A feeling of noticeable, alarming unease has begun to set into a house that has deserved the name The Waterford House Of Horrors since day one. We’re talking about The Handmaid Tale’s home base, which houses Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), a serial rapist and self-styled fancy man, his pacifying wife Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), and June Osbourne (Elisabeth Moss), the woman the couple has kidnapped under a state-sanctioned sex trafficking program and use as both a sex slave and walking baby incubator. The Waterford House is a hellscape.
Yet, everything feels all the more dire as we slide in the final episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale’s 2018 run. That’s because it certainly feels like Fred Waterford will be murdered at any moment, at the hands of anyone living in his own house. After Wednesday's turning point of an episode, “Smart Power,” that is the only way Handmaid’s Tale season 2 — now with just four installments left — can end.
Think back to the very beginning of the Hulu show’s second season. Fred was so powerful, he managed to drag a pregnant June, who was literally aboard a speeding plane headed for the Canadian border, back to his nightmare home and nightmare life, all with the help of the Gileadean army. Now, it's impossible to imagine such a show of strength from Fred. In fact, it seems as though Handmaid’s Tale purposefully began weakening the self-declared commander weeks ago with “Seeds,” which ended with a fiery explosion set off by a handmaid (Tattiawna Jones). An explosion that killed 26 so-called commanders like Fred.
While Mr. Waterford managed to avoid the Grim Reaper a few weeks ago, the show has begun dropping clues that Fred wasn’t saved — his torment is merely being drawn out. First, there was his incapacitated hospital stay, which led to his feeble return to Waterford manor. The moment a newly-released Fred hobbled out of his car, equipped with the kind of cane we equate with a much older, frailer man, and into the Waterford gates during “Women’s Work,” his days felt numbered. It appeared as though any random passerby could have walked by and thrown the sexual abuser onto the sidewalk. June clearly wished someone had.
The feeling of an anvil looming over Fred’s head only increases with “Smart Power,” as Fred is confronted with the real world that exists outside of his authoritarian power in Gilead. The episode centers around the Waterfords' foreign relations trip to Canada, and it is a disaster for them. Gay men confront him about Gilead’s murderously homophobic practices. Protesters, including June’s own husband Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle), line up to scream at Fred in front of his hotel. When a stockade of letters is released detailing Gilead’s many disturbing, human rights-bashing practices, an even angrier rally nearly engulfs the Waterfords’ car as they head out of Canada. The shots from inside the vehicle, giving us Fred and Serena’s perspective, are claustrophobic, especially as June’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) bangs on the window. Moira was one of the forced sex workers Fred raped before she escaped Gilead.
Fred was “scared,” as his driver Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) later tells June, by Luke merely calling him out in public. Imagine how the Commander felt after a woman he assaulted stood up to him while surrounded by at least 100 other screaming protesters, some of whom are throwing projectiles at his vehicle. Fred returns to Gilead terrified.
His newfound anxieties arise as a power vacuum has appeared in both the Gilead power structure and his own household. The aforementioned explosion took Andrew Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown), Gilead’s de facto leader, as one of its casualties. In the same episode we learn of Andrew’s death, “After,” another commander, Ray Cushing (Greg Byrk), is framed for terrorism by Serena Joy and promptly carted off into the bowels of Gilead. Now, in “Smart Power,” Canada, one of the only allies insurgent government Gilead can hope for, turns its back on the rogue atrocity of a state.
This is why the handmaids are free to whisper their real names to each other in the grocery store and June can start sowing seeds of doubt over Fred to everyone from the draconian Aunt Lydia (Emmy-winner Ann Dowd) and the usually silent Rita (Amanda Brugel) — they can all smell blood in the water. Hell, Nick is the one who was running around Canada, right under Fred’s nose, handing over secret packages to Luke, effectively torpedoing his boss’ international mission in a single swipe.
The last domino left to fall is Serena Joy, who has only been gaining strength as her husband loses it. As he was trapped in a hospital bed, Serena, a former author and conservative firebrand, was enjoying the freedom of ghostwriting Fred’s legislation and reintroducing herself to the headstrong woman she once was. She even goes so far as to admit she “truly detests” knitting. When Fred pushes Serena out of his office upon his “Women’s Work” return, she is visibly crestfallen. Serena’s situation disintegrates even further at the end of the episode, when Fred brutally beats his wife for forging his signature on a document. All of a sudden Serena, whose ideas became the tenets of Gilead, realizes how awful the world she helped create actually is.
The trip to Canada is the real turn of the knife, as Serena is repeatedly tempted by the modern world and criticized for being complicit in Gilead’s crimes against humanity. She is both attracted to and repelled by the idea of tank tops. As an educated woman, she is quietly needled by the fact that the Canadian government gives her a schedule made of pictures, rather than words, since women in Gilead aren’t allowed to read. In a final rebellion, Serena orders a glass of riesling at a bar.
This is where a legitimate American agent approaches Serena in an attempt to lure her away from Gilead. He promises a new, free life in Hawaii with a baby who is biologically hers. Because, all-Americanly handsome agent Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) reveals, U.S. scientists have figured out men — like, say, Fred — are causing the infertility problem. If she leaves Gilead behind, her beachside future could hold real motherhood, as opposed to sex slavery and kidnapping, with the help of a few good doctors. Just in case Serena changes her mind, Mark leaves a matchbook emblazoned with an image of tiki, a reminder of where her very American life could lie.
When Serena returns home, she burns the matchbook as a signal she won’t rebel against Gilead as she once betrayed America. But, that doesn’t mean she won’t one day snap and murder dumb, useless Fred, whom she now realizes is an actual abuser. After all, he’s looking pretty weak, and he’s the reason she doesn’t have her own baby.
It's not like June wouldn't help.
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