We Believe the Women: The Handmaid’s Tale, “Smart Power”

It is frankly astonishing timing that this is the very week in which The Handmaid’s Tale sends Commander Waterford, Serena Joy, and Nick to represent Gilead up north for diplomatic talks with Canada. Fred cites Ofglen’s bombing as an “opening”—of course he would call it that—for both sides to speak, though it’s unclear what, if anything, Gilead realistically thinks it can offer to a conversation in which it is clearly at a disadvantage. For all of Fred’s bravado, it seems to be damage control, maintaining the fiction that they suffered a terrorist attack, that Gilead is still very much a useful neighbor and maybe even ally.

But to do that, he needs Serena Joy to do what she did at that university years ago: show that women in Gilead are neither oppressed nor voiceless; “show them a strong Gilead Wife.” Her dilemma is a fascinating reversal of Offred’s last season, when the Mexican trade delegation came to Gilead: she must lie through her teeth that this is a worthwhile life for a woman; to say anything else would be treason. But that doesn’t mean she’s not tempted to imagine a way out.

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale 2×09 “Smart Power”

Over the course of this season, Serena has become so morally gray that she might as well be an Econowife: She clearly is growing to regret what she helped to create with Gilead, especially as she realizes that a position of moral superiority within its borders translates to subservience the moment she sets foot on foreign soil. I laughed out loud when her Canadian guide handed her an itinerary presented entirely in drawings—you can see her disappointment at not getting to read even a banal schedule—yet my heart went out to her as she longingly watched free women go about their lives on the streets of Toronto. Her household, her standing in the community, her words mean nothing when she can’t wear jeans or scroll through a smartphone or kiss someone she loves on the street. Even more, she is clearly condescended to by the Canadians; they might have to make nice with war criminal, kidnapper, and rapist Fred Waterford, but they don’t owe his Wife any respect. Even the women—especially the women—hold very little sympathy for a woman who would turn those less fortunate than her into servants and concubines. The guide who politely tries to find common ground while still shading Serena for focusing on her empty passions. The mother of the young girl who refuses to even share an elevator with her.

The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

All of this, on top of last week’s humiliating beating, and Serena should be dying to tell her story, right? That’s the reasoning that American government representative (“Which American government is that?” she sasses) Mark is going by, when he offers up a number of increasing boons that she’s supposed to want. A cigarette: “I quit.” A trip to Honolulu: “I’m afraid I didn’t pack for the beach.” An explosive tell-all: “A Commander’s Wife would make excellent propaganda” is her cool, multi-layered response because yes, that’s exactly what she’s already doing.

A baby. Because the Americans know what all of us know, that the fertility crisis is not the fault of Gilead’s “sinful” women but rather lies with its supposedly blameless men. But not even that is enough to sway Serena, seeing as Offred is due any day now. “If you had done better research,” she taunts Mark, “you would know that I would never betray my country.” His response: “I thought you already did.”

Despite needing to put some ice on that burn, Serena remains mostly unchanged by the visit to Canada. I had fully expected her to claim asylum and find her voice again to raise it against her husband, but I’m also glad that she didn’t: We don’t need one of Gilead’s architects to save its oppressed, at least not like this. Lucky for her, Gilead causes trouble all on its own just by existing.

The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Raise your hand if you goddamn cheered for Luke pushing his way through the barricades to shout “You raped my wife!” at Waterford. After being reminded by the communications woman in Little America that “this isn’t our country,” he and Moira know that it’s on them to get in the Commander’s face as much as possible—partly to shake him, but also to stage a confrontation for everyone watching. So it’s not enough just for Luke to have a blown-up photo of himself with June and Hannah; he has to lay out Waterford’s crimes in a space where he’ll be forced to address them. Of course, he gets a lackluster response dripping with self-righteousness: “You have a twisted perception of my country, Mr. Bankole. But we all know the media doesn’t care much about truth these days.” What does that even mean? Honestly, I would have liked to see Fred forced to actually articulate why it’s “good” to retain Handmaids—to cite the fertility crisis, to even cast aspersions on June’s supposed “adultery” and emphasize her redemptive role within his household. But instead, he tosses off the equivalent of “fake news” and otherwise emerges from the confrontation unscathed.

But Luke’s words clearly rattle both Serena—the way her eyes keep darting to that photo, oof—and Nick. The driver finds Luke in a bar later for a conversation that is both satisfying and not: Nick is tasked with delivering a lot of unpleasant information—including June’s pregnancy, which he lets Luke think was the result of the ceremonial rape and not a conception out of love—and convincing Luke to take the pile of Handmaids’ letters. But the fact that he can give a firsthand account of her condition, and then take on a message from Luke to pass on, is worth all of it. There’s a strangely emotional moment where the two men stand with their foreheads almost together (or perhaps it’s just the lighting/angle in the bar), both moved by their love for June.

