Here's a near complete list of everything we know about Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), the principal enigma of season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale.
He designed the Colonies. Though he sneers at some of the religious customs of Gilead, he’s still extremely powerful. He helped Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape Gilead — not because he felt bad for her, but because he valued her intelligence. He enjoys music from the '60s. He's protective over his wife. He loves a mind game.
Put 'em together, and they hardly form a cohesive picture of Commander Lawrence. That's kind of the point. "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," showrunner Bruce Miller told Entertainment Weekly of the character. It's unclear whether Lawrence is a sadist or a revolutionary, whether he's a play-acting a bad person or actually is one. In episode 3 of The Handmaid's Tale's third season, we got a subtle clue into his intellectual philosophy — and one step closer to figuring him out.
Unfortunately for June (Elisabeth Moss), the clue was on his bookshelf – and as a handmaid, she's forbidden from reading. June sure could use the insight into Lawrence's mind. When June is transferred to her new handmaid post at Lawrence's ramshackle house, figuring out her new boss becomes her primary objective. June is so desperate to learn more about her Lawrence that she asks Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) for help. He ominously offers that Lawrence "doesn't like being bored."
Maybe that's why Lawrence is so grumpy. Maybe he's really, really bored. Because as his bookshelf shows, Lawrence used to be a prolific writer. We get a very brief glimpse of the books he authored after Lawrence instructs June to take Charles Darwin's Descent of Man off the shelf. Or, as Lawrence says, the book with the "yellow spine."
Let's examine his books' titles: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Brink of Extinction. The Religious Genealogy of Western Economics. The Case for Relaunching the Mercantile Economy in Developing Nations. Problematic Populism: Upheaval During the Fertility Crisis and the Long-Term Effects on American Prosperity (note that this book is very long!). Economic Effects of the Religious Revival During the Fertility Crisis. Women's Work and Coffee Grounds.
What can we glean from Lawrence's oeuvre? Clearly, long before Gilead was formed, Lawrence was trying to solve an America in turmoil from an economic standpoint. And clearly, the solution he came to was establishing Gilead.
Unlike Commander Waterford, who was motivated by religious fervor to establish Gilead, Lawrence is more analytic (but no less cold). America was in the midst of a fertility crisis and no longer prosperous. The country teetered on the "brink of extinction."
Lawrence's answer to these problems? Radically reverse society's course. First take power away from the people — see the word "problematic" in Problematic Populism. Then look to the past — the "religious genealogy" of the economy — for inspiration in planning this new future. What results is a regimented religious theocracy that strips away individual freedoms.
Since the dude's a villain, his plan also includes a new kind of colonialism. Lawrence's book The Case for Relaunching the Mercantile Economy in Developing Nations offers a clue for how Gilead will become a world power through trade. The Street defines mercantilism as "an economic philosophy built around exports and trade....a mercantilist economy tries to increase its wealth by maximizing exports and minimizing imports."
As the Mexican delegation's visit in season 1 indicates, Gilead has what other countries don't. Whereas other countries are struggling in the era of environmental collapse, Gilead's stores are full and their population is stable. Even if other countries disapprove of Gilead's methods, they may eventually need Gilead's exports (fertile women and otherwise). If Lawrence has any say, then Gilead may become even more powerful than America ever was.
For Lawrence, religion is a means to an ends, and the ends is thriving through environmental collapse. The point of the Colonies is twofold: Clean up radioactive waste and eliminate women who are no longer considered "useful" since they can't conform to a role. The Colonies enforce the Gileadean structure through fear, and also allow Gilead to prosper.
Notably, Lawrence never wrote religious books. This comes through in his behavior — he's irreverent when it comes to Gilead's religious customs. He doesn't perform the Ceremony. He's not keen on excess punishment merely for the sake of enforcing Gilead's religious beliefs — which is why he shuts down the idea of mass "salvagings" during the Commanders' meeting.
So, he shuts down salvagings — but he's hero. He's still merciless. Better to ship the women to the Colonies, where they'll be useful until they drop dead.
If June had a chance to read the books' spines, she would be even more scared of Lawrence. His ideas are the building blocks of Gilead. They keep Gilead functioning. The other Commanders believe in God, but Lawrence believes in Gilead.