'The Handmaid's Tale' Takes A Depressing Dip In Quality In "Postpartum"

(We're going to kickstart our weekly The Handmaid's Tale review by answering one simple question: Who suffered the most?)The Handmaid's Tale's latest episode, "Postpartum," just had me feeling depressed. Not because it was an almost-immediate return to the bleak status quo that this show is so fond of, but because it was another tonal and quality dip for the series after the breathtaking highs of last week's "Holly."

That's not to say that this episode was entirely abysmal in tone. In fact, there were even some bursts of camp with the introduction of a guest actor whose appearance is always a pleasant surprise — and perhaps the fresh, invigorating addition that this show needs.

Who Suffered The Most? Eden

Eden was a character invented for the Hulu series that I'll admit I had some reservations about. A true believer raised wholly during Gilead's totalitarian reign, Eden presented a unique character in a series about the complicit and the oppressed. Here was a doe-eyed child bride who believed completely in Gilead's society and its fundamentalist principles. And from the way that The Handmaid's Tale loves leaning into dramatic twists that blot out every single ray of hope, I totally expected Eden to play the part of the villain. Dutiful, religious, and pious — and the clear wrench thrown in Nick (Max Minghella) and June's (Elisabeth Moss) illicit affair — Eden was meant to be the poster child for Gileadean rule. So it was a surprise when Eden instead became the poster child of the abject cruelty of Gilead.

After Eden and June have their first genuine conversation about motherhood and love, it compels Eden to run away with Isaac, the meat-headed Guardian she has fallen in love with. Her actions cause Fred (Joseph Fiennes already on shaky social standing after his Handmaid had run away twice — to fly into a fury and put all his resources into finding her. And surprisingly, he finds Eden and Isaac rather quickly, sending them both to trial for their "sins" of infidelity. But Eden holds her head high as she walks to her execution atop a swimming pool diving board, telling a distressed Nick, "It matters to God. He knows what's in my heart."

But here is where the show begins to stretch its believability a little. Eden, who for the past few episodes, has mostly flitted around the periphery of the drama and who everyone seemed to tolerate at most, becomes a martyr that unifies the Waterford household in grief. Nick pleads with her to lie before the court, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) sobs as Eden is lead to her execution, and June finally reaches some kind of middle ground with Serena in their shared grief. Worse yet is the presence of Eden's family when Eden and Isaac are tossed into a swimming pool with weights attached to their feet (maybe one of the most tortuous execution methods we've seen in Gilead yet?), her mother screaming in despair. The horrified reactions of everyone at Eden's trial are almost enough to convince you that she was a fully formed character. Sydney Sweeney did the best with what she was given — which until now was a pious cipher of Gilead's regime. But perhaps in death she'll be elevated to more than just a martyr who unifies the Waterfords but a catalyst for change in Gilead, as Serena has to reckon with raising a daughter in a society that kills its most devoted.

Nursing a Grudge

One of my biggest issues with this season is how easily it snaps back to the status quo: June in the Waterford's house, Serena cruelly ignoring her, Fred and Nick pining over June. It's almost like a soap opera that repeats every week — even June's sardonic voiceovers have started to feel redundant. Now with a baby in the household, Serena is temporarily assuaged, happily and bathing Holly (now named Nicole) while June pumps breast milk from the Red Center. But the separation causes a strain on June's breast milk supply, and the Waterford's eventually relent to June and Lydia's (Ann Dowd) urgings to allow June into the house again. Serena angrily relents, but only on the condition that June never touches the baby.

In fact, Serena won't let anyone near the baby — with the exception of Eden in this episode's ploy to convince us that Serena did in fact care deeply for her. "Postpartum" adds another layer of sympathy (or perhaps pity) to Serena, as she struggles to care for her crying child, even offering her own breast and breaking down in tears when it only causes Nicole to cry more.

Meanwhile Fred is back to his old mind games with Nick and June — suggesting that he knows that Nick is the father even as he thanks Nick for his discretion over last week's situation. "Inspiring, isn't it?" Fred almost gloats after he asks that Nick hangs the Waterford's new family portrait with the baby. Nick for his part, seems genuinely heartbroken over his child, fantasizing with June of running away to Hawaii with Holly in their arms. That tension between biological and adopted parents (which this show has always had a weird relationship with) will no doubt continue as Nick and June likely continue living with the Waterfords. But at least, after the death of Eden, they can come to another compromise — Serena finally allowing June to breastfeed the baby.

A Gothic Guest Star

Meanwhile Emily (Alexis Bledel) is taken to her new posting with Commander Joseph Lawrence, who turns out to be none other than Bradley Whitford, who seems to be settling well into his new niche playing amiable-looking men who are actually evil. Living in a cluttered house filled with modern art paintings and antiques, Whitford's Commander Lawrence is worlds away from the pristine, elegant houses of other commanders. He has comic books! And tribal paintings! He wears a quirky neck scarf!

Emily is as surprised as we are that she seems to have stumbled into a Gothic novel, complete with a one-eyed Martha who is surprisingly insolent when she greets Emily into the house with a gruff "Wait here." And things get only more strange when Commander Lawrence's mentally unstable wife creeps into Emily's room to ask her name and tearfully divulge his deepest, darkest secrets — a scene ripped straight from Jane Eyre, complete with a wide-eyed Emily (hair unbound, wearing only a shift of course) staring at Lawrence as he subdues his hysterical wife.

It turns out Lawrence was the mastermind behind the Colonies, where Emily had just spent the majority of the season slowly dying from radiation. But in an another mysterious move, Lawrence invites Emily to the dining room (itself also cluttered with books and papers overflowing from the table), pouring both of them drinks before interrogating Emily about her past life. It's a curious scene that bodes well for Emily's storyline, which had come to a standstill after a powerful early standalone episode, even as it descends into a campy Gothic madness. But as Emily takes a swig from her glass without breaking eye contact with Lawrence, it's the kind of power move that proves she's more than worthy to take on whatever Lawrence is going to throw at her.

Final Thoughts

  • The image of the weights littering the floor of the swimming pool is stark. Also the fact that executions take place at a swimming pool is another jarring piece of modern-dystopian imagery that this show loves.
  • Fred's obsession with June continues to creep her (and me) out intensely.
  • This episode is oddly...funny? Aside from Bradley Whitford's gothic campy Commander Lawrence, Ann Dowd is just a riot delivering Aunt Lydia's intentionally obtuse lines. "She looks just like her father." Classic!
  • Thankfully, this episode does away with the show's signature needledrops.