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The Handmaid's Tale - Postpartum - Review

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The Handmaid’s Tale “Postpartum” was directed by Daina Reid with teleplay by Eric Tuchman. Bradley Whitford joins the cast as the mysterious Commander Lawrence – and it seems fitting to have another West Wing alum on the show given the troubling echoes with current American politics. Postpartum really refers to “after birth” but is so often associated with “postpartum depression.” We see the aftermath play out for several characters.

Again, I have to begin by commenting on the wonderful cinematography in this episode, from the beautiful opening shots of Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) in the sun with the baby, to June prostrate on the floor, caressing the wood as she hears her baby beneath her, to Eden (Sydney Sweeney) and Isaac (Rohan Mead) floating in the pool, looking like dancers frozen in the middle of their routine.

Serena is, for the first time ever, serene. The episode opens with just the sounds of the baby as Serena bathes her and feeds her. She has called the baby Nicole – though we don’t know why. In closed captioning, it’s spelled Nichole and this spelling is the French feminine version of Nicholas, so is it a subtle dig at Fred (Ralph Fiennes) and an acknowledgment of Nick (Max Minghella) as the father? The meaning of both spellings, however, goes back to Greek origins, meaning “victory of the people.” There is no biblical name associated. I suspect that Serena sees this as a personal victory – the thing she gave up everything for – as well as a societal victory as the entire handmaid program was designed to help combat the fertility problem.

June is now back at the Red Center, and we see her hooked up to a breast pump machine, looking for all the world like a dairy cow. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is proud of June – and the fact that she gave birth all on her own. June’s milk is drying up, however, and both June and Aunt Lydia know that if she were nursing this wouldn’t be the case. Aunt Lydia is clearly not happy about it, but toes the party line in saying that it’s Mrs Waterford’s decision. And then, just like a good dairy cow, Aunt Lydia tells June that she’s in high demand as a handmaid. She’s clearly good, hardy stock. The Webbers have even stooped to bribery and sent Aunt Lydia baked goods. She is “generous” enough to offer June one muffin – bran, of course! June tells Aunt Lydia that she deserves a whole cake. Aunt Lydia is still inclined to grant June a little slack though she reminds her that prideful girls get nothing.

Fred is settling into a new office, and tells the other Commanders who have gathered to congratulate him that Nick is the real hero. Fred was able to smooth things over with the authorities and Nick thanks him. Fred, for his part, thanks Nick for handling the situation at the house. Fred concludes that the two of them look out for each other. If only he knew why Nick had been placed with him in the first place. Fred tells Nick that the future is full of possibilities for him, and Nick tells him that he appreciates it – though by his face, he clearly doesn’t. Fred then makes Nick hang a new portrait of Fred with Serena – and Nick’s baby. Fred says to Nick, “Inspiring, isn’t it?” Oh Fred. You’re such a putz.

Meanwhile, Eden shares a similar moment with Serena. Serena is looking at her chest full of baby clothes – which Rita (Amanda Brugel) will later lament to June that Serena changes the baby’s clothes every 10 minutes! – Eden is holding the baby and hopes that she’ll be as lucky someday. Serena tellsl her “patience, service, and sacrifice. In the end, it’s all worth it.” I almost feel sorry for Serena… When Rita brings a bottle, she mentions that they are running out. She even risks herself for June by mentioning that sometimes the milk dries up… Serena snaps that she knows – and then sends Fred to the Red Center.

June is brought to the chapel, and Fred and Nick are there. This is beautifully shot as at first, June doesn’t see the baby because Fred is standing in front of her. As soon as Fred steps aside to reveal the baby, June is horrified. She’s clearly steeled herself never to see the baby again. Aunt Lydia hilariously remarks that the baby looks just like her father! The idea is to “prime the pump” and it works, June’s milk comes flooding out. June asks to nurse her, but Fred won’t let her. Aunt Lydia suggests that it would be a lot more efficient for June to pump back at the Waterford’s. With the possibility of seeing the baby, June actually meekly asks that she may be worthy. Again, did I mention that Fred was an idiot?

June returns to her room, and Serena is furious with Fred. We learn that she’d made him promise not to let June touch the baby. Fred insists that having June at the house is better for the baby – it is, but it’s also better for him. Serena relents, but insists that the baby must have a calm environment – June has no contact with the baby and pumps in her room.

