Commander Waterford. Commander Putnam. Commander Lawrence. Though they share the titles and privileges that come with being the most powerful individuals in Gilead, one of these men is not like the others. After being assigned to be the handmaid of Commander Joseph Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) ramshackle household, it’s Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) burden to discover just what makes her new Commander so utterly idiosyncratic.
As a viewer, I guessed Commander Lawrence would be a curveball of a character nearly instantaneously— and it's all because of the actor portraying him. After his disquieting performance in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Whitford’s bearded, bespectacled face is a shortcut for instant unease. While his character in The Handmaid’s Tale is no reprise of Get Out’s Dean Armitage, the two men convey similar moods. Commander Lawrence and Dean are both slippery; their intentions, at first, opaque. The characters they encounter never quite know where they stand with them. And by the time they figure it out, it’s usually too late.
In episode 11, we watch as Emily (Alexis Bledel) undertakes the potentially dangerous task of understanding Commander Lawrence. Emily, arguably the most stoic character on The Handmaid's Tale, is able to limit all fear and discomfort to subtle facial ticks, like widening eyes and downcast glances. I, the least stoic viewer of The Handmaid's Tale, spent the duration of Emily and Lawrence's interactions vibrating with full-body unease. Lawrence, you see, is absolutely unpredictable.
By this point, I thought we had tasted all the flavors of Gilead's powerful elite. Bitter, like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Self-righteous, like Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Zealous, like Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). But Lawrence is the kind of guy who says "Super" in response to Emily's Gilead mantra of, "May the Lord open." He's the equivalent of umami to a person raised on white bread and bananas. As such, he's certain to make the finale of The Handmaid's Tale a lot more interesting.
Make no mistake, though — just because Lawrence is irreverent when it comes to adhering to Gilead's mandated salutations, he isn't automatically a friend of the rebellious Mayday cause. After all, Lawrence is an architect of this hell. As Aunt Lydia explains on their way to his house, Lawrence is "considered the architect of Gilead's closed economy." Gilead, for background, isn't a capitalist system. In fact, money was largely eradicated, since society was structured into classes from which there is no escape. Handmaids shop with tokens, not money their commanders earned.
"Creating the economy" is also codeword for "spearheading the concept of the Colonies." While it's not frequently addressed, part of Gilead's core ethos is cleaning up the environment in order to fix the vast infertility problem — hence the handmade clothes, ramshackle living environments, and rapid slashing of of fossil fuel usage. The Colonies are part of the clean-up effort in two ways. The labor done in the Colonies is intended to restore the polluted land back to Eden (as if that could actually happen through shoveling, but okay). Shipping women to the Colonies is also a "convenient" method of eradicating people who don't fit into the economic model.
Obviously, it's darkly ironic that Emily traveled from the unfathomable horrors of the Colonies to the home of the man who invented them in the first place. Nothing about Lawrence's house screams, "I am a monster who created the Colonies!" It actually seems like a rejection of Gilead's call for cleanliness and control. Lawrence's house is a lively mess of art, scattered books, and antiques. It's not like the Waterfords' immaculate abode, preserved in cold cleanliness by a cohort of women. The messiness of Lawrence's house proves that he has not relinquished control of the domestic sphere over to women, as Gilead demands. This is corroborated when he barks at his Martha, "Don't touch my stuff. This is my house." Lawrence may have created the structure of Gilead's economy (including roles like Marthas), but he rejects this structure in his personal life.
Lawrence's goal seems to be maintaining distance from his creation. His wife Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), however, is less adept at repression. She's been broken by the guilt of the Colonies. Lawrence keeps her in the bedroom like she's his own personal Bertha Mason. In Emily — a professor, like his wife – it seems Lawrence might find a companion. When he grills her over the dinner table, he does so with a blend of intimidation and genuine curiosity.
There's a natural comparison to be found between Lawrence and Serena Joy. Both individuals dreamt the Gilead dream; now, they're living the Gilead hell. The transition from idealism to reality was, ultimately, not quite what they'd expected. Serena has only voiced her disappointment once, when she confessed to June that she hates knitting. Stripped of her ability to read, write, or lead, she's become a cloud of loathing, letting her disappointment mist all over the house. Since Lawrence is a man, he has the privilege of allowing himself freedom of speech within his old household. That's why he stresses his household's "privacy" to Emily. For Lawrence, privacy is the closest thing he'll have to freedom.
We can't say Commander Lawrence is a good man, though he does have a good (nay, great) taste in music. He really can't be a good man: Lawrence envisioned the economic structure that allowed Gilead to take hold and sustain itself. No current behavior can absolve him of his role in shaping Gilead. But he’s definitely a raconteur, a questioner, a skeptic. Since there's space between Lawrence and pure belief in Gilead, there's a chance he's a revolutionary. We're sure that will play into Wednesday's finale.
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