Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale- Hannah/Agnes: “Did you try to find me?” June: “I tried so hard.” Hannah/Agnes: “Why didn’t you try harder?”
This is what changed between June’s first escape attempt, when she was caught just as the plane was taking off, and her second, when she voluntarily sent Nichole to Canada with Emily. Her own child, who was also speaking for all of the little girls she’d leave behind, asked her to try harder. The H in Hannah is likely a nod to Holly, June’s mother, who is also invoked in this episode. June could hear Grandma Holly, the lifelong women’s rights activist, speaking through Hannah. She knew she had to listen to those words. They’ve become her inner mantra.
In this episode, June continues to search for ways to make a difference in Gilead. Lawrence continues to test June. Serena is bereft after the many self-inflicted changes in her life. All three reach tipping points which will affect their futures.
June’s voiceover as she examines the Marthas’ bodies hanging in the town square:
“Heresy. That’s what they’re hanging for. Not for being part of the Resistance, because officially, there is no resistance. Not for helping people escape, because officially, there’s no such thing as escape. They hang for being heretics, not martyrs. Martyrs inspire. Heretics are just stupid. Was I being stupid? I don’t think Cora’s up there. I don’t think Lawrence would do that.”
June is joined by Janine and Alma. They ask if she recognizes anyone. They decide that it’s impossible to tell who the hooded figures are, but at least they are the same bodies who’ve been there for a few days (they smell bad). The execution of Marthas has slowed down. Who will be next?
A guardian pushes them to move on and stop talking. June thinks, “If I’m going to survive this, I’m going to need allies. Allies with power.”
She returns to the Lawrences with the groceries. Beth and the new Martha, a young woman named Sienna, stand on either side of the dining room table, serving Commander Lawrence his lunch.
June: “To be a man, watched by women, must be entirely strange. To have them watching him all the time. To have them flinch when he moves. To have them wondering, what is he going to do next? Does he like me? Will he keep me? Am I safe here? Cora wasn’t.”
Some people, not just men, get off on that kind of power trip. Does Lawrence? He certainly likes to watch people jump when he enters a room, then scatter when he’s done with them. But he also values his privacy. He likes to be in control when he’s being watched, so he can put on a show.
Speaking of, Beth is on edge because the commanders are coming over for a meeting today. She rhetorically asks why they all have to come to Lawrence’s house, but Sienna happens to know the answer. “My old Commander said Lawrence won’t go to meetings. They want to talk to him, they have to come here. That’s how powerful he is.”
Beth doesn’t seem impressed with what’s probably obvious to her, but it’s news to us, so I’ll take it. Why won’t he go to meetings? He’s in control if the meeting is on his own turf. It reminds them of his power and position to make them come to him, and it indoctrinates newbies into the idea that they have to cater to him. It adds to his mystique. It keeps him available to Eleanor. It helps him hide his agoraphobia. He leaves the house as little as possible, so he doesn’t have to confront what Gilead has become. He likes to make them jump at his command. There are too many literal skeletons in the closet for him to feel comfortable leaving the house for long, in case the guardians try to search it and arrest Eleanor when he’s not home.
Choose as many options as you’d like.
Lawrence is still eating. He spills a glass of water and yells for Sienna. She looks frightened. June hands her a towel and sends her in. While Sienna’s gone, June tells Beth that she doesn’t think Cora’s hanging in the square. They assume she’s been sent to the Colonies. Beth asks if June has gotten any messages lately. June says that anyone who knew anything is probably already dead.
Lawrence calls for a refill. Beth jumps, and says she thinks he’s testing them. They’re all disposable to him. While Sienna wipes up his spill, Lawrence mocks her for having a dirty apron, asking if keeping herself clean and presentable is part of the basic criteria for the job. She’s likely been cleaning all day to prepare for his meeting, but now it’s about to start. He could have just reminded her that it was time to freshen up, but threatening her existence was much more fun- for him.
When the doorbell rings, June offers to answer. Lawrence turns this into an intellectual cat and mouse game too by suggesting June can answer it, if she’s smart enough, and if she’s able to avoid the punishment for handmaids who answer the front door. When she understandably hesitates, he decides she’s useless after all. It’s not even clear if it’s illegal for handmaids to answer the door or if the entire conversation was just more of his gameplaying revenge for the danger they brought into the house last episode.
He wants them all suitably cowed and disoriented before the Gilead elite arrive. No one should look content or confident while Gilead’s finest are watching their every move.
