Sometimes — okay, all the time — while watching Handmaid’s Tale I try to imagine what kind of handmaid I would be. Would I silently absorb the abuse, melt into the wallpaper, meekly offer a “May the Lord open,” and keep to myself in order to survive? Would I bite and scratch and kick during my very first Ceremony, twist up my legs until they had to tie me to the bed? Would I do what we all like to imagine we would do and maintain a docile exterior while I plotted not just my own escape but the demise of the entire nation of Gilead?
This episode hinges on the question of what kind of handmaid June — who knows the game, and who has played several roles in the three years since America’s collapse — is morphing into. Standing under those swinging Martha bodies in the square, the ones so forcefully displayed as a warning shot to other would-be rebels, she can see the fate that might befall her if she chooses rebellion but isn’t successful: Not only could she too creakily swing from a rope, but some passersby wouldn’t even know what she had died for.
“If I’m going to survive this,” she points out, “I’ll need allies. Allies with power.” Alma and Janine are friends, and certainly allies of some sort. As are Cora (wherever she may be) and Beth. But what she needs is a higher-up who can pass information, foment a revolution from within, or escort a handmaid or Martha out of Gilead under cover. She needs Lawrence or Serena, or if possible, both.
June has worked Serena since her pregnancy. First when the two women shared Commander Waterford’s study and secretly ruled his corner of the kingdom, shuffling papers back and forth like two beat reporters churning out the scoop of the century. Then again when baby Nichole was born and they shared an unexpected common bond. It was June who encouraged Serena to speak up over the rights of women to read — and who indirectly cost her a finger. Now that Serena has made the ultimate sacrifice (“Only a mother could do what you did”), to give up that baby to a better life, she’s ripe for further encouragement, June thinks. Womanhood, Handmaid’s Taleseems to be saying, is a bond that runs a little deeper than politics or marriage or the law. Even the woman who had a crucial hand in getting Gilead off the ground is wavering in her commitment to it. Serena turns June down at the end of this episode, and tells her she didn’t come to strike up a rebellion alliance, but when she eventually walks past her husband on the beach, she leaves open the possibility that she won’t easily blend back in among the gossiping Commanders’ wives at the next ladies’ luncheon.
The taste of what Serena’s upbringing may have done to her psyche is revealing. Sure, we can all claim our problems go back to that one time our mother told us that red wasn’t our color, but Serena’s mother (an excellent Laila Robins) really takes the prize as the Ice Queen Mummy. (Another excellent casting choice here could have been Joan Allen, who plays cool and cruel better than anyone.) Just why Serena retreats to a house that she must have known would be filled with belittlement is unclear, but the resulting tension (“Enough drama!” her mother exclaims, as if losing a finger, marrying Satan incarnate, and living in a theocratic hellscape isn’t worth a little bit of weeping) ups the ante on her potential radicalization and explains her prior religious conservatism. This is a woman whose mother would spill the beans on her child’s deepest marital issues to a prayer circle — prayer as patronization — and then act taken aback when said child isn’t thrilled.
At first, when Serena left the beautifully crafted leather finger on the beach and walked out into the water, I assumed — and hoped, just a little — that she was pulling an Edna Pontellier and her head might vanish below the waves. But she’s stronger than she thinks. And what story line would be more interesting than the redemption of a gender-traitor who comes to realize that A Woman’s Place is in the uprising?
June is also prowling about Commander Waterford, hoping she can unlock some of his furthest moral reaches. Flattery seems to do the trick (although as Lawrence points out, Waterford isn’t the shiniest knob in Gilead), appealing to the little voice inside every cruel man that seems to make him think he’s a highly decent human who is simply doing what must be done. The will of God and all that b.s.
Commander Lawrence is a tricky one to read, which is what makes the character such a thrill to watch. He’s obviously a jerk, barking at his Marthas (“Beth, refill!”) and taking the already lowly Sienna down to new depths of degradation. His nonchalance about the rules of Gilead (“What’s the penalty for a handmaid opening the front door? Really, I don’t know.”) belie a narcissism that could get him killed but also reveal his utter lack of curiosity about the cruelty he’s unleashed.
The meeting he invites June into can be read two ways. The first, and less likely, is that Lawrence is creating a disguise around his own disgust with what Gilead has turned into, that he humiliates June so the other Commanders see him as one of them. In that way, he’d be more like June than either one knows, both pretending so that they can please the authorities just as they subvert the system. (She also gains crucial knowledge by eavesdropping on that meeting — that Chicago is about to fall to Gilead and that they’ll be getting a surge of troops — though it’s unclear if June yet has the wherewithal or ability to report such intel to colleagues in the resistance.) He ixnays the upcoming Salvaging, which could be merciful (or merely utilitarian). And his little game with Darwin’s The Descent of Man is emotionally barbaric, yes, but when June kneels in front of him it almost feels preplanned, like each knows to play their role while the idiot Commanders look on.
The less charitable way to read the scene is that Lawrence is making a power play. Not only can he bring June to her knees (literally), but he can encourage a handmaid to break the law by touching a book and not suffer any consequences. What’s more, he can own a copy of Darwin and whip it out in front of a crew of men likely to believe that the Earth is flat (or that it should be, at least) and have nobody blink an eye.
Later, in his fire-lit study (someone please do a study on the wood consumption of Gilead, where everyone has a constantly roaring fireplace), there’s no reason to think well of him. Which makes me wonder about how we, the viewers, see men like Lawrence. I want to think well of him, to find out he’s an economist with a heart of gold, that he’s the secret leader of the resistance and everything he’s done up to now has been part of an elaborate plot. But why imagine such things? (Aside from the fact that fresh off the Game of Thrones beat I still find wild theories in every pregnant pause.) Is it because we’re trained to see the best in smart, witty men, even if they’ve revealed themselves as brutish a dozen times over?
After June attempts to seduce him (honestly, that’s a bad plan anyway), he admits that he’s “just letting people blow off steam” to keep a full-blown rebellion at bay. He makes that gross knowing joke about binders full of women. He explains that he didn’t help Emily because he loves and respects women, but because she’s a scientific genius and the world needs her. Lawrence is a classic narcissist, convinced that his brilliance alone is “replenishing the human race,” as if a species this cruel and dumb should be saved anyway.
But June, a woman as well read as he, knows how to goad him to just the right place. (“You wrote esoteric books” is the best cruel thing I can imagine anyone saying to an over-indulged old academic who got to see his bad mathematics come to life.) And sure, she doesn’t want to take part in his sick version of the classic “trolley problem,” by either choosing who lives or letting them all die. But June outsmarts him, and builds her own little Ocean’s 11 with “an engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer, and a thief.” Maybe Lawrence knew all along that he was empowering her. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s a woman who takes control, who takes the first step toward something tangible that can upset the patriarchy.
“Mother,” June says in her voice-over, “you wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one.” Women have been oppressed for millennia. And like millions before her, June is now figuring out how to turn that oppression into a weapon.