The Handmaid’s Tale
If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that The Handmaid’s Tale’s writers room conspiratorially pulled some foreign-policy strings and launched President Trump’s bizarre Twitter attack on Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau the same week that they’ve released “Smart Power,” in which American-Canadian relations come crashing to a dramatic — and very sassy — halt in a hotel lobby. Honestly, this is a gift from coincidence heaven (or hell, depending on whether your priority is eerily prescient television or the survival of American alliances). Did anyone else throw their hands up and scream “How did they KNOW?!” at the television this week? Now we just have to hope that Trump doesn’t learn to change the channel from Fox News to Hulu, lest he start picking up more ideas …
The episode relies on what would have been a shaky premise until this week. Why would two sworn political enemies meet for talks in which neither will relent? Especially when one of those parties enslaves its people, dishes out state-sponsored propaganda, and punishes a lack of allegiance with death. There really is no rational reason that Canada would invite the Waterfords at all. But Handmaid’s Tale had to kick-start what I’m assuming will be further escalating tensions with our no-longer-friendly neighbors to the north. (There’s a season three on the horizon, and you can bet that war or an invasion will be part of it.) And, crucially, they needed to get Serena, suddenly the nexus of the show, out of the country.
For someone who started out as a certifiable villain, Serena has drifted further and further into hazy territory; now you may find yourself hoping she’ll escape the autocratic state she helped build. The show does an excellent job of keeping her teetering on the brink of victimhood. When Fred touches her shoulder in the greenhouse, she flinches, and we immediately remember the slap of his belt across her body. As she gazes out the window at passersby on Canadian streets, there’s just enough longing — for a cellphone, a friend, a pair of jeans, a passionate kiss — in her face for us to feel pity. It’s a more nuanced picture of a complicit woman than we usually see.
This episode also makes clear that, despite last episode’s humiliating punishment, Serena still has power, or at least some currency. Fred has brought her to the summit because, he claims, “the Canadians think the women here are oppressed, that they’re voiceless.” He needs her, he says, “to show them a strong Gilead wife.” Really, he needs her to echo his lies: It’s much more convincing when a woman vouches for Gilead’s policies than when a man does. Serena’s first stop on the tour, a walk through a botanical garden, only reminds her that she is a decorative object in Gilead — an empty vessel meant to spend her days filling other vases. But her garb alone wields substantial power over the mother and daughter she bumps into waiting for the elevator. Serena is so potent that the mother refuses to step into close proximity with her.
While it’s downright bizarre that a woman like Serena would be left to wander alone through a foreign hotel — she has no bodyguards closely tailing her, although one lurks in the distance, and she’s in a city where she’d surely be recognized as one of the leaders of the movement that brought down the American government — again, the show makes a concession to believability for the cause of advancing the narrative. She wanders into the hotel bar (again, not a likely place a Gilead wife would be permitted to go) and bumps into the long-suffering Joel from Parenthood, attempting to light up a cigarette and failing to lure Serena into the trap he’d laid for her. She recognizes at once that he’s there for a story, although at first she mistakes him for a reporter.
Instead, he’s a representative from America (“Which America is that?” Touché, Serena) and he’s there to offer a little tit for tat. He can get her a whole new life — in Hawaii, nonetheless! — but Serena coyly resists, claiming she didn’t pack for the beach. The emissary ups the ante, telling her she can write her story in her own words — in essence, promising her the voice and sway she’s sorely been missing for the past few years. Still, it’s not enough. “You’ve only offered treason and coconuts,” she counters. So he takes out his grand prize, a baby. Fertility specialists have apparently discovered that the fault for the falling birth rate actually lies with men (duh), so he can assure Serena that they’ll get her a 100 percent biologically related child in no time. Of course, he wants something from her — that story, essentially, which will help cement Gilead’s reputation as a hellhole that even the wife of a powerful Commander would want to flee.
Will Serena take the offer or won’t she? She spurns his offer, but that little book of matches with a Hawaiian phone number on it could be the ticket for a late exit.
