The Handmaid’s Tale loves to create contrast. It could involve the individual circumstances of its people, Gilead and their hypocritical laws, or how the series (in a prophetic way) has been able to predict and validate a real-world reality. But the one aspect that is often overlooked by the audience (from a production point of view) is light and how it plays with our visual perceptions. It has the tendency to create something unnatural by presenting something heavenly, or reinforces a grim reality within Gilead.
That is why the opening scene is a thing of beauty in transcribing that difference. After June’s (Elisabeth Moss) emotional heroics in delivering baby Holly by herself, ‘Postpartum’ presents another opportunity for Gilead to tighten its grip and reinforce the barricades. It’s the ‘everything worked out fine in the end’ scenario with the Waterford household on the winning side. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) finally gets what she has always wanted, bathed in the glorious, beaming light of happiness, versus June, pumped like a cow for breast milk and in a constant state of darkness. To further illustrate how profoundly upsetting this is, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) not only breaks her promise to June about protecting Holly (or baby Nicole if you understand the trolling irony), but explains how work is already underway to prepare June for her next assignment, auctioned off as a slave for the next family in desperate need of children.
The entirety of ‘Postpartum’ screams “unfair”. Unfair that June is once again subjected to the mercy of Gilead, emotionally blackmailed and coerced to nurse her newborn baby. Unfair that June ends up back at the Waterford household, reduced only to a biological need without any natural contact with her child. Unfair that she is placed in a vulnerable position once again with her tyrannical rapist in Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), with his twisted approach that indulges a sick gesture about gratefulness. Unfair that despite wanting to break free, June and Serena’s complicated co-dependency remains intertwined by the ‘push and pull’ of their circumstances and surroundings. Unfair because the longer this show goes on, the more you begin to wonder whether June will ever be able to escape from Gilead. June is a tragic survivor, ending up back at square one despite her numerous attempts to escape, and the fact that her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is an absent-minded thought. Like ‘a moth to a flame’, she’s psychologically trapped in an unbreakable cycle alongside her tormenters.
It’s moments like this where you have to give Elisabeth Moss a standing ovation. In recent episodes she’s had a monumental task in having to portray June’s emotions and physicality. But her facial expressions, however subtle they are, speak a thousand words which completely eclipse all dialogue. She holds your attention just enough so that the audience can feel exactly how her character feels – disgust, betrayal, pain, anger, frustration, and when it counts, a strong dose of heart.
But where The Handmaid’s Tale gets mysterious is in its introduction of Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the architect of the Gilead economy. In a scene which can only be described as a tribute to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Emily (Alexis Bledel) is re-assigned to the Lawrence household, a strange environment filled with nightmarish silences that sinks Emily deeper within ‘the sunken place’ known as Gilead.
Joseph Lawrence’s home is like an unnerving puzzle that raises more questions than it answers. His Martha has a missing eye but did he purposefully blind her or did she have the wound beforehand? He has the essence of authority but his Martha backchats him. His home is a hoarder’s paradise, littered with books which are forbidden and yet he is very quick to reinforce Gilead law when Emily attempts to read one. He has a wife, and ‘Postpartum’ acknowledges her mental health issues. She has an unreserved freedom, to tell the truth about her husband’s complicity, but his behaviour towards her is one of cruelty. Lawrence seems to know a great deal about Emily, but his intentions are secretive. Even Emily wonders why someone of his reputation would have a troublesome and “shitty” handmaid in their residence. When the light comes into play, it re-emphasises the growing uncertainty within the darkness that both characters quietly embrace.
It’s evident that this is a test, but as to what means, it’s still unclear at this point. Joseph Lawrence could easily be part of the resistance, or just someone who values Gilead’s traditions despite the significant contradictions. He is a walking enigma, and it’s a testament to Whitford that he gives so little away in each tension-filled scene, and a testament to Alexis Bledel with her emotionally-awkward reactions.
‘Postpartum’ reassuringly understands that it is not about the repetitive cycle of pain. It’s all about motherhood and the protection of children. If children are valued and seen as the prosperous symbol of the future, how can Gilead justify drowning two teenagers?
There is no doubt that Gilead is a psychopathic fantasy land where its perceived illusion of greatness is ebbed away on an episodic basis. It’s expressed with Serena trying in vain to breastfeed “her” child but unable to provide that mothering miracle. It’s Emily reciting Gilead words and law to Commander Lawrence but never believing in its indoctrinated power. It’s June being separated from her children, left in emotional desolation where she entertains a romanticised fantasy about running away with Nick (Max Minghella). But with Eden (Sydney Sweeney), her sacrifice might be the most significant protest statement on the show.
Eden may have been a naïve and inexperienced teenage girl that we collectively made fun of, but as her story came to a full and permanent conclusion, no one could accuse her of lacking faith or courage, dying for a cause that we can all unite behind – love. To summarise, Eden was an idealist, ultimately representing a rejection of Gilead’s strict laws and encouraged to “grab love” wherever we can find it.
For a world steeped in a theocracy, torture and execution have been a frequent tool to normalise Gilead. But when Eden quotes a verse from Corinthians back to her executioners, she throws the bible back in their faces. They’re so quick to insert judgement (right down to Commander Fred calling her a “slut”) and yet know nothing about the bible’s full context and its compassionate needs. For a child who wholly believed in Gilead’s ideology, Eden gets the last laugh, becoming a martyr and shaking the foundations of what Gilead stands for.
If Eden was punished for falling in love with another man, how can baby Holly/Nicole be guaranteed safety? How will Gilead protect a little girl in a world where you can lose fingers, have your eyes taken out, be blamed, raped, tortured and executed, just because you’re a woman? How can she be safe when those clear double-standards exist? As conflicted as you can be about Serena and her wickedness, even she recognises and understands the problem. Commander Fred’s thick skull doesn’t seem to get it, too busy on a manipulative pedestal where he’s looking at himself as a saviour and enforcer of Gilead.
With one episode left to go, the sooner Gilead burns to the ground, the better.