We may be impatient for the revolution to get going, but it’s also refreshing to see The Handmaid’s Tale take its time again. Even if the decision is entirely calculated, a slow and satisfying build, hopefully to be a followed by a fiery finish, will feel that much more satisfying.
That payoff is slow in coming, because the series has become known for quite a few negative characteristics along with its very positive attributes, and there’s about as much of each in “God Bless the Child.” All of Gilead has gotten together for a mass baptism, and since weddings have, shall we say, lost their intimacy, this baptism has the kinds of dramatic showdowns that would fit right in at a soap opera. At least, if that soap opera took place in a dystopian world ruled by religious fundamentalists.
Not that this event is exactly cozy. It’s a cold communal ceremony that triggers another of June’s (Elisabeth Moss) flashbacks to the baptism of her daughter Hannah, a warmly intimate affair where June was surrounded by family and friends in a sunlit church. It wasn’t without its disagreement and friction, with June’s mother calling out the Catholics for their sins and Moira (Samira Wiley) mentioning how her presence seemed to rub people the wrong way. There are no such disagreements at the Gilead ceremony, although there is joy to be found when a daughter of Gilead who was “taken by evil” is mentioned.
The drama really begins when Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) takes the unprecedented step of inviting the Handmaids to her home for a reception after, and Janine (Madeline Brewer) is her usual idiotic self. Just holding her daughter Angela isn’t enough; she actually asks to be their Handmaid again so she can be with her daughter and provide them another child. It provokes a violent reaction in Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who has long been exhibiting signs that Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) attack has had severe effects that were beyond the physical. Afterwards, Lydia has one of the only regretful moments she’s ever experienced. Lydia and Janine have a complex relationship that has evolved into Janine becoming a favorite, and possibly the closest thing Lydia has to a friend.
Emily seems to be faring far better in Canada. Happy endings are rare on The Handmaid’s Tale, but Emily seems perilously close to getting one. Her wife Sylvia (Clea Duvall) is not only still wearing her ring, she has also apparently remained faithful. Their son Oliver (Charlie Zeltzer) still remembers Emily, filling his room with pictures of her. He even easily settles back into old domestic routines, asking Emily to read a book to him while both his mothers look at each in tears. This is usually when something terrible happens, but Emily is no longer in Gilead, so the show just might decide to let Emily be happy, even if she’ll probably have a few awkward conversations with Sylvia about the people she murdered.
June’s eventual low point is a certainty. She seems to have achieved a kind of privileged position, as she’s the only Handmaid who manages around in the background while Commanders and Wives coo over the children they stole, and even speak to the Waterfords separately. The fact that she could even close doors and get some privacy felt like a miracle, and her manipulates Fred (Joseph Fiennes) into giving Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) a more powerful position behind the scenes in Gilead feels rather baffling. Yes, June needs allies, but why these people, who have betrayed her at every nearly turn? What does this mean for the kind of complex relationships that can form when the people you oppress and enslave reside in your own home? The Handmaid’s Tale has no answer, at least in this episode.
The show also seems remarkably forgiving of Serena’s past actions, as if her giving up a child that was never hers to begin with absolves her of past sins. It’s the continuation of a rather ugly pattern that was established last season, wherein The Handmaid’s Tale enshrines motherhood as much as Gilead does. Just as Janine coming to hold her daughter somehow cured her, Serena acting like a good mother is enough to endear her to June. Serena and June even smoke while alone in a room together while discussing power moves. Hasn’t feminism gone beyond emulating men when women are fighting to take pack control in their lives?
And in spite of Amma Asante once again directing, The Handmaid’s Tale still has a loooong way to go in regards to race. June’s new walking partner Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) has given strong indications of being a true believer, and she proves it yet again. June tries to connect with Ofmatthew for the first time when she reveals that she’s given up three children, only for her attempts to be rebuffed, with Ofmatthew being one of the few Handmaids in the room who openly blames June for the disaster at the baptism reception. The fact that she’s a Black woman who embraces Gilead’s ideas is yet again something that deserves to be explored, and the fact that it hasn’t yet feels less subversive (or not at all) than another example of the show’s willful blindness.