Earlier this year, I spoke to Ane Crabtree, the costume designer of The Handmaid’s Tale, about this season’s costumes. Crabtree mentioned that the colour white — “terrifying but pure” — would be a major presence in two unforgettable mid-season scenes. The first scene was the mass wedding. “The second one was something that people said, ‘I don’t think we should go there. It’s too much,’ Crabtree said.
After watching “First Blood,” the sixth episode of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, I saw the scene Crabtree was referring to — and I know why people expressed misgivings. In the episode, Nick (Max Minghella) consummates his marriage with Eden (Sydney Sweeney), the vehemently pious 15-year-old he was forced to marry during the Prayvaganza ceremony. If it makes you feel better, Sydney Sweeney is 20 in real life.
The camera luxuriates in this scene, makes us stew in our discomfort at the juxtaposition of our conventional idea of consent with Gilead’s. We see Eden’s unflinching expression as she lays on her back, and Nick spreads a Gilead-approved sheet, designed for chaste intercourse, over her body. Nick, still wearing a white tank top, positions his body over the hole in the sheet. Before he starts to thrust, Eden reassures Nick that he’ll be a good father.
Written on Eden’s calm face is the shocking distance America has traveled in the past five years. We’ve transitioned from a world in which 15-year-olds stress about Snapchat and lunch table power dynamics to a world in which 15-year-olds serenely tell their 30-something husbands not to worry; they’ll be able to fulfil their biological function.
Clearly, the Sons of Jacob have been scarily successful in indoctrinating Americans — or, more specifically, young former Americans — to accept a new set of social mores. Since the capital fell five years ago, Eden’s impressionable mind has been warped around the fear-driven ideals of Gilead. She accepts Gilead’s mission with a calm purity that none of the adults on the show seem to possess. Even the show's most pious adults have their own complexes: Lydia (Ann Dowd) trembles with the power of her convictions, forever suspicious that others don’t share her beliefs. Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) second-guesses her role in shaping Gilead every time she stares longingly at a pen. Commander Fred (Joe Fiennes) reveals his hypocrisy each time he visits June for a midnight tryst.
Like many of the other adults in The Handmaid's Tale, Nick has one stubborn foot in a pre-Gilead America. Maybe, while approaching the marital bed, he remembers that the age of consent in the state of Massachusetts, where The Handmaid’s Tale is set, is 16. Maybe he realises that a few years ago, the same act on this very plot of land would be considered statutory rape. He could go to jail. But he’s not in America anymore. He’s in Gilead, and in Gilead, Nick could be hanged for being a gender traitor if he continues to avoid having sex with his wife.
Just like most of the show's Gilead-set sex scenes, this encounter emphasises just how irrelevant the idea of consent has become in this society. Years ago, the question would have been whether Eden could consent to have sex with Nick. In Gilead, it’s the other way around: Does Nick consent? No. But in Gilead, it simply doesn’t matter whether anyone consents at all.
As a response to the plummeting birth rates, the idea of an individual’s consent to sex was dismissed as superfluous. Individual comfort is not as important as the perpetuation of the population, so having sex (in rigid, proper set-ups, of course) is a moral imperative. Case in point: Handmaids are casually and systematically raped in monthly ceremonies. When Serena realises Fred is impotent, she farms June out to the family driver, Nick, to become impregnated. Sex is just the means through which women can fulfil their function. The who is irrelevant.
That said, this particular scene is different than the others. Prior sex scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale took place between adults who remembered what sex was like before Gilead. The participants stiffly act out rituals, realising — no matter how pious they are — these are unnatural, manufactured pairings. Eden, however, does not know this. Eden was raised to be a Gilead automaton, and she doesn’t know what has been taken away from her: the gift of saying no, of choosing partners, of pleasure. So The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t, technically, show statutory rape within the confines of the on-screen, very fictional universe. Instead, The Handmaid's Tale shows the erasure of the concept entirely. But even if statutory rape was wiped from Gilead's lawbooks, the audience is right to be deeply uncomfortable watching this scene — the youngest age of consent in the United States is 16. In no state would Nick and Eden's pairing be legal.
And to think: Nick and Eden are just one couple. After the Prayvaganza, many older men were paired off with young girls, who are likely as indoctrinated into Gilead as Eden. Their children will never know America. They will never know what they missed. Couples like Nick and Eden aren't just replenishing the population. They're making Gilead one believer stronger.