The commanders arrive for the meeting. As they enter, they discuss business. A shipment of newly captured females arrived from Chicago yesterday. The women are described as if they aren’t even human beings with human rights. As we’ve seen before and will see again, they were hunted down, captured, caged and many will soon be slaughtered. The entire process shouldn’t even be acceptable when done to animals, never mind humans.
Joseph notes that there’s a need for workers in the agricultural Colonies. The other commander says the captives aren’t worthy of the Colonies. Joseph says that he’s “looking at a utility maximization framework with a deteriorating labor supply. I need workers.”
Meanwhile, June uses a spoon to play with the flames of a candelabra as Fred enters the room. She wishes him and Serena well. He questions her sincerity. But he’s still drawn to her like a moth to a flame, so he stays to talk. June asks Fred to tell her about Joseph. Fred says that Joseph is the visionary who was instrumental in the creation of Gilead, but the other commanders still find him hard to read. Fred sees Joseph as a survivor who lacks sentimentality, unlike himself, and who does not like to be bored.
Joseph watches their interactions from the next room, as June coaxes and flatters each tidbit of information out of Fred. When he’s seen enough, and judges that she’s heard enough, he interrupts and tries to toy with the two of them. Fred begs off. Joseph asks June if she’s working hard. When she responds that she is, he asks her, “At what?” Then he tells her she doesn’t have to answer. It’s an implicit insult, not just about laziness, but that she’s using her feminine wiles on Fred.
But what other currency does she have to trade? Certainly nothing else that Fred wants, and he was her only potential source for information. The interaction gave her valuable insight into Joseph. Joseph is still trying to figure out what June really wants, because he understands the motivations of groups of people better than he understands individuals and he understands power but not powerlessness.
Lawrence took June’s choices away from her and made her life small but filled with deadly traps, just as it is for every woman in Gilead, including his beloved wife. Yet he criticizes her at every turn for for creatively using the few tools that he left for women to use. It’s a typical patriarchal point of view, that that the oppressed should still meet the standards of honor and fairness set by the oppressors, even though they have few or none of the advantages. Even the most powerful women in Gilead, such as Serena, Eleanor and Lydia, have to use whatever tools are available to them to work the system to their own advantage. Serena tried to work within the system and lost a finger for it. June survives because she learned from her mother to twist the system into what she needs it to be, whenever possible, and to not feel guilty about doing it. Lawrence won’t crack her on this one.
Serena is staying with her mother, Pamela, at the beach. Pamela brings Serena a blanket, deciding that Serena must be cold while she sits next to the shore, brushing off Serena’s protests. Then she tells Serena that she’s holding a prayer meeting at her home that evening and Serena’s presence is expected. Serena hasn’t replaced the clothing she lost in the fire, but Pamela has acquired a dress from a friend for her which Rita can alter that afternoon. Later, when Serena tries on the dress, Pamela decides it’s perfect.
The commanders have settled down for the official part of their meeting. Sienna tells June that Joseph wants her to pour the tea because he didn’t like the way Sienna poured. June brings in the pot of tea and finds Nick in the room, now among the Commanders. Nick stares at her, Joseph watches them, Fred looks at all three, Nick looks away, and June moves to pour the tea. A soap opera in 5 glances.
Joseph isn’t bored.
The commanders are going through the official plans for Gilead’s war with Chicago. They plan on extensive bombings, which Joseph vetoes, on the grounds that it would kill the fertile women and children, who are valuable resources.
The next item on the agenda is a series of district-wide salvagings (executions), set to begin the following week, which are meant to keep Gilead’s women in their place. One commander argues that the women were supposed to be punished by sending them to the Colonies, but Calhoun, who is leading the meeting, says that sentencing women to the forced labor and slow death of the Colonies is a slap on the wrist. It won’t be enough to discourage women from becoming terrorists.
Joseph notes that while women can make themselves seem more important than they are, they can also be useful and fun. Joseph tells June, who has been in the room for the entire exchange, that they’re considering how to determine an individual’s worth according to their gender. As a former book editor, does she know if there are any books on the topic?
He answers his own question, suggesting The Descent of Man and directing her to get it from his book shelf. He has to give her detailed instructions, because she has to pretend she can’t read the titles on the shelf. He sends her to a shelf full of his own books, then directs her to pick the wrong book. The Commanders snicker as she kneels to give him the book. June gives Joseph a long look full of bitter resentment as he makes a joke at her expense, but she makes it out of the room without blowing her cover.
