Offred that when her companion turns around, we see not Ofglen but someone else entirely. The music screeches to a stop, and it’s back to the mundane topics of the weather. When Offred asks whether Ofglen was assigned to a new post, all of our skins crawl and chests hurt when her companion replies “I am Ofglen.”
FUCK is right.
What do you think of “Birth Day?” Do you think it’s better than the pilot? I loved the first episode, but there was so much going on, with character intros and world building, that the quiet terror was overshadowed by the “OH MY GOD WHAT” of it all.
Sidenote: The exasperation on Serena Joy’s face alongside the bored voice over of Offred wishing the Commander would just finish already was priceless. Serena Joy I think knows how fucked up this whole situation is (she’s old enough to remember the before and young enough to not have the mentality so ingrained in her), and her reactions make me pity and hate her all the more.