The Handmaid’s Tale recap: 'Birth'
In this new world, birth is still a terrifying and beautiful thing
In a time when births are rare and healthy births are even rarer, the arrival of a new baby is a joyful thing — at least until you remember what kind of a world we’re in now. This is Gilead, remember? We can’t just have nice things.
The process of even getting there (even hoping to get there) brings us to another Ceremony night, this time watching the Offred/Serena Joy/Commander tableau from above. No one looks happy to be in this unsexy threesome. (“I wish he’d hurry the f— up,” Offred mutters to herself. Serena Joy just looks away, joyless per usual.)
The next day, Offred goes outside to meet Ofglen, greeting her now-friend with a very un-Gileadian “Hi.” Ofglen’s reply is stoic: “Blessed be the fruit.” Yep, Nick’s outside — and we have no idea if he’s an Eye or not. After their shopping, taking their long walk home past the wall where more traitorous bodies are being strung up for everyone to see, the two exchange more information about themselves. Offred is a local from Brookline, Massachusetts — they now live in what was once Cambridge in the time before Gilead — and was a book editor in her former life, while Ofglen is originally from Montana, came to New England for school, and then worked at a university. Offred is surprised, noting that most of the academics were sent to the colonies (I guess all those facts they knew were dangerous to those pesky alternative ones), but Ofglen says she was spared that fate thanks to her functioning ovaries. So, lucky her?
They pass a church that’s being demolished, and Offred recognizes it as her dad’s parish, the place where her daughter was baptized. “They took down St. Patrick’s in New York City,” Ofglen remarks. “Blew it up and dumped every stone in the Hudson River.” They’re destroying artifacts of the civilization that came before.
But how does Ofglen know that, or that there’s an Eye in her friend’s house? Before Offred can press for answers, a black van comes speeding down the street. Two men clad in black emerge and grab a man walking down the street with a briefcase, shut the doors, and drive away. Something tells me that man will never be seen again, unless it’s hanging on the wall. Something also tells me this is a frequent occurrence in Gilead.
“It’s OK to be relieved it wasn’t you,” Ofglen tells Offred. She isn’t reassured. “It was someone,” she says.
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Ofglen then reveals she’s part of some sort of resistance against the government and invites Offred to join (“There’s a way to help them…”). She hesitates, saying she’s not that kind of person. “No one is until they have to be,” Ofglen says. Waterford is important, and anything she can find out about him could be important. The prospect of that “us” — a secret resistance against this brutal new regime — roots Offred to the spot even if as it starts raining. She runs through what she knows of the world now: There’s fighting in Chicago, Anchorage is the capital of what’s left of the U.S., and that flag only flies two stars. There needs to be an “us,” she tells herself, because now there’s a “them.”
Back in the house, Nick is waiting in the kitchen with a message — the Commander wants to see her in his office tonight, alone. Needless to say, this isn’t standard protocol. Handmaids are supposed to just be “two-legged wombs,” after all. “Have I been invited to my own ending,” Offred wonders to herself. In any case, it wasn’t an invitation. It was an order. The driver also leaves her with another thing to ponder: a warning not to trust Ofglen.
Before she can contemplate it much further, a red van pulls up outside, sirens blaring. It’s the “Birthmobile,” come to collect her and the other local Handmaids to witness one of their own giving birth. The mother-to-be is Ofwarren, a.k.a. “one-eyed, bats— crazy” Janine. Offred wonders what she’ll give birth to — she’s not pondering boy vs. girl, more that the chances of a healthy baby are now one in five, if you can get pregnant at all. It makes her think back to her own labor, Luke driving as she fights through contractions. The hospital, eerily, is lined outside with people praying.
In Ofwarren’s home, there’s soft music playing and a Martha laying out a spread of food that includes a macaron tower (so those still stick around, even in a dystopian future!). The wives, all clad in blue, are leading the commander’s wife through a ridiculously serious faux labor, coaching her to breathe as she’s there in a white nightgown leaning on pillows on the floor. Serena Joy is among those in attendance, holding her hand. Upstairs, there’s an actual labor happening — scores of handmaids and a pair of Aunts crowded into a room chanting to breathe and hold and exhale, surrounding a bed holding the actual mother-to-be.
