The Handmaid’s Tale has always placed its attention on invisible wars. While the violence is explicit and the looming threats over our main characters constant, the vast majority of conflicts (with the obvious exclusion of the suicide bombing) have come between the lines. Every one of the brilliant scenes that Serena and June have shared this season have been based around this idea. Each character is trying to position themselves to take advantage of some opening in the other’s defenses. In a world where so much is considered taboo and one false step could mean the difference between a nice dinner and a cattle prod to the neck, the stakes in every one of these confrontations are enormous. Contests fought between characters are decided long before anything actually happens — they are all about maneuvering for higher ground.
June’s starting position in “Postpartum” is a lot better than any of us could have hoped for coming into this week. She’s escaped any kind of repercussions for seeing her daughter and, in fact, Aunt Lydia seems impressed by her resolve to give birth alone in that house and is being pretty nice to her. June even gets some muffins! Bran muffins, but muffins nonetheless. Sure, she’s been separated from Holly (renamed Nicole by Serena), but that was to be expected, and she’s quickly brought back into the Waterford house because they need her breast milk.
But none of that means that she’s coming from a position of strength. Gilead is still a society constructed to stack the deck against her, and nowhere is this more apparent than her conversation with Commander Waterford that comes at the midpoint of this episode. They start off by discussing Eden, who has just run away with the guardian Isaac (best known for pistol whipping Janine for no reason, but hey, love is blind I guess). As usual, these conversations are never about what the opening topic, and when Fred says, “Why would a girl risk so much to leave,” we know exactly where he’s going. He wields a tremendous amount of power in this exchange and, as skillful as June is at fighting these invisible wars of subtext, she has a lot of work to do even the playing field. He tries to disarm her by, at the same time holding the implicit threats of Gilead over her head, while outwardly questioning why her fear. It’s a move that I’m sure many women have felt from men before, and one that The Handmaid’s Tale explores very well here. June knows that she is lucky to fight him to a draw, pushing off a more explicit confrontation to a future Scrabble match.
It’s impossible to think about this scene without thinking about the next, which mirrors June and Fred’s conversation by pitting Emily against her new commander Joseph Lawrence. Joseph is a fascinating character right away, played by the sinisterly charming Bradley Whitford. This role sits squarely in his wheelhouse: a “cool” guy who appears apart from a system that he created, like the technician in The Cabin in the Woods or the father-in-law in Get Out. He doesn’t seem to abide by the rules of Gilead, his house is full of art, his Martha is allowed to swear and give him a hard time, and he sarcastically recounts the “good old days” where a woman reading would only result in her losing a hand. His response to Emily’s handmaid script is: “super.”
Things aren’t so rosy though. Joseph created the economy of Gilead and came up with the idea of the colonies, a place whose horrors Emily is acutely aware of. His wife is locked in her room and when she escapes to warn Emily, he throws her back in. The following conversation that the two have should imply a greater position of strength for Emily than June, but Joseph quickly breaks that apart. He knows everything about Emily, from her life before Gilead to her involuntary surgery last season. When she tries to return to her scripted handmaid answers, he cuts her off. Here, she can’t be sure what the rules are, but it is clear that Joseph is in control.
Eden’s battle against Gilead is far more visible. After being caught, she refuses to lie to save herself, making me feel pretty foolish for thinking she was a criminal mastermind. As it turns out she was just as silly of a girl as she appeared. She recites the classic “love is patient, love is kind” before being thrown into a pool to drown, reminding everyone of the stakes for a misstep, even if you say the right words.
The real invisible war at work in this episode — and throughout this whole season — is the one between Serena and June. Serena spends the entire episode keeping Holly from June and trying to eliminate her from the equation completely, so when June enters the nursery toward the end, we expect Serena to push her away. But, despite June being separate from Holly, Serena has felt her absence as fights against the spectre of June, trying to wrestle motherhood from her. She can’t breastfeed Holly herself and she can’t stop her from fussing, so she takes her first actually motherly action of the episode, and thinks of the baby first, reuniting June and Holly.
- Really Serena? You brought your baby to an execution?
- The camerawork in the scene with Emily in the Lawrence household is absolutely perfect.
- This is kind of missing the point, but I’d hate to be the guy who has to fish Eden and Isaac out of the pool.
- Nick and Fred’s conversation in his new office was also a nice little invisible battle. The subtext from Fred: this is my family.
- “I’m wondering why such an important, brilliant man would take in such a shitty handmaid.” I have a feeling that there is a reason, and that it might not be one that benefits Emily.
- “I think I’ve earned a whole cake” — seems like a reasonable request from June.