[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode 12 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Postpartum.”]
Given Gilead’s deadly nature, it was only a matter of time until the fall of Eden — and in the latest episode of Hulu’s Emmy-winning series, called “Postpartum,” that fall was literalized, in the form of the death of Eden Blaine, played by Sydney Sweeney.
Eden’s death marks a shift toward the end game for The Handmaid’s Tale season two, already marked with copious amounts of tragedy. The devout teenager’s fate was sealed when she ran away from the Waterford household along with Isaac, a guardian with whom she fell in love. Shortly after they ran away, Eden and Isaac were apprehended and publicly executed, drowned to death in what was once a high school swimming pool. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) are among the witnesses in attendance, both of them utterly horrified at the level of brutality leveled against such a young girl — an event that would be horrifying enough on its own, but takes on an additional layer of trauma given the recent birth of Offred’s daughter Holly, known within the Waterford household as Nicole.
At the conclusion of “Postpartum,” Offred and Serena find themselves unified once again in the aftermath of Eden’s death, bonded over their mutual concern for “their” daughter. It’s not the only major status quo shift within a commander’s household this week, either. In a different storyline, Emily (Alexis Bledel) finds herself assigned as the handmaid for Commander Joseph Lawrence, played by The West Wing alum Bradley Whitford. An eccentric figure, to say the least, Lawrence immediately stands out as a very different kind of commander: strict in his own right, blunt in his words, but seemingly liberal if only in his artistic interests.
What does Commander Lawrence’s arrival mean for the future of the series? How will Eden’s exit impact the lives of Offred and Serena, and how will the two protect Holly/Nicole from the increasingly deadly world of Gilead? Those answers are coming in the season finale. First, The Hollywood Reporter turns to Handmaid’s writer and producer Eric Tuchman, who wrote “Postpartum,” to cover the events of the season’s penultimate episode, and to set the stage for what’s coming next in the finale.
What were your overall goals in writing “Postpartum,” both in terms of following up on the events of “Holly,” and also in terms of setting up the season finale?
Offred’s pregnancy gave us a spine for the whole season. I think people may have expected that the birth of the baby would be the climax, the big event in the finale, but then we have Offred giving birth in a very extraordinary way in episode 11, with two more episodes to go. So she’s coming off this really amazing, empowering triumph, and she is managing to have at least a few moments alone with her newborn, independent of Gilead — and now we get to play the fallout. We have two episodes to show how the arrival of the baby changes the landscape for everybody. What’s the impact of the baby’s birth, specifically on Offred, who, remember, made this promise to the baby that she’s not going to let her grow up in Gilead. Well, the baby’s here. So what now? We were really excited about the idea that the birth was not going to be the big, big event at the end of the season, that it was just going to be another step toward what we’ve planned for the end.
The episode features the death of a major character: Eden. Was her death always part of the design of the character, or was it something that came up organically over the course of developing the season?
I’m not sure if we knew as soon as we conceived Eden that she would not last for the season, but pretty early on in the discussion phases, we made that decision. And I think it’s a really impactful death. First of all, it’s a character that seems to be really polarizing for the audience. A lot of people assumed that she was going to be the big troublemaker, the person who was going to stir up problems for June and for Nick. She seemed like such a pious and true believer, and as it turns out, it’s those very qualities that get Eden in trouble. And she does have a very big impact on everybody, except not in the way that we expect.
I find it heartbreaking that here we have this pure, innocent soul who grew up drinking the Kool-Aid that Gilead’s been serving, and she just wants to live her life in the way Gilead taught her. She wants to be true to herself and to God, and in her mind, God knows what’s in her heart. So she can’t deny this love she thinks she found with Isaac, and she needs forgiveness from Nick for the disloyalty that she has shown him, but she’s sticking to her beliefs. She’s really one of the most honest people in this whole community. I find her death obviously really tragic, but it’s horribly beautiful in a way, too.
How did you determine the way in which Eden would be killed off, drowned during a public execution?
Well, it’s not like we sit around and try and invent new ways to torture people … (Laughs.) Although, when you think about it, Gilead does. Their whole intention is to make this execution a very public display. It’s a caution, a warning for anybody who’s thinking of straying from their husband or wife: “This is what happens to you.” And then we always work for some real-world mechanism that has happened in the real world. In this case, way back in feudal times in Scotland, they used what they called “drowning pits” or “murder holes” to execute convicted women, because they thought this was a more humane form of execution. And we thought that was very striking, but because we film in the dead of winter in Toronto, there’s no way we could actually make anybody plunge into the freezing cold water.
It was Bruce Miller, our showrunner, who suggested, “Well, let’s do the swimming pool.” It was a genius idea, because it’s always really effective on the show when we take something so mundane and ordinary. Think about a high school swimming pool in our world, where you’d imagine someone like Eden, or someone like Isaac, years before Gilead would’ve been there, just cheering on a swim meet. Or they would’ve been at a pep rally. And here Gilead has repurposed it for terror and tragedy. It’s chilling to see these two teenagers, where their only crime is probably a puppy love, and now they’re being tied to kettlebells and shoved off a high dive to drown.
