'The Handmaid's Tale' Tips Into Misery Porn With "Seeds"

(We're going to kickstart our weekly The Handmaid's Tale review by answering one simple question: Who suffered the most?)

Misery porn isn't a term that I like to throw around lightly, but man, does The Handmaid's Tale make me want to. I'm running out of synonyms for "bleak" at this point. It's no surprise that the show's sophomore season doubled down on the Emmy-nominated first season's brilliantly bleak reflection of society, but there comes a tipping point when the despair starts to feel hollow. "Seeds" is that tipping point.

The episode is an emotionally taxing jaunt into a world where all the women we're rooting for are utterly broken and find that there is something lower than rock bottom.

Who Suffered the Most? Emily

Emily (Alexis Bledel) suffered from shouldering the bulk of the episode's misery porn, and from spinning the wheels in the B-plot of the story. Early on in the season, I was excited to see The Handmaid's Tale become more than just the June show, and the Emily-centric second episode was a promising glimpse of that show. But the series still firmly rests around June, even as it moves further from her POV.

On the other hand, Emily, our only strong narrative thread outside of June and the Waterfords, continues to trudge away at the death camp of the Colonies. Now at least she has the delusional Janine to keep her company, who cheerfully recites the blessings of God that were drilled into them by Aunt Lydia or wonders at the existence of dandelions. Madeline Brewer remains charming enough to keep Janine from being a little too irritating — or perhaps I gravitated toward her because she offers the only sliver of hope within this dreary episode. Ever optimistic, Janine even chips away at Emily's cynicism as the radiation chips away her last remaining teeth. Emily berates her for attempting to find the silver lining in their slaughterhouse by covering up death with flowers, but when Janine engineers a wedding between the dying lovers Kit and Anna, Emily finally softens.

Weighing In

Though Offred (Elisabeth Moss) appears in nearly every scene of this episode, she barely registers as more than a passive observer. Seeing the broken shell of Offred shuffle about while Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) spar over her is crushing, though it does set the scene for the most fascinating dynamic of this season. Lydia and Serena's simmering battle over ownership of June's body is a stark reminder that the women in power in Gilead are just as dangerous, if not more so, than the men.

Lydia's malicious matron meets her match in Serena's frigid resentment, the two of them speaking in passive-aggressive insults and displays of power — Lydia over her authority to write, Serena over her ownership of Offred's womb. It's a great showcase for Strahovski, who finally gets a scene partner who gives her more to do than vamp like a fairy tale stepmother. Though she quickly goes back to taunting Offred by orchestrating Nick's marriage, her loneliness and hurt is palpable throughout the episode — episode director Mike Barker makes sure to frame Serena isolated from other characters by doorways and literal walls. In an episode that's governed by a somber mood, the cinematography in "Seeds" is a particular standout.

The Prayvaganza

The clumsily-named Prayvaganza ends up being a veil for one of the most horrific twists of the season: literal child brides. The serving class men of Gilead are awarded with Econowives, many of whom are no more than 17. But the most shocking part of this scene was not the glowing smiles of the Commander's wives, nor the serene smiles of some of the child Econowives who are only happy to be offered up a platter. It's the fact that once again The Handmaid's Tale managed to tap into an issue that's all too real and all too current. Child marriage is an ongoing epidemic in the U.S., with children as young as 12 being permitted to marry. And then there's the mainstream surfacing of incels and their misogynistic rallying for the "redistribution of sex."

But what's worse is that the The Handmaid's Tale doesn't linger long on the implications of this scene. Suddenly, the episode turns into a salacious drama, with several love triangles now formed between Offred, Nick, and his poor, true believer child bride Eden (Sydney Sweeney).

Waking Up

Moss' performance in "Seeds" chills to the bone. Here she is the purest form of Offred (if you've noticed, I've been calling her that all review to differentiate between her two personas), a subdued, broken woman who is in a near-vegetative state. Cut her and she only stares with the same dead-eyed look in her eyes. And she certainly receives her fair share of cuts — first from Serena Joy, who scolds her for being overly meek, then from her womb itself. June finds that she has started bleeding profusely through her briefs, but hides her weakness throughout the episode — silently terrified that she has lost her baby, and thus her protection.

Nick's marriage is the final straw. With nothing left to live for, she jumps from her window, only to be found by a terrified Nick. But, miraculously, she lives. Offred wakes in the hospital and finds her baby — and her own will to survive — still healthy and alive.

"You're tough aren't you?" she croons to her stomach, Moss' eyes flickering back to life as she comes to a resolve. "I will not let you grow up in this place," she promises. Finally, Moss' bright, clear blue eyes — filled with tears and irrepressible emotion — look straight at the camera as she says, "I'm going to get us out of here." Welcome back, June.

Tale Tidbits

  • This season loves parallel imagery. Offred burning the handmaids' letters is the cynical mirror image of when she burned her handmaid outfit in episode 1.
  • "We come here, we work we die": Emily's hopeless declaration feels like the mission statement for this episode.
  • My favorite thing about this season is how inconsequential the men are. Fred Waterford shows a flicker of jealousy over Offred and Nick, but nothing he does is divorced from Serena's manipulations.
  • No flashbacks this episode. They've become kind of arbitrary lately, and I don't know how I feel about that. On the one hand, the action moves along briskly, but on the other hand, it embeds us even further into June's story.