The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t exactly known for its twists as the various ways it can creatively and emotionally devastate us with them. In “Postpartum,” it does so yet again through Gilead’s true believers. We’ve seen the destruction such people can and have wrought, but what has gone unmentioned is how people who have absorbed its lessons can become something both sympathetic and tragic.
Eden has long been the show’s wild card, the child bride eagerly anticipating the family she has been taught to value at all costs. She’s lavished attention and care on her indifferent husband Nick, but she’s also considered reporting him as a gender traitor. She tries to make their house a home while making us wonder if she would report the Handmaids’ chronicles she unknowingly stumbled across. She pined for Nick’s love as she interrogated him about his illicit romance with June. In short, the supposedly sweet and innocent Eden has earned our sympathy and fear in equal measure, even as she remained firmly in thrall to her country’s fundamentalist beliefs.
It is those beliefs which lead her to risk everything to build a new life committed to them. Her husband’s neglect has led her to form a connection with Isaac (Rohan Mead), a young Guardian tasked with watching over their home. Nick’s apathy when he discovers this only devastates her more, but Eden and Isaac don’t resemble Romeo and Juliet so much as Alma and Reynolds from Phantom Thread. Their affection for each other does not lead to a kind of revolutionary sympathy for others. Isaac still sees the Handmaids as subhuman. Eden still wants her child to grow up like she did. They believe what they’ve been taught, and they want to act on it in a way their elders did not anticipate, which means the consequences are swift and deadly.
Eden and Isaac could save themselves, if only they were willing to renounce and confess, as Nick, Eden’s mother, and even the man sentencing them urges them to do right up until the end. But these children are true believers. They refuse, and Eden quotes Corinthians seconds before her and her lover’s demise. This being Gilead, it happens in front of an audience that includes Eden’s family, Serena, Nick, and of course, June, who unwittingly encouraged Eden in her actions when she told her to “grab love wherever you can find it.”
June can be forgiven for not catching on, since she obviously has her own problems. Last episode she delivered her daughter Holly alone after once again failing to escape. The worst of her actions have remained secret, but Holly has been taken from her to be raised by Serena and renamed Nichole. Of course, it isn’t long before June is back at the Waterfords, though the reasons may be no less functional, as she gives more milk when she’s near her daughter. Serena and June’s dynamic becomes more fraught, though in many ways it’s more of the same. Serena can no longer believe in the world she helped build, but still refuses to allow June any mercies. It’s only when she is emotionally devastated by Eden’s sacrifice that she allows June to come near her child. Her husband is even more predictable as he continues to leer and taunt June, proving that the power he enjoys in Gilead is pushing him even further away from the ideals (however twisted they were) that caused him to fight for its existence.
Alexis Bledel fares better, as Emily’s new assignment brings her to a home straight out of “Jane Eyre.” Her new Commander, Josheph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, the dad from Get Out), Aunt Lydia informs her, is a very important man who is considered the architect of Gilead’s economy. In contrast to the coldly immaculate homes we’ve seen, Lawrence’s is a cluttered mess with colorful paintings on the walls, a feisty one-eyed Martha, and a mentally unstable wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), who tells the new Handmaid her husband designed the very Colonies where Emily was a prisoner. Lawrence himself might be the only interesting male character on the show at the present. Fred has become a one-dimensional villain who might as well be twirling a mustache whenever he interacts with June. Nick seems to exist only to give the same tortured expression, and Isaac was given no development whatsover.
Joseph proves far more fascinating, and Whitford makes him an enigma who may be capable of anything, even as he seems to be something of a rebel in plain sight. He doesn’t adhere to the strict verbal back-and-forth Gilead demands, he is very well-informed about Emily’s past and gives her a drink as he asks questions which seem very empathetic. But he’s unsettling enough to make us wonder what his motives really are. The fact that the Lawrences showed up in this season’s penultimate episode indicates they’ll play a large role next season, and they’re practically dripping with potential. Here’s hoping it’s not wasted in a show that does tend to do a fair bit of that.