The Handmaid's Tale: Smart Power

"No hate. No fear. Gilead's not welcome here."

The last couple of episodes have given me hope. Especially this one. Because of Canada! Big, beautiful Canada, where people still have cell phones and civil rights. Gay people. Women people. Gay women people!

So far, the Canadian characters have been mostly separate from the Boston characters, for obvious reasons. I found it oddly delightful to see everyone interacting for a change. Especially Luke, and later, Moira, confronting Fred Waterford directly with his crimes, even though Fred gave no acknowledgement that he feels even a smidgen of guilt.

But like last week's, this episode was framed by the expressions on Serena Waterford's drawn, unhappy face. (Yvonne Strahovski has been doing Emmy-caliber work this season.) She didn't say a lot this time; she didn't have to. When Fred insisted she accompany him to Toronto because the Canadians needed to see a "strong Gilead wife," Serena looked as if her heart was breaking. She pursed her lips as if she was trying to keep from crying, and then after he left her in the dying greenhouse, she did cry.

As they drove through Toronto, Serena looked out the window at normalcy – people kissing, chatting, women not wearing role-related uniforms – as if it were a fairytale kingdom. (Of course, this is why countries that deeply oppress their people don't ever allow them to leave.) Serena tried her best to be strong, but instead, she experienced one emotional blow after another. Genevieve, the diplomat who was showing her around, handed her a schedule made up entirely of pictures, as if Serena were a toddler or unable to read. How utterly humiliating. It reminded me of the picture comics in Fahrenheit 451.

The scene at the elevator, where the little girl stared at Serena and asked if she was a princess, reminded me of how Pennsylvania tourists stare at the Amish. The girl's mother was so appalled by Serena's very existence that she wouldn't share an elevator with her. Stunned, Serena went to the nearby bar and ordered a glass of wine. There, and not coincidentally, she met a representative of the U.S. Government who offered her cigarettes, a flight to Hawaii, and a chance to write and tell her story. Maybe it's too soon, but Serena had to be tempted.

A brief segue about the Handmaid 'verse

Mark Tuello, the U.S. rep, told Serena that while Gilead has chosen to blame the current rate of infertility on the sins of women, scientists in the United States have discovered that the problem lies with men. There is something just so disturbing about the idea that the Republic of Gilead was created simply because some men couldn't accept that they were the problem; they had to blame it on women.

(We knew before that the capital of the United States was Anchorage, but I was tickled to learn that the other state was Hawaii. Alaska and Hawaii are the two states that the contiguous U.S. tend to treat as an afterthought. It's like literary kismet.)

Why did the Canadian government agree to a delegation from Gilead, anyway? Fred said that the bombing had opened the door a bit. Perhaps Gilead had managed to keep the worst out of the news for awhile and that started normalizing Gilead just a bit. (And I have to say that all this seems funny and timely after the disastrous G7 meeting this week.)

I thought the best come-down directed at Fred was at the start, when the deputy minister for immigration told Fred that he and his husband used to enjoy visiting the states, but no longer felt welcome. But the most satisfying thing about the Canadian scenes was the protests. Luke, holding a huge photo of himself with June and Hannah, actually came face to face and confronted Fred Waterford, his wife's kidnapper and rapist. It was equally satisfying to see Moira looking directly at Fred while holding a sign that said, "My name is Moira." It wasn't mentioned this time, but it was certainly suggested last season that Fred had enjoyed Moira's unwilling services when she was imprisoned at Jezebels.

Honestly, though, the scene that really got to me was the party of expats celebrating the Waterfords' departure by spontaneously starting to sing America the Beautiful. That song should be our national anthem, and not just because it was written by a woman. It made me cry.

Nick and June

Nick was the inadvertent hero of this episode. He did the most amazing thing, hunting down Luke and telling him the truth about June – except for one small detail, the paternity of June's baby, and it was probably best that he left that out. Nick also gave Luke the letters, which was a remarkably decent, risky thing to do. These days, it almost feels as if Nick is an honorary handmaid.


The one thing that bothered me was that the sudden appearance of those letters online coinciding with the Waterfords' visit might look suspicious. Or maybe I'm just paranoid about Nick getting caught. Eden saw those letters, and she must know that Nick doesn't want her. Of course, Eden is unlikely to see those letters on the internet, isn't she?

