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The Handmaid’s Tale goes to Canada in the unexpectedly timely “Smart Power”

Serena Joy has some uncomfortable realizations about herself, while Nick tries to be a good guy yet again.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Serena Joy and the Commander head north to Canada, so she can have some uncomfortable realizations about herself (and meet Joel from Parenthood).

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Constance Grady discuss “Smart Power,” the ninth episode of the second season.

Todd VanDerWerff: The natural fear for The Handmaid’s Tale, it being based on a novel and all, is that it doesn’t have enough story to power six to seven seasons of a TV show. (Let’s leave aside for a moment if spending six to seven seasons in Gilead would only normalize its darkness. We’ve discussed that.) June’s options within the story are so limited that her choices largely boil down to “escape or not,” and that’s not so much a “choice” as it is something she will be granted via luck.

Sure, within the Waterford house, she can participate in the resistance in some small way, and the show continues to get at least some mileage out of the gap between her inner monologue and her outward appearance of quiet servitude. But strictly thinking of this show as a long-term narrative, there’s not enough gas in that tank to run six or seven seasons — or maybe even two. Eventually, June has to either die or escape to Canada. And only if she manages the latter will she enter a new “phase” of her story.

That’s why the smartest thing season two has done is make Serena Joy its deuteragonist, something “Smart Power” amply underlines. Serena is just as imprisoned by Gilead, but she actually helped build it. And now that she’s beginning to realize just that, her range of options has closed down dramatically — but not as dramatically as June’s has. She has a lot of story to tell, is what I’m saying, and if her story becomes entwined with June’s, the show has more options to explore.

And for as good as Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, and Ann Dowd are, Yvonne Strahovski has also been giving season two’s strongest performance, showing us a woman who is feeling things she can’t quite identify but fears might be emotions that would get her sent to the Colonies.

This focus on Serena is why “Smart Power” worked for me in a way the past couple of episodes haven’t. The show’s occasional cuts to Canada haven’t been as effective as its cuts to, say, the Colonies, possibly because the show just lacks for compelling Canadian characters beyond Luke and Moira.

But contrasting the life-as-usual freedom of Canada with the oppression of Gilead — and the drastically weakened power of the extant United States of America (here represented by Joel from Parenthood!) — offers a much better window into that world, especially once characters from all these worlds start jostling up against each other. (One question I have is how Canada alone seems to have gotten through the fertility crisis with its democratic systems of government largely intact, but then, that seems very Canadian to me for some reason.)

“Smart Power” also landed several good scenes in the Waterford house, particularly as June discussed her lack of power with Rita or attempted to get Aunt Lydia to become her child’s godmother. But for me, the highlights of this episode were all north of the border. What do you think of the series’ Canadian world-building, Constance?

How going to Canada shows Serena Joy how powerless she is

The Handmaid’s Tale
Nick keeps trying to feel like a good guy, even as he’s become more and more a part of Gilead.

Constance: What struck me about the Canadian plot is how familiar Serena Joy’s scenes felt. In Canada, she’s reduced to the passive housewife who is being condescended to by her husband’s business colleagues, getting her kicks through the mild rebellion of flirting with a handsome stranger at the bar. It’s all very Betty Draper in Italy — which is a comparison you just know Serena would hate.

Serena wants to think of herself as the smart woman, the special woman, the woman who understands what sacrifices God demands of her and makes those sacrifices proudly — not as a dull bureaucratic responsibility who has to be handed an illustrated schedule as though she’s a child and make small talk about the hobbies she hates. So when the Canadian diplomat sneers at the end, “It’s pathetic, what they’ve reduced you to,” you really feel it. Serena is pathetic right now, and she knows it.

The Canadian plot line also created enough distance from Gilead that it really hit me, for the first time in a while, just how vile the Commander is. We spend so much time watching him feel sorry for himself and watching June be cowed by him that it’s impossible to sustain the levels of outrage his actions should logically dictate; it would be exhausting to get through the show. But watching Luke respond to the Commander like he’s a monster brings it home again on an emotional level: that this man is a rapist who helped institute a system of ceremonial rape across an entire country. I don’t think it’s possible for this show to make you feel the Commander’s crimes every episode, but it’s good to get the refresh every so often.

Back in Gilead, however, June’s attempt to line up help from Aunt Lydia fell extraordinarily flat for me, particularly her avowal that any man who would hurt a woman would hurt a baby, and Aunt Lydia’s teary response that she herself would never hurt a child. If we’re to read the scene straight, which it certainly seems that we are, it’s thematically incoherent. If we’re not, then it just makes June seem foolish.

It’s true we’ve seen that Aunt Lydia is a true believer who always acts for what she understands to be the greater good, that she truly cares for her Handmaids, and that she truly cares for the babies they bear. We’ve also seen, however, that Aunt Lydia has absolutely no problem maiming and torturing the Handmaids that she cares about because she understands herself to be acting for the greater good. Under the belief system by which she operates, she’s not hurting them; she’s helping them. Aunt Lydia might say that she would never hurt a baby and mean it, but that does not mean she would not physically harm one, and June should know that.