It was a test, of course. He knew she had to swallow her pride to suck up to Fred and get what she wanted out of him. He wanted to see just how far he could push her. As she’s leaving the room, he says she’s proven useful, which he means more truthfully than the commanders realize. An operative who can keep their cool despite extreme provocation is very useful, and can be allowed access to secrets.
He probably doesn’t like liars because it’s too easy to forget your previous lies and make mistakes. Better to stay silent, or stick to the truth, but find a way to present it which makes it work for your current situation. That’s what June did with both Fred and with Joseph.
Nick almost follows June as she leaves the room, but stops himself. This was a test for him, as well. Only Joseph and Fred, who were already watching them, noticed their glances. As far as we were shown, no one else noticed their connection.
When it’s time for the prayer meeting, Rita gives Serena a leather prosthetic pinkie that she’s made. The dress has been significantly altered, with it’s chin-high neckline now more of a scoop neck. Serena is still choosing her small rebellions where she can.
Rita tries to cheer her up, telling her she’ll get through it, “By his hand.” Serena drily answers, “Or what’s left of it.” The two share a smile.
The dozen or so people at the prayer circle are praying for a woman with cancer when Serena and Rita come downstairs. When he sees Serena, Pastor Daniel finishes up with the other woman and invites her to sit in the chair in the center. Without Serena saying a word, he prays for the healing of her marriage and the safe return of her child. The rest of the group is ready with their responses to his prompts. This is more an intervention put on by her mother’s cult friends than a healing circle of new friends.
Not that Serena, as much the architect of marriage and family life in Gilead as Joseph is the architect of the economy, doesn’t deserve to be reminded that this is the life she fought for and forced onto others. But it’s still disturbing to see a mother treat her daughter this way.
Later that evening, Fred makes a heartfelt speech in a posh downtown hotel room. He doesn’t look at the woman he’s speaking to.
Fred: “When we first were married, I’d come home and open the door, but just a crack. I’d wait. I’d listen for your footsteps. I’d push open the door a little more. I’d get a glimpse of your hair, long and loose. I’d dole out to myself little helpings of you, like a kid with dessert. The kind of man I had become, married to a woman like you. Coming home to you. Other men I… felt sorry for. They had nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. They didn’t get to have you. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, until death do us part. I may not be a perfect man, but I will try to be better. [Fred finally turns to look at his audience.] If I lose you, I lose everything.”
A Jezebel who is barely dressed tells him it sounds good, and asks if he’d like to practice his speech again.
A love like he describes, where he’s consumed by Serena, but where he also feels diminished by her, will always end badly. Eventually, the man will feel compelled by his resentment to turn the tables, subtly at first, but he’ll keep going until he’s completely consumed her yet also needing to ruin her so that he maintains a semblance of control, telling her she’s forced his hand the entire time. Whether the woman is the man’s mother, his sister, his wife or his daughter, he’ll make her pay for her perceived ownership of him. She’ll be taught that he owns and controls her instead. She’ll spend her life soothing his inferiority complex. And she’ll be lucky if she escapes alive. This is the abuse cycle.
Listen to what Fred is really saying. It’s an obsession, not love. He had to stop himself from spending too much time with her, because he was always thinking about her, even after they were married. He never felt like he was good enough for her, but now, as a Commander and her husband, he owns her, until they’re dead. She’s his most important possession and status symbol, in the way other men feel about their house or car. He’s still obsessed with her- she’s everything and he doesn’t intend to let her go, ever.
After careful observation and thought, June has devised a strategy for dealing with her new commander. She’s not thrilled about what she needs to do, but it’s the tried and true methodology of oppressed women everywhere. And he did say women are fun.
She composes herself and enters his study with a tray. He asks a question about Martha selection. He has binders full of potential servants. They make small talk. She’s very agreeable. Alarm bells go off in his head, but he decides to play along, cat and mouse being his favorite game.
But, like a cat, he gets bored quickly and easily.
He asks if she thinks she’s good at managing people. She says she doesn’t. He walks over to stand close to her and says she seems like she’d be good at making friends, influencing people and intimacy. He doesn’t say it like he means it as a compliment, more like an observation, but she says, “Thank you,” anyway.
He acts like he’s going to kiss her for a moment, then asks if this really worked on Fred. He laughs as he walks away and notes that maybe it worked because neither Fred or June are intellectual giants. June suggests he doesn’t know her well enough.
