The Handmaids Tale S01E02 “Birth Day” REVIEW
Airing on Channel 4, Sunday at 9pm
Writer: Bruce Miller
Director: Reed Morano
Essential Plots Points:
- Offred is being raped again. Her narration talks about how the blue of the ceiling and how she uses it to take her mind off what’s being done.
- The next day Ofglen and Offred meet up again and go shopping. They snatch a moment to chat and exchange tiny facts about their past lives. Offred was an editor. Ofglen was a University professor.
- They watch as a local church is ripped down. One in which Offred’s daughter was baptised. Ofglen mentions that St Patrick’s in New York was destroyed too.
- Offred asks her how she knows there’s an eye in her house and…
- A van pulls up and time slows down as the two men in unmarked suits with com links in their ears get out and arrest someone on the street.
- Later, near home, Ofglen asks Offred to join the Network of resistance. She doesn’t give a straight answer but the seed is planted; There’s an ‘Us’.
- Later still, she’s drying off when Nick the driver comes in. They chat briefly, and guardedly. Offred, in getting changed, shows a knee. Nick stares at her until she covers up. He warns her to be careful of Ofglen.
- They circle one another, Offred careful not to make eye contact even as Nick tries to work out how to be in her presence. He tells her that the Commander wants to see her at 9pm that night.
- Offred panics, thinking frantically. She isn’t supposed to be alone with the Commander. And yet she’s been ordered to be.
- The Birthmobile arrives, signalling the successful delivery of a baby. It’s OfWarren, who June knows as Janine.
- She flashes back to the birth of her child as the infertility plague really begins to bite. She remembers her husband helping her out, the waves of people praying for successful births and…
- The Birthmobile arrives at the house of Ofwarren’s owner. Offred chuckles at the wife going through ‘labour’ assisted by the other wives. In a nearby room, Janine is surrounded by the Handmaid’s chanting ‘breathe breathe breathe’ and ‘exhale exhale exhale’ Offred reassures her and flashes back to the birth of her own daughter.
- Offred chats to the nurse who takes Hannah away to be bathed. Leaving Offred looking at an empty maternity ward. Hannah is the only baby in the hospital…
- She comes back to herself, watching the wives and their ludicrous, tragic pantomime.
- Offred and Ofglen snatch a moment together and Offred tells her about the appointment. Ofglen agrees to try and find out what’s going on.
- Serena Joy takes Offred off to brief the wives on what’s going on. They’re BORED, and treat Offred like a well-trained dog, ‘treating’ her to a cookie.
- Offred is dismissed and spits it out. Then smiles, just a little, and walks out of shot.
- Upstairs, Janine still isn’t giving birth. She asks to walk around and is placed in the birthing chair in the corner of the room. As the time draws near, the two groups combine The wife straddling the Handmaid It’s intimate and well intentioned and absolutely, completely horrifying.
- She gives birth, there’s a moment of terrible silence and then…the baby cries.
- And just for a moment Gilead doesn’t exist. There are no Wives. No Handmaids. Just women celebrating the creation of a life and supporting one another.
- And then the baby is taken from her mother and given to the woman who will raise her.
- She’s named Angela and the Wives chant this over and over as Ofred tries to comfort an increasingly distraught, heartbroken Janine.
- In the past, Luke and June wake up to find an alarm going off. They go looking for their baby and find the nurse who chatted to June earlier, apparently dead.
- And then a woman no one has seen before walks around the corner carrying Hannah.
- She insists Hannah is her baby and the two parents find themselves on either side of her. There’s an untidy, frantic struggle that finishes with her being arrested and Hannah returned.
- In the Birthmobile on the way back to their houses, the Handmaids are silent. Ofglen tells Offred that she wasn’t able to find anything out but tries not to make her worry.
- Back at the house, Janine is woken to breastfeed the little girl she isn’t going to be allowed to keep. She whispers to the child about how she’s her mother and reminisces about her previous child. She sings ‘Don’t Worry’ to the child, lost in the moment she’s allowed.
- Back at the Commander’s house, Offred prepares for her meeting as best she can.
- She goes into his office, which is massive, ostentatious and doesn’t fit him at all. He’s polite, even deferential and asks her to play Scrabble.
- They play.
- He just beats her. It’s left ambiguous whether or not she threw the game.