That points to an issue that occasionally plagues this show, which is the tendency to suggest that what Gilead reveals about human nature is that bad men want to hurt women. What seems to be both more true and more interesting, though, is that Gilead reveals that often, people with a lot of power want to hurt those with less power, and that while power sometimes falls along gender lines, there are places where it doesn’t. The Aunts and the Wives are perfectly willing to hurt the Handmaids; the Handmaids don’t trust each other because they’re sure that some of them will be willing to hurt the others.

Children are powerless, and as June rightly sees, they are prime targets for abuse under a system like Gilead’s. But is placing a child under the guardianship of someone who has repeatedly shown herself to be willing to hurt those under her care the best way to protect them?

Or do you think the scene shows off June’s desperation and her terrible lack of options? And what about the release of all those Handmaid’s tales?

What does being a “good ally” mean in a place like Gilead?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Luke wants some answers.

Todd: I’m much closer to the idea that the Lydia scene shows off June’s lack of options. (Indeed, I hadn’t thought to read it as sincere.) She’s so in need of some sign that her child won’t be subjected to ritual abuse — even though she knows how unlikely that is, even with Lydia’s “help” — that she casts out desperately for the best possible option she can find. Sure, Rita is more likely to actually have the baby’s best interests at heart, but Lydia has some small modicum of power. You take what you can get sometimes.

I also think there’s an element of June trying to appeal to what’s human in Lydia. Assuming that she leaves the Waterford house immediately after the baby’s birth (and I know how television works, Handmaid’s Tale), then she’s going to be placed somewhere else, and there’s a chance Lydia will find her a better placement than she would otherwise. Being stationed in the Waterford house is a walking nightmare, but it’s also clear there are even worse nightmares. Until Gilead’s collective nightmare ends, June needs to find her friends where she can.

The release of the letters — at long last — was surprisingly unexpected in how it didn’t end up dooming either Nick or June. (I guess there’s a chance news of the letters’ release filters back to Eden, and she brings it up with the Commander, but that’s future Nick’s potential problem.) Instead, it shifted the balance of power between Canada and Gilead, to the degree that the Canadians were ejecting the Commander and Serena from their nation. (Sidebar: What an unexpectedly well-timed episode in that regard.) I’m sure that the Commander’s fuming about extraditing illegal immigrants is meant to set up something, and I’m terrified of what.

But it also played into how the episode subtly contrasted the openness of Canadian society, where people watch TV and have smartphones and are able to post the tales of women held in sexual slavery online, with Gilead, which has forcibly ported everybody living in it (save for a few very powerful men) back to the 1910s technology-wise. Seeing an airplane early in the episode was almost jarring.

There’s something inherent to this material that the simple act of telling your story is the most radical thing one can do, that tyranny thrives most when it can shut down avenues for sharing not just information but “tales.” That’s another fruitful avenue for the show to explore in future seasons, and I hope it does so.

In the meantime, this accidentally ended up being one of my favorite episodes for both Nick and Luke, two characters I can take or leave. You mentioned how Luke’s mere presence in the episode brought back the sheer monstrousness of everything Gilead represents, and it felt to me like “Smart Power” was an episode-length disquisition on just that, and on how easy it can be to forget the horrors of a totalitarian regime when you’re living in one (or you helped build it).

Which leaves me wondering: What does being a good ally mean in Gilead? We got several examples of it from Luke, from Nick, and even from Ambassador Joel from Parenthood.

Constance: I have no idea what being a good ally means, either in Gilead or in our world. And I don’t think that the show does either, which is one of the many reasons it struggles with Nick: From week to week, he’s either a dashing hero or a pointless incompetent. But this week, for once, that ambiguity worked.

Like everyone else who lives in Gilead, Nick is complicit in its violence; that’s why he’s constantly smearing his self-loathing all over Eden, a child to whom he has done terrible things in order to save his own life. Nick is also trying to keep June alive, and for a while at least, he was working with Mayday. He’s doing his best.

But when Nick meets Luke and sees the disgust on his face, the inadequacy of Nick’s best becomes clear. He’s still living in this system, and he’s still playing by his rules, and Luke thinks it’s incredibly gross that he does that.

Of course, there’s no reason to think that Luke would do anything differently in Nick’s position, or that most people would. Most people would probably do something a lot worse. What made the scene between Nick and Luke work so well is that it feels fully both the impossibility of Nick’s situation and the inadequacy of his response: It’s not clear that he could be doing anything more than what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is not enough. They’re both true, because that’s what happens to individual people living in authoritarian systems.

With Ambassador Joel from Parenthood, meanwhile, we get our first glimpse of a coherent institution setting itself up against Gilead: not just the shadowy and faceless forces of Mayday, but the last remaining forces of the US government. What will be interesting to see in the weeks to come is whether an actual system set up in opposition to Gilead has the chance to take it down where individuals can’t — or whether the government that Gilead defeated once before will be too weak and ineffectual to get anything done.

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