The Handmaid's Tale follows up its thrilling first three episodes with a baptism from Hell in "God Bless The Child."
As Emily reunites with her family in Canada and struggles to find a new normal with her estranged wife and son, June is forced to endure a public baptism in Gilead that has far-reaching consequences for some major players on the show. After all the action of the premiere episodes, this installment feels like a bit of a slog at times and has us questioning the direction of the show and what it's trying to say.
We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, pulling our hair out to try to make sense of this crazy world. Come along with us.
Jessica: After three episodes of build-up, “God Bless The Child” felt oddly anti-climactic. Normally, I love these kinds of bottle episodes that break up the more driving plotlines and force us to spend quality time with secondary characters, but I struggled to understand why we were sitting with Aunt Lydia in her internal conflict, or with Waterford in his depressed state over his crumbling marriage. I mean, I get it. You’ve got Ann Dowd, you want to show her off, but this episode lingered too long on people I just could care less about. That said, it was interesting to see the cracks begin to widen in this foundation Gilead’s built itself on. Absolutely no one seems thrilled to be here at this point.
Alyssa: It’s no secret that no one is happy in Gilead right now. Shockingly, people don’t like being oppressed, so things are getting dicey for these crusty white dudes in charge. Their wives aren’t happy. The handmaids aren’t happy. It’s a mess. There is one thing that I need to address though that leaves a bad taste in my mouth: Ofmatthew. There has been such a lack of representation of women of color on this show, so to have the only black handmaid with any lines since Moira be the one who is so willing to go along with it all feels… really, really bad. Since they haven’t had many women of color on the show, Ofmatthew, unfortunately, feels like a representative of a whole group (which is so f*cked up), and to have a historically oppressed people being the voice of “let’s just see what Aunt Lydia has to say, she’s doing her best, that’s just how things are” is not the representation that we were looking for. Seriously, The Handmaid’s Tale, this ain’t it.
Jessica: I couldn’t agree more. My jaw dropped when Ofmatthew just casually mentioned how she’s birthed three children to families of Gilead before spouting off some Aunt Lydia rhetoric to the exaggerated eyeroll of June. Three children?! And you expect me to believe this woman is staunchly defending the people who ripped those babies from her, even when there’s no one watching? I understand the idea that people go along to survive, but you’ve shown us that, first with Janine, and with June herself in season one. Why not give us a more emotionally honest depiction of a mother of color and how she’d handle this life she’s been forced into. In so many ways, it has to be harder for her than someone like June or Janine, who aren’t used to this kind of oppression. To see her black baby in the arms of a white woman? It just felt like a ball was dropped this episode with Ofmatthew.
Alyssa: I agree. It’s not like the show shies away from the emotional toll that the Gilead system has on these women. Poor Janine. Every time Janine gets focus in an episode, I know I am about to be emotionally devastated. This episode had a lot to say about the pains of motherhood, especially motherhood denied, and every moment Janine was on the screen my heart broke for her. While perhaps the Putnams meant well by allowing her to hold her child for a moment, it was ultimately such a cruel thing for them to do to her. To dangle that possibility — closeness with her child -— in her face was just too much for such a fragile soul. It was never going to end well. And honestly, the biggest and most sincere “f*** you” to Aunt Lydia. That savage beating was starkly painful to watch on a show that certainly doesn’t shy away from awful things.
Jessica: I love Ann Dowd, but I don’t need to be convinced of any lingering goodness in Aunt Lydia. The woman has none. And here’s another issue this episode brought up for me. I know that the best characters are shades of grey, that even villains have their reasons and by showing that, we present a fully-formed view of the human experience on TV — but quit defending these a**holes all the time. Everyone in Gilead is going through it, but only a select few are viciously beating mentally-tortured women. I don’t like how they’re treating Waterford either (which we can get into in a second) but Aunt Lydia is the modern equivalent of a Nazi guard. She’s contributed, even relished, in abusing people. To show her on the outskirts of power, to somehow make the case that she’s being treated poorly too by the Commanders and their wives … what does that prove? Where does that take us? How does it move anything forward?
Alyssa: The horror from the Commanders and wives too. You people have built a system that functions on rape, kidnapping, and oppression. And you’re suddenly squeamish about a little violence? Absolutely not. Maybe it was easier for them to compartmentalize when they didn’t have to see the abuse up close and by another’s hand, but that just smacked of rank hypocrisy. Which I guess could be the point. I agree that I am just not a fan of how they try to show how burdened Waterford is. They’ve done a much better job of showing the shades of grey (ugh ruined phrase forever) in Serena than they have Fred, so whenever he gets whiney I just want to scream “THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED” at him. These men have done everything in their power to build up this tenuous new society and immediately cringe away from any responsibility as soon as it doesn’t suit them and their immediate needs. Lord, I am TIRED.
Jessica: Try exhausted. I’m sure someone can find some sympathy for a guy like Waterford, but that ain’t gonna be me. And it shouldn’t have to be June either. Again, I appreciate that June’s relationship to Waterford is complicated and maybe she’s too close to everything to completely hate him but why is she the one doing the emotional labor of redeeming him? I hope it’s just June’s way of manipulating the situation to her advantage, but even then, I’m becoming concerned Serena is reverting back to her wifely ways. I just didn’t know what to take away from this episode, to be honest.
