Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Season 1, Episode 2: “Birth Day”
Directed by Reed Morano
Written by Bruce Miller
* For a recap & review of the Season 1 premiere, “Offred” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Late” – click here
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the breeding rape of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), held down by his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). The sex is not just a visceral sexual assault. It is symbolic of women like Serena who’ve been complicit with the patriarchy, holding other women down figuratively, literally, in every kind of way. A brilliantly disturbing metaphor.
“Under his eye”
Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) gets closer to Offred, they talk of who they were before they were trapped in that nation-state of misogyny. We find out that churches are being dismantled, everywhere. And so do they still worship God? They read scripture, they’re Conservative people. What exactly is the patriarchal nation-state up to? Regardless of that Ofglen tells Offred about a “network” of women. They’re ultra secretive, obviously.
Offred: “There has to be an us because now there is a them.”
Not entirely sure what Nick (Max Minghella) is doing, if he’s a force of good or another arm of the male authority. He seems to like Offred, but again it could be less than valiant. He’s not exactly a Commander, a higher-up. He is the proletariat, a worker. He relays to Offred that Commander Waterford has called to see her. She’s ushered into the birthmobile by Rita (Amanda Brugel); the thing is like a hearse, which is brutally ironic. At once, life and death touches. They are, in fact, living death.
Offred: “There‘s a smell coming from that room. Something primal. It‘s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It‘s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth once, before she was spade. It‘s the smell of genesis.”
Offred – or, June, as she was – flashes back to when she was pregnant, before everything changed. It’s a creepy atmosphere, as people chant outside the hospital, praying for the babies in the face of the fertility plague. But no time for daydreaming, June! Real life is too nasty now to let daydreams take over long. The atmosphere is creepier in the present, as the infertile wives pamper the handmaids getting ready to give birth, a ritualistic process from which the women almost derive pleasure. So odd. They’re all led into a room where Janine (Madeline Brewer) is in labour. Everybody tells her to breathe, calming her down. Although Offred does the most for her, in less creeper fashion.
Flashbacks to June in the hospital post-birth show us how bad the fertility plague became; her baby Hannah was the only one to have survived while she was there, others dying. A sad image shows rows of empty basins in the children’s ward where June walks aimlessly. Like rows of graves in a cemetery.
Offred does well priming herself to survive that brutal place. She does what she’s supposed to do with grim servitude. She keeps her June alive by smiling in the mirror, remembering who she is on the inside. As long as she doesn’t forget, June’s never lost to Offred.
In the room with Janine another woman is brought in and the two of them push, breath, going through the birthing process with the aid of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Serena and the infertile wives. Turns out the other woman is one of the infertile wives; they go through the whole thing as if actually pregnant, an unsettling ritual. It’s scary to watch. As if a church service has gone wild, the chanting like a hymn. And when a “fine and healthy girl” is born they rejoice. In the midst of all the cruelty, the terror, is that miracle of birth; life in the fields of death.
Such raw subject matter in a dystopian setting. The baby is ripped from Janine, given to the infertile woman, and she lays in bed with it as if she’d just given birth herself. Whoa. Margaret Atwood’s source novel expertly scared already, disturbing and all too prescient. With visuals, the score, the expertly acted characters, it’s all so effective.
We flashback again to June and Luke (O-T Fagbenle) in the hospital, before the fall of America. A woman’s broken in and stolen Hannah. This is what the infertility plague did to people, the mania it caused. Luckily they get the child back. This illustrates the terrifying climate before the authoritarian iron fist crushed American women into submission; they were already suffering, now they suffer more.
Janine is still seen as useful. She has to breastfeed the child before she’ll be torn away once more. She sings Bob Marley to her daughter. That intimate connection between mother and child is too strong a bond to simply break with one snap. There’ll be more trouble with this concept as the episodes progress.
“Beyond the Commander‘s door” is somewhere nobody, not even Serena goes. Offred has been summoned to see him. She only assumes something bad, relating it to the typical horror trope of a young woman stupidly descending into a dark basement believing her boyfriend is there, only to meet a bloody end; maybe allegorically, she’s correct. In she goes, sitting with Waterford. They play Scrabble together, in expected awkwardness. Like a good citizen, she spells out NATION first on the board. After they finish she even tries out humour on him; he enjoys it. They plan on another date when he’s back from out of town. Creepy, yet you can see Offred working to figure out what she can do to keep herself alive in that tyrannical palace and city.
Most interesting is that Offred is finally rediscovering her power as a woman. Although she’s in this weakened state because of the ruling class, she starts figuring out that she still holds sway over men, because they are the weak ones. They’re the ones who’ve done this because they are afraid of the power of women, what they hold over them with their sexuality; it’s all they can think of, the wretched, oppressive patriarchy of that place. But a wrench is thrown in the mix, too. No longer is Offred paired with Ofglen, another woman comes in her place. Well, she’s Ofglen; just not the same one.
Things are… never as they seem.
What a great episode to follow-up on the first! I loved it. Can’t get enough already, I’m hooked. You’ll love it, too. Especially if you’re a fan of Atwood’s book.
Next episode is “Late” and it promises more terror, more dark comedy, more powerhouse acting and directing, as well.