The Handmaid’s Tale episode 2 review: Birth Day

The Handmaid’s Tale slows down its pace in episode two to give us a long, discomfiting look at motherhood in Gilead…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale Episode 2

It’s common to hear the phrase ‘there are no words’ these days to express extreme disbelief or grief. In the Republic of Gilead, there really are none. Books are restricted only to the ruling elite and pictograms have replaced written language in public. Graphic symbols designate the crimes of the hooded bodies hanging in the streets—a Star of David, a foetus—and the items of food for which paper tokens are exchanged in supermarkets. Literacy is one of several rights the Handmaids are no longer permitted. When you’re a womb on two legs, you don’t need words. 

All of which goes to explain the sensuous delight Offred finds in those Scrabble tiles. An assistant publisher in her pre-Gilead life, she’s been deprived of letters and the written word since she was caught. She and former university lecturer Ofglen are so starved of stimulus that right now even a nine-volume history of falconry sounds riveting. Being permitted to use her brain and words other than the performative phrases that masquerade as communication is a rare pleasure for Offred.

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It’s also, like everything in Gilead, fraught with danger. Using the same survival instinct that made her humbly receive the infantilising (and begrudgingly offered) gift of a cookie from his wife, naturally Offred lets the Commander win the game. To do otherwise in either situation would be too great a risk. That’s what Offred’s life is now – a series of risk calculations. Who is watching? Who can she trust? How far can she afford to go?

This adaptation does a sensationally good job of establishing her sense of dread. Moments of respite from its ominous atmosphere are so brief they only serve to make Gilead seem more dangerous when they’re over. Offred and Ofglen’s relatively free conversation in this episode’s opening five minutes loosens the suffocating corset strings a little, only to have them wrenched tight again when a sinister black van arrives to carry off an anonymous dissident. The pressure relents, but never for long, reminding us that the only escape in this parlous place is temporary.

That, I think, was the point of the Simple Minds song. Offred’s intense relief at having survived the Commander’s ‘invitation’ made her giddy. Feeling powerful, inwardly lording her secret knowledge over Nick, buoyed by Ofglen’s notion of “an us” and ready to feed the network information, Offred walked out to the opening bars of Don’t You (Forget About Me) like a pop star out onto a stage. It was a rare moment of triumph for someone utterly subjugated, one stopped in its tracks the second Ofglen’s replacement turned her head. Just when it seemed things might be looking up, The Handmaid’s Tale slapped down our hopes. “I am Ofglen” said Offred’s new partner, chillingly, with no acknowledgement of her predecessor. As that predecessor earlier said of a New York City church, she’s been “fucking erased”.

Not permanently I hope. In her few short scenes, Alexis Bledel has made a strong impression as Ofglen, the only character we’ve met with intelligence, cynicism and wit comparable to Offred’s. Director Reed Morano is getting the very best from her actors, from Ann Dowd as fundamentalist enforcer Aunt Lydia to Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, the Commander’s hostile, resentful wife.

Elisabeth Moss though, continues to be this adaptation’s marvel. She conveys it all—Offred’s fear, intelligence and anger, the brief, relieved highs when she’s unobserved—so convincingly, and often with little more than a look. Her expletive-filled voiceover makes Offred an enjoyably irreverent presence in such a pious, humourless society.

To us, her confidantes, Offred’s wry amusement, smirks and eye-rolls also give her power. The Wives may patronise her and call her a whore as soon as she turns her back, but she views them and their play-acting birth ritual as ridiculous. There’s strength in that. Audiences love watching oppressed characters find strength.

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The labour rituals were the focus of this captivating episode, which moved at a slower pace than the eventful opener. Having sickened us last week with an attention-grabbing range of barbarism, there was time in episode two to focus on just one: birth days. We were shown Janine’s labour cheer-led by a host of chanting peers, and let into the pain of enforced surrogacy in a tender scene in which she sang to and nursed the infant daughter stolen from her.

Another stolen daughter—Offred’s—reappeared in flashback form. This time, the seeds of Gilead were visible in the world more or less as we know it. Low rates of birth and high rates of birth defects led to disquieting scenes of silent prayer outside the hospital at which June had Hannah, to rows of empty cots and to a desperate kidnapping attempt on her new-born by a bereaved mother. Prior to the world falling apart, that must have been June’s most terrifying experience.

Now, she spends her life terrified. Until that Scrabble board was laid out, the possibilities of Commander’s invitation cast a frightening pall over Birth Day. Even if you’ve read the book so knew what was coming, you still felt the weight of her dread. That’s the mark of a great adaptation like this one – to make it feel as though you’re experiencing a familiar story as new.