Fair point. When has he given her the chance to display her intellectual giantism? When he was humiliating her by directing her to the wrong book in front of the other commanders that afternoon?
He asks why women always use their bodies to get what they want, then say they don’t want to be defined by their bodies. June gives a lovely, idealistic answer, saying that maybe women aren’t using their bodies, maybe men just think they are because that’s all they notice. (They’re too easily distracted.)
While I think that’s true, I also think that powerless people use the only tools that are left to them. For women who are oppressed by men, men’s desire to use their bodies for sexual gratification is one of the few bargaining chips they have left. When men are powerless, their bodies become sexual bargaining chips as well. Serena used Nick’s body as a sexual bargaining chip when she involved him in her scheme to bypass Fred’s infertility so that she could acquire a baby to raise.
I’m sure Lawrence knows this. But officially Gilead and all of Patriarchy deny it. But make no mistake, most of the time the “sex” Joseph is referring to is rape that the woman didn’t ask for or want. The woman probably had little to no choice, if she wanted to come out of the interaction mentally and physically whole.
Any sex with or for the enemy that looks like a choice was probably for the protection of someone else. If Nick hadn’t said yes to Serena, she might have found a stranger to impregnate June who wouldn’t have been gentle with her. When Nick and June both said yes to Serena, they both chose the lesser of two evils, the one that saved themselves and each other from worse repercussions.
Joseph moves on to accusing June of causing everything that’s ever gone wrong in the Waterfords’ lives- Fred demoted, Nichole disappeared, Serena’s finger amputated, house burned down. He asks if she thinks the Waterfords got what they deserve. June calmly tells him that no one in Gilead gets what they deserve. He accuses her of being transactional, which for a man would be a compliment, but for a woman is supposed to be an insult, because we are supposed to just give and give. June just tells him she did what she had to do.
He tries harder to push her buttons. And says straight out that she wants him to like her so that he’ll do what she wants him to do.
Well, yes. Isn’t that the foundation of all human interaction? Aren’t women, in particular, taught that it’s imperative that we be likeable if we want anything good to happen in our lives?
June also doesn’t try to hide that yes, of course that’s what she’s doing. What else would she be doing? If he wants honesty, she’ll happily give it to him.
She’s seen him do the right thing before, with Emily and with the Marthas in the resistance. He claims he helped Emily because she’s smart and could be useful to the world someday. The resistance is useful because it’s good to let the subversives blow off a little steam sometimes.
He tells June that if she were smart she would have left with Nichole and Emily. She says she couldn’t, because of Hannah. He brings up everything Gilead holds against her, from “stealing” someone else’s husband, as if Luke was a loaf of bread, to taking too long to pick Hannah up from school.
All of the years and years of her life, fulls of things she did right as a person, a wife and a mother, but Gilead will never let those 2 moments go, because they are the only mistakes they can pin on June. Everyone is late occasionally, and Luke’s marriage was failing before June came along. If he didn’t leave for June, he would have left anyway or for someone else. Luke and June shouldn’t have slept together until he left his wife, but life isn’t always perfect.
Joseph doesn’t give June credit for the protesting she did with her mother as a child. Or for the patience she had with her own mother, who put her second while putting her activist work first. He asks the impossible of June, that she make both activism and parenthood her first priorities.
But he’s finally pushed the button all modern mothers are trained to react to. We are taught that we are the reason for everything that is currently wrong with our children and that will ever go wrong, whether we have careers or stay home. That one time we didn’t do the exact right thing was the crucial moment that damaged them for life. All of the experts, from TV doctors to fairy tales, will assure you of this.
The damage your own mother did to you will even be passed down to your child through you as inherited trauma, since you are such an imperfect vehicle for maternal love. If it’s not your mother’s fault, it was probably her mother’s fault. One way or another, no matter how hard you try (and all that trying will make you an overprotective, overbearing
karen helicopter mother who’s inflicting learned helplessness on her children), there’s no way you can get it right, according to the slippery rules of modern parenthood.
And then they question why the birth rate is going down.
After all, when Hannah’s adoptive mother was childless, she made 1,000 food baskets for orphans (which she had the time and money to do because she had a wealthy husband and she probably wasn’t employed, as a good Sons of Jacob wife- obviously she didn’t have children to care for at the time, either). All June did was edit esoteric books, which Joseph finds deplorable, because the right to free speech doesn’t count in his world. A good mother doesn’t need free speech, because she would never have anything to say outside of the platitudes children need to hear to become good citizens. And God will put the right things in her mouth automatically.
