Each episode of The Handmaid’s Tale contains a scene of emotional devastation or a scene of pain or humiliation. But sometimes amongst the horror there is also a little glimmer of hope. ‘Seeds’ is filled with more of the former than the latter, but ultimately it is an episode about hopelessness, about maintaining hope against overwhelming odds and even about discovering new hope when everything has been lost.
The episode starts with June (Elisabeth Moss) who is now fully overtaken by the submissive identity of Offred, shocked and indoctrinated, burning the Handmaids’ letters she was given by the resistance network Mayday in the last season. As if sleepwalking in a dream she goes downstairs and attempts to destroy them in the kitchen sink. She is discovered by a bewildered and concerned Nick (Max Minghella) and chastises herself for being out of her room after midnight. Ignoring his questions she walks back to bed like a disgraced zombie. It is a sad sight to witness the decline of rebellious June and the rise of a silent, traumatised Offred.
Offred’s sudden transformation into a biddable breeding cow is almost as disturbing to Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) as it is to the audience. Although it is Offred who we follow most closely through the series, The Handmaid’s Tale is practically as much Serena’s story as it is the handmaid’s. Serena is far from a simple villain. At times she is even close to being a sympathetic character. In ‘Seeds’ we see her butt heads with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) over the pregnant Offred’s care. Aunt Lydia at one point pulls out a pencil and small notebook to take down Offred’s measurements. It is especially painful for Serena to see the other woman use a pencil. Serena is an intelligent and educated woman but she is also responsible for helping to create a society that now subjugates her and prevents her from writing or reading. There is a special dispensation for Aunts when it comes to writing apparently.
The power struggle between Aunt Lydia and Serena which has been building for a few episodes is well written and beautifully shot. Neither woman outright insults each other but hidden behind their strained politeness is a bitter battle for supremacy in Commander Waterford’s household. Aunt Lydia is filmed below making her seem tall and imposing, Serena is filmed from above sitting in a chair like a reprimanded child. Aunt Lydia humiliates the Wife rubbing in the fact that she also has control over Offred and scribbling with her forbidden pencil. This poses one of the questions that is at the heart of season two: where do these women sit in the hierarchy of Gilead? Is an Aunt higher up on the food chain than a Wife? It appears no one in the society is completely sure.
It is not just Aunt Lydia’s dominant control that Serena is disturbed by. Over the course of the episode she grows increasingly bewildered by Offred’s behaviour. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena’s marriage is so distant that we are given the impression that Offred occupies most of Serena’s time. The relationship between the two women is more emotionally charged than Serena’s own marriage. Without June’s rebelliousness, Serena’s life is quiet and dull. She hardly knows what to do with herself. Perhaps Serena does not enjoy the idea of a quiet, submissive woman as much as she thought she would. Could this be the beginning of Serena becoming disillusioned with Gilead itself?
Serena should be concerned, even more so than she is, because Offred is so docile and shell-shocked that she barely notices that she is bleeding. In normal circumstances a pregnant woman who is bleeding would seek medical help, but for most of the episode Offred stares numbly at the blood and slowly hides it from the rest of the household. It could be self-preservation that prevents her from telling anyone or simply denial. One of the most upsetting scenes of the episode is when she sits in a bath of blood red water with a vacant expression on her face. This scene could be mistaken for a nightmare given the large volume of blood. June is barely a shadow of her former self and who knows when she will be coming back…
Offred’s hopelessness is contrasted nicely with events taking place in the toxic colonies. Janine, now enslaved and set to work digging in the poisonous, rock hard ground is paired with Emily. Despite both of them being together in this hellish world of work, disease and death, both women have distinctively different outlooks on their situation. Emily is a realist and Janine is an idealist. Emily angrily refuses to find joy in anything and Janine sees hope in the flowers that grow in the toxic soil. Emily tends to the physical suffering of her fellow inmates, but it is Janine that lifts their spirits. Janine is painted as being almost ridiculously naive, but sometimes the biggest act of rebellion can be to retain your humanity and appreciation of beauty in even the most ugliest of places. Despite everything that has happened to her, Janine manages to retain the hope that Offred has all but lost.
Offred’s sense of hopelessness is compounded even further by Nick’s sudden and surprising arranged marriage to a 15 year old. In a strange fascist-style religious ceremony Offred looks on helplessly as Nick and a whole host of other men are married off to what can only be described as a group of female children. Nick looks shocked at the youth of his new wife. The new Wife looks at him with an expression of brainwashed hope, contrasting with Offred’s face of distress. In a scene with little dialogue the characters communicate through eye contact.
Perhaps it is this final blow, watching the man that she has grown to care for, if not love, being cut off from her by Gilead’s imposing traditions, that pushes Offred over the edge. As she continues to bleed, more heavily by the hour, it seems that all care for her unborn child has left her, if it was ever even there to begin with. This child that Gilead put forcibly in her womb is both a curse and a blessing. Later Nick finds her bloody and unconscious lying outside in the house in the rain. It is a rather overly dramatic scene played out in silence and slow motion and perhaps the only slight misstep in an otherwise well crafted episode.
Later Offred awakes in hospital and Serena is both relieved and worried, as the sound of the baby’s heartbeat plays loudly over the monitor. Offred’s near miscarriage has somehow awoken in her the hope that she had lost. She has been propelled out of her placid stupor and for the first time directly addresses the child growing in her womb. Offred, who is now June again, pulls the covers of the the hospital bed over head and whispers a pledge of allegiance to her baby. For the audience it is perhaps one of the most tender moments we have seen in the series so far. The Waterfords may believe this child will be their very own baby but there is the hope that a mother’s love will prove to be stronger than both of them and perhaps even more powerful than Gilead itself.