The Handmaid’s Tale
If you ever want some unsolicited advice, tell people you’re having trouble breastfeeding. Tips and tricks — massage techniques, special cookies, nipple stimulation, hot showers, fenugreek capsules, dark beer, yeasty beer, any beer you want, no alcohol whatsoever, something called “pumping power hour” — will come barreling out of their mouths so quickly it’ll be hard to tactfully disengage. As breastfeeding rates have risen across the United States (up from 5 percent in 1993 to 81 percent in 2016, according to the CDC) so too has the “breast is best” mantra, and the accompanying mania around convincing every woman that she can breastfeed, she should breastfeed, and it’s detrimental to her baby if she doesn’t breastfeed. What’s best for a baby is a happy, healthy mama, but zealots will have you convinced that formula will shrivel up your baby’s brain into a wizened raisin.
Serena is, not surprisingly, a member of the Breast Is Best brigade. To her it’s “natural” and therefore desired, just like forced sexual intercourse as a labor stimulant. Formula was made by man and not by God; it’s the devil in powdered form. And so while Serena has banished June from the house, she also expects June’s daily milk output to keep baby Nicole (Oh, Serena. Nicole? Really?) nourished and thriving. Except the baby’s presence is, for many mothers, the prime stimulus that keeps milk production going. Baby’s cries provoke a hormonal reaction in Mom’s body, which then stimulates what’s called autocrine control at the local level, meaning that Mom’s supply rises or falls to meet Baby’s demand. While pumping is a great option for a lot of moms, it just doesn’t have the same power (or same kind of sucking) as a real baby. So it’s no surprise that June is only producing what looks like about an ounce per session after a few weeks away from Holly (Serena can call her whatever she wants, I’m sticking with Holly). The intolerable stress of having her child taken away from her just hours after birth and the thought that she may never see the child again probably has June feeling a little more stressed than the average new mom, too.
Which is why it’s torturous that the Commander shows up with Holly, hoists her up for June to see, and then ignorantly declares that this protracted little visit got June’s mammary glands a-pumpin’ again. That’s not how it works, Fred! One leaky moment isn’t the golden ticket to quart after quart of stashed-away breast milk.
It is, however, yet another narrative ruse to get June back into the Waterford house — a compulsion on the part of the writers that is getting rather stale by now. This is the third time this season June has ended up housed in that attic bedroom unexpectedly — first, after she was tortured and then found to be pregnant, and then after she attempted to escape Gilead — and while the June/Serena/Fred triangle has been rich and provocative, it’s time to move along now. While other Commanders have lost hands or their lives for misbehavior, Waterford manages to tell one improbable lie after another (this time, saying that Nick took a 40-weeks pregnant June for a drive onto dangerous, snowy roads just for kicks). Perhaps it’s a testimony to his power in Gilead, but it’s more likely that the writers need to drag this dramatic tension out as long as they can. (And surely enough rumors have floated around Gilead that June, despite her productive ovaries and flourishing uterus, would not be a “popular girl,” as Aunt Lydia claims.)
Serena too is clearly idiotic on matters of the breast, but it isn’t ignorance that drives her to hold Holly up to her own chest and try to breastfeed her. It’s desperation. The mother in me squeezed my eyes shut in revulsion at the idea of a woman holding someone else’s child to her breast à la Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but also felt — and I know this is an unpopular opinion — some pity for Serena. Her mistakes are legion, there is no denying that; yet there is a kernel of humanity left inside her, one that wants to create new life. She has, in her mind at least, magically become a mother through the grace of God. But here, with Holly screeching for more milk and none of her own to offer, Serena is realizing the inherent disconnect between a mother and a stolen child. Holly will never be hers. It’s possible to be deeply unsettled — or downright apoplectic — at the sight, while also seeing the sadness in it. That’s what makes a good villain, after all.
Meanwhile, the Eden story line — one that, admittedly, hasn’t entirely piqued my interest — rushes to an abrupt, unlikely, and yet still moving ending. Just as June and Nick are fantasizing about taking Holly and running off to the coast, or the mountains, or anywhere but the Waterford house, they learn that Eden has run off with Isaac, the guard whom Nick caught her kissing. She did it, to some extent, at June’s unknowing urging to “grab love wherever you can find it.” But the idea of pious Eden breaking so dramatically with Christian law feels too convenient of a way to winnow down extraneous characters.
Her performance at her execution, however, is all Eden. (Although let’s all take a moment to reflect on the fact that Serena brought a BABY to an EXECUTION, which is surely our age’s equivalent of the baby at the bar in Sweet Home Alabama.) She sticks to her conviction that love, even outside of marriage, is something God understands and forgives. Even with her mother and sister on the bleachers — Gilead certainly has a knack for transforming sporting facilities into torture chambers — Eden meets her death like a martyr. And thus she becomes yet another example — there were plenty of other weights left at the bottom of that pool — of a single piece of scripture being misguidedly co-opted for evil: “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Four couples have refused to take on Emily as a Handmaid — she did have a love affair with a Martha, run over a Guardian, and spend some time in the toxic colonies — but Commander Lawrence, the “architect of Gilead’s economy,” is willing to take her. Right off the bat we know this guy is either a really sadistic bastard or a strange bird.
But let’s pause for a moment to muse on Gilead’s economy, because this is more of the sort of info I’ve been dying for. There’s still no firm timeline on how long it’s been since the coup on Washington that precipitated Gilead’s takeover of vast swaths of America. But the society is, economically speaking, a wonder. Econo-families have plenty to eat and live in relatively comfortable circumstances. Medical facilities are not only up to par, they’ve all been redecorated to a minimalist white specification like something from a Daft Punk video. The shops feature bountiful produce, there is ostensibly still trade with outside nations, transit systems are fully operational, and uniforms for all ranks have been mass produced and distributed. How the hell is this possible?
The answer is Bradley Whitford, with his shocking white beard and head of hair. His house full of abstract modern art hung over prim Victorian wallpaper is the first giveaway that Commander Lawrence (first name Joseph) is the first and only Gilead man to rock some of that Big Dick Energy.
Hero or villain? It’s too early to tell, but damn, this is the kind of storytelling the second season has largely been missing. When Lawrence catches Emily reading, he quizzes her on the punishment for her crime (correct answer: losing a finger), but doesn’t admonish her in any way. In their late-night chat he feels her out for her real loyalties, signalling that he knows she isn’t a true believer, despite her meek “God has called me to a higher purpose” responses. He wants to know who she is, which is either a sign that he wants her to trust him, or that he’s just itching to rat someone out. But the vibes here are good — aside from the small matter of the Commander’s wife.
It’s hard not to see the Jane Eyre allusions here. A charming, swaggering older man takes a younger woman into his employ, interrogates her by the fireside, and leaves her feeling unsure of where she stands. She discovers a hysterical (yep, used that word on purpose) wife upstairs, essentially locked away. The wife wants to spread the message that her husband’s past is full of misdeeds. The husband has only this to say: “Life didn’t turn out the way she planned … she wanted everything to be beautiful”
All I have to say is look out for fire in the season finale.