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Hope is in short supply in a grim, emotionally taxing episode

May 16, 2018 at 12:38 PM EDT

The Handmaid’s Tale got downright miserable this week. Without the excitement of an escape plan in motion, or flashbacks to (mostly) better days, “Seeds” plunged the show into its bleakest depths. It’s not unrealistic, given where the show’s primary characters are right now, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most satisfying viewing.

June is where we left her last week: completely defeated. She’s walking around the Waterford home like a zombie, modulating her voice to robotically polite, (literally) burning any remnants of her rebellious or hopeful past, treating Nick — her once-lover — as if he’s a stranger, with whom she shares nothing but a superior. It’s telling that we get no voiceover in this episode. June has been demeaned so significantly that she can’t bring herself to even think for herself.

Aunt Lydia is still regularly monitoring June’s pregnancy, intruding on the family to Serena Joy’s great irritation. She weighs June, measures the size of the baby, considers her mental state. She even gets to take notes with a pencil — the sound of the lead against paper making Serena cringe with jealousy — in a case of “special dispensation” for aunts. Serena’s clearly growing tired of the check-ups. She encourages Lydia to leave and takes clear offense when Lydia says one of her jobs is to observe the “mood” of the home in which June is carrying the baby. And the mood, it’s no secret even to Serena, is insufferably grim.

“Seeds” is most successful when focused on Serena, whose loneliness, depression, and repressed rage comes into strikingly clear view. Ironically, it’s June’s blind, emotionless obedience which really throws Serena, and puts her particular predicament into focus. June’s in no position to gossip with her about other handmaids. She’s not interested in bickering or undermining Serena. Their dynamic used to be a dysfunctional, even dangerous one, sure, but it was also a human one: their profound dislike of one another was right there on the table, the one chance Serena had to act out her feelings. Now, she has no reason to punish or scold June. She’s being driven mad by it.

Serena does act out in another way, however. When Nick tells her that he’s worried about June, Serena remembers the true connection they share — one she inadvertently helped facilitate last season — and seeks to break it. Over breakfast, she sits on the opposite end of the long table from the Commander. He kindly ignores her various niceties. But when she notes that Nick really cares about June, it sticks — the Commander doesn’t quite react, but he internalizes the message. And he seeks to do something about it.

The Waterfords head to a “Prayvaganza” organized by the Commander — event names can stay just as cheesy in Gilead, apparently — in which the handmaids and wives sit in rows while a ceremony takes place down below. It’s initially unclear to June, watching from above, and Nick, who’s escorted out to the main floor, what’s going on. But then it becomes clear. Young brides, their faces covered by veils, march onto the floor and stand opposite the men being “honored.” They’ve unknowingly wandered into a marital ceremony. Nick appears uneasy, even heartbroken, and June manages to express a human emotion again: sadness. She cries from above and makes eye contact with Nick.

As the ceremony concludes, he lifts his bride-to-be’s veil, a woman much, much younger than him, who appears alternately petrified, confused, and intrigued. (We later learn she’s been separated from her mother; she shares a moment with Serena, who, erm, kindly advises her to enjoy the sex she’s now required to have.) It’s an ugly moment, and Serena’s toxicity is in full view here — she delights in the spectacle. In a painfully effective flourish, the scene’s sound goes silent as June finally brings herself to clap, to “celebrate” the union. (Recap continues on Page 2)

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