June was losing hope. In her third trimester, June was clearly exhausted and becoming resigned to her "reduced circumstances," her literal confinement. When Serena came to June's attic and told her that she wanted her out of the house as soon as the baby was born, the despairing June did something thoughtful – she asked both Rita and Aunt Lydia to be godmothers to her baby when June herself was gone. Rita reminded June of her powerlessness when she said yes, though. That Isaac the Eye could do anything to Rita and no one would stop him.

When Nick came to June's room and told her that her husband was alive and looking for her and that Moira had made it to Canada, it made all the difference. June had hope again. If Moira could make it out, so could June. Wouldn't it be lovely if June's most urgent problem was deciding between her husband and Nick, instead of worrying about being raped or maimed or having her baby stolen from her?

Bits:

Title musings (borrowed from our own Victoria Grossack): It seems obvious to me that "Smart Power" refers to ruining the diplomatic mission by publishing the truth, those poignant and terrible letters, instead of resorting to violence. It was smarter and possibly had a stronger impact than what Ofglen did.

— Eden made Nick chocolate chip cookies to take on the trip with him, although it didn't even make him smile at her. Interestingly, Eden also seemed to enjoy flirting a little with Isaac, the Eye that Fred left behind to guard his household. Maybe she was just happy to get any attention at all.

— The airport was all black and white, like the situation. There was also an obvious comparison to be made between Serena's dying greenhouse plants and the flourishing botanical garden in Toronto.

— Last week, it seemed like a given that the Putnams would let Janine visit her daughter if only for the sake of their stolen baby's health. But no. It was awful that Janine refused to shut up and Isaac hit her with his weapon.

— Serena threw the matches from Hawaii into the fireplace. Not the cigarettes, though.

Quotes:

June: "This could be an Airbnb. Not a great one. Three star reviews, maybe. 'Amazing house, tons of character, nice view of the yard. Owners are super polite but creepy as fuck. Some ritualized rape required'."

Fred: "Canadians think women here are oppressed, that they're voiceless. I need you. To show them a strong Gilead wife."
Geez. Can you say 'ironic'?

Janine: "Has the baby dropped yet?"
June: "No."
Janine: "It's so crazy. It's just like boom, there's someone sitting on top of your vagina."
I love practically everything Janine says.

Mark: "People often leave home in search of a better life."
Serena: "So far, all you've offered me is treason and coconuts."

Fred: "His kingdom endures forever."
Luke: "Fuck you."

Moira: "Fucking letters! I thought that package was gonna have like C4 in it or whatever. Something to make Gilead go boom."
Erin: "This could go boom."

June: "I know I should accept the reality of you being born here, make my peace. But fuck that."

I've enjoyed these past two episodes tremendously. This is the direction I'd hoped they would go. Four out of four coconuts,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

15 comments:

magritte said...

Love June's Airbnb quip--it's so very Atwood. Though obviously not from the original Handmaid's Tale.

Billie Doux said...

Maybe Atwood came up with it, though. She's a producer.

Lisianpeia said...

There goes my fantasy of Serena and June escaping during the trip to Canada XD Nonetheless, this was an amazing episode! Finally those letters got out. My feelings match yours regarding the last few episodes and the direction they are going.

I can't help but hope for a redemption arc for Serena. fisher and diaz wrote a comment on last episode review with a great reading of the character and a possible story arc that makes a lot of sense. But even using the alt-right comparison, I think it'd be interesting to see a woman in Serena's position, who previously supported restricted roles for women in society (based on what we know from her book) and contributed to a system that oppress and enslave women, realizing her mistakes. Objectively speaking I don't think she deserves a redemption arc, but in the scenario we are living it'd feel like a message of hoping and positive change.

I loved Luke in this episode, his confrontation of Fred and his interaction with Nick.

I don't think I have said this, but better late then never: I love your reviews, Billie. They are always very insightful!

Billie Doux said...

Thanks, Lisianpeia. I guess that fantasy will have to wait until the series ends, but it would certainly be cool.

I hope it's not *too* late -- it airs Wednesday and I always try to get my review up by Thursday!

Lisianpeia said...

Oh, no, I wasn't saying your reviews arrive late!! I was saying my comment about them being insightful is late since I only said it now, after so many reviews on this TV show.

English isn't my first language, sorry if anything got lost in translation.

Billie Doux said...

Don't apologize! It was a lovely comment, and even better now. :)

Cindy Fern said...

I loved how they tied the bombing, the imagery of June with the Pen, and the release of the Letters all together. The Letters went boom and,the pen was mightier than the sword, after all :)

Billie Doux said...

