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Two more lives are lost in the penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale,

a typically draining installment from start to finish. And yet its final image — if not exactly a radical change of pace — is among the most hopeful provided to date in this second season.

Indeed, rather shrewdly, the framing device of “Postpartum” is one of light bookending darkness. The episode’s very first image is of Serena, gently bathing baby Holly while glowing in a ray of sunlight; her warm smile marks what may be her happiest moment in the entire season, and also indicates a bit of a (necessary) time-jump. We’re a few weeks from where we left off last week, when June gave birth to her child in an abandoned mansion, but called for help, recognizing the dire health situation she’d been left in. Baby Holly — named Nicole by Serena and Fred — is now in the hands of the Waterfords. June is once again under Aunt Lydia’s supervision, pumping breast-milk from a distance. (She’s also in-demand for her next posting; one family even sent Lydia a basket of bran muffins as a deal-sweetener.)

Serena, unsurprisingly, is finding this unconventional — to say the least — experience of motherhood a little challenging. She’s overjoyed by the situation: the chance to finally use the baby clothes she’d spent months picking out, to have a distraction from her crumbling, hateful marriage. (Let’s not forget that intense fight from last week.) But problems quickly arise. June’s breast-milk production is exceedingly low, and it’s assumed on the part of everyone from Lydia to Rita that it’s the mandated distance between June and the baby which explains why. Serena’s demand that June not come into contact with the baby is, alas, short-lived. Before long Lydia and Fred jointly agree to repost June at the Waterfords’ to live in her room and pump just that much closer. “Our child needs a calm and healthy environment, and you are making that very difficult,” Serena scolds Fred, upon June’s return. But it’s no use.

June back in the Waterford home, another failed escape attempt behind her, is on the one hand admirably realistic, a refusal on the show’s part to push satisfying but unconvincing story lines. But it can’t help but feel repetitious — the show’s longevity problem really coming into focus. Fortunately, there’s plenty of material around June and Serena this week, and it really sings.

For starters, Emily’s arc provides a thrilling tonal shake-up. Lydia brings Emily to her new home — last we saw of Emily, her commander had dropped dead — and scolds her for her continued difficulty. Lydia instructs her to behave herself, especially since her new Commander is none other than Joseph Lawrence (a sinisterly good Bradley Whitford), the “architect of Gilead’s economy.” Immediately upon entering, however, it’s clear they — and we — are in uncharted territory. There’s abstract art hanging on the walls. The house’s Martha, Cora, is surly and salty. And Lawrence’s violent side is a bit more visible than someone like Lydia would want — with the Martha clearly having an eye punched out and his wife not feeling well enough to even come downstairs. (Recap continues on Page 2)

But we’re kept off-balance here — Lawrence is at once a more monstrous and more understanding figure than the Commanders we’ve previously been introduced to. He catches Emily reading from a comic book in his living room, and threatens her physically in a way that goes beyond Gilead law. His wife, when she finally materializes, appears distraught as she confesses to Emily the work he’s done on the Colonies — the place Emily would’ve suffered until death, were there not extraordinary circumstances. The evidence as to the rot at this man’s core is there. But then, in a brilliantly uncomfortable scene, he sits Emily down to have a frank conversation with her, even slightly empathizing with her losing her family. “You must miss them,” he says. “Losing a child is like losing a limb — a part of your body.” He then goes into ickier territory once more: Reminding her of her genital mutilation, and asking invasively if she’s “healed.”

The lack of formality, and the sheer unpredictability, of Lawrence’s introduction gives the episode — the season, really — a much-needed jolt to add to the unrelenting despair. The episode’s other strong subplot concerns Eden, and it’s a compact piece of harrowing tragedy. Early in the episode, Eden confronts June in the kitchen and, in so many words, reveals she’s fallen in love with a man other than Nick. June encourages her to pursue her feelings, indicating it’s essential in a place as cold and defeating as Gilead, but that advice will soon prove slightly ill-considered. Fred takes very personally the fact that Eden has decided to leave — at one point quizzing June, in another fantastic scene, about why women would rather risk their lives than stay in his orbit — and pursues her and her partner, Isaac, aggressively. They are found before too long.

Nick, it should be noted, has arrived back in the Waterford home safe and sound after being mysteriously taken away a few episodes ago; Fred chalks the misunderstanding up to a few “overzealous guards.” After sharing an intimate moment with June, however, in which they fantasize about running away together to Hawaii with Holly, he’s back to face another Gilead-sanctioned travesty. When Eden is caught, left waiting for her fate, Nick pleads that she beg for mercy, or lie, or do whatever she needs to do to keep herself safe. But Eden’s faith is still in God above all else, and she believes deceit of any kind — even in a life-or-death situation as this — is off the table. It’s a painful scene, the realization dawning on Nick and the viewer that Eden is accepting a fate of death, all for spending a day running off with another man. Eden’s moral predicament is fascinating, precisely for how cruelly it traps her. “All I wanted was to make a real family,” she laments. “Isn’t that what Gilead wants of its real servants?” She’s the first character of prominence in The Handmaid’s Tale to have grown up in Gilead, and we bear witness to how twisted her conceptions of love and life really are.

A trial, of sorts, takes place at the pool of the gymnasium, where wives and Marthas and June and Nick all look on as disturbed spectators. Eden and Isaac, with chainballs attached to them on the diving board, are told to renounce their sins. But they refuse. They stay silent, until Eden speaks up: “Love is patient, love is kind,” she recites. “It does not envy, it does not boast.” We see Serena, in the stands with the baby, break down in this moment, while June and Nick try to hold it together. Before long Eden and Isaac are forced to dive underwater, and to die.

This is, as ever, heavy material to wade through, and the structure of “Postpartum” can be ineffective at times: Eden’s death feels like a fitting season conclusion, while the June-Serena arc feels a little too familiar for a penultimate episode. Things don’t quite feel aligned. Nonetheless, “Postpartum” fits together well enough in the end — the last shot doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. Exhausted and hurt by her inability to mother on her own — including a failed breastfeeding attempt — Serena reluctantly allows June in the room. They sit together silently, absorbing the executions they were forced to observe, before Holly starts crying once again. June mutters to herself, “I’ll get a bottle.” But Serena tells her to wait. She’s worn down. And June can’t quite believe what’s happening. She’s motioned to sit beside Serena. And she holds the baby. She’s no longer crying. The sun’s glow seeps through again, and Serena and June are smiling — improbably, fleetingly, but also genuinely.

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