What's Really Up With Handmaid's Tale Enigma Commander Lawrence?

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
As we brace ourselves for the masochistic thought experiment (or vision of our future?) that is another season of The Handmaid's Tale, we're reminded of all the questions we had at the end of season 2. Like, what is the deal with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford)? If he's as good as he seemed at the very end of that finale, why does he still make our skin crawl?
To refresh your memory, we only met Joseph Lawrence in right before the season 2 finale, when Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) brought Emily (Alexis Bledel) to his home. He's got some very high status, as the so-called "architect of Gilead's economy." But right away Emily knows there's something fishy with him. The first clue is his Martha, Cora, who talks back at him without repercussion.
"I'm wondering why such an import brilliant man would take in such a shitty handmaid," Emily eventually asks.
His wife, the former art professor, gives her his dark backstory: He came up with the idea that criminals could be sent to the polluted wasteland of the Colonies. "You know what you did!" she shouts at her husband.
Even as he seems lax with the rules, we're every bit as suspicious as Emily of his intentions. He might talk sarcastically about this new world, complaining that he can't "leverage salaries" to motivate his employees, but he's still living there, apparently enjoying his privilege in the form of priceless works of art (love that Basquiat in the stairwell) and craft beer.
Also troubling is the way he speaks to Emily about her past. He throws the facts of her life in her face — she was a professor, she had a wife and son, she had an affair with a Martha, and ran over a guardian — and we wonder if he enjoys watching her flinch. He has no interest whatsoever in putting her at ease. Even when he catches her reading or when he tells her they won't be performing the ceremony, he doesn't offer words of comfort.
Which is why, up until the very moment when we see Emily get out of the car to meet June (Elisabeth Moss), we couldn't suspect he would be part of the resistance. Why torture her with absurdly cheery music on the ride there, instead of telling her she was being offered an escape route?
Showrunner Bruce Miller explained a little about Commander Lawrence's complexities in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last year.
"He's a character that was modeled after some of the academics in Germany [during World War II], who had come up with a lot of the plans and did calculations, and came up with the theories that ended up informing both the war and the Holocaust and the kind of Nazi racial policy," Miller said. "But, a lot of those people were shocked by what would happen if you brought these things to life to the Nth degree. It was not what they intended. It was twisted."
Lawrence is going through that same shock of seeing his economic theories destroy the lives of women, including in his own life, and Miller seemed to explain that his coping mechanism is a little... off.
"He wrung [Emily] out, and whether he did that by mistake or by the fact that he didn't really notice that, he couldn't really put together that she was that nervous, or that he was just playing a game," Miller said. "There's that aspect to his personality too: He seems a little gone, with a glint in his eye. So that makes him very tough to predict, what he's going to do. He can be helpful, or not so helpful."
Now that Whitford is a series regular in season 3, we'll get to see more of what makes him tick. June is posted in his household now, and we know she won't let him toy with her the way he did with Emily.
"You seem like you'd be good at influencing people," Lawrence tells June in the season 3 trailer. So maybe that's a sign they'll become a formidable team to take down Gilead from the inside.
Then again, you don't hire an actor like Bradley Whitford to play a simple, easy to peg good guy so we'll be keeping our guard up, just in case — which is exactly what the show-runners want. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bruce Miller explained the crux of this season.
"What is his deal? He’s so elusive, you cannot put your f—ing finger on it because he seems like he’s running some sort of experiment, and it’s on you. They just have to figure out, 'Okay, do I get shocked if I do this, or do I try this?'" Miller said. "The story of the beginning is really, through June’s point of view, trying to figure out this guy, and navigating this guy. Is he dangerous? Is he just unpredictable and weird? Is he supportive? She’s trying to uncover it."
Let the season 3 games begin.

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