Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) is the principle enigma of this season of The Handmaid's Tale. In her new post at Lawrence's cluttered household, June (Elisabeth Moss) desperately tries to gather information about her new "boss."
Just as mysterious, though, is Lawrence's wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin). Eleanor spends most of her time holed up in her bedroom. Until her conversation with June in "Unknown Caller," Eleanor's mostly been like Joseph's own personal Bertha — the wife that Rochester keeps in the attic in Jane Eyre.
The main difference? Joseph seems fond of his wife. Fond, and protective. In a society that discards women who fall outside the lines of their prescribed roles, Eleanor is in danger. Joseph would know — he created those rules.
As a Wife to a high-ranking leader in Gilead, Eleanor is supposed to be embody Gilead's ideals for an elite woman. She's to be poised, pious, and constantly striving to have a child — a real Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). But Eleanor is none of those things. Her house and her appearance are in a state of disarray. Her behaviour, a pendulum between panic attacks and fragility.
Instead of "behaving," Eleanor is being. She's raging (and crying, and feeling, and constantly falling apart). The first time we encounter her in season 2, she's a blur of anger: She tells Emily (Alexis Bledel) about the Colonies, then tells Lawrence she hates him. Her rebelliousness often comes through in more subtle ways, though. She's often unable to carry on polite conversation, like when Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) visits. And she never ever carries out the Ceremony.
Clearly, Eleanor can't handle the transition from her life as an art professor to life married to a monster. She's frazzled by proximity to Joseph's creation, to being complicit herself. This manifests in unstable behaviour (and a man would call her "hysterical"). But maybe her apparent insanity is the only sane reaction to Gilead.
After all, what's it like to have a conscience, and be married to a man like Commander Lawrence? A man who plays sick mind games with the women in his house? A man who arbitrarily decides which women live, and which are shipped to the Colonies to die of radioactive poison? A man who designed those Colonies? Look at Eleanor — that's what it's like.
In other households, Eleanor's behaviour would be punished, but Joseph seems to have patience for Eleanor. Like his wife, Joseph doesn't care for the religious pomp and circumstance of Gilead. He treats rituals like the ceremony and the "blessed be the [fill in the noun]" greetings with disdain. Joseph wears the Commander's suit without fully sublimating his personality. Neither does his wife, though it's far riskier for her.
Joseph and Eleanor have an unconventional marriage by Gileadean standards, but it's far from blissful — especially when compared to how it used to be. Eleanor opens up to June about the early days of her relationship to Joseph. "He used to curate cassette tapes for me when we were in college. I still have them. I miss the man that made them," Eleanor says.
With this tiny admission, June tries to bring the Lawrences closer. Fixing Commanders' marriages is sort of what she does lately – look how much the fight for Nichole has brought the Waterfords together. "It's okay to find a sliver and hold on to that," June says.
In Eleanor, June sees an opportunity to get to Commander Lawrence. She is his one soft spot. Joseph is more than willing to send anonymous women to their deaths in the Colonies, but he'll protect his wife.
June's efforts to bring the Lawrences together worked. Later on in the episode, Joseph and Eleanor sit stiffly on the couch and listen to his old mix tapes. "Cruel to Be Kind" by Nick Lowe blares from the speaker. Joseph looks straight ahead; Eleanor looks at Joseph, trying to make out a shadow of his younger self. Then they come together slightly and move to the music.
Finally, if June is looking for people to recruit to the rebellion, it's obvious where she should be looking: Eleanor. Eleanor is clearly sympathetic to the resistance's cause. She helps June smuggle in the wounded Martha after the Eyes burst into the house. Then, she lays flowers at the Martha's grave.
All this time, maybe Eleanor was saving her strength for a cause.