The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 12 review: Postpartum

Gilead's cruelty knows no bounds in the penultimate episode of The Handmaid's Tale season 2. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

2.12 Postpartum

Fantasy is key to survival in Gilead, both for its villains and its victims. So much of life there has to be lived through counterfeit and dissemblance. Well, it would have to. Anybody would have to learn lie to themselves and others to survive a place like this.

Not Eden, though. She was the real deal. A true child of Gilead, Eden bought it all, hook line and (pardon the pun) sinker. She didn’t do irony or self-preservation. With the stubbornness of a teenager and the earnestness of a zealot, she refused to dissemble. And it killed her.

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The tyrannical regime of Gilead technically killed her, but Eden’s unwillingness to lie like everybody else clamped that weight to her ankle. Hers and Isaac’s was a Romeo and Juliet story – tragic young love destroyed not by a whim of fate, but by a cruel state. You could imagine it told in first person as a dystopian young adult novel: the mass wedding, the cold husband, the love found amid the hopelessness, the end.

Eden’s end provoked yet another unexpected climbdown from Serena. Just when you think, as a viewer, you could happily watch that woman fed to a whole pack of Massachusetts wolves, the single atom of humanity inside her does something almost decent. Make no mistake, Serena allowed June to breastfeed out of an obsessive love for Nicole, not kindness to June. But that was love we saw on Serena’s face.

It was beatific love in the opening scene, when a blissfully happy Serena bathed her baby with golden light streaming into the room like a blessing from heaven. Having endured so much hardship and having had to exercise so much patience, Serena was in rapture at her just reward.

That’s all bullshit, of course, every bit, but it’s the fantasy Serena has had to construct in order to commit an atrocity like raping someone and stealing their child. There has to be a serious disconnect between reality and perception to treat somebody you know is every bit as human as you are—somebody who used to eat at the same brunch place as you—like an object, like an economic resource, like cattle, and to come out of it thinking you’re the wronged party.

That has to be why so much of Serena’s dialogue is biblical quotation. That stuff must soothe and reassure her whenever she suffers from those momentary stomach-lurch realisations that the world she’s helped to create is thoroughgoing evil. When Serena recites bible verse, she doing the equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and singing la-la-la. It’s self-hypnotism.

Serena’s Madonna-and-child fantasy went so deep this week that she fell prey to magical thinking and put Nicole to her milk-less breast. The miracle though, didn’t come.

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Fred’s fantasy is even worse. He doesn’t believe he’s just the wronged party in all this – he seems to believe he’s actually June’s saviour. Joseph Fiennes plays the Commander as genuinely baffled that June doesn’t fall to her knees in gratitude for all he does. No character wants to think of themselves as the bad guy and Commander Waterford clearly doesn’t. His absolute blindness to his own villainy, and Serena switching between cognisance of their wrongdoing and her own fantastic version of events make them fascinating characters to try to figure out.

Speaking of enigmas, Emily’s new posting was just as mysterious. As the feted ‘genius’ who cooked up the Colonies, Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) could be Himmler times Mengele times Frenkel, or he could be something… else. His impatient disregard for Gileadean etiquette either points towards him being a potential ally, or towards him being even more of a threat than we’ve met yet. (What, for instance, happened to the other Handmaids posted to the Lawrence household?)

One thing’s clear from Joseph’s direct line of questioning to Emily about her pre-Handmaid life and his frank exchange with his household’s Martha (“Do you want a beating?”, “Try it, old man”) – he’s no fantasist. In a world like this does that make him vulnerable, like Eden, or dangerous?

The focus of Serena’s fantasy—the baby—could even be the thing that brings her out of it. Serena now has a daughter, a child of Gilead and a girl like Eden, to be raised in a place where women lose fingers for reading and teenagers are drowned for falling in love. However much Waterford privilege (which has shot through the roof since her birth) might protect Nicole, in this place, she’s still a second-class citizen.

As Serena said last week, all she ever wanted was a baby. Now she has one, I’d love to know how she feels about bringing her up as a citizen of Gilead. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Holly, here.

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