The Handmaid’s Tale
The final words of last week’s episode were “They’ll be coming for us.” So June, who has no idea the Marthas cleaned up the bloody crime scene at Jezebel’s and then incinerated Commander Winslow’s smarmy body, is waiting with a gun in her hand. The scene harks back to the last episode of the first season — which was also the ending of Margaret Atwood’s foundational novel — in which June awaits the Eye’s black van, wondering if it will take her across the border or to a Salvaging or for a quick round of torture before she’s killed. This time, she narrates as the van pulls up, the doors slam, and boots pound up the stairs toward her room. Except — surprise! — it’s just Eleanor Lawrence, come to urge June to help out in the kitchen since the Commander has some unexpected irate guests.
“And you should leave that here,” she chimes in at the last minute, waving toward the gun, as if she’d hardly noticed it until now, but it would be a little problematic if June wandered into the parlor with a weapon dangling out of one red sleeve.
Downstairs, Beth has good news: Billy, the Jezebel bartender and black-market wiz, is a hard yes on June’s plan to load the 52 children of her Gilead sector onto a cargo plane and zoom them off to Canada. The flight is a week away.
And then, even MORE good news — the type that might cause June to tap dance across the Lawrences’ parlor like an extra in a Gene Kelly film. Word has gotten back to Gilead’s government that Commander Waterford and Serena have been arrested by international authorities (and, of course, Parenthood’s Joel). Gilead is in crisis. Do they launch an attack on Canada? Work through diplomatic channels? Commander Winslow is also presumed captured (what a boon for June!), and the power vacuum at the top has commanders barking contradictory orders at one another.
Commander Putnam and Commander Calhoun (side note: Calhoun is the now-deceased Ofmatthew’s commander) have come to Lawrence because they “need a voice of reason and restraint.” In other words, they need someone with a wee bit of intelligence and foresight to remind them that launching missiles into their next-door neighbor, which surely is already looking for an excuse to bomb the hell out of Gilead, might just be a bad idea. Lawrence also, apparently, “still has a lot of support,” and so despite the fact that just two episodes ago fellow commanders were perched in his living room to make sure he properly raped his handmaid, they’re turning to him to step in and make decisions.
Apparently, these people have never heard of a secure room, because they allow June to meander through, pouring coffee and taking extraordinarily long bodily pauses, while they discuss national-security concerns of the highest import. (No wonder they’re a failing state!) But after the commanders leave the room and Lawrence whispers to June, “Fred and Serena are toast, and you just got away with murder. All in all, not a bad morning,” she sits down and laughs, bubbling over with glee. If Waterford and Serena are in prison, she assumes, they can’t get their hands on Nichole.
Except, well, the Canadians and whatever international agency is handling the Waterfords’ case don’t seem to be following any sort of logical plan. First of all, the Waterfords are apparently being held at a Zen Buddhist retreat house that was furnished by a Danish interior designer and bonsai aficionado. Their “prison” could be featured on a luxury-hotel site, where someone would call it “brutalist chic” and point out how the clean lines and expansive spaces will allow your mind to reach transcendence or some such bougie nonsense. Every last thing that happens in that ryokan-inspired “jail” is so unlikely as to strain every last shred of veracity this show had left.
First, they send Serena into Joseph’s suite, as if it’s a good idea to allow a woman to tell her obviously abusive husband that OOPS! she betrayed him to the Hague because she thinks their (kidnapped) baby “needs her.” And somehow she communicates all this through the line “I’ll be fine,” as if making this relatively obvious point (after all, she wasn’t a member of the ruling party in Gilead) would immediately imply to him that she had sold him down the river. Although I must admit that Serena’s closing words — “I will pray for you, Fred” — did make me giggle.
Then Moira, Luke, and baby Nichole come for a visit! Into the Waterfords’ cells! In — and I cannot stress this enough — prison! It’s understandable that after all this dramatic tension, the show’s writers wanted to put Moira and Luke in a room with the Waterfords and let us watch the fallout. But this was the best they could do? As Moira repeatedly points out, she doesn’t want to be there, and she didn’t need to be there — she and Luke could have declined to come and refused to let Serena see Nichole. Instead, for reasons never explained and most likely never considered by the writers, they all show up to meet the Waterfords as if they’re long-lost cousins.
Moira, at least, says all the things to Serena that we imagine we’d say in her situation (and she tells the social-services lady to pipe down, too). “You are still the same woman who held my friend down so your husband could rape her,” she says, even if Serena has a pink blouse and let her blonde hair fall down her back. “He raped me, too,” she tells her about Joseph, “at the whorehouse. He treated me like shit, like I was worthless.” All of which serves to rattle Serena just enough that by the time Moira leaves the room, she can barely hold Nichole without shaking. Delightfully, Nichole begins to cry just as Serena picks her up.
Why would Tuello honor his deal with Serena, whom he knows publicly created and supported Gilead? Why should a woman avoid punishment for aiding and abetting a government designed to destroy, rape, and kill other women? Why will she be free to just walk out of the Zen-prison doors just as soon as her paperwork is straightened out? Is there some grand deceit? Is Tuello pulling one over on Serena? God, I hope so, because his offering of some newspapers (and a journal titled simply America) and the remark that he would “love her thoughts” on “media bias in religion” left me repulsed.
Meanwhile, Luke is given an audience with Waterford because … well, there’s no good reason why this would happen, but it does. (Maybe they think Waterford will reveal some deep secret about Gileadean intelligence if he’s provoked?) Luke comes in with a binder full of material on Waterford and tries to reckon with how a man from a good family, with a good education, and obviously a devout faith, could possibly go so far off the rails. Except we know exactly how something like this could happen, and I suspect Luke does too. That faith Luke thinks he shared with Waterford became an infection that was purposely never treated. It ravaged his heart and his brain and eventually led him to infect others, or at least keep them under his thumb if they refused conversion. It’s the way of absolute religion. If your way is the only way to salvation, that doesn’t leave much room for acceptance.
Luke effectively ends the meeting by punching Waterford in the face, an entirely natural response yet one that is ultimately entirely not gratifying to watch. What does a punch do? Whom does it help?
Back in Gilead, plans are progressing to hustle out the handmaids’ children. But Mrs. Lawrence’s attachment to reality is also loosening, and she nearly gives away their plans twice over. The first time is when Mrs. Winslow and Mrs. Putnam show up at the Lawrences’ house, presumably to pray for Commander Winslow’s return and enlist Lawrence’s help in searching for Winslow. Eleanor’s words are just vague enough — “All the children can come. We can save all of them!” — that Olivia and Naomi don’t hear them as a plan to flee the country. And it nearly happens again when she tries to leave the house to warn other parents down the street that their children need to get onboard the flight and be taken to safety.
It’s no wonder June snaps. If Mrs. Lawrence runs her mouth, they’ll all end up on the Wall, or hanging in a public square, or buried in an unmarked grave. But that’s not a very good reason to let her die of a drug overdose. If Commander Lawrence’s entire reason for fleeing is to get his wife to a safe place where she can be cared for and medicated again, it doesn’t make much sense to let that asset die.
This is the second episode in a row in which June directly or indirectly causes a death. Waterford is right when he tells Luke earlier in the episode that the June her husband knew no longer exists. But it wasn’t just Commander Waterford who changed her — five years of survival have turned June from a woman into a creature. Winslow’s death was unpreventable and deserved. But the death of Eleanor, a woman who comforted and understood June, who took risks to help her find Hannah, who’d already been held hostage by the world her once-beloved husband had created, is cruel and selfish. June may be on the verge of heroics, but are they worth the cost?