Warning: Spoilers for episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 ahead.
The most recent episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Seeds,” had a tough act to follow. Last week’s episode, “Other Woman,” took the story to a new emotional low, leaving Offred broken-spirited and semi-catatonic, exactly how Gilead wants her. “Seeds” does its best to top that. The show can’t move Offred/June forward too quickly. Instead, it brought its heroine new and different depths of pain and dehumanization before finally doling out some hope.
Forgotten Women. We open with Broken Zombie Offred waking from her spartan bed in the middle of the night to burn the letters that Mayday gave her last season, the letters that Rita failed to pass on. Fortunately, Nick confronts her at the kitchen sink as she turns the letters to ash one by one. She tells him, “I’m not allowed to have these,” in a dull, detached voice. Nick may have noticed the flames through the window; the blaze in the sink is sizable. (Did Gilead get rid of smoke alarms?) A more present Offred/June would have found a less obvious means of disposal. The good news is that a small stack of the letters survives in Nick’s hands. Of course, we don’t know what he’ll do with them.
Colony Catch-Up. We check in with Emily and Janine at the nuclear waste farm for the first time since the second episode of the season. And we make closer acquaintance with two background characters from that episode, Kit and Fiona, who are tenderly in love despite their horrible living situation. We also finally see a practicing Jew, Sally, a former rabbi who volunteers for “bed detail,” helping to carry out the bodies of the dead so that she can say prayers for them. Margaret Atwood’s novel says that the Jews who would not convert were sent to Israel on boats that sank, but the series still hasn’t explained where all the Jews went.
Blood. Back in Boston, blank-faced Offred finds blood stains on her panties. The bleeding continues, and her dead eyes briefly flicker with dread before she composes her face and goes for a walk with Mrs. Waterford.
Small Talk. Serena Joy’s attempts to draw Offred into light chitchat are an unmitigated failure. Bizarrely, Serena Joy expects Offred to be an engaging walking companion. They don’t even like each other. Why would they chat like friends? It isn’t that Serena Joy has suddenly taken an interest in getting to know Offred as a person or developed any respect towards her; on the contrary, Mrs. Waterford wants to talk to her “so that the baby can hear my voice.” It would be convenient for Serena if Offred were an engaging conversationalist. Offred can’t do anything right, as usual, aside from getting pregnant.
It’s ridiculous that, after many months of physical and emotional abuse, Serena suddenly expects witty conversation. Exasperated at the lack of response beyond a monotone “Yes, Mrs. Waterford” and “No, Mrs. Waterford,” Serena demands, “What is the matter with you?” The “matter” is that you crushed her spirit, Mrs. Waterford. You can’t expect someone you’ve constantly disrespected and dehumanized to suddenly act like a friend if and when it suits your purposes.
More Blood. The bleeding gets worse, reddening Offred’s bathwater. Is she afraid of losing the baby, on top of everything else? She’s inscrutable without a voiceover. Nick has expressed concern around her mental state to Mrs. Waterford, only to be brushed aside. Caring about the handmaid as a person is intolerable; after a broad hint from Serena, Fred asks Commander Pryce if Nick couldn’t perhaps be awarded a promotion to, say, Washington.
Prayvaganza. “Not one of the Commander’s better efforts, if you ask me,” Serena remarks in an offhand branding critique. (But nobody asked you, Serena. Your PR skills are worthless in the world you created.) A slightly smarmy-looking uniformed preacher type announces that they’ll be honoring the Guardians. Thrilling. What, no laser show? The Guardians enter the stage, including Nick, and are all handed small boxes. Any suspense around Nick being sent away is dissolved by the contents of the box. Surprise! It’s a mass wedding. Veiled brides are led on by wives and econowives, likely their mothers. Offred briefly unfreezes as her eyes well with silent tears. Gilead is constantly taking things away from her. She’s losing Nick, and possibly the baby, and could be blamed and executed if the pregnancy fails. Everyone keeps requiring her to have unnatural emotional reactions. Better to feel nothing if you can’t feel what you’re told to.
