It feels strange to spend so much time outside of Gilead on The Handmaid’s Tale. But with Serena newly installed as Commander Lawrence’s diplomatic puppet in Toronto and June and Luke inching toward something that looks like romantic reconciliation, this is where the show lives now. What used to be a series about prison escape has transformed into a show about political revolution.
This week’s episode – “Dear Offred” – is a slight one. The circumstances of our characters don’t change as much as their outlooks do. If the episode has a main point, it’s to show us that the situation in Toronto is more fragile than we realised. Moira calls the city an “overcrowded refugee town”. One wrong move by any asylum-seeker, like hot-headed June, could have a negative impact on the entire community.
We also get a staggering, disheartening glimpse into how far the ideals of Gilead have penetrated other countries. Venezuela is looking to the young nation for guidance on how to establish a handmaid programme of its own. Even the Canadians, swayed by the public outpouring of grief Serena inspired at Fred’s funeral, have agreed to allow the fascist state to establish a “cultural centre” in the urban heart of Ontario. Outside the portentous building, aggressive pro-Gilead protestors clash with those calling for the end of its murderous reign.
Within its borders, Gilead is not as stable as outsiders might believe. But outside Gilead, the nation is evidently not as despised as I mistakenly assumed.
Hannah’s parents are unravelling, but at least they’re doing it together
I’m gonna say it: June (Elisabeth Moss) deserved to be yelled at on the playground. Did you notice what a lacklustre parabola she was creating with that infant swing? She’s lucky Nichole didn’t riot. Imagine what passersby would think if June’s celebrity baby had a very public meltdown.
Instead, it’s June that goes berserk. When a wildly insane stranger calls her “lucky” to have been in Gilead so that God could reward her with a new baby, June’s response is to violently push her against the swingset. Besides making me worry about June’s mental state, the unhinged interaction made me curious about Gilead’s immigration policies. Surely the state would welcome a new and eager adherent like this woman. She might not be right for a handmaid, but she could still make bread.
June and Luke’s family therapist chalks up the stranger’s outburst to a contagion of infertility mania, which is such a bizarre diagnosis I’m glad they didn’t bother to unpack it. And the therapist explains June’s twitchy propensity for violence – which to me didn’t seem so different from June’s everyday propensity for violence – to the fact that Serena’s back in Canada. Either way, it’s nice to see June working on her entirely justified rage.
Strangely, June and Luke’s hatred of Serena is finally bringing them closer together. When June stalks Gilead’s new de facto embassy with a loaded gun, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) doesn’t get mad, even though his preferred solution is to get the embassy itself caught up in bureaucratic red tape (something about construction permits).
In fact, by the end of episode, he might be the character most eager to see his wife kill Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). But when June finds herself standing six feet from her nemesis, she fails to pull the trigger. Maybe it’s Gilead’s brutal indoctrination or the words of that frenzied woman from the park still rattling in her ear, but June won’t kill a pregnant woman.
It’s take your wife to work day
Serena sets out on her first day as Gilead’s diplomat to the world only to find that, without immigration status in Canada, she’s confined to Gilead property – a church and rectory in the process of being converted to the “Gilead Information Centre”. And she’s still very much under Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) thumb as he’s been declining invitations from foreign consulates on her behalf. Perhaps it’s just to prove to herself that she has any power at all that Serena sends June an announcement about the embassy, hand-addressed to “Offred”.
It’s that adorable overture that earns her an office visit from Luke, who she snaps like a pencil. It only takes a few remarks for her to get inside his head, where I assume she’ll be living until he dies. She manages to call him an unfit father who allowed his wife to bear all the risk to save Hannah and to remind him that his wife had “support” from Nick, all in a handful of sentences delivered in the cold tone she uses for pleasantries. So maybe Serena Joy will be an effective diplomat after all.
It soon becomes clear that we may never know. When the protests outside the Gilead centre turn violent – June fires a warning shot when an agitator punches Moira (Samira Wiley) – Serena quickly loses her sanctuary. But where her security detail takes her is arguably even more troubling: the gated compound of a wealthy Canadian family who appears to be living under Gilead’s laws, down to the wife’s green dress, even without a patriarchal state to command it.
The softer side of Aunt Lydia
Back in Gilead, Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) recovery continues. She lost her physical strength when Esther poisoned her, but honestly she seems spiritually invigorated. She defends Esther when Lydia (Ann Dowd) calls her a sinner and calls Lydia out on her violent, abusive methods. After Lawrence refuses to let Lydia amend the handmaid programme – she wants handmaids to remain in the red centre rather than be posted in commander’s homes, where commaners can be grubby and violent – she at least calls on Janine to help her train up the new handmaids more humanely.
Aunt Lydia makes a pledge to compassion, and Luke and June have adrenaline-fuelled, lets-kill-Serena sex. On The Handmaid’s Tale, this is as close as we get to good news.