'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 2, Episode 12 Recap: 15 Reactions to 'Postpartum'

The Handmaid's Tale
George Kraychyk/Hulu

The Handmaid's Tale

The footsteps and the slamming door at the end of season 2, episode 11 of The Handmaid’s Tale meant that Gilead had come for June and her baby, before she could take a minute to nurse or cut the umbilical cord. The baby’s birth happened two episodes from the finale, so it didn’t close the season’s arc, and several Chekhovian guns are waiting to explode. Also, we finally get some significant time with Emily, and several characters make unexpected turns.

Here are some noteworthy moments from “Postpartum.”

Another Name Theft. The episode opens on the sounds of a baby cooing and the idyllic scene of a baby being washed in clean water and soft light. Whose baby is this? The shot reveals: oh no, it’s Serena Joy. She’s beaming with happiness, glowing at her realized dream of finally holding a baby. Once again, the handmaid’s role in creating the baby is erased with the change of name by the adoptive parents. “God bless you, my angel. My sweet Nicole.” Ugh. Nicole. “Holly” had the old-school charm of an outdated name on the brink of cyclical revival and the connection to June’s mother, while “Nicole” sounds generic. On the plus side, Serena is far more tender and physically connected to Holly/Nicole than Naomi Putnam was with Charlotte/Angela.

The Perfect vs. The Good. Cut to Offred pumping breast milk into mostly empty bottles in the gray, sterile light of a empty Red Center dorm hall under the supervision of several Aunts. Mrs. Waterford, true to her word, isn’t letting the handmaid nurse her child. June reminds Aunt Lydia that she promised to protect her baby; Aunt Lydia counters that “one can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s jarring and ironic to hear an extremist zealot Aunt Lydia say that line. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is typically, in 2018,  a line spoken by centrists to urge extremists to adopt a less strident attitude in the name of real-world feasibility, not by extremists to urge capitulation from, well, normal people. It felt jarring to hear it coming from Aunt Lydia’s mouth.

New Office Humblebrag. The good news is that Nick is unharmed following his encounter with the two violent Guardians two episodes ago. However, there are no real details on precisely how he handled the situation. Fred, ever frail in his masculinity, can’t resist humblebragging to the two other commanders that he doesn’t really need an office this big. It’s noted that he’s now “running point on media expansion,” which could become relevant in subsequent seasons. After the two men leave, Waterford has Nick hang a family portrait of the Waterfords with Nick and June’s baby. No direct threats are exchanged, but the intent of their deeply coded conversation is to undermine Nick.

Spontaneous Lactation. The sight of Holly in the church causes June to spontaneously lactate. For once, Aunt Lydia does something good in negotiating for Offred to return to the Waterford house. But this small point is won based on Offred’s value as a vessel, a cow, to be used for her milk: “If you keep the infant separate from the source, we’re going to have to repeat this whole process.” This scene is the sole moment all episode where we see Fred holding Nicole. When Fred reintroduces them, “Nicole, this is Offred” it’s with the baby’s assigned name, and in a role as “Offred,” not “your mother.” He never says “Daddy’s here,” or shows any physical connection to the baby. Serena Joy doesn’t actually have any say in whether Offred can come home to pump for the baby, however furious she is. She’s back to her old tricks. Serena doesn’t have the power to keep Offred away, so she uses her small amount of power to make Offred unhappy, not allowing her any contact with the baby. So much for “domestic feminism.”

Finally, Bradley Whitford. Aunt Lydia tells Emily, “You’re running out of chances. You must behave.” But Emily has already been sent to the colonies. What else can they do to her? At no point are the handmaids offered any carrot, only sticks They enter the house of her new assignment, a red Victorian gingerbread manse. Her new Commander is Joseph Larwence, the economic mastermind behind Gilead, in a long-anticipated appearance by Bradley Whitford. Perhaps he’ll explain how their economy functions now that all of the American corporations seem to have disappeared, but that does not happen in this episode.

Emily still has a hard time saying what others want to hear, pondering aloud, “I’m wondering why such an important, brilliant man would take in such a shitty handmaid.” The Martha has one eye and a foul mouth, the first clue that there is something off about this household. The second clue is that there is a Basquiat on the landing. Most of the art in the Commanders’ homes in Gilead is pre-20th century and leans towards landscapes, portraits, and sedate, aristocratic themes. Aunt Lydia’s mouth drops open. This is a household with a knack for taking in misfits. Best of all, Commander Lawrence brusquely ushers Aunt Lydia out the door.

The Lawrence Collection. The Lawrence household is full of art world Easter eggs: two Basquiats, plus works in the recognizable style of O’Keefe, Matisse, Cezanne. If Gilead ever falls, the Lawrences’ art collection will hopefully make a nice foundation for the reconstituted modern wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus I lies open. Perhaps Lawrence appreciates Spiegelman’s work, but there’s the more sinister possibility that he’s studying how populations react to authoritarian takeover.

