The Handmaid’s Tale: “Birth Day” Recap


By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

This is the happiest you’ll be while reading this recap, so strap in and let me fix you your drink again. It’s downhill from here.

Episode two of Hulu’s unrivaled original series The Handmaid’s Tale starts in the middle of the Ceremony again. This time we hear Offred’s inner monologue actively distracting herself, remembering her life before Gilead, the car they drove, her daughter…And at the end of the scene, it’s apparent both Offred and Serena are judging the Commander for taking so long to finish. Moments like this are apparent throughout the episode – certain characters silently acknowledging the ridiculousness of Gilead’s many different ceremonies and events.

Offred meets Ofglen again to go shopping, and they sit with two of their other Handmaids at the river, having a riveting conversation. Just kidding, they’re silent. The group breaks off into pairs again and Offred and Ofglen take the long way home to talk espionage again. We find out that Offred was an assistant book editor before, and Ofglen lived in Montana and came to the East Coast for school. Before Gilead, she was a lecturer in cellular biology at the university. (She’s a scientist resisting the government. Sound familiar? Namely the massive March for Science that happened recently, and the Climate March in D.C. just the other day.) We find out that scientists were rounded up and sent to the Colonies. And as they walk along the road, we see workers tearing down what used to be a stunning cathedral–St. Paul’s, Ofglen says. And Offred mentions some of the memories she had there–her daughter’s baptism, for example. Perhaps alluding to the fact that Offred – or June, as she called herself at the end of episode one – was Catholic, and Luke as well. When Ofglen mentions St. Patrick’s was destroyed and the rocks dumped in the Hudson River, you kind of get the feeling the Republic of Gilead isn’t a fan of Catholic Church. If the priest being hanged in the first episode didn’t clue you in.

When Offred asks Ofglen how she knows that there’s an Eye in her house, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, an Eye van zooms past them and screeches to a halt, Eyes climbing out of the back, looking right at the pair. But then they grab a man with a briefcase, beating him and dragging him away to the van where he’s promptly disappeared. It’s apparent both of the Handmaids thought the Eyes were there for them, and Offred seems to be suffering from both relief and guilt at her relief. Ofglen tells Offred, “There’s a way to help them. You can join us.” THERE’S A RESISTANCE! Hope springs eternal in the human breast! Offred tells Ofglen she’s not that kind of person, and Ofglen’s response is chilling: “No one is until they have to be.” (Did you feel that in your chest like I did? Phew.) Ofglen tasks Offred with spying on Commander Waterford.

Offred is caught in the rain and sits in the kitchen to take her wet stockings off. There, she has another run-in with Nick the driver. And he absolutely sees her bare thigh and knee. They have a moment that’s sexually charged before she covers her leg again. (This is some prime Victorian Era sexual tension. Put that ankle away, girl.) Nick warns her to not get too close to Ofglen, and she does a half-assed job of acting like Ofglen is just her shopping partner. Nick gives her a look like “Sure, Jan” and promptly tells her that the Commander wants to see her that night in his office. This is apparently a huge deal, as we see in both of their faces. Nick struts out of the kitchen to go do manly car fixing things, no doubt, as Narrator Offred tells us it’s forbidden to be alone with the Commander. Offred paces her room, thinking of worst case scenarios. That she’s already been caught, that she’s going to be killed. “Have I been invited to my own ending? No. ‘Cause it isn’t an invitation. I can’t send my regrets.” A reminder of just how little autonomy women have in Gilead. You’re told, you do, and that’s it.

Then the “Birthmobile” pulls up. It’s like the Batmobile, if the Batmobile was a red clunky kidnapper van that takes Handmaids to birthing ceremonies. As Offred climbs into the Birthmobile, we learn that one of the Handmaids is giving birth – Ofwarren, or as Offred calls her: ”one-eyed batshit crazy Janine.”

And as she tells us the chances of a healthy birth are one in five, if you can even get pregnant in the first place, we’re swept into a flashback of June’s own Birth Day, before Gilead. Luke is racing her to the hospital in the car. As they pull up to the hospital, we see people waiting outside, praying, holding signs, whispering… In a time of widespread infertility, it seems people have taken to hospitals en masse to desperately pray for healthy births. It’s a frightening image.

As the Handmaids file into the mansion where the birth is taking place, Offred wanders over to peek at what the Wives are up to. And when I say it’s a ridiculous scene, it’s embarrassingly ridiculous. The wife of this household is lying amongst her fellow Wives, pretending to be going through labor pains. Her feet are being massaged as they mutter things like, “You’re doing so great” and chanting, “Breathe” at her. To top off the ridiculousness, someone’s sitting off to the side playing a harp. (Really.) It’s almost depressing, but Offred looks amused, to say the least, in an eye rolling sort of way.

