Eden may look sweet and innocent, but she poses the biggest threat of all to June and her unborn baby…
Fair warning: This article contains spoilers for episode five of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (and drops some heavy-handed hints about what’s to come later, too).
In the fifth episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale – aptly named Seeds – June (Elisabeth Moss) finally becomes what Gilead wants her to be: a compliant and low-functioning robot, with a working womb. However, it seems Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) still isn’t happy. Driven to distraction by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and her pencil-toting presence in the household, Serena seeks comfort and companionship in the woman carrying “her” child. June, though, refuses to play ball. “No, Mrs Waterford,” she intones, eyes blank. “Yes, Mrs Waterford. Thank you, Mrs Waterford.”
It’s enough to trigger something dark in Serena. And, when Nick (Max Minghella) breaks protocol and tells her that June needs psychiatric help, she becomes instantly jealous of his friendship with the Handmaid. As such, she decides to taunt Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) with a glowing endorsement of Nick and June’s relationship, slyly reminding him that the baby inside June’s belly is not his, but that of his driver.
Seeds of jealousy sown, the Commander determines to “reward” Nick for his “loyal” service. At first, it seems as if this is code for another horrific hanging or Particicution. However, when the “Prayvaganza” kicks off, it quickly becomes apparent that the Commander is far more devious than that: he has arranged for Nick to be given a starring role in the mass wedding ceremony, which pawns off teenage girls as domestic servants and sex slaves.
“Doesn’t he look handsome?” whispers Serena to June as they sit watching the ceremony from above.
What follows is one of the show’s most horrifying scenes to date – and it is done without blood, violence or self-mutilation. It’s that long line of obedient child brides. It’s the expression on June’s face as she watches the man she loves, her final connection to her old self, forced to marry a 15-year-old. It’s the grim resolve in Nick’s eyes as he slowly lifts the white veil covering the too young woman before him – and the sweet smile he receives from his bride in return.
But the worst is still to come: after the wedding, a nervous Eden recites a specially-prepared speech to Serena, which she says her mother taught her back in their home in the Massachusetts countryside. Serena, in turn, prepares Eden for her wedding night using sex-positive passages from the Bible. And, as this conversation is happening, Nick finds June’s muddied and bleeding body in the Waterfords’ yard – and realises that his lover has fallen, perhaps on purpose, from her bedroom window.
After knowing what we know, and seeing what Gilead did to Janine (Madeline Brewer) for attempting suicide, we fear the worst: if June’s baby has died, she will be blamed. She will be blamed, she will be sentenced, and she will be punished most severely for her “crimes”. Much to our surprise, though, June wakes up in a hospital – and her baby is safe.
It’s enough to snap June out of her Offred-fugue and back into her old rebellious speech. She goes under her covers and delivers a rousing speech to her child.
“Hey, you listen to me. I will not let you grow up in this place. I won’t do it. Do you hear me? They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. You hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here,” she says.
Too bad, then, that Eden has been instated in the Waterford household.
Unlike June, or Serena, or even Aunt Lydia, Eden doesn’t remember a world before Gilead. The sight of a pencil – now banned to all women except the Aunts – doesn’t trigger any feelings of resentment in her. When she sees another woman forced to carry her master’s child, she doesn’t see it as strange or unnatural. And when she is married off to a stranger at the tender age of 15, she doesn’t shed any tears, or mourn the life she might have had, or worry about the future she may have lost. Instead, she gives herself fully and utterly: marriage is her God-given duty, and she only hopes that the Lord will open and her and Nick’s union will be blessed with fruit.
So why is this pious and obedient teenager so dangerous? Well, because she is a true child of Gilead: Eden has grown up with this new, closeted world, and sees it as not just normal, but good and just and true.
To quote Adolf Hitler: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the Future!”
Once again, we see how real life events shape the narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale: much like Hitler, the leaders of Gilead are keenly aware of the difficulties they had to overcome to seize power. And, while they might never admit it out loud, Commander Waterford and his contemporaries know that they will never be able to convert every single American: as we’ve seen in the Colonies, even Wives have been punished for breaking the theocratic society’s strict rules. Indeed, even the Econo-people have their secrets – whether that be the fact that they’re secretly working for Mayday, they allow different rules behind closed doors, or attend church with everyone else for appearances, whilst keeping a Muslim prayer rug taped under their bed.
In short, too many thinking adults can see through the official propaganda. The younger generation, though, is a different matter. Just as the Hitler Youth did, Eden and her contempoaries came to Gilead as something a clean slate – making them much more vulnerable to ideological manipulation. And, from a very young age (think of Hannah in her tiny pink Handmaid uniform), they have been taught to believe in Gilead, to understand their proper role in society, and to inform on all those who break the rules.
Eden, sadly, is no different. Just one word from her could see Nick executed, June bundled off to the Colonies, Serena stripped of her Wife status, or even the Commander punished as a traitor (his late-night Scrabble games with June would be a big fat no-no to Eden). And it would not take much to trigger that one word from her, either.
“She’s still a teenager, so I wanted to keep that sense of curiosity, but she’s been raised to dream and aspire to be a good wife or a mother and doesn’t really know anything else,” Sweeney tells Stylist.
“She works on blind faith alone: others may judge the regime, but she doesn’t know any different – and I wanted the audience to be able to see that.”
She adds: “To me Eden is innocence. She has unwavering faith. I don’t know if viewers will relate to her, or feel any sympathy, but they’re guaranteed to feel for her in some way – and recognise that she has been defined by the world within which she was raised.”