June begins to walk out of the room, but then she decides to argue with Joseph after all. Today is a good day to die and this is a good hill to die on.
June: “You wrote esoteric books. You did that. God. It must be scary, huh? Seeing the numbers on those spreadsheets turn into real people? Real people being executed? Knowing that if no one had read your books, we would all be better off. It must be hell being a man like that. Far worse than useless. I get it. I get why you would do this. I suppose you would hole yourself up in a house like this, playing games with people’s heads, doing a good deed or two every once in a while, so that you can f**king sleep at night.”
Joseph: “How tempting it is to invent a humanity for anyone at all. Come on. Let’s take a drive.”
Was he talking about her humanity or his own? Or warning her that she got away with ranting at him that way, but most Commanders don’t have his humanity?
She knows much better than he does not to take anyone’s humanity for granted. She’s not the one who’s been holed up in a mansion dictating the terms of their own survival since the beginning. She’s the one who’s been tortured multiple times and who’s watched her friends die- sometimes she’s even been forced to help murder them, according to the protocols created by him.
They drive to a detention facility where hundreds, maybe thousands of women who were captured in Chicago are being held in cages. These are the cages that are normally used to barbarically house factory farmed animals in real life. I think it might actually be a former slaughterhouse. They have also been used to cruelly detain illegal immigrants at the US-Mexico border in conditions that are little better than what farm animals endure.
Once they’re inside, Joseph explains that since there won’t be any public executions, these women are headed for the Colonies tomorrow. He was able to requisition 5 to serve as Marthas. June isn’t impressed. Saving 5 out of the thousands they captured in Chicago seems meaningless to her. It’s all he could manage, along with sending them to the Colonies instead of straight to the executioner, which does give them a small possibility for escape.
He wants her to choose the 5 women who will become Marthas. He says he’ll give her their files so that she’ll have all of the information she needs to choose the best person for the job. He lists moral stains as one of the types of qualifications she might look at, then stops himself, saying, “That’s dumb. Who gets to define morality? Just choose the best people for the job.”
She refuses to take the folders. He reminds her that he’s giving her a chance to be useful. She doesn’t want to be responsible for choosing who lives and who dies and won’t accept the blame for the deaths she thinks he’s trying to put on her. He tells her that technical distinctions like the one she’s making won’t matter to the women who die. She walks away.
Right now, this feels like a punishment, rather than an opportunity, because all she can see are the overwhelming majority of women who will die, not the small opportunity to at least save a few.
The leap from acting in the moment to becoming a cold blooded policy maker is a big one, and that’s what he’s asking her to take on. He’s asking if she can think in terms of saving a few at a time instead of relentlessly pushing to save everyone at once, while still understanding that they’re ultimately working for greater good. The shift from salvagings to a trip to the Colonies is also a small step in the right direction that feels frustratingly tiny to a revolutionary but is a step in the right direction to a policy maker who’s used to making changes in increments.
Janine and Emily went to the Colonies. Emily later escaped with Nichole and Janine is back in Gilead proper. It’s not always a death sentence. Plus, in the Colonies Emily had the chance to murder a Wife and get away with it, while Janine helped plan a wedding between two women. Life in the Colonies presents its own opportunities.
Serena is awash in symbolism as she sits outside in the dark, in a fierce rainstorm, on her driftwood log by the shore, crying while she smokes a cigarette. She’s lost and bereft, okay, but there’s still a small kernel of something burning within her.
When Serena goes inside, her mother, who is sorting delicate heirloom china in the kitchen before she puts it away, clucks at her for getting wet, as if she is a small child who doesn’t understand how weather works. Serena dismisses the maid and tells her mother she’s upset that the entire prayer group knows the intimate details of her marriage. Pamela stays insufferably calm and detached while promising she won’t reveal any more of her daughter’s secrets to strangers. Serena tries to explain why she doesn’t want to go back to Fred, but Pamela tells her she isn’t interested, because none of it matters.
In the world Serena created, a woman’s only worth comes from the reflection of her husband. Serena knows this and has been given so much, yet she’s still not satisfied, so Pamela has no sympathy for her self-inflicted drama. Serena and Fred could have a wonderful life together if Serena would pull herself together. Serena has no right to grieve so deeply for a child she chose to give up and who wasn’t even hers to begin with.
