Blessed be the fruit, my little Handmaid fans. Here we find ourselves hip deep in episode two. I’m curious as to why Hulu released three episodes in one go. I assume that in the future, we’ll just get one a week. (I really hope so, because watching and recapping three episodes is KILLING ME.) Hulu is the one streaming content provider that shies away from the binge model episode dump of Netflix, and to be honest, I like that about them. I know we all like to pig out on TV, but I also enjoy letting a series unfold week by week. Some of my best memories of grad school are cooking a big dinner (porkchops) and sitting down to watch Mad Men, and then knowing there was a whole week before the next one. That space gives a girl time to process what she’s seen and anticipate what’s to come. I think it is key to the prestige TV model, with the attending recaps and comments and crazy theories (remember when we all thought that Megan Draper was gonna get Sharon Tate-ed?). Just dumping 13 episodes out in trough does not create a space for that same reflection. Dumping three episodes out in the trough is a little better, but I don’t like the rush it puts me in.
“Birth Day” takes the model of the previous episode and splits June/Offred’s time between a present storyline and a flashback. In the present, she grows closer with Ofglen, who reveals herself to be a kickass former college professor with two working ovaries and a wife and child. Offred is like, oh, I thought they got rid of the college professors first! Ofglen says, well, yeah, but I wasn’t tenure-track so they didn’t care. NOT REALLY BUT HAHA ACADEMIA JOKE. Also, holy shit. Good to know that my profession will put me first against the wall. Ofglen is involved in a Resistance movement and she wants to recruit Offred because her Commander is a big wig. (If he’s such a big shot, why is he so Fiennes’ face sad all the damned time.) Offred can feed the Resistance information about the Commander. Offred is like, well, um, maybe.
When she returns from shopping, Nick the supposedly sexy is waiting to deliver a message. The Commander wants to see you, he says. He has a really great bootleg recording of sad man music you have to listen to. ALSO NOT REALLY BUT BASICALLY. Offred is freaking out. She’s summoned to a birthing ceremony and hops into a red van. Poor Janine is going to give birth. The Wives congregate downstairs and engage in some light, pointless lamaze while snacking on macarons and coffee (those bougie bitches). The Handmaids surround Janine upstairs as she’s birth coached by the Aunt who had her eye plucked out. Offred wanders around downstairs, and is given a macaron (orange, gross) as if she were a particularly well behaved Cocker Spaniel. She bites it but spits it out in the bathroom, sickened by the patronizing attitude of the Wives.
Janine gets ready to shit this kid out, and her Wife climbs into the bizarre birthing stool above her, so the Wife is symbolically giving birth to the baby. It needs to be said that no one even knows what this baby is going to be like. There’s a real possibility it could be deformed or die immediately, what with the environmental degradation that led to low fertility rates, miscarriages, and birth defects. (Prenatal care is so out this season.) But the baby is a fine, healthy girl (poor thing), and the Wives celebrate as the baby is placed into their compatriot’s arms. The Handmaids gather around Janine as her baby is taken away. In the van, Ofglen tells her that no one knows for sure if her friend, Moira, has been killed and that the Commander probably just wants a blowjob. Nick the supposedly sexy sees Offred talking to Ofglen and warns Offred that Ofglen is “trouble.” That freaks Offred out for a second, but talking to anyone is potentially trouble in this surveillance state.
Offred returns to the Waterfords and remembers she’s supposed to meet the Commander secretly, a major rule violation. She goes to his door and with great trepidation knocks. Now, this show uses voiceover to great and necessary extent. Because Offred is made passive by her role, because all communication is monitored by “Eyes,” the secret police, and everyone might be a spy, the voiceover is the only way (besides Moss’s beautiful, expressive face) the view comes to understand what Offred is thinking. And I love the voiceover. But I also think there are moments when Moss is pulling off the thought with her face and so the voiceover becomes redundant. If she’s thinking, “Fuck you,” we can see that pretty clearly on her face because she is a great actor. After her moment of fear, she knocks on the door and walks into the Commander’s manly paradise, which is filled with books. Offred was an editor when she was June, so you can imagine the pleasure and pain of being surrounded by the things that have been forbidden to her. The Commander wants to play a game: Scrabble. A game of WORDS, WOMAN. Offred is clearly a kick ass Scrabble player, but she lets him win because she’s not a dummy. He tells her he’s going to be out of town, and she coolly asks where he’ll be, thinking of the information she can pass on to Ofglen and the Resistance. “Oh, just meetings in Washington,” sad Fiennes’ face Commander says. Theocracies love meetings just like regular jobs! And theocratic middle men hate them just as much as the rest of us! The two shake hands and make a date for the future, with some energy passing between them.
In the flashbacks, we see June’s pregnancy and birth. She tells her best friend, Moira, about the pregnancy, and admits she’s scared because of the miscarriage chance. Later, we see June and Luke as they speed to the hospital when she is in labor. There are crowds of protesting (?) people outside, alternately shouting and praying. June has the baby, who is a healthy girl, and chats with the nice maternity nurse. They walk down the hall, and she sees the empty nursery. “Where are all the babies?” she asks. The nurse tells her that two have gone to the NICU and one went to be with God. That shot of the empty nursery shakes everyone: this is a real crisis. Later, June wakes up to an empty crib. Her useless husband comes sauntering up the hall, all derp derp derp I thought you had the baby. Alarms sound, and Offred sees the nice nurse lying in a pool of blood and a woman holding her baby, insisting that it is hers. Luke does something (finally) and grabs the woman. They get the baby away from her and she is handcuffed and screaming about how that’s her baby and God gave it to her.
These flashbacks flesh out some stuff that remains murky in the novel. The shot of the fervently praying crowds outside the hospital, the way the nurse casually tosses out what will become Republic of Gilead boilerplate speech, and especially the empty nursery give the viewer an idea of how things have declined in society pre-takeover. Similarly, the conversation between Offred and Ofglen about the torn down cathedral and the fighting give a picture of the civil war that is still engulfing the country. Offred says: “The US capitol has moved to Anchorage, Alaska, and the flag only has two stars.” The TV show makes explicit what works in the novel as hints, and I suppose that’s the job a filmed adaptation is supposed to do.
Offred’s Mom Watch: no Mom for Offred. Instead, we hear about her father, which barf. In the novel, Offred’s mom is a militant lesbian who basically used a man as a sperm donor to have Offred. In the TV show, we have Offred waxing poetic about her father’s home parish. Make Offred’s Mom Gay Again!