“Mary and Martha” opens with an aerial shot of three handmaids walking in a bustling city. It’s a fitting image, as this episode also expands the world of The Handmaid’s Tale for us, and for June. Until recently, our understanding of Gilead has been limited to June and the Waterfords. Part of what made Atwood’s book work so well was its claustrophobia: June knew nothing; she escaped with such limited knowledge. Now that The Handmaid’s Tale has diverged from its source material, the show will have to zoom out.
Much to her surprise, June still has a lot to learn. “You don’t know how things work around here,” one of the Marthas snaps at June. After enduring both ceremonies and near-escapes, it’s easy to assume June knows how Gilead works more than anyone. But since free communication in Gilead operates under so many levels of secrecy, there are conversations — and systems of resistance — that June hasn’t been privy to until now.
On her walk to the grocery store with the irritatingly pious OfMatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop), June learns that Chicago, once controlled by the resistance (the real America!), is about to surrender to Gilead. There’s a war for the soul of America raging. In Cambridge, a few insurrectionary Marthas are aiding the Americans in Chicago by transporting information and moving allies even deeper into the war zone.
In this episode, the revolution lands on the Lawrences’ doorstep. Alison (Kathryn Greenwood), a former chemistry teacher turned Martha, is being shipped out West to the front-lines. She’s able to make bombs, rendering her the Walter White of Gilead — a lethal chemistry teacher. But Alison’s voyage along Gilead’s underground railroad is bumpy. While passing through the Lawrence household, a suspicious Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) astutely questions why there’s another Martha visiting. June, ever wily, begs him to leave them alone. He listens. How is June so good at convincing Commanders to do her bidding? Will this skill last under Lawrence’s erratic rule?
Next step: Get Alison out of there. June gets to hang with the Marthas and go full Gryffindor — what a lark. She joins some Marthas on a trip to Cambridge’s laundry sector to smuggle Alison out. After they drop her off, Alison’s escape van is raided by Guardians; she and a wounded Martha return to the Lawrence household to seek shelter.
Instead of getting help and potentially exposing the entire network, June lets the wounded Martha die. June, now officially General June, makes the call. She also forces Alison to leave. According to OfMatthew, some unnamed Martha (Alison!) vanished. So, maybe the escape scheme really was successful. She's off the Chicago.
Somehow, June is keeping her composure brave and tightly laced as ever — but it seems those in power are falling apart. Commander Lawrence lashes out at June with ferocity; a crippled Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tases June when she tries to help her up the stairs; Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is a husk of her old self; and Joseph’s wife (Julie Dretzin) has been crumbling for a long, long time. Emotionally, Gilead asks so much of its citizens. They have to contain themselves within the strict bounds of Gilead’s roles; when their real selves bust out, it’s nearly shocking.
But who is Commander Lawrence’s real self? His characterization is deeply perplexing. On the one hand, he tries to smuggle Emily and June out, ostensibly recognizing that Gilead is awful for them. On the other hand, he displays the callous misogyny of those in power in Gilead, calling June a “girl” and saying she’s asking for too much — not to mention the fact that he designed Gilead’s colonies. On the other hand (yes, there are three hands), he’s protective and tender toward his wife, who suffers from mental health issues. Either he’s as complex and unpredictable as a real person, or his characterization is inconsistent. I’m leaning toward the former.
Speaking of which, what’s up with Commander Lawrence’s wife? She protects the Marthas scheme when suspicious Guardians burst into the house, and she also plants flowers over the buried Martha’s grave. Is June’s presence making her more lucid and brave? Waking her up, too?
Finally, the world outside of Gilead becomes clearer just as Emily’s (Alexis Bledel) eyesight starts fading (literally). In the years her body was used by the Gilead state, it was completely neglected from care, from tenderness. In this episode, Emily goes to a few doctors for check-ups. After years of having her body eked out for whatever it was worth (and then discarded in the Colonies), she experiences benevolent touch for the first time in so long. Her body is valued simply because it’s hers. This is where Handmaid’s excels: Breaking your heart by way of hairline fractures.
Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who has assembled a case file dedicated to saving June, doesn’t understand why Emily wouldn’t immediately reach out to her wife, Sylvia (Clea Duvall). But he also doesn’t understand that all these years without intimacy have petrified Emily emotionally. Perhaps Emily thinks she’s better alone. It’s only after her receives terrible eye exam results that Emily sees clearly – metaphorically, at least. Emily calls Sylvia. When Sylvia answers, she stops her car and causes a back-up.
Finally, a bit of love-stopping traffic.
The episode's title, "Mary and Martha," refers to the story in the New Testament of the Bible. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, invite Jesus into their home. Whereas Mary sits at Jesus' feet, Martha busies herself with preparing dinner. Martha asks Mary for some help; Jesus tells Martha she worries too much.
Did the lighting designer for The Handmaid’s Tale do an apprenticeship with the lighting designer for Game of Thrones? I can’t see anything. Shows that are dark in tone do not need to be physically dark, people!
A grim thought occurred to me as June pushes her cart around “Loaves and Fishes,” the Gilead supermarket chain named for Jesus’ miracle feeding of the masses. The shelves were bare, stocked only with the essentials – none of the variety seen in most modern American grocery stories. In season 1, the Mexican delegation revealed that Gilead was successful in its mission to roll back carbon emissions. Could Gilead be working? It’s a shame that the one version of America committed to changing the environment is also a society that severely curtails human freedoms. Can’t we get a show about environmental reform that’s cheery and gets us pumped to save our planet?