Her mother leaves to draw her a hot bath. Serena faces the realization that her life is in tatters. Everything she worked to create in Gilead is a disaster or gone. Her husband has betrayed and abused her. While her family and religion are technically willing to support her, they will only do so if she suppresses her individuality and doubts.
Late that night, Nick shows up at Commander Lawrence’s house to see June. Beth sends him up to her room. June is still trying to recover from her trip to the detention facility. Nick tells her that his promotion to Commander was his due, but he isn’t isn’t high up enough in the command structure to help her and Hannah escape or to get her more information about Lawrence. He came to say goodbye because he’s getting deployed to the front in Chicago. June immediately worries that he’ll be killed, but she’s upset, so she coldly tells him goodbye. He leaves the room and stands outside her door until she comes to her senses and pulls him back inside.
The next day, June is eating lunch when Sienna says she has a visitor. It’s Serena, who’s there for advice on coping with losing a child. Serena asks how to stop thinking about Nichole all the time. June instigates a conversation about the baby instead. She insists that Serena is a mother and encourages her to empathize with all of the other mothers who have lost their children. She tries to recruit Serena to keep helping her, for the children and the other mothers.
June: “We can help each other. We cannot count on them. They hate us, Serena. They are not on our side.”
Serena: “I tried.”
June: “You have to try harder.”
Serena: “I’m not that person anymore.”
June: “You’re scared. Use it. Maybe we’re stronger than we think we are.”
June’s just loved and lost Nick yet again, but that experience has reminded her what she’s fighting for and renewed her strength. She’s able to distill all of the wisdom she’s gathered into this little pep talk for Serena, who didn’t have the powerhouse activist mother that June had. Thanks to her mother, who showed her what’s possible, June stands on the shoulders of a giant in everything she does, while Serena’s always trying to climb out of the deep well first her mother and now Fred try to hold her hostage her in.
June takes her own advice to heart and realizes the potential benefit to the resistance of handpicking 5 Marthas. She prepares 5 folders for Lawrence and seems at peace when she tells him she’s made her choices.
She goes to the kitchen and tells Beth that she’s chosen 5 new Marthas for the resistance: an engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer and a thief. When Sienna comes into the room, Beth quickly sends her off with some laundry. June tells Sienna to smile, because they’ve survived another day, using kindness to create a bond with their new addition.
Serena’s back on her log at the beach, with a cup of tea in her mother’s china. She puts the cup down to one side and her fake pinkie finger down on her other side, discarding two forms of hiding and capitulation that she’s ready to leave behind. She walks out into the ocean until she’s waist deep, with tears streaking down her face. She pauses there in the sunset.
Whether Serena meant this as a cleansing ritual or a suicide attempt, she goes no further into the ocean, turning back to shore instead. The part of June’s voice over that’s about catering to men and then using the knowledge gained to become their worst nightmare is spoken as Serena reaches land and spots Fred approaching her
as the sun sets on their marriage.
He catches up to her near the log. She shuffles past him, ignoring him and leaving the fake pinkie and teacup behind. Inside herself, she’s done with all of it. From now on, she might do whatever it takes to get what she wants, including putting on a facade, but she’s no longer a believer in any part of Gilead or Fred.
June’s closing voice over, interwoven with Roy Harper’s protest anthem How Does It Feel:
“There was a time when women were able to choose. ‘We were a society dying,’ Aunt Lydia would say, ‘Of too much choice. We know the sacrifices you are expected to make.’ she’d say. ‘It is hard when men revile you.’ Mother, I think, wherever you may be, can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant. But it exists. And 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.”
June stands at the end of a table, arms spread wide and resting on the corners, like she’s a gang leader explaining the plan for the next heist. Or murder. Be afraid.
Commander Lawrence really is a terrible judge of people. I actually suspect that it was part of Eleanor’s job within the marriage to be the people person. Lawrence sees people through a very particular lens, the lens of his own purposes, rather than seeing the whole person.
How to Start a Revolution…
If you can survive it, it’s very freeing to lose everything. People who have nothing of importance left to lose also have nothing holding them back anymore. It’s amazing how few people in power (or who want to dominate others) understand this negative aspect to motivation and thus they’ll go ahead and strip people, whether it’s children, the poor or prisoners, of everything worthwhile in their lives, taking away the motivation they had that was stopping them from rebelling.
In this episode, Serena, June and Nick lose everything.