Meanwhile, Emily (Alexis Bledel) is assigned to a new posting. Aunt Lydia tells her that Commander Lawrence is the architect of Gilead’s economy. Aunt Lydia clearly has no use for Emily – and all her transgressions. For her own part, Emily wants to know “why such an important, brilliant man would take in such a shitty handmaid.” When Cora (Victoria Fodor) opens the door and we see she has only one eye, it’s clear that Lawrence at the very least likes a challenge – or perhaps he’s making up for his own sins.

The house is covered in art – some of it clearly shocking Aunt Lydia. Commander Lawrence finally show up, after Cora has wandered off, cursing at tripping over things. He simply stares at Emily and then finally stammers out Blessed be the fruit. Emily gives the appropriate response – to which he says “Super” and unceremoniously shows Aunt Lydia the door after telling her that Mrs Lawrence (Julie Dretzin) won’t be coming down as she’s not feeling well.

There’s an awkward silence as the Commander stares at Emily after Aunt Lydia leaves. When he hears a crash, he tells Cora not to touch his stuff and asks if she wants a beating. She yells back, “Try it, old man!” They are clearly teasing each other. Emily has no idea what’s going on. Bledel is fantastic here as she is clearly taken completely off guard by the entire thing. She wanders around the house that is littered with art, music, and books.

One of my favorite moments in the episode – possibly the season – is when Emily stumbles upon an open copy of Maus – the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews. Was this Lawrence’s blueprint for Gilead? Lawrence comes in and asks Emily what she’s doing. He asks her if she knows the penalty for reading. She does – a finger. He asks if she thinks that’s fair. Emily tells him it’s the law – without risking herself by voicing an opinion. He knows she hasn’t really answered the question. He also mentions that “back in the good old days” it used to be a hand. Has her perhaps helped to make the sentence lesser? He would appear not to approve.

Back at the Waterford’s June is putting her pumped milk in the refrigerator and runs into Eden. Eden asks if it hurts – pumping. June says no, it just feels odd. Eden says that she can’t wait to feel it – nursing not pumping. She seems completely oblivious to the cruelty of the remark. For her own part, June is kind, telling Eden that she’s sure she will one day – well, she knows that Nick is fertile after all! Eden then remarks that God wants parents to love each other and the child. June thinks she’s talking about Nick’s feelings for her and tries to reassure her, telling Eden that she won’t be around much longer. June then tells her that she thinks “in this place, you grab love wherever you can find it.” No doubt these words will come back to haunt June – and be a driving force to her reactions. Eden wishes June a blessed night and sweet dreams.

The next day, Rita is giving June a list for the store, when Nick comes in looking for Eden. Rita grumbles about having to look after his wife, but neither have seen her. June, hilariously, says she thinks she might have gone to the mall – Old Navy has a sale on! Oh for the days of when that’s where you’d find the resident teenager. Nick takes their moment alone to remark on how beautiful their baby is and wishes he could hold her. The two share a very sweet moment as they fantasize about running away with the baby to have a life of their own in Hawaii – Maui. June tells him that she wants to call the baby Holly after her mother and he thinks it sounds right.

The two are interrupted by Fred who is looking for Isaac who never reported for duty. Nick immediately realizes that they “have a situation.”

Fred is freaking out as Serena is trying to soothe the baby who is clearly agitated. She finally tells him to just go and do whatever he has to do to find “that girl” and leave her out of it. Later the baby is still crying and won’t settle. Rita offers to take her but Serena won’t give her up. Serena has seen the power of touch with the Putnam’s baby. Serena is also thrilled to have the baby – but she is also missing out on the full experience. She tries to nurse the baby to soothe it. It’s clearly what the baby wants, but when there is no milk forthcoming, she goes back to crying. Serena is clearly distressed that she wasn’t able to soothe the baby.

June is helping with the dishes when Rita comes in with the laundry. When Rita is called away, June takes the opportunity to pick up the baby clothes and smell her daughter. Once again, she’s interrupted by Fred. June remarks he’s working late, and he tells her that it’s wasted time, looking for that “slut.” June simply hopes that she’s ok. Fred then asks her why Eden would risk so much to run away. June, ironically and angrily, answers that she doesn’t know. What are you risking if you aren’t free or have no love in your life? Have I mentioned recently that Fred is an idiot? And cruel…

Fred wants to know where June was when he and Serena were at the country house. June tells him hiding in the attic and assures him that she didn’t hear anything. Fred changes the subject to June’s reunion with Hannah – for which he now wants to be properly thanked. June offers to play Scrabble with him sometime. He’s clearly not that impressed – and it’s not what he wanted to hear – but June clearly hates him at this point.

