Thursday, July 18, 2024

Eden Spencer and the Tragedy of Indoctrination

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Spoilers for all recent episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale

This week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale saw the execution of one of its more polarizing characters, a character you never would’ve expected to meet that kind of end when she first appeared on the show. Eden Blaine (née Spencer) debuted in episode 2×05 as the new wife assigned to the protagonist June’s (supposedly) secret lover Nick. She was pious and hopeful, eager to make a family with her husband and be a good Christian wife. And oh, she was a child bride.

Eden was fifteen when she was married, which makes her no older than sixteen at the time of her death. While we’ve seen some brutal executions on this show before, this is the first I can recall of someone so young. It also answers the longstanding question of whose feet we saw in that trailer shot of a man and a woman being drowned in a pool with weights hanging from their waists. There was speculation it was Fred and Serena Joy Waterford or maybe Nick and Eden, but it turned out to be Eden and Isaac, the young Guardian who ran away with her.

Though her death was tragic in circumstance and upsetting to watch, I fear some people will be relieved by it. Maybe now that she’s dead people will finally cut her a break, but many viewers spouted hate for Eden on the internet and elsewhere. Their reasons varied from resentment that she was coming between Nick and June to fears that she was a snitch to complaints that she was just plain annoying. Meanwhile, I always saw Eden as a tragic character. Having been raised in Evangelical culture myself, I know how easy it is to swallow the BS they feed you and believe that as long as you do the right thing, the fairytale life can be yours. Eden was in for a rude awakening.

Indoctrination is bad enough when you are cocooned in Evangelical culture, but it’s even worse in a theocracy like Gilead. Because by all appearances, the world does work the way you are being told it works. Until you dig a little deeper and realize how many people are unhappy and/or oppressed. Eden started out believing she would be married to a man who would provide for her and give her love and affection if she was submissive and dutiful and helped him make a family. By her unfortunate end, she had realized that holding up her end of the bargain held no guarantees and she’d have to look elsewhere for what she needed. In fact, she’d come to believe that staying with Nick wasn’t right because her hypothetical kids deserved parents who loved each other.

Sydney Sweeney as Eden Spencer Blaine in The Handmaid's Tale 2x12 "Postpartum"

There were always signs of trouble for her with Nick, but for months she kept trying to win his affection and get in his good graces. It likely would have been futile even without Nick’s involvement with June because he was so thoroughly creeped out by being given a fifteen year-old as a wife. He always held her at a distance, humoring her attempts at Good Wifehood™ but never awarding her any affection or warmth that felt genuine. I don’t really blame him for that, considering, but as time dragged on he grew to resent her and got really standoffish at times.

There were strong and probably intentional parallels between Fred and Nick in 2×08 with both being cold and dismissive towards their wives, culminating in Fred brutally beating Serena and Nick forcefully chastising Eden for touching his things in a way that felt physically intimidating. Maybe he was just trying to be assertive, but in a society where violence towards women is normalized and men have all the power, the way he was postured and his tone of voice had some very uncomfortable implications. Especially since this scene was placed directly after the beating scene. When Eden replied submissively and called him sir, he sighed and sank down on the bed. I like to think it was because he realized he too was using the unfair power granted to him as a male, but it’s equally plausible he was just reflecting on how crappy the situation was for him. Boo hoo.

Even with all that, the last straw for Eden didn’t come until 2×10, when Nick saw her and Isaac sharing a spontaneous kiss in the shadows of the yard. When Eden freaked out and begged him to forgive her, he casually told her not to worry about it. While this could be seen as letting her off easy, to Eden this was the ultimate sign of indifference. At that point she accused Nick of liking June. When he said he would never get involved with a Handmaid, she then came to the conclusion that Nick didn’t love her. When she broke down in tears, he pulled an ultimate douche move and told her to please stop crying.

“I’m your wife. You just caught me cheating on you. You should care.” —Eden to Nick

Now to be fair, Nick has never been shown to be particularly good at feelings, but only a heartless tool tells a woman to stop crying after he’s upset her because it makes him uncomfortable. I think it was fairly in character for Nick to behave the way he did, but from seeing him with June we know he is capable of compassion and emotion, even if he has a hard time expressing himself. I don’t think the show misstepped by having him behave this way, but on a Watsonian level I can absolutely think he was a jerk to Eden. A teenager. Who never asked for any of this.

It has been argued to me that having Nick be anything other than cold and distant towards Eden would have made it seem like the show was endorsing this relationship. But really, if the show wanted to avoid that misconception they shouldn’t have shot and scored Eden and Nick’s first intercourse scene similarly to how they shoot and score the passionate love scenes between June and Nick. That was super uncomfortable and a terrible directing choice, but other than that I never got the impression the show thought this relationship was even remotely a good thing, and even if Nick hadn’t been such a jerk I still don’t think it would have come across that way. The whole mass wedding scene was meant to be extremely disturbing and it had the desired effect.

