Ponder, for a moment, all the things you could hypothetically do in the next five minutes. You could get up and get a glass of water. You could text your friends. You could buy a ticket to Peru. We take such options for granted. At the start of this episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, June (Elisabeth Moss) considers how limited her possibilities have become. Gone are late nights at dive bars; locking eyes with dreamboat Luke (O-T Fagbenle); looking after her daughter. Now, all she can hope for is a room and spare comforts. She is a “reduced woman.” A woman reduced to a life without dreams.
June begins this week’s installment stewing in her helplessness. But in fact, “Smart Power” actually tracks the shift of power away from Gilead’s Commanders and to the disenfranchised. By the end the episode, Gilead still mostly controls its citizens — but it’s taken a major blow. Twin missions of destabilization take place: Canadians (ever noble!) work to expose Gilead’s crimes, and June carries out her own subversive mission to find a kind person to protect her unborn baby after Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) drops the unusual bombshell that June must leave immediately after giving birth. Long story short, I don’t think Gilead’s as strong Gilead it thinks it is.
Even Serena Joy, the architect of Gilead, has lost her appetite for her monstrous creation. After the act of violence Fred (Joseph Fiennes) inflicted on her, we understand. Remember, Serena Joy believes in the mission of Gilead. When Fred was in the hospital, she was working to restore Gilead back to her initial conception of a peaceful country founded on religious principles, not a place where men wielded violence. Instead, that violence entered her very household and her most intimate relationship. When Fred enters Serena’s greenhouse, her sanctuary and only place where she can be a real mother, she bristles. Fred, in all his blindness to actual human needs, seems to miss out on his wife’s sheer discomfort. In an astoundingly ironic speech, Fred tells Serena, “Canadians think women here are oppressed. That they’re voiceless,” he says. Duh!
Serena gets on a plane to Canada, where she and Fred are trying to establish diplomatic relations, feeling deeply shaken. Once there, Serena the northern country’s way of life beguiles her. She stares longingly out of the limo at the women in short sleeves, kissing their boyfriends. However, in her blue wife dress, Serena can’t even pretend to blend into liberated Canadian society; she’s still just a “wife,” an accessory to the Commander. Officials treat her with a mixture of curiosity and dull horror. Trying to be respectful, one immigration official hands her a pictorial schedule without words. Serena and her companion talk about interests; she lies and says she likes knitting. We know Serena doesn’t like knitting. She likes writing, working, being a person with a brain.
Here’s where this episode became fascinating. After observing the freedoms of the modern world, Serena is given a choice. She meets a charming man at a bar who happens to know a lot about her. As it turns out, he’s a representative of the real American government, now based out of Hawaii. He works to smuggle people out of Gilead. Serena can be on a plane to Hawaii in an hour. To my surprise, Serena didn’t shut him down. You can see her chewing on the possibility, entertaining the possibility despite herself. “So far all you’ve offered me is treason and coconuts,” Serena drawls. He does have something to offer: In Hawaii, she might be able to have a child herself. While Gilead has been blaming women for infertility (a common historical blame), American scientists discovered that the recent infertility decline actually affects men. They’ve been working on cures. Science, you see, is more reliable than Gilead’s rigid rules.
Serena turns down her chance and stays in Gilead. That doesn’t mean she likes Fred, though. They return to the hotel that night facing a crowd of protestors. After watching the TV, Luke discovers the Waterfords — his wife’s captors and rapists — are in town. Luke, holding a poster of him, June, and Hannah, bursts through the protest and wrestles with the Commander. The Commander dismisses Luke’s outburst as a “misunderstanding.”
After this altercation, I realized the full extent of Gilead’s information-control witchcraft. Since it’s a country with closed borders, facts about the country all go through the propaganda machine. Perhaps Fred is able to get away with saying that Luke is uninformed, because not much is actually known about Gilead. The amount of accessible knowledge about Gilead is about to change, and it’s thanks to Nick (Max Minghella), our dreamy, bushy-eyebrowed driver who can’t look his 15-year-old child bride in the eyes.
That evening, Nick finds Luke at a dive bar. You read that right. Both fathers of June’s kids, sitting at a dive bar. Nick introduces himself as a friend of June’s. Luke perceives Nick as an emissary of Gilead. He’s especially hostile after he finds out June is pregnant (Nick lies and says it’s the Commander’s baby). Seeing an ally in Luke, Nick hands him the bundle of the Jezebels’ letters. He performed his task for Mayday.
Sitting around their kitchen table, Moira, Luke, and Erin (Erin Way) have a revelation: These letters can be explosive. They can shutter any diplomatic progressions taking place between Canada and Gilead (which, according to Fred, include border security and extradition of “illegal immigrants,” aka refugees). And it works. The letters, as Erin says, “go boom.” The next day, Canadian officials tell the Waterfords they’re going home. They won’t be supporting a regime that performs such atrocities to women. Didn’t the government know about this before? A few episode ago, we saw Moira comb through a room’s worth of binders full of Gilead’s victims. Why are the letters the first piece of evidence to sway the government of Canada against Gilead?
In the protests, we see an echo of the scene two episodes ago, when the handmaids shared their real names. People wrote, “I am Moira,” or “I am Ashleigh” on posters. The statement of names is also a reaffirmation of selfhood – that women can and should have the right to be individuals.
This episode, our protagonists actually nudge the boulder of change. June had been thinking about her powerlessness, but it’s thanks to her that the Jezebels’ stories went viral. She got the letters from Moira and gave them to Nick. Nick brought them to Luke, her husband. It’s a beautiful chain of connection.
Don’t celebrate just yet. June’s still stuck in the oppressive regime, where young, power-drung guards can do whatever they want — and they do. After Janien (Madeline Brewer) is scolded for talking too loudly, she tells the Eye off. He retaliates by hitting her in the face with his gun. Facing this kind of violence, June is desperate to find a protector for her baby, and has a conversation with Rita (Amanda Brugel) who, while scared, gives some affirmation she’ll help
More interesting is June’s talk with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), insinuating to her that the baby won’t be safe in this household without her. “Any man who would hurt a woman would hurt a child,” June says, without going into detail. Lydia put it together herself. She guarantees that no harm will come the child on her watch. Lydia’s not a girl’s girl, but she’s a baby’s girl, if that makes sense.
But maybe the baby won’t be left in the Waterfords’ household. After hearing that Moira and Luke are together, June is energized again by revolutionary spirit. She is going to get that baby out of there.