Gilead knows what it’s doing. It’s a terrifying thing for these people to witness and everybody would think again before they considered sinning in the eyes of Gilead.
How did you determine the line for what you felt was appropriate enough to show with Eden and Isaac’s death?
It is a very tricky situation to convey, and our director Daina Reid did such an exquisite job walking a very fine line. She certainly didn’t want the sequence to be salacious in any way, and it was much more important to show how Offred, Nick, Serena and Fred are reacting to this horrific event. The few images that we did show of this tragic couple under the water shows them very carefully, and they’re very striking. But the primary focus is watching Offred’s reaction, and Serena’s reaction. And to see Serena convey such a show of horror and shock and grief so publicly is unusual for that character, but it shows you just how big an impact this execution is going to have on her moving forward.
How will Eden’s death impact Offred and Serena, who seem to be somewhat aligned again at the end of the episode?
The whole season has been such a compelling back-and-forth power dynamic between Offred and Serena. That relationship is so interesting and so vital to the series, and we see in this episode in particular, they start once again at opposite ends. Serena’s using her power to restrict Offred’s access to the baby, and Serena doesn’t want anything to intrude on this state of pure bliss, and Offred is really being tortured by being so close to her kid, yet unable to even hold her and nurse her. It’s only Eden’s execution, with both of them witnessing this horrible crime, that brings these two women together. It’s such a lovely image of the two of them, these two women who are so often in that opposition, together with this baby after the execution. They’re so protective of this little girl, they both know the big challenges and threats that a little girl growing up in Gilead will face — and for the moment at least, they’re in it together to watch over her. They may have a different approach for how to do that in the finale, but at least by the end of this episode there does seem to be the sense that they’re looking out for the best interest of the baby. They’re both being the best mothers that they can be right now, Serena acknowledging that Offred can provide something that she cannot. So it’s a real interesting coming-together.
What was your process for determining what the interpersonal dynamics would look like in the Waterford household once the baby had finally arrived?
Serena has been driven all along by her desire to have a baby of her own. That’s all she ever wanted in return for her sacrifices. Now she’s finally got one, and we find her in this state of happiness, a little bubble that she does not want burst. She’s not going to let the scarcity of breast milk, or Offred’s return to the house, or Eden’s disappearance, interfere with what she’s been yearning and hoping for her whole life. She would just as soon have the existence of Offred erased. If she never had to see her again and she was just getting a supply of breast milk from the Red Center, that would’ve been just fine, and it’s only the circumstances of Offred’s breast milk drying up that brings Offred back into the house.
Now, Serena is stuck with a constant reminder of the fact that she cannot be the mother that she wants to be for this child. And it’s really illustrated so poignantly in the scene when Serena tries to console the baby by letting her try and breast feed, and then is forced to acknowledge that she’s going to fall short. There is something that Offred can offer, that Serena can never do. Getting these two women in the house with the baby as a flashpoint, we always knew would be ripe for great conflict and drama and emotional stresses on both of them.
We finally meet Bradley Whitford’s character, Commander Lawrence, who now has Emily under his roof as his handmaid. Can you talk a little bit about how Commander Lawrence developed in the writers room?
First, let me say we were all so thrilled when Bradley Whitford was cast. He’s such a fantastic, surprising actor, and his choices make him so perfect for Commander Lawrence. The spin he puts on his lines, there’s a fly-ness and a humor mixed with this undercurrent of menace that leaves you guessing. He’s mysterious. So, we’ve met a few commanders on the show. Obviously, you’ve really gotten to know Waterford. This is a very different commander. We wanted someone with a different energy and different vibe. He’s very powerful, and we see right away in his household, that this is not the Waterfords. It’s messy, it’s eclectic, there are books everywhere, there’s risque art on the walls. Lawrence himself dispenses with the usual formalities. He has a wife that doesn’t even show up to greet the handmaid. We don’t know until later in the episode that there’s a wife who has some troubles of her own being kept upstairs.
What makes Lawrence the perfect commander at this point, is that he is the commander for Emily. And Emily, who Alexis plays so beautifully, has been so damaged by this point. She’s been so broken. She’s told by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), “This is basically the end of the line for you. Make this work.” She walks in to this disorienting mess of a household with a commander who seems to provoking her, and pushing her most sensitive, vulnerable buttons. Yet he doesn’t punish her at the same time when he catches her reading. So, what’s up with him? She can’t get a beat on him. She can’t figure him out. It’s a very unsettling situation that’s already very charged for her. And the fact that she can’t get her bearings and understand what this guy is up to further unnerves her, and pushes us into some interesting things that happen in the finale.
Speaking of the finale, this episode sees the death of a main character, the introduction of a new main character, the introduction of this new baby into the world of The Handmaid’s Tale … where are we going next? With only one episode left here in season two, what lies ahead in the finale?
Eden’s execution really galvanizes Offred. It triggers some very strong reactions and actions from her and as a result, our other characters. We’ve laid the groundwork for everything that comes to a head in the finale, and I think it’s a very surprising, powerful and emotional experience. Our audience will see things and confrontations they have been hoping for, and in the end, I think it will be very satisfying. I hope our fans agree.
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