Then begins the single-most uncomfortable and heartbreaking birthing scene ever. Janine lies in bed (actually having labor pains, it needs to be said) while the Handmaids form a circle around her, chanting encouragement. Offred sweeps in to comfort Janine.

We’re given another flashback to the hospital where June gave birth to her Hannah. It’s a beautiful scene of connection between a mother and her baby, the most familiar/non-terrifying thing we’ve seen yet. The nurse comes in to take Hannah, and they all walk together to the nursery for Hannah’s bath. “Where are the babies?” June asks as she looks into the room. “Oh, we had a difficult night. Two went to the intensive care unit, and the others are with God.” Your stomach plummets along with June’s. One in five, if you can even get pregnant.

Offred meets Ofglen by chance in the kitchen and tells her friend about the Commander wanting to see her alone later that night. Ofglen says she’ll ask around to find out why. “It’ll be okay. I’m sneaky.” Yes, well…hopefully, Ofglen. For your sake.

Serena catches Offred lingering in the kitchen and is her usual prickly self as she leads her into the dining room where the Wives await news of what’s happening with the birth upstairs. What follows is the most infuriating exchange yet. The three Wives, Serena included, treat Offred with so much disrespect that my levels went through the roof. She’s offered a cookie by one wife. “You shouldn’t spoil them,” another says as though she’s a dog. And the way Serena asks Offred if she’d like a cookie – the hatred that drips off of every syllable. The Wives have very pointedly gone out of their way and are so, so kind in offering this lowly Handmaid a treat, so of course Offred has no choice but to accept. As Serena offers her Handmaid the cookie, you can feel her silently saying, Remember your place. It’s a new low. And when Offred goes into the bathroom and spits the cookie into the sink, wiping at her lips daintily as she smirks at her reflection in the mirror, the rebellion in her is uplifting.

Janine finally goes into labor then, and the Wives file in, putting the wife whose child this will become behind Janine in a gross mimicry of the wife’s position behind the Handmaid during the Ceremony. Like she’s giving birth. It’s seriously mortifying watching the wife pretend she’s in pain behind the Handmaid who is actually in pain. When the baby is born healthy, she is promptly taken away from Janine and given to the wife who has taken up the spot in the bed. The Wives coo and coddle, like they did something besides eating grapes, drinking coffee, and waiting. I’m not a mother, but this scene is probably the most cruel thing I’ve watched in quite some time. The Handmaids gather around the woman they know as Ofwarren and they embrace her, comforting her as her child is stripped from her before she even gets to hold her. She has to watch another woman hold and even name her baby.

And because this show doesn’t allow us to breathe for even a second, we’re plunged into an equally horrific and heartbreaking flashback. June is still at the hospital. She wakes up and finds herself alone. When she finds her husband, an alarm goes off in the hospital and all hell breaks loose. Luke sprints off. We’re confused along with June as she tries to follow him, scared. As she turns a corner, she spots her nurse dead on the floor, blood pooling under her head. Terrified, June then stumbles upon a woman who is holding Hannah in her arms, calling her “my baby.” This is one of the other mothers whose baby didn’t make it, and she’s stolen Hannah to replace it. It’s horrible and heart shattering as the police come to take the baby from her arms and pin her to the floor while she screams hysterically. It’s scary, it’s too real, and it just plain hurts to watch.

Ofglen tells Offred during the Birthmobile ride back to their homes that she didn’t find out why Waterford asked to see her alone, and that she should be careful of Nick the driver. Drivers are usually Eyes, she warns. Offred tells her Nick said the same thing about her, that she shouldn’t trust her, and Ofglen admits he’s right; it isn’t safe to trust anybody.

That night, Offred goes to the Commander’s office. All women are forbidden to be there, even his wife. (Note: this is yet another indignity to Serena Joy, another barrier between her and her husband.) But Offred acknowledges that Waterford must want something from her, and to want is to have a weakness. This gives her (and us) hope. “Thank you for coming,” he says, as though Offred has any other choice. “In here, we might be able to bend the rules just a bit,” he tells her, and it’s gross to think this guy decides he can bend the rules just a bit while every other faction of society would be killed or disappeared to the Colonies if they were to do the same. You can see the same thought in Offred’s face. But then Waterford breaks out his Scrabble board and asks her to play with him. It’s random and incredibly unsettling, and Offred clearly has no idea how to respond except to continue following orders. They play an uncomfortable game of Scrabble and schedule a time to play again. “I’ll check my schedule,” Offred quips. Much like Serena Joy when she allows Offred to eat a cookie, this is a gesture from Waterford that Offred must be grateful for, and it’s obvious he wants her to like him for it. In a way, there’s more kindness in this. And yet, it’s so insulting, because he thinks he can take connection and comfort from her even though he still considers her to be on a lower level of humanity. Oh good, I got my Scrabble game, now back to your cell.

