Two more lives are lost in the penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, a typically draining installment from start to finish. And yet its final image — if not exactly a radical change of pace — is among the most hopeful provided to date in this second season.
Indeed, rather shrewdly, the framing device of “Postpartum” is one of light bookending darkness. The episode’s very first image is of Serena, gently bathing baby Holly while glowing in a ray of sunlight; her warm smile marks what may be her happiest moment in the entire season, and also indicates a bit of a (necessary) time-jump. We’re a few weeks from where we left off last week, when June gave birth to her child in an abandoned mansion, but called for help, recognizing the dire health situation she’d been left in. Baby Holly — named Nicole by Serena and Fred — is now in the hands of the Waterfords. June is once again under Aunt Lydia’s supervision, pumping breast-milk from a distance. (She’s also in-demand for her next posting; one family even sent Lydia a basket of bran muffins as a deal-sweetener.)
Serena, unsurprisingly, is finding this unconventional — to say the least — experience of motherhood a little challenging. She’s overjoyed by the situation: the chance to finally use the baby clothes she’d spent months picking out, to have a distraction from her crumbling, hateful marriage. (Let’s not forget that intense fight from last week.) But problems quickly arise. June’s breast-milk production is exceedingly low, and it’s assumed on the part of everyone from Lydia to Rita that it’s the mandated distance between June and the baby which explains why. Serena’s demand that June not come into contact with the baby is, alas, short-lived. Before long Lydia and Fred jointly agree to repost June at the Waterfords’ to live in her room and pump just that much closer. “Our child needs a calm and healthy environment, and you are making that very difficult,” Serena scolds Fred, upon June’s return. But it’s no use.
June back in the Waterford home, another failed escape attempt behind her, is on the one hand admirably realistic, a refusal on the show’s part to push satisfying but unconvincing story lines. But it can’t help but feel repetitious — the show’s longevity problem really coming into focus. Fortunately, there’s plenty of material around June and Serena this week, and it really sings.
For starters, Emily’s arc provides a thrilling tonal shake-up. Lydia brings Emily to her new home — last we saw of Emily, her commander had dropped dead — and scolds her for her continued difficulty. Lydia instructs her to behave herself, especially since her new Commander is none other than Joseph Lawrence (a sinisterly good Bradley Whitford), the “architect of Gilead’s economy.” Immediately upon entering, however, it’s clear they — and we — are in uncharted territory. There’s abstract art hanging on the walls. The house’s Martha, Cora, is surly and salty. And Lawrence’s violent side is a bit more visible than someone like Lydia would want — with the Martha clearly having an eye punched out and his wife not feeling well enough to even come downstairs. (Recap continues on Page 2)