*Spoiler warning for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, Episode 12.
Just when I thought The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t break my heart anymore than it already has, it comes out with an episode like this. Moral of the episode: Love conquers all – except death. Let’s discuss.
June was successfully “rescued” from the house in the woods, and is now hanging out in the Red Center pumping milk. Why is she there and not breast feeding her baby? Because Serena can’t stand to look at her. The problem is, without the baby around to stimulate the flow of milk, there’s becoming less and less of it. Serena knows the situation, but knowing that her baby is starving is not enough to change her mind. Aunt Lydia, pushed by June to step in, convinces the Commander to let June back into the house. However, Serena still won’t even let June in the same room as the baby, let alone breast feed her, and it’s not enough. The pain on Nick and June’s faces as they watch their baby from afar, and are unable to hold her is unbearable.
In a separate story line this episode, Emily is introduced to her new post, after the last guy died on her. The man she will be serving, Aunt Lydia tells her, is “considered the architect of Gilead’s economy.” From the moment she enters the house, we know something is different. The Martha who opens the door is missing an eye, and has no problem cursing as she trips over stuff in the house. Art covers the house, from nude paintings, to Catholic looking stained glass, marble busts, tapestries, books and rugs. It’s unusual decor for Gilead. The man who comes to greet Emily, Commander Lawrence, is just as strange as his house. He barely stutters out the Gilaedean greeting of “blessed be the fruit,” as if he’s forgotten it, abruptly kicks Aunt Lydia out of the house, and mysteriously says that his wife can’t come down due to illness. A minute later, he catches Emily looking at a book left open on the table, and accuses her of reading. He reminisces about when the penalty for reading was a hand, instead of just a finger. “The good old days,” he calls it.
Back in the Waterford house, June and Eden have a heart to heart about whether it’s possible to have the whole package of a husband who loves you, and a baby all living together. The next morning, June and Nick fantasize about running away to Hawaii with their daughter. It’s all a horrible drum roll to this episode’s swan dive. Immediately after they finish their conversation, they get new information that makes them realize that Eden and Isaac, the guardian stationed at their house who was making out with Eden a couple of episodes ago, have run off together. Next thing you know, the Commander has organized the entire police force to look for them. What follows is the horrible answer to how June and Nick’s fantasy would play out – they wouldn’t get far.
That night, while everyone’s out looking for Eden and Isaac, the Commander corners June in the kitchen. He wonders why Eden would run away, which turns into a question of why June ran away. June’s on thin ice here, trying to give him an answer. He’s an abuser, who can’t even see that what he’s doing is abuse. He then immediately proceeds to ask June to “thank him” for letting her see Hannah. June answers by saying that they could play scrabble sometime if he really wants. It seems scrabble is all he’s going to get from her, for now.
Meanwhile, in Emily’s new home, Lawrence’s wife, Eleanor, finds her in her new room. Hysterical, she confesses to Emily that it was Lawrence who came up with the idea of the colonies. The guilt of it is clearly making her go mad. “I said, real people are digging up that dirt,” she tells Emily in tears. “And it’s poison. It’s poison.” At the moment Lawrence comes and finds her, and takes her back to her room. She calls him a monster, and sobs. And indeed, after everything she just told us, he is a monster. But then how do we square that with tender way he treats his wife as she starts to break down?
Following this frightening encounter, he invites Emily down for a drink, where they proceed to have a startlingly frank conversation. Emily is still afraid of what she should and shouldn’t say, but his questions, and his own musings, invite frankness. So, do we fear this man? Is being placed in this new house a blessing or a curse? For now, I’ll settle for intrigued. (It doesn’t help that he’s played by Bradley Whitford, who I can’t help but remember from his days as Josh on West Wing, so I want to like him.)
Time for the episode’s grand finale: Eden and Isaac have been captured. In a heart-wrenching scene, Nick pleads with Eden to say whatever is she needs to say to save herself. He apologizes for being such a shitty husband, and promises to give her whatever she wants in the the future. As she’s led into the next room, we see the horror Gilead has in store for her. She and Isaac stand side by side on a diving board above a swimming pool, with cannon balls chained to their hands. They are implored to repent their sins, but they won’t. Finally Eden opens her mouth, but it’s to recite that Bible verse about love being kind and patient. June rolls her eyes. After all the shit she’s said and done to survive in Gilead, she can’t believe Eden is doing this.
They’re finally out of chances, and pushed into the pool, attached to their weights. They struggle as they are trapped beneath the surface. Eventually, they both float lifeless under the water. Eden’s hands reach above her, her skirt billowing, and her legs dangling beneath, looking some grotesque ballerina, somehow graceful even in death. I don’t think the imagery of the crosses behind them is an accident.
No one is more affected by this than Serena. Eden is the quintessential Gileadean daughter and wife. Serena has to ask the question, if even Eden could be led astray, and wind up dead in this extreme society, what chances does her daughter have? When June stops to ask Serena if she’s okay, Serena takes the opening and allows June to breastfeed the baby. Serena’s ready to stop being selfish, and put her daughter first. In a place like Gilead, this baby girl’s going to need every advantage she can get. The next episode is the season finale, and I’m not prepared for what this show has in store.