We only get a bit of what’s been going on with Nick, but we’ve heard enough about the Chicago front to know that it’s a bloodbath. As June said, the odds are good that he’ll die there. His promotion to Commander was a trap so that Fred could have him sent away and killed. The plan was likely set in motion even before Nichole was taken. Fred wouldn’t want Nick around while Nichole was growing up for people to notice a resemblance between the two, especially if Nick married and had children of his own who might resemble Nichole even more strongly.
But Nick was a decorated soldier in the revolution, one of the few who joined the Sons of Jacob early enough to receive extensive training. Plus he knows how to watch his own back. He might make it out alive. Fred’s given Nick another good reason to help bring his former supervisor down eventually.
I get the impression that Pamela Joy has always had unreasonably high expectations for her daughter. She certainly has no sympathy for Serena now. I have to wonder if she was this bad toward Serena before the revolution or if she’s intensified her resentments because of the excessively restrictive social order that’s been placed on her. She certainly made enough comments about Serena’s lack of understanding for what it’s like out there in the world where Pamela lives, as opposed to the cushy, soft world where Serena lives.
Then there’s the way she put Serena’s secrets on display, similar to the way everyone typically knows everyone’s business in a small town. In Gilead, so many activities are illegal and will get you killed if a neighbor discovers them that it’s not safe to let anyone know any of your business, as we’ve been shown repeatedly, such as with Omar’s family and with Eden. Pamela might be punishing Serena for creating Gilead just as much as she’s playing the role of the perfect older wife and mother. She may also be hiding some secrets of her own.
Serena, Nick and June are all put on display by others in this episode to see how they’ll react to pressure.June and Nick are used to working under impossible circumstances. Serena’s used to being on display and under pressure, but she’s also used to being in charge of her own home and receiving respect as a High Commander’s wife in public. Now that she’s fallen so far, she has to learn how let go of expectations and, as her mother alluded to, work with the gifts (resources) she’s given rather than the gifts she wanted. Serena is a complicated person, but she understands both June’s and her mother’s lessons in the end and reaches the point where she decides to keep on trying rather than giving up. When you’ve lost everything and are ready to give up, there’s no harm in moving forward by trying a strategy you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.
When Nick comes to June in her room, she’s sitting alone, staring at her walls. It’s an eerie reminder of her near catatonic state throughout the episode Seeds, before he found her close to death on the Waterford’s patio in season 2 episode 5. I think Nick stayed outside her room because he knew she’d cool off, but also because he saw the look on her face and had the same thought as me. With him gone to the front, her children lost to her again and her in such a hopeless mood, would June lose the will to live again?
I don’t think June was in a state as dire as she was in season 2, but Nick also clearly gave her renewed strength. He was a survivor long before Gilead and keeps quietly plugging along. Seeing Serena again also helped June. Maybe Serena reminded her that Nichole isn’t really lost, that June had the huge success of getting one daughter to safety, no matter what anyone else tries to tell her. She didn’t do it alone, sure, but she did it. One of the steps she took as soon as Nick left to was to begin rebuilding her network. He reminded her that connections are crucial. If the fates can come together to save one child or 5 Marthas, maybe they can eventually save more.
Conforming to the Visions of Others
Last season, in flashback, we saw June’s mother’s activist friends barely acknowledge her because they felt she was a disappointment and a sell out, since she lived a normal middle class lifestyle. Now we’re seeing a conservative Christian version of that treatment, with Serena being told she has to go back to her husband and live a life of conformity, even though she’s deeply unhappy and feels morally compromised by the life she’s been living. On both sides, the parents’ community feel that the child’s adult life should be determined by the parents and community, not the adult child’s own choices.
In her previous life, June wasn’t really making a choice, she was following the path of least resistance. Serena was taking the ideas she was raised with and exploiting and expanding them for her own fame and fortune. She is also a true believer, but like June, only because it’s what she was raised with. She’s never stopped to think her ideas through to their logical conclusion. Now she’s having that logical conclusion shoved in her face and onto her pinkie finger.
In this episode, Serena’s mother and Commander Lawrence each explain the reality of adulthood in a world where you have to live your philosophy everyday. Neither is the ideal person to do the explaining, since both have their own agendas and twist Serena and June’s motivations into something selfish and self absorbed.
It’s a tactic of oppression to suggest that distress over normal cares and concerns is actually entitlement and selfishness. It’s not weakness, hysteria or self absorption to be ground down by the cares of everyday life. It’s human. It is, however, inconvenient to those who exploit others for their victims to have their own needs.
