The Handmaid's Tale: Birth Day

I liked this one more than the pilot. Maybe it was the Scrabble.

The main event was the birth of one-eyed Janine's daughter, supplemented by flashbacks to when June gave birth to Hannah. The blood-red Birthmobile arrived, picking up the Handmaids as if they were going to the airport. They entered an expensive house and went upstairs to the primal smell of amniotic fluid, as the Wives below ate treats as they surrounded and comforted Warren's actual wife, who was ceremoniously pretending she was in labor.

All of these women were worshiping the act of birth, but the Handmaids who could actually give birth were treated like talking chattel, like "two-legged wombs." Aunt Lydia told the laboring Janine what a good girl she was, like a dog. The wives discussed June right in front of her and said, oh, isn't she well-behaved, like a dog. Cookies, like alcohol and caffeine, are bad for a Handmaid, like a dog. June obediently took the proffered, forbidden cookie, but later smiled as she washed her mouthful down the sink. Why did she do that? A refusal to take anything from Serena Joy? A personal bit of rebellion proving that June is not a dog?

(Personally, I'd be throwing myself at the coffee.)

In the flashback, June was about to give birth to Hannah. She and her husband Luke arrived at the hospital, which was surrounded by protesters, or perhaps they were also worshipers of birth, since they were praying. The nursery was empty, since only one baby in five survives and getting pregnant is difficult in the first place. So of course, just as Janine's baby was stolen by her commander's Wife, June's baby was stolen by a desperate woman who just wanted a baby of her own.

Janine wasn't allowed to hold her baby or name her, and we know that June has already lost her daughter Hannah. I kept thinking that both of those baby girls don't have much to look forward to. Later, when Janine was allowed to nurse her own baby, there was a scene in which she was revealed to be totally aware of her circumstances. She knows that she had a baby boy once before, her new daughter's brother, and that she will only have stolen moments with Angela. I honestly don't know if I was hoping Janine was still in a mental fog after her break with reality in the pilot episode. It's terribly sad, either way.

And then there was the Scrabble.

Every choice June makes in Gilead has a heady component of danger. When she was ordered by Nick the chauffeur to go to the Commander's study, which is forbidden to all women, even the wives, June aptly compared herself to the typical girl in the horror movie, the moron with the perfect hair, who went down to the basement to meet her end. June said to herself, "Please God, don't let me be a fucking moron."

It's an anticlimactic surprise that what the Commander wanted was to play an illicit game of Scrabble with June, as if they were equals, as if he doesn't ritually rape her every week month. He was verbally flirtatious with the double entendres, "See if you can squeeze me in," and "It's a date." He took her hand caressingly as he thanked her for a good game, a game that she let him win because she is far from stupid.

What does Fred want? Does he plan to make June his mistress because she's conveniently right there in the house and he's having sex with her, anyway? Does he realize that June has absolutely no power in this situation, that she cannot say no to him, and that Serena Joy could make her suffer if she found out? Could he care about June, or does he see her as a two-legged womb?

After June went "home" to her barren attic room, she dissolved into giggles. She was completely thrown at being unexpectedly treated like a person. It's interesting that June also thought the fake labor by the wives was funny. It was a bit of a shock to me that anyone could find anything about this world the least bit funny. But then, we do unexpectedly laugh at funerals, don't we?

Which brings me to Nick and Ofglen. Nick the chauffeur told June not to get close to Ofglen, while Ofglen told June that a lot of drivers work for the Eyes. Nick is always watching June. He was staring at June's accidentally revealed knee; is he interested in June sexually, since he's not allowed to have a woman of his own? Is he a friend or a foe?

Early in the episode, June and Ofglen revealed their true selves to each other. Ofglen, who is now part of the "Network," was once a lecturer in cellular biology, and professors are usually sent to the Colonies to die. June was an assistant book editor whose father was a minister. Did Ofglen get into trouble for trying to find out what happened to the previous Offred? Becoming a spy for the Network that Ofglen mentioned would be terribly dangerous for June. Was Nick actually trying to protect her from that?

In the end, the horror movie came true. There is a new woman called Ofglen now, and it's as if the old Ofglen had been erased. Maybe Ofglen realized she was in trouble, and she ran. I hope that she ran.


— When June entered the Commander's study, she stared at the books lining the walls. Not being able to read would drive me insane. Yes, for me it's all about coffee and books. Although I also like cookies.