Alyssa: Yes! Everything about the stuff in Gilead just made me more and more frustrated and confused. The June/Waterford dynamic has always been complicated, but I am not sure what she is hoping to gain by making Fred and Serena a unified team again. Serena hasn’t exactly been a reliable ally in the past, so I just don’t know the long con at this point. June has made it clear that her reasons for remaining in Gilead despite having an out were Hannah and the possibility of seeing her again. How is helping a Commander going to do that? Is she counting on Serena manipulating him in a way that would benefit the handmaids? Because I certainly don’t see that happening. I think the writers are struggling to justify June staying behind, and they’re making characters make odd decisions to fit that particular narrative.
Jessica: You’re right. As lovely as it is to imagine June having this grand plan of leading a resistance within Gilead, that’s never been her stated goal. She’s certainly helped the cause, and she’s good at rebelling against the rules, but her motivations have always been selfish in nature. Which is fine. She has two kids who’ve been victimized by the system. She should be only concerned with their welfare. But by pushing her to be this martyr for the cause, while still dangling the carrot of Hannah, we’re pulling the character in opposite directions that just don’t align with who she’s become over the course of three seasons. She hates Gilead, she hates what they’re doing to women, but if she could grab Hannah and go, she would. The show needs to do a better job of presenting that as her motivator — the idea of escaping with her daughter — and then building the story around that. Because, here’s the thing, it’s totally fine if June wants to get the hell out of dodge with Hannah. If that’s how this ends, and Gilead lives on, that feels more realistic and certainly true to the character, than some kind of burn it all down sh*t. I want to burn all the sh*t down, but it’s not on one woman to do that, to sacrifice everything for that goal if she doesn’t want to. If June were to choose Hannah over liberating the other handmaids, that’s still a win in my book. I don’t know, I want to buy into this narrative of women f***ing sh*t up in Gilead, but I also don’t want to contribute to placing that kind of burden on these traumatized characters at the same time. It’s a real pickle, Alyssa.
Alyssa: I think they did a decent job in this episode tying things back to Hannah with the baptism flashbacks, showing what kind of parents June and Luke were before things went so terribly sideways. While the religious insurance was a bit odd and glib, it did show that they were involved. That kind of comes full circle with June finding out that Emily made it to Luke with Nichole, which I think is a kind of confirmation that she did the right thing. But again, I am not sure what June thought she was gaining by confirming Luke’s identity? Clearly, the Waterfords are working hard to get Nichole back, so wouldn’t this put him and Nichole in danger? Plus, I understand that Serena is wounded and misses who she believes is her child, but at the end of the last season, she let June escape. She wanted better for Nichole. I don’t understand!
Jessica: It’s almost as if her little vacation, and this baptism party, have somehow swayed her back to Gilead’s side? I can see frustration peeking through when she has her conversation with June about reconciling with her husband and moving her point of power by manipulating him, but if she’ll actually do it might be the big question this season. How much does it take to convince a woman who helped create this world, who still benefits from it and identifies with it, to burn it all down?
Alyssa: I will say that in terms of women escaping this system, The Handmaid’s Tale is doing right by Emily. She was finally reunited with Sylvia and Oliver, but that doesn’t mean that things are easy. Whew. She’s missed so much and been through hell and they’ve had their routine to try and carry on in her absence, and that makes this reunification of their home difficult to navigate. It was never going to be a happily-ever-after moment, and there's an uncomfortable distance between Emily and this family that she so desperately fought to return to, but that doesn’t mean that it's without hope. Sylvia was still wearing her wedding ring, she was still telling their son about his mother. Children are pretty damn resilient, so Oliver seems pretty ready to welcome Emily back into the family, even asking her to read him dinosaur books! I may have been frustrated by other aspects of the episode, but all the stuff in Canada was moving to me.
Jessica: I sobbed through every Emily scene, especially the moment when Oliver tells her he’ll hug her when she’s ready. What a precious little cinnamon roll! I so appreciate how honestly the writers are portraying Emily’s struggle to assimilate. It’s awkward and hard and there’s no roadmap for something like this. Having it be like she never left would be an insult to everything Emily went through but, at the same time, it’s so nice to see she wasn’t forgotten or abandoned by those she loves. They’ve been preserving her memory in their own way and now, the physical embodiment of this memory is back and she’s changed and broken but the old Emily is still there. Watching her rediscover herself is a highlight of this season so far. I just want to see more of that.
Alyssa: So, we leave things with June where she has the knowledge that Nichole is safe with Luke. Even after everything that went down this episode, June is smiling. I want her to do something with that. I know that it’s not going to happen right away, but I want to see June making progress with getting Hannah out. Maybe it’s helping the Marthas with their trafficking, maybe it’s whispering in Serena’s ear. I just don’t want to see her spinning her wheels.
Jessica: I, too, need to see some progress made — either in the fight against Gilead or June’s plan to rescue Hannah. I also want to see what path Serena chooses for herself — not what June is tempting her to do, not what her husband wants or her mother or the Commander’s wives, but what Serena feels she should do. I think seeing her make that decision for herself will help me to understand the character more than I do right now. And for God’s sake, give me more Emily!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.