The Handmaid's Tale Season 3, Episode 3 Recap: Binders Full Of Women

Photo Credit: Elly Dassas
“He doesn’t like to be bored.”
So goes Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) attempt to describe Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the cryptic new captain of June’s (Elisabeth Moss) reality. It might be the scariest line in the episode. What awful games will Commander Lawrence play with June for the sake of disrupting Gilead’s monotony?
In true sociopath form, Commander Lawrence seems to get off making the women in his life feel constantly unsteady. No woman is safe in the Lawrence household (save, perhaps, his wife — though I’m beginning to think he drove her insane). After last episode’s stint, Cora the one-eyed Martha has disappeared from the house. June assumes she was sent to the Colonies, though there’s a chance she's one of the Marthas at the gallows.
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Really, though: What is Commander Lawrence’s deal? June’s desperate to find out, because her survival, as always, hinges on navigating her hostile environment. At the Waterfords, she realized she could wear Fred down by games of Scrabble and flirtatious glances. Fred’s soft spot for his errant handmaid still throbs enough for him to help her this episode with a Commander Lawrence personality assessment.
But Joseph Lawrence isn’t “sentimental,” as Fred describes himself. He’s impervious to June’s form of power – a wily charm with subtle Machiavellan ministrations. In a chilling moment, Joseph gets close to June, teasing a kiss. I thought, “This again?” June thought, “This again?” And then, Commander Lawrence breaks script and laughs. “Did this really work on Fred?” he says. Clearly, Commander Lawrence has June’s number. Seduction won’t work this time. She’ll survive only as long as she can prove her use.
Which brings us to this episode’s central question: What is a woman’s use? The premiere of season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale played the song “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush at a pivotal moment. This episode is more concerned with a woman’s worth.
To Gilead’s creators, a woman’s worth is derived by how well she can conform to her role. Serena’s mother, for example, urges her daughter to settle back into the role of Wife — because without that title, she’s nothing. Even in death, women fill a role. The “heretic” (aka revolutionary) Marthas hanging at the gallows are warnings to the rest of the women.
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Joseph Lawrence has a different system of evaluating worth. As he tells June, he considered Emily (Alexis Bledel) intelligent enough to merit a future in Canada. She’ll be useful there, he says — more useful than she would be wasting away in Gilead. After dissuading other Commanders from carrying out mass Salvagings, he has to comb through “binders of women” (a self-aware nod to Mitt Romney’s 2012 comment about the women applicants he assembled for his staff). From these binders, he’ll cull a few women worthy of turning into Marthas. The rest are Colonies-bound.
This much becomes obvious in this episode: Commander Lawrence isn’t a religious zealot. He finds the entire Old Testament-inspired charade generally amusing, if a bit restrictive for his personal life. But the system of religious organization allows him to accomplish his greater goal: environmental reform. He designed the Colonies to clean up the planet. In the face of this goal, the sanctity of the individual pales.
“How tempting it is to invent a humanity for anyone at all,” Commander Lawrence says, in one of the show’s uglier sentences – the erasure of the individual.
But eventually, June is forced to evaluate women the way that Joseph does. Commander Lawrence leads June to the holding pen where women are kept before being sent to the Colonies (instead of being killed, as the other Commanders had planned). June gets to choose five women among them to become Marthas — and if she doesn’t choose, they all die.
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At first, June refuses to assign utility to the women. She can’t value one individual’s life as more important than another. Then, she changes her mind. Because her goal — burning down Gilead — is just as important to her as Joseph’s goal is to him, and it’ll require as much sacrifice (think back to the Martha she let die last episode). Instead of evaluating people’s worth as individuals, she evaluates their worth to the resistance. She chooses five women most useful to the resistance: An engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer, and a thief. This is crucial moment in June’s arc toward becoming a general.
Without the trappings of ye olde Waterfords, June is able to grow and change and become more powerful. This episode, yet another piece of her old life is chipped away. Nick (Max Minghella) reveals that he’s being deployed to the war front in Chicago. After initially icing him out, June opens the door (the physical one, and the metaphorical one to her heart), and lets him in. It’s assumed they have a quickie in the locked room, but who knows? The door’s locked. The Handmaid’s Tale lets June maintain a tiny private life that neither we nor Gilead can know.
She loses one ally. Then, she tries to gain another. Serena Waterford, who has never been so alone. After her exercise in pyromania, Serena stays with her mother. Serena’s mother is a contradiction: She’s a believer in Gilead, but not enough to think Serena was actually Nicole’s mother.
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Naturally, Serena is scared after her last Gilead reform campaign ended in her losing a finger. But the storm of a) her mother’s lack of compassion, b) Fred’s futile pleading, and c) June’s war-speech might be enough to make Serena go revolutionary again. June already has the Martha Resistance, but if she can get the Wives on board? Why this army might be unstoppable.
In the episode’s powerful final speech, June addresses her mother, a revolutoinary feminist. When her mother was around, June was a meek bystander to the patriarchy — far from a revolutionary. She’s finally taking her mother’s mantle and reminding women that they do have power, even in Gilead: The power to inhabit their roles so well they’ll trick men into believing they’re still in control.
June concludes with an ominous kicker: “Here’s what we do. We watch them, the men. We study them. We feed them. We please them. We can make them feel strong. Or weak. We know them that well. We know their worst nightmares. And with a bit of practice, that’s what we’ll become. Nightmares. One day, when we’re ready, we’re coming for you. Just wait.”
The revolution’s coming, baby, and she’s wearing red.
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