Season 1, Episode 2: Birth Day
This next installment in our series on The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s Emmy-award winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal work, discusses the second episode of season one, “Birth Day”. (Need to catch up on Episode 1?) In it, we learn more about both Offred and Ofglen, and get a specific window into both the Commander and the process of birth in Gilead.
In other words, lots to discuss, so let’s get cracking.
KD: I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. When I first started watching the series, I was sure that my memory of reading the book over a decade ago would surface and remind me of salient plot points. Well, that’s a big fat no and I’m actually pretty glad because I am completely enraptured in both horror and curiosity.
I see the main theme of this episode being power - how Offred took some of hers back by losing at Scrabble and then the truly bizarre birthing situation. What was all of that? Do the wives really think that by lamaze breathing and drinking dainty tea they have invested in motherhood? That is such a shadow of reality, but is that all they’ve been left with and therefore they must accept?
Besides the fact that the whole thing is an imprisonment narrative, is there anything in particular that resonated with you in this episode?
EH: Yeah, so welcome to the nutty world of Gilead, episode two. One of things that I found so interesting about this episode was we’ve moved beyond the set-up episode and are starting to get into the nitty gritty.
And, I mean, clearly I found the most captivating part of the episode is the birthing ritual and how both wives and handmaids lives are utterly controlled by this social order and system. We really start to see the differentiation between those two worlds for women, and we also begin to understand the peripheral layers -- the Martha’s and the Eyes, etc. I think you’ve hit on a really key point in that this is still a sympathetic perspective of the wives, who are imprisoned in their roles. It will be interesting to see if and how they find methods to resist or if they have less opportunities to find a sense of communality because wives are more separated from each other and they don’t have as many structured social activities as the handmaids.
So that dynamic between the wives and handmaids really fascinated me in this episode. Coming from your religion lens, was there anything in particular that struck you? We both know that’s not my strong suit, so I’m intrigued to hear what you saw happening with these women.
KD: Before I dive into that - this idea of organized socialization is interesting… let’s put a pin in that and come back at some point.
There was a small moment where someone said that good births are based on devotion to God and that arrested me for a moment. That kind of language is used in real life in our world, even when it’s not explicitly said. Women in the church who deal with infertility are frequently sold this narrative - that they need to be holier or cleaner or healthier or something in order to bear children and that perhaps their “sins” are preventing implantation. Crock of crap, clearly, from a medical perspective, but the theological ramifications on someone’s psyche are no small thing.
Additionally, this language is one of the ways that women are frequently treated as less. While it takes two to tango, so to speak, the oneness of bearing and raising children is both covertly and overtly placed entirely on women in most religious circles. Thus, when women cannot conceive or choose not to, it is frequently seen as wrong/defective/sinful.
Does that make any sense?
EH: That makes total sense, because it’s the woman’s job to bear children, that allows for the structure of the system in which wives are given this elevated, ‘holy’ status and the extraordinary pressure put on the handmaid’s to conceive. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that conceiving and raising the children are separated and that the handmaid’s are only allowed to provided sustenance (breastfeeding) for the children but the wives take over for all the other duties of raising the child.
I’m also struck by how they’ve subverted that perception that women who cannot (or choose not to) conceive are sinful and the wives who are barren are revered and given elevated status. They’ve created a religious justification for the low fertility rate (which I’m sure happens all the time in loads of religions) and the fact that in Gilead only 1 in 5 births are healthy.
I’d like to go back to your notion of power as a theme for this episode, especially in what I saw from a control and confinement narrative. Resistance to the established system takes its forms in small movements, gestures, and actions that will not disturb the overall order, like when Offred refuses to eat the cookie at the birthing ceremony/ritual. But then we see by the end of the episode she is subverting that order through breaking lots of social norms when the Commander invites her into his office to play Scrabble. By looking at him, touching him, and speaking to him ‘normally’ she has removed those walls which help maintain order, and the Commander lets her, which is really intriguing.
What did you make of that scene? What do you think the writers wanted us to take away from it moving forward?
KD: I was captivated by that scene! Also, it spoke to an intimacy that he clearly craves but cannot find with his wife - for whatever reason - and so he creates it with Offred. Also, there was the only moments of kindness we’ve ever seen in Gilead in that episode - when he asks if she wants to do something, or even acknowledges she has a brain and can read.
As for what I think the writers want us to take is that this world is complicated. That even though the power narrative is unity and uniformity, nothing is that simple and people are still, fundamentally, people.
I can’t wait to see what happens next.