A Sale at Old Navy. In normal times, a girl like Eden would be at the mall, not married off to a stranger. Eden is missing, following a brief conversation about love with Offred the night before. The only noticeable change in her since her confrontation with Nick is in her wardrobe: her corset-like peasant bodice and puffy-sleeved blouse outfit this week is more figure-defining than the aprons and lumpy gray sweaters we’ve seen her in before. Nick and June have their first moment alone since the baby was born, and playfully contemplate running away to Hawaii together. It’s brazen of them to be speaking in the Waterford kitchen. They’re about to kiss when they are interrupted by Commander Waterford. That could have been a close call.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It appears that Eden and Isaac have run off together, but that’s the least of Serena’s worries: despite a plentiful milk supply, baby Holly/Nicole won’t stop fussing, from morning to night. Serena attempts quiet the child by offering her breast. The infant latches and calms for a moment, and Serena Joy is in heaven at getting to pseudo-nurse. But then the baby pulls away in disappointment and starts to scream again, and Serena apologizes, helpless to calm it. Serena is a monster. But the conceit in “Postpartum” that nothing but real breast milk from a baby’s biological mother can truly sooth and comfort the child is insulting to loving adoptive parents everywhere, not to mention biological mothers who can’t nurse.

Scrabble? It is disgusting that June has to flirt with her rapist. Commander Waterford expects her to be grateful to him for arranging the visit with Hannah, and to want to be in his company. It’s remarkable how quickly they’re brushing aside that fact that he raped her. At least, she seems to be getting better at manipulating Fred, suggesting that they could resume their old Scrabble games.

The Yellow Wallpaper. If episode 4 reflected '60s era horror, Emily’s journey in episode 12 is a tour of full-on Victorian gothic, complete with elaborate, crazily patterned yellow wallpaper (a la Charlotte Perkins Gillman) and a hidden madwoman in the person of Mrs. Lawrence, first glimpse through her ghostly appearance in Emily’s bedroom mirror. Mrs. Lawrence demands Emily’s real name, and appears to be a more sympathetic Mistress than the “sane” wives in Gilead. Hollow cheeked and wild-eyed, she tells Emily, “Don’t tell Joseph that I came in. He doesn’t like it when I talk to the girls.” Girls? Why is it plural? Do handmaids keep disappearing from this eccentric household?

Mrs. Lawrence does not have any information on state of the DJIA or the NASDAQ, but she is eager to divulge her husband’s role in turning dissenters into a disposable slave labor force to deal with the radioactive wasteland problem: “The colonies. He planned everything. He figured it all out. And I said, ‘Real people are digging up that dirt, and it’s poisoned.’” When Lawrence finds them, she screams at him, “You’re a monster! You’re disgusting! I hate you!” Mrs. Lawrence is the first non-complicit wife we’ve seen so far, and it’s destroyed her. Any Wife who opposed Gilead would either use her privilege to escape, be sent to the Colonies or executed for resisting, or go insane.

We Value Privacy in this House. “Life didn’t turn out the way she wanted it to. She was an art professor. She wanted everything to be beautiful,” Lawrence tells Emily over drinks in the dining room. An exceptionally blunt man, he knows all about Emily’s life and crimes, her career in academia, her lost family and her involuntary clitorectomy. He’s quizzing her. It appears that he took her in because he wanted to shield a stray.

The Wayward Bride. Eden ran off with Isaac, but Nick, feeling guilty for the times when he could have been kinder to Eden, is scrambling for practical ways to save her even though she’s a burden to him. Eden, a true believer, has the most surprising arc of the season so far. She appeared to be a threat to June and Nick, when all the time she was struggling to live in truth herself. The route that took her own wound up only hurting her and the unlikeable, misogynistic cipher Isaac: “I love Isaac and he loves me and we want to be together.” She had some depth to her, but she’s also a fifteen year old girl with little education who ran off with the first boy who kissed her.

Death by Drowning. The clip of a man and a woman drowning caused much speculation when the Season 2 trailer was originally released: who were the couple in the swimming pool? Now we know: it’s Isaac and Eden. Isaac was a jerk who hit Janine in the jaw with his rifle butt, was rude to June and Rita, had somewhat more lines of dialogue than Boba Fett and was somewhat less compelling. The characters we love are well rid of him. But he and Eden were in love. His face is the last thing she sees as the last air bubble escapes her nostril.

Family Outing. Isaac and Eden’s parents are seated near the Waterford household at the execution. Here’s a discordant note: Why is Eden’s little sister dressed in gray, when the female children in Gilead typically wear pink? Is pink particular to Commanders’ daughters and grey to econochildren, or do all girls switch to gray upon approaching adolescence? Serena is sobbing into her hands as they watch the drowning. She saw a beautiful young girl, a child, die, and she must be terrified at what the future holds for Nicole. But Serena still hasn’t atoned for her role in the rape, and any evolution on her part has always led, eventually, to a double-down recoil.

Isaiah 49:25. It’s extraordinary that June would ask the woman who held her down to be raped a few weeks earlier if she’s feeling alright, but that’s what she does. Mrs. Waterford answers, cryptically, with a Bible verse before finally letting Offred nurse the turbulently fussy Nicole/Holly: “Thus says the Lord: even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with he that contends with you, and I will save your children.” How does Serena apply this to her situation? Who, in her mind, is the captive, and who is the contender? What does it mean to her?

Perhaps the key here is that Offred first offered to go get a bottle instead of asking to nurse Nicole. It may be easier for Serena to act on the baby’s behalf if the handmaid isn’t implying recognition as an equal or any desire for human rights. Her main sign of evolution is that she responds positively to a sympathetic gesture from the handmaid, instead of harshly sending her back to her room as she following the whipping in episode 8. Serena Joy’s change of attitude is reflective of her feelings for the baby and general reverence for the idea of motherhood, not from any admittance of June’s humanity or acknowledgement of the injustices June has endured. There’s no guarantee that she won’t eventually have a predictably harsh backlash.