June 12, 2019
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Continues to Take Baby Steps Toward Revolution With “God Bless the Child”
After the triple-episode season premiere, The Handmaid’s Tale is marching forward. While lagging, the seasonal start so far feels fresher than it did with season two now that June is situated in a new insular world of Commander Lawrence’s household while still tangled in the Waterfords’ affairs. Nothing feels too new in “God Bless the Child”, as it seems there to occupy time in Gilead proceedings while inching bitty developments.
Last we left off in the triple-episode season starters, Serena and Fred Waterford have split up, June’s baby Nicole/Holly is now safely in Luke’s arms in Canada, and Emily has contacted her long-lost wife for a reunion.
Despite the disturbance of Nicole’s “kidnapping,” Gilead life marches on normally—or really, the kind of numb normalcy enforced by an extreme theocracy. The Handmaids are gathered to witness the baptism of their infants from the distance, as their babies sit in the arms of Wives. They are invited to Mrs. Putnam’s reception in honor of baby Angela’s baptism—or Charlotte’s, as her birth mother Janine rightfully named her. Some chaos breaks out.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s well-documented inability to dive into intersectional dynamics festered as the show progressed beyond its first season and the source material by Margaret Atwood. While the writers’ room reportedly sought to consider more racial dynamics in response to these criticisms that Gilead would not be “post-racial,” there’s little or no intersectional engagement so far for the first half of this season. Much like June’s confrontation with Luke’s black wife, the white-centricity issue is conspicuous with the treatment of Ofmatthew’s character. Played by Ashleigh Lathrop, an African-American woman, Ofmatthew’s goody-two-shoes attitude irritates June, the other Handmaids, and viewers who deserve a less white-centric tale.
I will jump ahead to say I’m aware that Ofmatthew’s aggressively meek outlook on Gilead will be somewhat explained, but Ofmatthew’s treatment is frustrating, both deliberately and indeliberately, due to her status as the only black character of prominence in Gilead. Notice how the context sympathizes with Janine’s good-Handmaid brainwashing over Ofmatthew’s good-Handmaid brainwashing. Janine’s gumption seems endearing, perhaps because she’s bludgeoned with the physical consequences, while Ofmatthew’s obedience receives less sympathy simply because she isn’t someone who wants bludgeoning. The latter has yet to have as much substantial characterization as June’s last shopping partner, the second Ofglen, a woman of color whose play-obedient motives were fleshed out from the get-go. I’m not saying that tumultuous disagreements shouldn’t be allowed to breathe among traumatized Handmaids—it is part of the point that there’s no perfect survivor or victim and no clean camaraderie in collective suffering—but the image of a meek black woman disagreeing with more rebellious Handmaids, played by white women, is just one example where the show disproportionately favors white women suffering over women of color.
Elizabeth Moss does fine work with her intense stares, as she calculates how to sew up the Waterfords’ domestic fissure. Now that Serena Joy is more amiable to June, if the Waterfords mend their marriage, Serena Joy could use regained power in Gilead for good. As we witness Serena Joy reconsider her power, Aunt Lydia is undergoing a meltdown, exerting any control she can, even as the uptight Gilead Wife Mrs. Putman mercifully permits Janine to hold her infant biological daughter. M
eanwhile in Canada, Emily experiences a reunion and recovery arc as heart-wrenching as it is as heartwarming. I wished that the last season’s Canada arc for Moira and Luke, whose recovery arcs are more downplayed, had more effective poignancy. Emily’s son delivers a touching line “I’m not supposed to hug you until you’re ready,” words that embrace the necessity of gradualism in recovery.
Even though this episode drags and overstretches its flashbacks, it caps off with an uplifting moment where Luke and Moira baptizing June’s baby on terms that June would have liked. It’s a moment where a spiritual ritual, executed with autonomy, can triumph over Gilead’s demeaning rituals. It is also disconcerting, while not surprising, that while June’s baby may be out of Gilead, Gilead still has an eye on the child June worked so hard to save.
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