- It turns out Waterford is going to DC for ‘meetings’. She pushes, just a little. He pushes back, just a little. In a less horrific world it would be flirtatious, even charming. Here it’s Offred bouncing off the walls of her cage even as the man who cages her seems intent on showing how ‘nice’ he is.
- Outside, Offred makes her way upstairs to her room and then falls apart.
- It was just a game. He just wanted to play a game.
- The horror and the rage and the joy erupt out of her and she starts laughing. It’s ridiculous. She survived.
- And then ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by Simple Minds starts playing as she leaves the house, smug and happy and eyeballs Nick the whole way.
- She thinks about Oflgen. About how happy she’ll be that Offred let Waterford win. She walks up to the gate, her companion looks up and….
- It’s not Oflgen.
- Something’s gone terribly wrong.
- The narration finishes with one big swear.
This episode centres, of course on three births. The first is Janine’s child. The second is June’s. The third is the cautious way that Offred begins to step back out into her mind as June. Elizabeth Moss is amazing this week, and there’s a real sense of Offred starting to test boundaries in a flamboyantly dangerous way. Her smirk at the ridiculous wife’s ritual, the gloriously placed ‘victory’ montage at the end and that single, perfect profanity. All of them combine to show Offred being reborn into June once again and that birth being difficult, cautious and fraught with peril.
This is where the episode soars. The tragic, hilarious, horrific twin rituals would be enough for any other show. But here we get to walk around that concept, see the uncomfortable and presumptuous violation of physical space in every way and get even more of a look at just how broken Gilead is even as it’s born. Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy is slowly becoming one of the best parts of this intensely strong cast. She communicates pride, anger, disgust, revulsion and guilt all at once and there’s clearly a lot going on under the surface with the Commander’s wife. Her role in the ‘Birth’ is especially telling, as is the way status is explored through that and the far more Earthy, hands on actual birth.
But it’s the point where the baby is healthy that stays with you. That moment would have killed a lesser show but the emotion, the tangible relief, is so strong here it’s profoundly happy. A moment of actual joy in the same episode as a rape, a hanging and two disappearances. Gilead is a knife edge, and the handmaids walk along it. But Offred is starting to dance.
This leads to the fourth birth in the episode; Gilead itself. We get flashes of hope that all is not quite lost here. The churches are still being demolished, the handmaids are grabbing scant seconds of time together. There’s still a memory of what was before, a war being fought and Ofglen’s brief, desperate speech about how there are only two stars on the flag now. Gilead is weak, both morally and psychologically, and you see that every time Waterford and Serena Joy are on screen. One is locked away in his own head. The other can’t look away from the horror she’s assisted in bringing about and the cost that has for everyone. That’s where hope lives, for Offred, Oflgen and the rest. In the fact that Gilead has been born but hasn’t started to cry yet. And even as you realise that you realise how skewed and horrific the show is. Infant mortality as a metaphor for hope. That’s the best Offred can hope for. That and the gloriously profane voice in her own head. Roll on episode 3.
- There’s a shot of the ‘ceremony’ in episode 1 we don’t think was used. It’s Mayweather, hands on his hips, looking actively bored as he rapes Offred. It’s horrific and absurd and stupid and burns itself onto your eye.
- Mayweather being fully clothed during the rape somehow makes it worse.
- The fact Offred’s boots don’t have laces tells you everything you need to know about how trusted she is.
- The birth is like a 4K modern American advert. All fake faux joy and gentle, serene hyper-wardrobed sincerity and jealousy.
- Are Offred’s moments to camera actually TO camera? We’re not sure right now but if any show could make a fourth wall break work it’s this one.
- The shot of Janine being embraced by the Handmaids is just heartwrenching.
- The direction is again fantastic. Look at the sheer size of the door to the Commander’s office, at how small Offred is. The entire show is designed to make these women seem small, and insignificant. In doing so it focuses in on the one place they have to themselves; the single tiny snatched moments where they can hide inside what they’re viewed as instead of who they are.
- ‘It’s okay. To be relieved it wasn’t you.’
- ‘I’m not that kind of person.’
‘No one is until they have to be.’
- ‘Now there has to be an us. Because now there is a them.’
- Nothing. Again. This show is that good.
And The Random:
- ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ was recorded by Simple Minds and is famously played over the end of 1980s teen movie, The Breakfast Club.
Review by Alasdair Stuart