This is a deep dive into the events of Episode 12 of Series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, which is available to stream now at SBS On Demand. Spoilers are a given, as we discuss all of the plot points within the episode.
Watch episode 12, 'Postpartum', at SBS On Demand (the 2nd-last episode of the season!):
Eden, we hardly knew ye.
A child of True Believers, Eden’s sole goal in life has been to fulfil her destiny of becoming a perfect Gilead Wife & Mother. Primed with Old Testament prophetic parables about Devotion, Sacrifice, and Atonement, Eden arrived at the Waterford house as the wide-eyed embodiment of a Serena Joy "domestic feminist"-in-training. To Commander Fred, Eden has been another perfect trophy wife, whom he has deigned to allow into his home, to “give her the opportunity to elevate herself, be a wife, a mother, to be associated with the Waterford name”.
As with everything in Gilead, where the devil Himself lurks in the details, Eden’s reality has fallen well short of her perfect, holy ideal. Rather than living her best life as part of a pious and blessed union, she’s been isolated from the very start of her surprise wedding, with nothing to do but braid her hair, fold handkerchiefs, and get under Rita’s skin, as she waits for her brooding groom to come home and look through her. Naturally, she is far too young and far too much a disciple of Gilead to twig that her husband’s indifference stems from the fact that his thoughts are occupied with how he might help free his girlfriend, the lactating sex slave who lives above their baby’s room. So, of course, she’s fallen for the first person who has paid her any attention: the equally young, like-minded lunk, Isaac the Guardian.
Eden has been the target of audience suspicion ever since her bridal veil was lifted in that Sons of Jacob’s Married At First Sight ritual, the ‘prayvaganza’ (episode 5, ‘Seeds’ ). Let’s be honest, most of us assumed the worst of her immediately (feign to deny it). She’s a threat! She can’t be trusted! She’ll be Nick’s undoing! You’ve got to watch that one! She read those letters! To be fair, we are walking in June’s shoes throughout all this, and as such, we’re mostly taking our emotional cues from the way she, Nick and Rita have reacted to the teenage interloper. Still, I can’t help but think we proved a dark point about human nature by sledging and sidelining Eden so readily.
But Eden never really stood a chance, did she? There’s no room in Gilead for someone with the head of a religious zealot and the heart of a romantic poet.
It’s Aunt Lydia, Gilead’s brutal taskmaster herself, who emerges as an unlikely advocate for humanist ethics this week, when she offers up the line of the night: “One can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. She’s quoting Voltaire, who was highlighting the need for compromise as a way to ward off extremism. (Yes, Lydia said that). She offers up this nugget of wisdom at the Red Centre, when prompted by June, to put Holly’s need for breast milk above Serena’s need to keep June the hell away from the new bub. June’s prodding of Lydia's conscience has the desired effect, and Lydia’s passive aggressive insistence that June ought to move back in to wean “Nicole” (ha!) gets the ball rolling for an episode devoted to various forms of compromise - and the lack of it.
Across ‘Postpartum’, we learn that the uncompromising dogma of Gilead is being reinterpreted in subtle ways all over the place: pious Gileadeans have been trying to bribe Aunt Lydia with muffins in order to secure Gilead’s hardiest baby maker, Handmaid Offred; the Commanders have wound back their amputation policy a smidge (now they only chop off fingers rather than whole hands! Praised be!); Serena relents and lets June pop Holly/Nicole onto the breast on occasion (but only when it’s clear she can’t do so herself); and Emily gets a weird new Commander who seems lax about that whole 'no drinking, no reading' thing for women, behind the closed doors of his ramshackle house.
But poor all-or-nothing Eden doesn’t grasp the idea of artful compromise in an authoritarian regime. She seeks the counsel of both Serena and June, but at first, neither woman quite realises what they're being asked, and their answers speak to their own circumstances (Serena advises patience, June says “grab love wherever you can find it”). No surprise that Eden opts for June's advice, albeit waay too literally. Eden sets off immediately to pursue a real, righteous, God-granted love - Of scripture!, Of babies! - with whatsisname.
There are several nods to Jean Luc Godard’s mod sci-fi thriller Alphaville, in this episode directed by Daina Reid (her second of the series). The French New Wave classic depicts a brutal futuristic society ruled by a supercomputer that has no tolerance for human emotion. Love is a foreign concept, and human connection is forbidden. The central dogma of the sentient machine demands that those found guilty of “acting illogically” are shot, poolside, in surreal piscine executions, a ritualised state murder ceremony at which members of the public gawp and go back to their emotionless lives.
In the locker rooms of what was a public swimming pool, Eden, quoting Isaiah 43, agitates against the idea of compromising her love for Isaac. She refuses Nick’s appeal that she repent and thus save hers and Isaac’s skins. A perfect God-fearing Gilead citizen wouldn’t do such a thing, she reasons, and in one of the only times a woman of Gilead is allowed to decide her own fate, Eden opts for a dignified death atop the diving board, and is plunged into the drink with her beau, before an audience of horrified hypocrites in the bleachers.
Aunt Lydia's words linger as June finds Serena in her bedroom, grieving Eden. She quotes from the same prophet as the dead girl, and ponders the point of a nation that puts the 'fearing' into God-fearing, and can't find capacity for compassion. What the hell have we done? is the subtext, as the loss of one her next generation Gilead Girls rattles Serena to her core. With only the series finale to go, we'll see next week whether Eden's death, and the prospect of a child of her 'own' to raise in this hellscape, is enough to spur Serena to action.
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Want more of a debrief of this episode? Listen to the new Eyes on Gilead podcast, in which we recap 'Postpartum' and contemplate what Emily will face in her strange new surroundings. Ask, how exactly did Nick get back in the house? And we have some huge news to break about an upcoming episode.