Touching Janine’s belly reminds Offred of newborn Hannah, her tiny feet and baby smell. Her new motherhood glow isn’t a feeling most get to experience: In a flashback, we see the hospital nursery is full of empty bassinets. Later, Offred wakes up and Hannah isn’t sleeping beside her — and Luke doesn’t have her either. An alarm goes off, they start running, and she sees the friendly nurse who helped with Hannah earlier is dead on the floor. Another woman walks by, clutching the infant and referring to it as her baby. Her own child, it seems, died, and she doesn’t want to believe it. Luke and police corner her and manage to safely get Hannah back. The woman is pulled to the floor and arrested.
Back at the birth, Offred gets a moment alone with Ofglen and tells her about the commander’s request. And then Serena Joy pulls her into the dining room with some of the wives, asking for an update on how things are progressing. One of the other wives asks Offred if she’d like a cookie, like a child or a puppy. “You shouldn’t spoil them,” another says, as if she’s not even there. Serena Joy pulls a pink macaron off the display and hands it to her, and the child/puppy wife marvels at how “well-behaved” she is. Offred walks off, dismissed, and spits out the bite she took in a bathroom sink. Even the joys of desserts are tainted here.
When it’s time for Ofwarren to push, Aunt Lydia directs her to a chair and her mistress is brought upstairs to sit behind her, continuing the farce of birthing this baby herself, scrunching her face and breathing hard as everyone acts like this is totally normal. Janine gives birth to a baby girl, a tiny miracle that everyone is elated over. The wife gets into bed surrounded by the other wives and the baby is taken to her, not Janine, who is despondent and emotional and consoled by the other handmaids. Her only time with the little one is as a glorified wet nurse, feeding the child that’s hers but not hers, singing to her and telling her about the older brother she has out in the world somewhere.
The ride back in the Birthmobile is silent. People are exhausted, perhaps drunk on the spiked juice, maybe contemplating how they’re expected to do what Janine just did and the consequences of not being able to conceive. Ofglen says no one knew anything about what Commander Waterford might want from Offred. She tells her not to trust Nick, and she says Nick said the same about her. Really, Ofglen admits, he’s right — trusting anyone is dangerous. Especially, she adds, “a carpet-munching gender traitor.”
At night, Offred sets off to meet the Commander. Whatever’s beyond his door is forbidden to all women, including Serena Joy, and she’s about to go in there. “I guess there may be something he wants from me,” she thinks to herself. “To want is to have a weakness. That gives me hope.” It reminds her of horror movies, where a woman would descend unwittingly into a basement to meet a grisly end. When she knocks and enters, it’s a standard (though spacious) office — books everywhere, a globe in the corner, a wooden desk. Though she’s usually not supposed to make eye contact with him, he teases, “in here we might be able to bend the rules — just a bit.” He wants to play a game, he tells her, and he literally means a game. Scrabble. Which in Gilead is a dangerous proposal, since women aren’t supposed to read. When they finish, their scores are within three points of each other. “You’re good,” he praises. He then suggests they have a rematch after he returns from a trip to Washington for meetings. “I’ll check my schedule,” she deadpans. If he’s offended by her sarcasm, he doesn’t show it, and they agree to another meeting. He walks her to the door, she thanks him for the game, and they go to shake hands. Safely back in her own room with the door shut, she can’t help but laugh, a stunned laugh, an I went down there and made it back alive laugh.
The next day, perhaps emboldened by the night’s outcome and/or happy she has some intel she can share with Ofglen, Offred’s got a spring in her step and an ’80s classic playing in the background — “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” of Simple Minds and Breakfast Club fame — as she goes to step out for the day’s shopping. She walks past Nick as she heads to the gate, and wonders if he knows just what she and the Commander did last night, that “illicit journey into the world of triple word scores,” and whether or not he cares. In her mind, he does.
But when she gets to the gate, there’s another woman waiting. Record scratch (but for real — the music cuts out). This new handmaid offers a smile and the standard Gilead greeting, and Offred’s trying-to-be-casual inquiry about what happened to Ofglen is met with a stony response that she is now Ofglen. Offred’s voiceover pretty much sums up what we’re all thinking: “F—.” Yep, this can’t be good.