Cindy Fern, they certainly did. The writing this season has been spectacular, and you know, I didn't expect it since this was the first season not based on the book.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

This episode felt like a cathartic bookend to last season's episode, A Woman's Place. She's essentially made to do by her husband what she made June do last season in front of the visiting Mexican ambassadors, that is to prostrate herself for the benefit of protecting Gilead's image. She clearly didn't want to accompany her husband on his trip to Canada, but Fred needed to assert his control over her, perhaps suspicious that she would try to regain any of the agency he had taken from her in the previous episode.

The other callback to A Woman's Place comes when Nick tells June that her husband is safe and living in Canada with Moira. Up until this point, she has no idea of her fate or whereabouts. This moment had similar parallels to June being informed by one of the Mexican ambassadors that her Husband was still alive, where she's sort of in shock and in disbelief. She never hears from him again and is left to wonder if Luke is actually alive or not. Here, she's given irrefutable proof from Nick, and it's a watershed moment for her.

Moreover, I found June's closing monologue at the end of this episode to have a nice book ending effect to her closing monologues in the episodes, "Offred" and "June".

June: "Moira was Hannah's godmother... Is... Moria is Hannah's godmother."

It's a powerful statement for someone who's been through much these past 2 seasons, almost like the truth from ouside is slowly setting in to help cleanse June of Gilead's influence over her.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

I still don't think that Serera is redeemable, though. This episode was a chastening moment for her, many moments actually, but I think she's only going to dig in even further. There was Fred's disdainful line in the limo that Canada couldn't control its own populace as they're making their way back to the airport. She did have to contend with the unruly protesters while she was visiting Torono, but she also had to experience a level of resistence and contempt from ordinary people in even keeled settings that she was not used to dealing with, nor would tolerate in Gilead. As tempting as it might have been for her to leave Gilead, it would mean losing her ruling class status. She would be no better off, in her mind, than any of the free women living in Canada or anywhere else outside of Gilead. And this is someone who propped up Gilead in the first place because she had felt that America had abandoned biblical law, and that a sectarian runned government was what America needed to establish the biblical order that she desired.

It's always difficult for anyone who has to re-evaluate their philosophies and opinions, but for fundamentalist religionists of any stripe, this is oftentimes a particular challenge, and for many, there is no genuine mea culpa moment. Every schadenfreude moment that has been inflicted upon Serena has never been one that has facilitated any self-reflection or empathy for those who she has harmed. She experiences many glass ceiling moments in this show, and even brutality at the hands of her husband, but it's only proxied through the frustrations she is experiencing. Contrast that with June's husband, Luke, who slowly is coming to realize his that his own indifferent attitudes of the past may have played an indirect role in Gilead's eventual rise.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

That confrontational moment where her husband, Fred and Luke have their tense meeting at the airport is another watershed moment of that episode, and the look in Serena's eyes when she sees the giant family portrait that Luke is carrying with him tells you all you need to know. That she knows what she has done, and what she is continuing to do now. She can no longer feign ignorance in that regard.

But, that doesn't necessarily let her off the hook either when you consider that last season that she went to great lengths to conceal Gilead's brutal mistreatment of its citizens. In particular, she had the machiavellian foresight to realize that allowing any of the maimed handmaids to be within an eye's sight of the visiting ambassadors from Mexico last season would not be good p.r. for Gilead, so she has them removed entirely. And the lucky handmaid's who are physically intact are stuck with the indignity of being living props to Serena's public relations scheme, where their stolen children are paraded in their presence to the visiting delegates like valuable merchandise.

Serena's small exchange with the U.S. rep, Mark Tuello is a nice little addendum to this as well. He offers her the chance to defect from Gilead, and tries to entice her further with a child of her own, thanks to scientific breakthroughs outside of Gilead's borders. But when Serena balks at the offer by telling him that she's expecting a child of her own back at home in a few weeks, Mark doesn't give her an inch, telling her flatly that the child isn't her's.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

If nothing else in this episode, I found that her own hubris compelled her at every turn to reject any acknowledgment of the lie she's been living, which would in turn have allowed her in some measure to regain some of semblance of personal dignity. But she doesn't, and you see this come into sharp focus when the lady Canadian host lays into her hard as she's being escorted out of their consulate building.

Female Canadian delegate: "I don't know how you live with yourself. It's sad what they've done to you."

Serena can only offer up a meek platitude in response. In any other context, she would have had that woman's tongue cut out, or had her strung up in effigy. But here, she can only pretend to be above the fray and saunter off in humilation. It's no doubt the same steely resolve that had kept her from lashing out in anger at her Canadian hosts when she was infantalized by them with itineraries designed for pre-schoolers, or kept her from displaying any sign of open despair after she was beaten by her husband in the previous episode. But, everyone has a boiling point. Even deplorables, like Serena Joy.