The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

However, only one of them knows that they both love her. Nick wisely decides not to complicate the encounter further by mentioning that he’s more than June’s “friend,” yet I wanted to see both men acknowledge their different relationships to her—one as a ghost, one as flesh and blood. And later, when Nick returns to Gilead and passes on Luke’s message, I was surprised that he did so basically word for word. I was raised on the era of television where if you saw a conversation spoken one way, the next time it was transmitted something would be different, key information would be withheld. After all, it would be to Nick’s benefit for June not to know that Luke is alive; but that’s not in his character, that’s not how his love for her works. Though it was tonally odd for him to have told her her supposedly dead husband is reunited with her best friend, and then in the next breath say “I love you.” This is the second (poorly timed) instance he has done so, and if memory serves, she has not said it back.

Of course, June is dealing with a lot while the Waterfords are up north. Further proving that you cannot show her one iota of kindness, Serena drops the bombshell on June pre-departure that as soon as she gives birth, she will leave the household. “I think we’ve all had enough of one another, don’t you?” she coolly asks the stunned Handmaid, but it’s clearly self-protection: Offred is a means to an end, and once they have that end they’ll have no use for her. Not even Janine saving baby Angela/Charlotte last week is enough to make Serena think that perhaps she should keep Offred on until the child is at least weaned.

The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Knowing that her days are suddenly numbered, and with Isaac the Guardian looming over her interactions with Janine (and clocking the poor Handmaid for her epic “suck my dick” retort), June does the best thing she can do for the baby: give it godparents. That she asks Rita is lovely and speaks to how they’ve become closer this season; by no means friends, but reluctant allies who see eye-to-eye and who both want the best thing for the child. Aunt Lydia is a bit more of a headscratcher, but that seems to be pure manipulation on June’s part: She couches the request in veiled language about how “any man who would hurt a woman would hurt a child.” Lydia, already suspicious of the Waterfords’ intentions, agrees—and shares a rare piece of her pre-Gilead life: She was godmother to her nephew, who died at only four days old. “It wasn’t my fault,” she says softly, raising so many questions about whether a loss like that could be enough to make her believe in Gilead, for the sake of all future babies.

The Canadian trip continues to devolve after Luke and Moira post the Handmaid letters online, which prompt the Canadians to abruptly end the peace talks. It’s because of the letters; Gilead’s propaganda must be ironclad, if up until now they had convinced people outside their borders that the women welcomed their roles as Handmaids and Marthas. Fred tries to shrug off the claims, but the lead diplomat says “We believe the women,” and I teared up. How validating also for the other diplomat—the one who greeted Fred with “I was very fond of visiting the States before. With my husband.”—getting to tell him to make sure the door doesn’t hit him on his Commander-suited ass on the way out. The crowd of protesters swamping their car on the way to the airstrip must have reminded Serena of the throng of screaming university students, except this time she can’t sweet-talk her way out of it.

The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Moira gets her little moment of pressing up against the window of the car with the sign bearing her name—”not Ruby, asshole.” At first, I thought that Fred dismissed her as easily as Luke; but on a rewatch, I realized that his eyes definitely widen in recognition. Good job, Moira.

Back home, Fred tries to pretend like this trip was at all positive, reiterating his thanks to Serena for her support in a very tense shot that has both of them standing on top of a flight of stairs. That neither pushed the other down is irrelevant; one or both are due for a fall of some sort by the end of the season.

And what of the Wife? Serena Joy gives up her chance to write a tell-all in her own words, and instead the Handmaids’ tales are the stories that make it out of Gilead. Maybe that’s why, when she finds the matches from the emissary in her coat pocket, she doesn’t hold on to them for later. Either she realizes she’s lost her bargaining chip, or she hopes that Gilead will come crashing down soon enough that instead of needing to escape, she’ll get rescued.

 

Scraps

  • …GO BOOM. But how did they do it? Scan the letters online to dystopian PostSecret?
  • In international relations, “smart power” refers to the combination of hard and soft power, or (as defined by the Center for Strategic and International Studies) “an approach that underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions of all levels to expand one’s influence and establish legitimacy of one’s action.” I’d say June does a fine job.
  • It’s hilarious how Fred assumes the baby is going to be a boy, when June (and I think also Serena, judging from the nursery) think girl. Also, wouldn’t the doctor have already told them the sex? Considering how gender-stratified Gilead is, one would imagine they’d want to start planning as soon as possible for the course of their child’s life.
The Handmaid's Tale 209 "Smart Power" television review

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

  • I’m pretty good about keeping quiet while watching this show at the office, silently cheering on Ofglen or clenching my teeth in horror at the many abuses rained down upon the women and men of Gilead. But I couldn’t help but let a whispered “This bitch…” slip upon Eden’s first appearance in this episode, which made the other Tor.com folks laugh. Seriously, though—her need for validation from male characters must go beyond mere neediness and mean something more insidious. And what was she doing flirting with Isaac?
  • Next week’s season finale episode (we’ve got four left!) is called “The Last Ceremony”—what could that even mean? We can see that June goes into labor, but that is of course called a Birth Day. We know what the Ceremony is, and we know that June’s pregnancy has protected her from having to endure it. So, whose Ceremony is it?

Natalie Zutter wants to high-five Canada. Speculate about the end of the season with her on Twitter!

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