Hope is in short supply in a grim, emotionally taxing episode
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)
Unbeknownst to Serena, or Nick, or anyone else for that matter, June is in the midst of a health crisis. Early in the episode, while on the toilet, June sees she’s bleeding. Her face stays blank upon the realization. Later, she’s soaking in a bathtub full of blood. She maintains her routine after, however, carrying on like nothing’s wrong. Rita notices she’s weakening, but June maintains her composure so as not to arouse suspicion. And when she returns from the Prayvaganza, June struggles up the stairs, still evidently bleeding. In a long silent sequence, we watch her move around her room, a little more mentally active, plotting or worrying or mourning Nick’s marriage — it’s not exactly clear.
Nick and the Commander share a “celebratory” drink to close out the night, toasting “to good women.” Nick tries his best to put on a grateful face, but we see his true feelings when he leaves, headed back to his quarters in the pouring rain, smoking a cigarette. The potency of all this isn’t quite what it should be when it moves away from Serena’s perspective; Nick has never been the show’s most well-rounded character, and June as a protagonist simply isn’t as compelling when she’s so brainwashed. The Handmaid’s Tale typically finds ways to cut through the unrelenting, but here, the show simply doesn’t have too much to offer. And things only appear to be getting worse in the episode’s climax: Nick finds June outside, passed out and covered in blood, and screams for help. June’s refusal to acknowledge her problem or ask for help suddenly looks like her giving up, a quiet suicide attempt.
Things are no less despairing in the “Seeds” B-story line, which takes us back to the Colonies — that utterly hopeless, dusty landscape where women are sent to die. On the one hand, it gives us a chance not only to see a little bit more of Emily — and Alexis Bledel’s terrific performance — but we get to spend some time with Janine for the first time this season, too. Unfortunately, it’s mostly a retread of our initial glimpse of the Colonies, as Emily guides Janine through its inhumanity and brutality. A light does shine through eventually, however, in Janine’s unwavering faith in God. She tries to see the good in an unimaginably bad situation, which drives Emily — a hard realist — crazy. “We come here. We work. We die,” Emily tries explaining. But whether it’s a few sparsely growing flowers or a love affair in their midst, Janine still finds a reason to smile. She even throws a wedding for Fiona and Kit, the latter of whom is dying, to give them a moment of happiness before their chance at being together is taken away. It’s a beautiful, understated moment, and Emily’s refusal to accept Janine’s optimism as good makes for an effective (if heavy-handed) contrast.
And the same, at long last, goes for June’s arc this week. It seems Nick found and rescued her just in time: She wakes up in a hospital bed, Serena sleeping in a chair opposite her, and appears stunned by her survival. Even more stunning: the baby’s survival. Serena goes to get the doctor when she wakes up, leaving June alone with her child. “You’re tough, aren’t you?” she says. And then, we see June come back to life — shaken, perhaps, by her own toughness. “I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me?” June tells the baby. “I’m going to get you out of here. I’m going to get us out of here. I promise you.”
It’s a powerful sentiment — triumphant, even, given the tone of the rest of “Seeds” — but it’s one that also carries a sneaky redundancy. We saw June go through this cycle of resistance before; we can’t know what comes next, but in such a restrictive and oppressive climate, it can’t be too much different. Then again, this seems to be the primary argument this season in Handmaid’s, for better or worse: no matter how terrible things get, we’ve got no choice but to keep hope alive.