Joseph has contrived to separate himself from real life so that he can watch everyone else from a distance and judge them, while he remains immune to their supposedly petty emotions. As a wife and mother, Pamela claims expertise in the field of suffering and coping, even as she actually retains an emotional distance that’s much like Joseph’s. It’s a lethal combination in a parent.
Pamela wants Serena to get back in her box and become the daughter whose social influence raises her mother’s social stock as well. In Pamela’s world, the way to make your life better is to publicly play the conformist game better than anyone else. The appearance of normalcy then buys you the right to do whatever you want in private.
Joseph’s motivations aren’t as clear. He wants to see what June will become if he pushes her to reach the potential he sees in her, but to what end? He can see her intelligence and analytical skills, her bravery, determination and common sense. He knows she picked up the skills of community organizing at her mother’s knee, even if she doesn’t realize it herself yet. Is he actually trying to turn her into a revolutionary with the potential that her mother had? Has he been toying with the resistance for years, building it slowly, because he was waiting for the right leader to arrive? Or does he watch for potential revolutionaries, play with them for a while, then get rid of them and their followers?
As June points out, in a sense, Holly’s vision has already been realized, her ideas mingled alongside Pamela’s, Serena’s and Joseph’s. June has never been a visionary. She’s always been a pragmatist, trying to get by in the world created by others. Part of what I think Joseph is asking of her is to step out from behind everyone else’s shadow. To stop being the daughter, the wife and the editor and to become the leader with her own ideas for the world she wants to create. She naturally moves through the world creating that world anyway. She’d be more effective if she also created a vision.
Commander Lawrence’s Utopian Vision
During the Commanders’ meeting, when Calhoun reads off the plan to bomb Chicago, Joseph, the group’s visionary, subtly reminds them that Gilead is supposed to be a utopia with a higher purpose, not just another world power full of men intent on dominating every neighboring territory. He tells them they need to save the children and the fertile women. Later in the episode, he tells June that he cares more about her daughter than she does, because he’s trying to save the planet for the next generation.
While Joseph views the world from the perspective of a policy maker, who moves populations and politicians like chess pieces, he’s sincere in his ultimate purpose. It’s the only thing that keeps him going and makes the horrors of Gilead worth it. Up until now, he still believed that Gilead was on the right path to ultimately bringing the world back from the brink of environmental destruction.
But does he still believe that? Early in the episode, he has to argue for workers to be sent to the Colonies instead of executed, then he has to argue it again in the meeting. This is first time we’ve heard anyone in Gilead admit the inevitable. Their population doesn’t replenish itself through a healthy birth rate, and no one wants to immigrate there. They have an aging population, most of whom are subjected to food shortages and other physical hardships which could potentially sap their vitality and shorten their lives. On top of that, they don’t take basic safety precautions to protect their workers, such as putting the workers who are removing toxic waste in hazmat suits. If the agricultural workers are treated the way Emily and Janine were treated, then Gilead is taking decades off their lives, years when they could be useful, contributing citizens.
All of this means that they will run out of viable workers and soldiers sooner rather than later. As far as I can tell, the “excess” men in Gilead are turned into soldiers and sent to die at the front (farewell, Nick). The “excess” women are turned into Marthas if they’re lucky. If they’re not, they’re sent to the Colonies to work, then die. Eventually, Gilead will have burned through their excess population and much of the rest will be too old have children or do hard manual labor.
Where will they get fresh blood? From the women and children of other countries, of course. As in the dystopian novel 1984, Gilead will have perpetual, low level wars with neighboring countries so that they can take prisoners of war to use as slaves.
Does this perpetual violence agree with Joseph’s vision? He imagined his system would increase the population, not decrease it, but so much effort is spent on maintaining control that very little real work appears to get done. And we’ve seen that very few healthy babies are born. Such a stressful, oppressive environment doesn’t encourage women to be fertile and multiply. There are probably many more Edens and Isaacs out there, for one thing. And many more suicides at all levels.
Joseph may be in the process of deciding to switch sides, if he can find a few strong resistance leaders to work with. It could be he’s allowed the resistance to function at a minimal level and watched for a brave, daring, effective leader to come along who he could back, before encouraging it to spread. But what does this mean for his ultimate vision of the future? Does he see them overthrowing Gilead completely or simply adjusting its more destructive policies?
Images courtesy of Hulu.