Child Brides. Nick takes an extra second to say “I do,” as if he’s trying to figure a way out. He looks at Offred, she looks at him, and there’s no way out of this. They could both get in trouble if he, say, stopped the ceremony and said that he doesn’t want this veiled girl, he wants the handmaid. There’s no room for clever solutions here. Offred resumes her look of mindless composure. The sound goes out as the audience applauds. We have no idea what any of the women are thinking. Their thoughts don’t matter anymore, anyway.
It’s shocking but not surprising to see how young the brides are. Their soft, lineless faces look barely halfway through puberty, while some of their new husbands look like they’re pushing 40. These young women would have been in late primary school at the start of Gilead. Their educations were cut short. So much for Gilead protecting children.
Kit Collapses. TV writers play a fine-tuned game: What is the maximum that they can make viewers care about one-off and minor characters per minimal amount of screen time, prior to killing them off? Anyone sent to the colonies sees their life expectancy shortened drastically. It was clear from Kit’s sores, bald spots, and lost thumbnail that the radiation gripped her, but her brief scenes with Fiona were touching. The doomed love of two middle-aged women, one disabled and one black, was a small case of hope and defiance, and it’s heart-wrenching to think of Fiona being left alone.
Champagne for the Grown-Ups. Offred is sent to her room while the husbands and wives enjoy a champagne toast. Upstairs, she discovers that her underpants are drenched in blood, and sits helplessly by the window.
No Tooth Fairy. Emily panics as she discovers and pulls a loose tooth. She isn’t keeping it together. She once had identity around her public and personal life. Emily was a mother, a spouse, a professor and American. Now all of those are gone. With each loss, she loses her hypothetical ability to ever blend back into the normal world, if that world ever comes back. She’s also a two-time murderer now.
Cows Don’t Get Married. Normally, the idea of a wedding between prisoners in a death camp would sound depressing, not uplifting. But the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is so gloomy that Fiona and Kit’s deathbed wedding is a comparatively happy spot, as they claim their right to feel joy and love, even in horrible circumstances. They exchange grass rings as the women gather around Kit’s flower-strewn bed. They’re still alive, even as they’re dying and in pain.
Also: Rabbi Sally is a saint, like the saintly priests and rabbis in concentration camps who continued to minister in hopeless circumstances. She officiates with a warm aplomb and leadership that any congregation would be lucky to have, and her brief speech mentions only Kit and Fiona’s love, not the horror of their circumstances. The Jews have been through this before. Did Sally ever imagine that she’d need to call on that tradition? But she follows her calling, bringing spiritual practice to her fellow unwomen.
The Birds and the Bees. The new Mrs. Blaine, Eden, talks like a brainwashed parrot-child during Serena’s attempt at a “Facts of Life” convo. Nick seems to be the only one who’s disturbed that he’s expected to commit statutory rape. There’s a double meaning when he tells Commander Waterford, “By God’s grace, I’ll have a child of my own someday, sir.” It could also refer to the child Offred is carrying.
Ophelia Moment. On his way out of the Waterford house, Nick finds Offred passed out in the garden, laying face-down on flooded ground, still bleeding. It’s uncertain how Offred wound up in the yard. We never see her fall, or whether the window is open, or if she jumped. The window looked closed when she sat down.
June Snaps Out Of It. Good, because an entire episode of waking comatose sorrow was nearly unbearable to watch. She’s in the hospital on an IV drip, and the monitor on her belly shows that the baby is still alive. Serena Joy, suddenly sweet and full of concern, runs for the doctor. Remember: Serena Joy is only nice to Offred when she’s worried that something will go awry with her baby vessel. June realizes that she’s being watched and pulls the sheet over her head so that she can have a private moment with her child. She vows, “I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? 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.”
We’ve been deprived of June’s interior monologue all episode. Her thoughts were sorely missed. Gilead might be able, for the moment, to call June Offred, and to control her actions and words. But they don’t get to tell her what to think, or how to feel. She’s still a person with a mind, just as Sally is still a rabbi even if the organization that ordained her may be gone, and Emily is still a doctor of cellular biology, even if her diploma is declared moot. They’re all still people, and they’re all still themselves.