A Baby Is Born and Hope Is Dead in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

"Birth" highlights the power structure between Offred and the Commander, and between Offred and the Wives.

by Genevieve Valentine
Apr 27 2017, 4:00am

There are three battles in this episode of The Handmaid's Tale: They involve a birth, a game of Scrabble, and a cookie.

There's always something otherworldly about childbirth—Offred notes it as the Handmaids file in to help Janine during labor—but in Gilead, it becomes an almost supernatural event. Childbirth is so fragile that rules bend for it; handmaids can talk to each other without scrutiny, and make connections without punishment. (Offred's casual "Hey" is so powerful that the one word seems to bind her to Janine.)

That sense of the supernatural is only reinforced by the Wives recreating the labor downstairs—with bonus harpist—as if the pretense of the work will magically make the claim to motherhood legitimate. (What's oppression without a little classism?) Everybody knows it's bullshit: Offred snickers outright, and even Aunt Lydia flinches. But within the frantic editing of Janine's delivery, Reed Morano's camera allows the Wives a moment of real feeling. They know it's bullshit, too, but with so little else to hope for, are we surprised they bought in to some magical thinking?

Another reason they buy in: when it's over, they win. Offred has to guide Janine's stare away from what she can't have and gather her in. Around them, a fortress of red and white, the Handmaids hold on to each other.

That energy is everywhere, with desperate, hesitant lurches toward connection. There's Offred and Jeanine, and then there's Offred and Serena Joy. For Offred's sake, Ofglen taps the intel network gathered in Warren's house (behind those white wings, Handmaids have gotten very good at seeing). June even gets the satisfaction of a power game with Nick—a beat of triumph over a kneecap.

And then, Scrabble.

Amid the Commander's Victorian mad-scientist office with its obscene library is one of the most gripping battle scenes in recent memory: a miniature illustration of male privilege and oppression. There's a reason Offred invokes a horror movie just before she knocks: she's meeting a monster.

In this room, she's not her given name, June; instead, she's Offred. The Commander is part of the power structure that shapes the nation while Offred is separated from her daughter, forbidden to read, discouraged from speaking, and all his. If the aim really was just more babies, in vitro could do the job—but there's a reason why rich men get an extra woman.

Joseph Fiennes walks an incredibly difficult line here. The Commander himself might genuinely mean well. "In here," he promises, "we might be able to bend the rules just a bit." But what he doesn't understand, or chooses not to understand, is that it's not a gift to her. Those are rules he's responsible for, and she could be tortured for coming or for ignoring his order. There is no choice except to obey, and yet he treats it as if she took him up on an invitation. The Scrabble game gets offered like a gift—like a connection—and as the wash of letters overwhelms her, he gazes at her and smiles. When you take away everything someone has, you get to feel benevolent for handing out scraps.

It's almost funny, except when it's infuriating. We can see #NotAllCommanders coming a mile away, and so does Offred. But what can she do? Nothing.

That repeated Nothing is the real battlefield. It's the limit of her options when someone gives her an order; it's how much she knows about what happened to people she loves; it's what she becomes during the Ceremony, drifting, thinking about her old car. She's surrounded by a moat of Nothing, dying by a thousand cuts.

And so the biggest battle of the episode is when one of the Wives simpers, "Is it breach, dear? Did you hear that word?" and then offers her a cookie.

Elisabeth Moss is magnetic here: for a moment, and visibly against her wishes, her dignity implodes. She does want a cookie—it's one of the thousands of things she can't have, so why wouldn't she? But to take it from a woman who already accepts that Handmaids are ignorant, instead of editors and professors beaten into submission. Serena Joy, at least, knows Offred's playing a role; this woman wants nothing more than to believe what she's being told, and that indignity cuts deeper than anything at the Red Center.

Offred takes the cookie. She can't make herself swallow. (The sound design is still outstanding; that cookie dropping from her tongue onto the sink is viscerally satisfying and incredibly close.) Moss gives herself one murderous glare in the mirror before she goes, leaving that macaron on the matching pastel bathroom counter; a passive, wordless declaration of war. The Handmaids are in the next room; she isn't alone. In this moment, she can afford to fight.

But fighting back—even by connecting, or especially by connecting—can't stand. The second Offred tries to claim a little agency (courtesy of The Breakfast Club), she arrives at the garden gate and sees a new Ofglen. Sometimes you're in the horror movie; sometimes, nobody wins.

Before We Go:

  • We're discovering new rooms of the house; that mudroom/servants' hall is like something out of a Grimm story.
  • The dual signature shots this show is developing is a cluster of Handmaids seen from above as they're allowed to connect over something (anger, loss), and a close-up of Elisabeth Moss trying to give everyone around her an aneurysm through sheer force of will.
  • It took us longer to get to a flashback—the present is getting more interesting—and the lighting has lost its idyllic veil. Now it's our first glimpse of the uneasiness of one's pregnant body being a public hope; the sour note of hearing the first "Praise Be" infiltrate this world she still thinks is safe.
  • The Emmy for Best Flicker of Bullshit-Awareness Amid the Party Line goes to Ann Dowd, who made me laugh out loud in the moment Warren's Wife started pretending contractions.