Offred goes to her room, visibly shaken by the encounter, but once she’s on the other side of her bedroom door, she laughs. It’s a moment of release, perhaps, but also she has reason to hope. Waterford has just exposed a massive weakness to her. He’s pitiful and she’s laughing at him. The Waterfords are, for all intents and purposes, ridiculous, their existence laughable.

Whoever put together the soundtrack for the series is an outright genius. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” blasts during a slow motion sequence of Offred emerging from the house the next morning, obviously feeling powerful – or at least, the most powerful we’ve seen her yet. She and Nick’s eyes meet as she walks past his house on the property and they walk together for a moment as she wonders if he’s jealous about what occurred in Waterford’s office the night before. There is freedom in her inner monologue. She feels power and autonomy. Her narration is bitingly funny. She’s all smirkish. And as she approaches the gate where Ofglen waits, she’s excited to tell her everything that happened. She’s sure Ofglen will be proud of how she let Waterford win the game. But when Ofglen turns around, it’s not Ofglen. It’s someone else. Ofglen’s been replaced by some other pious little shit. She asks if Ofglen has been transferred to another post and receives the answer, “I am Ofglen.” WELL DAMN.

The relationship between Serena and Offred is already deepening, though not in the warm and fuzzy way. When Serena catches Offred smirking at the scene of the Wives comforting the “soon-to-be-mother,” it’s a scary moment. Because Serena Joy is not stupid. She’s not vapid like some of the other Wives in Gilead might be, and we see it in her face as she stares after Offred’s retreat. Her catching Offred making fun of the Wives is bad for two reasons: 1) Serena seems to be well aware of how stupid all of this is, and how depressingly desperate the Wives are to negate the shame of being barren, but she’s also got her pride, and being made fun of by someone so far beneath her will not sit well with her. 2) Offred has let Serena see a bit of rebellion, a sign she still has her spirit, so it’s easy to imagine Serena will be up to the challenge of destroying that rebellion and spirit.

So far, The Handmaid’s Tale has excelled at swinging the pendulum between hope and despair, but this episode in particular juxtaposed unsettling, oppressive scenes with moments of rebellion from different characters, giving us small glimpses of hope. Offred spitting out the cookie. Janine only seeing her own child to breastfeed her, and when the Martha leaves, defiantly singing Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About A Thing” to comfort the baby. There’s acknowledgement, too, from characters like Serena Joy and Commander Waterford; they know how ridiculous all of this is. They, too, feel imprisoned. But there’s also an unwillingness in both of them to acknowledge others living in even worse prisons than theirs. Their suffering obscures the suffering of others because they’re selfish. Joseph Fiennes plays Commander Fred Waterford with a perfect balance of vulnerability and selfishness. You both pity and despise him. He’s incredibly mockable in the Scrabble scene. What a depressing human being, you think…because for a second it helps you to ignore just how much power he has over the situation and over Offred’s fate.

There’s gold in them thar words!

And there are glorious tiny details in the episode that remind us that Offred is still fighting. Like the quick pan over a cubby in the Commander’s office in which we see an antique sword. She looks away from it quickly, even after she lingers a bit. Remember the machine gun she so fondly yearns for in the grocery store in episode one? Yeah… The words we see Offred spell during the Scrabble game, and the words on the board as they play, might also have some significance. The first word she spells as she’s setting up her letters is NATION. Like the U.S.A. of old, before the Republic of Gilead. LARYNX: the voice box, perhaps a symbol for the fact that Offred is forbidden to use hers freely. JUDGES: an interesting word choice in a society that hangs Catholics, Jews, gay men, doctors who perform specific procedures, etc. ZYGOTE: the cell that forms when an egg and sperm combine, an allusion to this society’s freakish and desperate obsession with creating babies. PRIED: Handmaids were pried from their lives, families, and personhood to create children for Gilead, their identities were pried from them, freedom pried from them. AWKWARD: because in what world isn’t this whole scene supremely awkward?

Look out for a recap of episode three soon! And for those who are waiting, Hulu is releasing the next episode this Wednesday. Enjoy episode two? Let us know in the comments!

    One Comment

  1. starskepticMay 19th, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    “Waterford has just exposed a massive weakness to her. He’s pitiful and she’s laughing at him.”
    – Um, more like the relief of the condemned man finding a reprieve.

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