It'll be interesting to see what the ramifications will be for June going forward. If the leaked scenes from the upcoming episode is of any indications, it's going to be a rough ride for June indeed. Buckle up everyone! We're in the homestretch, and these next 4 episodes are going to be quite the tumultuous ride.

Billie Doux said...

I really enjoyed your multi-part comment slash review, Fisher-and-Diaz. You made some great points, especially about Serena and what she did to the handmaids before and during that dinner for the Mexican delegation. I honestly don't know if Serena can achieve anything resembling redemption, but I keep thinking she might change sides for selfish reasons. And if she did, she'd be a powerhouse in the resistance against Gilead.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

Billie,

I wouldn't say that Serena has redeeming qualities as much as she's had moments that have humanized her, such as her genuine affinity for children, but then you see that with many horrible people in fiction and in real life. None of her hardships right now suggest to me that she's on a path to redemption like Darth Vader, or even on an indirect path like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Some have suggested that her relationship with Commander Waterford will resemble something similar to Palpatine/Vader, but I believe that it's more akin to Megatron/Starscream from the Transformers.

The peace between them is very shaky at best now, and all it will take is the tiniest nudge to set them upon each other with daggers drawn.

One bit of interesting foreshadowing centers on the gender of June's child. Commander Fred seems confidant that it'll be a boy, but June's convinced in her heart that it's a girl. I think the latter will play out and that Commander Fred will be hugely disappointed, so much so that the child will be treated as an afterthought, similar to the cold treatment that baby Charlotte now receives from the Putnams. Serena though, will adore this child, and this will probably allow her most redeeming quality to shine through, but alas, that child is not her's, as Mark Tuello tells her in Canada. And when the child is eventually taken from them, Fred will place all the blame on Serena. And this could prompt Serena into actively exploring ways to directly undermine her husband from this point forward, with her figuring out ways to wield Gilead's infrastructures to accomplish her own means and desires while at the same time immunizing herself of the very policies that now shackle her. I would use Westworld's Maeve as a working example.

fisher_and_diaz@yahoo.com said...

For all the indiscriminant brutality that Gilead dishes out right now, I think there's an underlying awareness by everyone living under its thumb that it's moral laws are corrupt and shallow at best, designed to permanently benefit those propped in power. So I don't expect Commander Fred or Serena to be severely hoisted by their own petards in similar fashion to what happened to Warren Putnam last season. In fact, it'll demonstrate Gilead's hypocritical biases in a way that has never really been explored yet in this show. But I do think they will be penalized, and it will heavily involve June's child in some way. Maybe Aunt Lydia has the child removed from them temporarily to resolve whatever misgivings she has with the Waterfords as parents, and then the child is unexpectedly spirited away and taken to Canada. At the very least, it would drive a seismic wedge between all 3 of these antagonists, who for all intents and purpose, have largely been the faces of Gilead in this series.

So I guess in that regard, that would potentially make Aunt Lydia into this show's Darth Vader, as she has been portrayed as a force of nature. Certainly the more dreaded moments occur with her whenever she's in a scene. Contrast that with the more venal, but telegenic commanders and wives, who purposely project a more coifed, and non threatening presence to everyone around them. They truly epitomize Hannah Arent's philophical description of what The Banality of Evil truly is in my opinion.

Please keep in mind that this is all speculation on my part, Billie. The Waterfords could end up resolving their differences and becoming a united front. But I just think that much of this show is designed to center on June turning Gilead on its head using the cards that have been dealt to her. But at her core, she's more of a cerebral force of nature than anything else. And because the showrunners have been mindful in periodically infusing tactile moments of hope into this show, I believe that the Waterfords cannot be fundamentally allowed to have June's child. But at the same time, neither can June either. It would give June the binary goal of reuniting with both her daughters who are now separated from inside and outside of Gilead's borders.

Removing June's child from the chessboard would then shift the narrative back to her other missing child, Hannah. What happens to Hannah now that June no longer has her newborn as leverage? Last season, June goes to Fred in a desperate attempt to protect Hannah from Serena's reprisal, but at this point I feel that Aunt Lydia would end up being Hannah's protector in that regard. But given Serena's genuine affinity for children, she may not opt to do any harm to Hannah at all. Instead, I could see her endeavoring to do to Hannah what Gilead has successfully done to Eden.