— June is from Brookline (I assume Massachusetts). Ofglen is from Missoula, Montana.

— June and Fred are both good at Scrabble; the score was 386 to 383. There were a lot of loaded words on their finished board: nationals, judges, zygote.

— The Handmaids deliberately walk out of their way by the river in order to have a little more time away from their home/prisons. But the bodies of the hanged are displayed on a wall by the river. Was that a Star of David on an executed person's hood this time?

— We learned that what's left of the United States consists of only two states, the capitol is in Anchorage, and there is fighting in Chicago. The Commander was planning a trip to DC. Is that the capitol of Gilead now?

— There was some interesting use of color. While June was enduring her threesome with the Commander and Serena Joy, she was thinking about the color blue, like the car she bought on Craigslist. The wives wear green, while the Handmaids wear bright red, its opposite. Is that about bright colors for whores, the Scarlet Letter, perhaps? You'd think they would be in black, white or gray, like nuns, or like the Marthas.

— And... to go a little further where the colors were combined, the macaroons in the dining room were pink, red and green. In the flashbacks, baby Hannah was wrapped in a red and green striped blanket.

— I found the music choices jarring, which I'm sure was deliberate. Janine sang "Three Little Birds" to her baby when she was nursing, that every little thing is gonna be all right, when it was so not. "Don't You (Forget About Me)" played when June was happily on her way to shop; it stopped abruptly when June realized that the woman waiting for her wasn't Ofglen.


Ofglen: "It's okay. To be relieved it wasn't you."
June: "It was someone."

June: "There is an 'us'? It seems imagined, like secrets in the fifth grade, people with mysterious histories and dark linkages. It doesn't seem as if it should be the true shape of the world."

June: "It's forbidden for us to be alone with the commanders. We aren't concubines. We're two-legged wombs."

June: "One-eyed batshit crazy Janine. What will she give birth to? An unbaby with a pinhead, or a snout like a dog's, or no heart?"

Flashback June: "Where are the babies?"
Tania: "Oh, we had a difficult night. Two went to the intensive care unit, and the others are with God."

June: "I'll check my schedule."
Fred: "Well, see if you can squeeze me in."

June: (re: Nick) "Does he know what the commander and I did last night? Our illicit journey into the world of triple word scores? Does he care? I think he does."

Fascinating, in a horror movie sort of way. Four out of four cookies,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


Lisianpeia said...

I'm really glad you guys are reviewing The Handmaid's Tale. The previous post and this one are really good! I read the book a bit before watching s01. I loved the book and the TV show, which did na amazing job of expanding the world created in the book (reiterating Lamounier's comment on Offred). In many ways the TV show got to me more than the book. Episode 03 and 06 especially. I'm looking forward to your (plural your, I mean Agents of Doux's) are.

I really liked the music and how full of swearing June's monologue was. It all felt jarring, but in a way that fit and that let audience blow off some steam from the really awful scenes. And the way the Commander flirts with June really really gets under my skin. Ugh.

Just to clear something up: is it ok to discuss book-related things in the comments? Because I remember a comment in the books about the Handmaids' colors that I can share. But I'm in doubt if you were just posing a general question or was really asking if anyone knew.

PS: IIRC the "ceremony" (aka institutional rape) takes place once a month.

Billie Doux said...

Lisianpeia, terrific comment. Please do feel free to post anything relevant from the book, which I read a long time ago and don't remember, as long as it doesn't spoil future episodes.

I don't think they've actually mentioned how often the "ceremony" takes place in the TV series yet, have they? Although once a month makes sense, fertility-wise.

Lisianpeia said...

Great! I remember Offred says that the red is an easy color to spot, when Handmaids tried to run from the Red Center. Also, I think *she* perceived the color as related to menstrual blood.

Ops, sorry. I don't remember when they mentioned how often the "ceremony" takes place.

JRS said...

Wonderful review, Billie. I also thought the sympathetic pregnancy ritual was funny and giggled with June. The desperation for babies though was so sad. It makes perfect sense for a society down to a small percentage of fertile women. But it was sad to see a society get to that point.

Lamounier said...

The final scene of this terrific episode is outstanding. "I am Ofglen."

I too thought the songs were jarring. The second one is a big reminder that this is not something taking place two centuries ago, this speculative fiction is set in preset day.