I think it is time for everyone to admit that amongst the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale there is a person with the gift of prophecy. How else would the show be able to so accurately predict current events both in the US and in international politics? This week’s episode sees an authoritarian American leader visit a foreign city while hounded by crowds of angry protesters. Sound familiar?
‘Smart Power’ is an interesting title for an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, partly because none of the power wielded by the leaders of Gilead is particularly smart in a moral sense, because the handmaids themselves have no power and also because the term actually refers to forging advantageous alliances, normally in international relations. Several advantageous alliances are forged this week; between June (Elisabeth Moss) and Rita (Amanda Brugel), between Nick (Max Minghella) and Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and surprisingly even between June and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Ironically the one alliance that is not forged in the episode is an actual political one between Gilead and its closest neighbour, Canada.
Relations between Gilead and Canada are strained. This is cleverly portrayed not so much in dialogue but in glances, grimaces and silent expressions. The Canadian officials conduct all business with a polite coldness. They appear stiff and uncomfortable and they obviously disapprove of Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Gilead. But they put their personal objections aside to secure diplomatic ties like many Western nations do when dealing with a dictator. The true extent of the Canadian government’s unease only becomes apparent once the letters written by oppressed women in Gilead and smuggled into Canada by Nick, are actually published online.
Of course the Canadian government must have known about the human rights abuses taking place just south of their own border. There are refugees like Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke living in Toronto who can testify to such crimes. In a strange twist Nick, who has accompanied the Waterfords to Canada connects with Luke and passes him the letters. It is interesting that the Canadians only choose to care about the abused women of Gilead once the letters have been made public and furious protesters line the streets. Canada may be a safe haven for American asylum seekers but it is not immune to political hypocrisy just like every other democratic country in the world today.
Just as we start see Canada in a different light, we also get to see Commander Fred Waterford through a different lens. Until now we have viewed Waterford mostly through the eyes of June or Serena. Sometimes we even get a glimpse of what Nick thinks of him, but never the world outside Gilead. For the first time in the series Waterford is portrayed on a TV screen on the news and Moira and Luke stare at his televised image in horror. It is unsettling to see Waterford this way. We are intimately acquainted with his character because June is. She hates him close up, Moira hates him from far away. To Luke and Moira he’s a distant ominous face on a news report and an untouchable war criminal. Portraying him this way only further emphasises how strong and permanent the state of Gilead has become and makes the quest to topple the regime seem all the more impossible.
The trip to Canada is however, almost entirely viewed through Serena’s eyes. Each week Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) takes a step closer to a crisis which must ultimately lead to her rejection of Gilead or a complete mental breakdown. At first she is not keen to go on the trip, flinching painfully when Fred touches her, but he’s all smiles and soft words explaining that she will be the proof to the rest of the world that Gilead does not oppress women. Fred really outdoes his propensity for hypocrisy in this scene since he was the one who actually beat Serena with his belt in last week’s episode.
Serena having had a small taste of Fred’s work in previous episodes is now back in her greenhouse. There is a sense that Gilead does not just dominate women physically but also stifles them intellectually. The many hours spent in the greenhouse and in June’s attic room are hours of boredom. Serena restlessly meddles with plants and despises the knitting she is required to do. The trip to Canada is a painful reminder of her past life as an educated career woman. Serena’s first glimpse of Toronto is out of the car window. She seems both delighted and disturbed by the sights around her. Both Fred and Nick who are also in the car, scrutinise her reaction and neither of them seem as in awe of the city streets emphasising how cloistered Serena has been in Gilead compared to the male members of her household.
Later she makes painful small talk with her Canadian liaison, falsely confessing that she enjoys knitting and seemingly envying the other woman’s high-powered career. Serena is a fish out of water and in a world that judges her and it deeply unsettles her. Perhaps even more unsettling is the offer of escape in the form of a plane ticket to Honolulu from an exiled American official and the revelation that the fertility crisis that Gilead has asserted is the fault of women, may actually be down to a problem with male biology. Yvonne Strahovski’s performance is always compulsively watchable, she portrays Serena floating through the trip like a shell-shocked sleep-walker just starting to wake up to an awful truth. She is shaken most by the sight of June’s husband Luke confronting Waterford while brandishing a photo of his wife in happier times and the crowds of protesting women at the airport holding signs bearing their names.
Back in Gilead, events are not any happier. The tentative alliance forged between Serena and June in previous weeks has crumbled in the face of patriarchal brutality. June is informed that she will need to leave the Waterford household directly after the birth of her baby. Elisabeth Moss’ acting skills rival Strahovski’s in a series of scenes that are filled with quiet desperation as she begs Rita to be godmother and watch over her child and even turns to Aunt Lydia for support. This allows the audience for the first time to get a glimpse into the psychology of the hideous Aunt Lydia. It seems a tad unrealistic that June who was chained to a bed by the tyrannical Aunt, would actually trust her to protect a baby, but it is clear that June is desperate and playing any cards that are dealt to her.
It turns out Aunt Lydia was a godmother in the years before Gilead, to her nephew who died a few days after birth. In a rare moment of intimacy she says to June ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ hinting at the guilt she still feels over the tragedy. This is perhaps the most honest emotion we have seen from Aunt Lydia. Completely devoid of hypocrisy or cruelty she reassures June that she would never let anything happen to a baby. It may not be possible for us to feel empathy for Aunt Lydia but at least this scene goes a little way towards helping us understand her motivations and belief in Gilead’s procreative mission.
However the most memorable line of dialogue in ‘Smart Power’ is not spoken by a main character or even a woman. In a tense scene at the end of the episode, Waterford is confronted by the accusations of abuse in his country and he denies the truth of the published letters, openly mocking the Canadians for being naive. The head Canadian diplomat replies simply and firmly, ‘We believe the women.’ The line contains echoes of the current Me Too Movement and emphasises the different ethos of the two countries.
There is Gilead a state where women are disbelieved, dominated, shamed and abused. Then there is Canada, which despite its faults, is a country where women have careers, keep their names, have control over their own bodies and raise their own children. In the end both countries were never going to forge an advantageous alliance. June does not know any of this, but when she finally discovers that Moira has successfully escaped to Canada, she gives up all her plans to deal the cards she has been handed in Gilead and tells her unborn child, ‘I know I should accept the reality of you being born here, make my peace… but f*ck that.’
Because in the end the best thing for any baby is the chance to grow up free.
The Handmaids Tale is now airing on Channel 4. Let us know what you think of Season 2!