Seeing Eden getting more and more desperate, viewers were speculating that she would soon snap and that’s when we would see her true colors come out. There were predictions that she would steal Nick and June’s Serena’s baby or rat Nick and June out. As it turned out, Eden did show her true colors when she snapped. My sweet, precious cinnamon roll revealed herself to be pure-hearted after all. She only left with Isaac after coming to the conclusion that God would want a child to be raised by parents who really love each other. Then when they got caught, she refused to blame it all on Isaac because it wouldn’t be true and God knows what’s in her heart.

That entire pre-execution scene is excellent, really. Max Minghella and Sydney Sweeney both knocked it out of the park. Nick was desperate to save Eden because he felt responsible for her choosing to run off, desperate to the point of trying to make her turn on Isaac. When she said that line about God knowing what’s in her heart, he pointed out that it’s not God who would be deciding her fate. But Eden was determined to bravely face her punishment, even her death, with God at her side. Nick and the Waterfords and various other characters have been shown to be rather hypocritical to ensure their own survival or make allowances for themselves, but Eden was a true believer and she wouldn’t do that. She took the moral high road. Lying would be wrong, and betraying Isaac would be wrong.

Nick: “I’m the one who should be asking you to forgive me. For all the times that I should have been kinder. I’m so sorry.”

Eden: “Let’s forgive each other, then.”

Given the situation with Nick, it’s not really surprising that Eden turned elsewhere for affection and a sense of belonging. And Isaac was the only person who gave her the time of day or showed any interest in her, or her efforts to be the perfect Gilead wife. It’s sad that him tasting her cooking and saying that the pie she was planning to bake sounded good to him was enough to stand out among all the adults who found her tiresome and didn’t try to hide it one bit. It’s equally sad that this whole drama could have been avoided if Eden had been married off to someone who appreciated her and was closer to her age. Of course, Gilead only cares about making babies, not about happy marriages.

To be fair, Isaac is kind of a tool – he did hit my precious baby Janine with the butt end of a gun for talking back to him. But he struck me as just another young person who had been indoctrinated and was doing what he thought he should, that and acting within the limited power he had been granted in this repressive society. He could have turned out very differently had an extremist patriarchal regime not come to power during his formative years. And he treated Eden with genuine sweetness, so clearly there was some good in him. I know not everyone agrees with that perspective; I’ve seen other reviewers and commenters saying he was eyeing her like a pervert the whole time, but it didn’t look that way to me. And even though there’s somewhat of an age difference, showrunner Bruce Miller says they were both teenagers, so it’s not as gross as some may have assumed.

Rohan Mead as Isaac and Sydney Sweeney as Eden Spencer Blaine in The Handmaid's Tale 2x10 "The Last Ceremony"

Now, were they actually in love? Highly debatable. There was definitely a lot of infatuation going on, but they had a distinct Romeo and Juliet vibe about them (and that’s not really a compliment). They probably didn’t know each other that well; while the show’s timeline is a little hard to follow, they would have had passing contact for maybe 3-4 months. But they had undeniable chemistry and they were both lonely, so they were drawn together. It’s as understandable as it is tragic, and unfortunately the pull was strong enough to doom them to their collective awful fate.

The fact that they even got a chance to plead for mercy before their execution is surprising to me, since we’ve never seen this before in Gilead. Perhaps it was because both were so young. Neither took the opportunity, however, instead sharing a mournful look with each other while remaining pointedly silent. It was never entirely clarified whether they refused to renounce their deeds because they felt so in love they didn’t regret it or because they truly believed they were in the right. Probably both, if Eden is to be believed.

It’s funny, because when Nick saw Eden kissing Isaac the first time she begged him for forgiveness using the exact same passage the judge was using to try to procure a confession. But once she knew Nick didn’t love her, she no longer felt she had sins to confess nor needed God to purify her from all unrighteousness. Not even a last minute plea from her mother could make her say the words. Instead she recited a section of 1 Corinthians 13 often read at weddings, reminding everyone of her pure intentions and what really matters as well as cementing her feelings for Isaac before they were pushed off the diving board.

“Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking.” —Eden’s last words, to Isaac

This ending was entirely befitting of the Romeo and Juliet couple, tragic and laden with the emotion of two young people blinded by love. But the fact that Eden got to the point of committing the crime of infidelity in a desperate search for fulfillment and human connection is just as tragic as her death itself. And the problem laid not only with society forcing her into an arranged, blind marriage, nor with the bad pairing she happened to draw. A large part of the problem is that Eden had been brought up to believe that her inherent worth lay in her ability to be a good wife and mother. And while she was arguably a good wife, Nick’s treatment of her made her feel like she wasn’t. It wasn’t until Isaac appeared and showed some appreciation for her that she felt like she was doing anything right. That she had any worth. And that is the true tragedy.

Images courtesy of Hulu

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