Emily is washing and getting ready for bed when Eleanor (Mrs Lawrence) appears in her room. She wants to know who Emily is. I loved this mad woman in the attic twist. How would Gilead treat the insane? I doubt that it would be kindly, so it makes sense that Lawrence would hide her away. Eleanor wants to know Emily’s real name. She then goes on to tell Emily that Joseph is the one responsible for the colonies. It’s at this point that the Commander shows up and drags Eleanor out as she screams that she hates him and he’s disgusting. He’s not rough with her and in fact, cradles her protectively as he tells her that “It’s alright, sweetheart” and gently puts her back in her room.

He has Emily come back downstairs with him and pours them both a drink. He tells her that they “value privacy in this house.” He’s clearly trying to help the women if he can. It seems likely that he specifically asked for Emily because she was in the colonies. Perhaps a way of assuaging his guilt? Emily asks if Eleanor is alright, and he tells her that she was an art professor – life didn’t turn out beautiful as she’d hoped. He asks where Emily is from, and when she continues to give pat answers, he reveals that he already knows everything about her – including her wife and son and what was done to mutilate her. Whitford is terrific in this scene as it’s hard to get a read on whether the Commander is an enemy or an ally. He somewhat cruelly asks her if she’s healed from her surgery – like that would actually be possible. Emily is crying at this point and can’t respond.

Eden and Isaac are, of course, ultimately caught. Nick tries to get Eden to says she’s pregnant – she’s not and they’ve already checked. Nick tries to get her to say that Isaac took her by force – there’s no saving Isaac because he deserted. Eden again refuses because it’s not the truth. She tells Nick that they just wanted to make a family. Nick tells her that they can have a baby, but Eden just wants Nick to forgive her. Nick is consumed by remorse – because he IS a nice guy – and asks her to forgive him for not being kinder to her. Eden suggests that they forgive each other. I loved the very Romeo and Juliet feel to the storyline. Eden is only 15 and she’s not mature enough to really understand all of the consequences to her actions, but she’s determined that love is worth dying for. I have to say that I wasn’t expecting her to become a tragic hero.

A small crowd has gathered at the pool. Just when you think that Gilead can’t get any more barbaric, they find yet another ceremony to throw at you. June is sitting with Rita and they are next to Eden’s family. Nick comes up and sits down, and it’s clear from his face that he didn’t get through to Eden. Serena is there with the baby and her eyes are full of tears. Fred is sitting apart and is clearly angry – at Eden and for the trouble she’s caused.

The Judge (Richard Blackburn) pronounces Eden and Isaac guilty of infidelity. The two are lead chained and with iron balls attached to the diving platform. The Judge asks them to renounce their sins and plead for His mercy. He clearly wants them to simply renounce their sin. Eden’s mother (Valerie Lecomte) calls out to her, and Nick is wordlessly  - though his lips are moving – still hoping Eden will recant.

However, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion – and let’s not forget June’s words to her – Eden steadfastly maintains that “love is patient, love is kind” – but it isn’t either in Gilead. The two lovers are shoved into the pool. All of the women are utterly horrified. Serena is crying, and it’s clear that it is really only in this moment that she realizes that what she has done in helping to build Gilead now threatens the very life of the baby she wanted so desperately. It's also telling that Serena and June are mirrored in their reactions with hands over mouths - two other strong female voices silenced.

That night, June brings her milk down and sees Nick sitting at the table. She sits with him and rests her hand on his arm to comfort him, but he pulls away and gets up and leaves the kitchen.

In the final scene, June stops at the baby’s room and goes in to ask Serena if she’s alright. Serena is crying – and again this is beautifully shot with the baby lying between the two women. Serena quotes the Bible and says “I will contend with those who would contend with thee and save the children.” It’s her way of saying that she will do whatever it takes to protect the baby.

When the baby begins to cry, Serena picks her up and June offers to get a bottle. Serena, however, is finally putting the baby before herself and stops June. She lets June breastfeed the baby. I loved this moment between Moss and the baby. June places her forehead against the baby’s, rocking her gently. The two women have finally found common ground, and the final shot is of the two of them sitting closely together as June nurses the baby.

This was another amazing episode with spectacular performances from all the actors. It’s clear that they all deserve Emmys for this episode! I felt badly – just like Rita – for not warming up to Eden, but in the end, she is the one who taught the others something in this episode. I love how carefully written and shot this show is. Again, the beautiful cinematography only underscores the content. Seeing Eden finally struggling underwater and then the tragically beautiful tableau of the two lovers floating – but trapped under the water – their love the iron balls that drown them in the water of Gilead. What did you think of the episode? Do you have a pick for the Emmys? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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