June’s plotline, meanwhile, is heartfelt but more than a little unlikely. She greets Serena’s news that she’ll be shipped out immediately after the baby’s birth with as many tears as you’d expect, and rapidly deploys a plan B, asking other women to look after her child in her absence. As a “godmother,” Rita makes some sense. She’ll certainly be around the child on a daily basis, and she and June have shared confidences before. They aren’t exactly bosom buddies, but each woman knows that they stand on the same side. As for that scene with Aunt Lydia, however, consider my jaw permanently damaged from hitting the floor with so much force when June tried to enlist her cruelest tormentor — a woman who literally chained June to a bed and forced her to partake in ritual murder — as a custodian of her child’s well-being. Even the deranged, Stepford June of a few episodes ago wouldn’t make this move. While it’s apparent that deep inside her twisted soul Aunt Lydia does harbor some love for babies (see Baby Angela/Charlotte), she is also undoubtedly the worst person June has ever met.
These touching scenes are also all for naught since June does yet another about-face and offers yet another direct-to-camera Screw the Patriarchy monologue. A few episodes ago, after surviving that epic hemorrhaging, June swore she’d fight, telling her fetus: “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. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us outta here. I promise you.” This week, apparently, she relapsed yet again. And rebounded once again. Wavering emotions are in and of themselves understandable, but as a narrative it gets pretty tiring to watch the protagonist somersault through the same set of emotions, time and time again.
Serendipitously brought together with the Waterfords in Toronto, Moira and Luke can’t accept the government’s response that there is nothing they can do about the fact that the man who owns their best friend and wife, respectively, will be coming for a nice friendly chat with some important Canadian bureaucrats. The best they can do, the duo reasons, is to protest, to show up in front of Waterford’s face and show him that the woman he considers a concubine sent by God is actually a mother and wife who has been torn from her life and held captive in a nightmare.
It’s a valiant try, but no photo will stir the dregs of human decency left moldering in the bottom of Waterford’s heart. Luke’s leap across the police barricade may not amount to any thrown punches, but it does rattle Serena, who looks on in horror, eyes moving from the photo to Luke to her husband. “You remember my face,” Luke shouts at the Commander, “because I’m gonna remember yours, and this will all be over someday.” If that doesn’t sound like series-finale bait, I don’t know what does.
Nick, whose prowess as a detective is not to be underestimated, manages to later hunt Luke down at a bar. What proceeds is the most frustratingly pared-down conversation in history. Here stands a man who claims to be a friend of June’s — the only such person to have wandered into Luke’s life over the past few years — and instead of peppering him with questions or begging him for help, Luke barely remembers to ask about Hannah. Nick does tell Luke that June is pregnant, although he lets Luke believe that the baby is Waterford’s, and he does promise to relay any messages. But the biggest gift he bestows isn’t about June at all. It’s the letters June meant to pass along through the resistance, the ones that ended up in Nick’s drawer after June tried to burn them in the sink, the ones that Eden knows he has.
The letters, which Luke and Moira publish online overnight, do indeed “go boom,” turning the Canadian public against the state-sponsored visit and encouraging masses of protesters to escort them right out of town. Waterford and Serena get the exit they deserve, with the same Canadian hero who icily informed them, “I was very fond of visiting the U.S. … with my husband” arriving to kick their oppressive asses to the curb. (In a perfect world, the Canadians would have seized them as war criminals, but hey, even Canadians aren’t perfect.)
In Gilead, hatred for the Commanders and Wives and Aunts is kept at a low simmer. The butt of a rifle meets the face of anyone who would dare to tell a Guard to suck their dick, like Janine so epically does. And the Waterfords are, as the adage goes, able to keep anything out of sight, out of mind. But the sight of the protesters, along with the whispered, “I don’t know how you live with yourself. It’s sad, what they’ve done to you,” worm their way inside Serena. Her discomfort is palpable, and not only because she may fear for her safety.
As an echo of the handmaids’ whispered name-sharing in the grocery store last episode, women in the crowd bear signs proclaiming their humanity: “My name is …” When Moira’s face looms through the Waterfords’ car window, I half expected the Commander to reach out and throttle her. And then I half-expected Serena to take a last-minute leap from the vehicle. And then to push the Commander down the steps after they return home. And then to at least stow away that matchbook for later. Somehow, her inaction is continually surprising. But it doesn’t appear as if it will last forever.
Now let’s see if anything else goes boom.