If Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale could be summed up as “shock,” and Season 2 as “survival,” Season 3 is certainly starting out as “resist.” Sure, we’ve seen bits and pieces of a resistance in 1 and 2, but now, it seems to be organizing, coalescing, aided however oddly by one of Gilead’s early proponents.
But Gilead doesn’t recognize resistance. As June watches several Marthas hanging, she thinks,
They were hanged for heresy. Not for being part of the Resistance, because officially, there is no Resistance. Not for helping people escape, because officially, there is no such thing as escape. They hang for being heretics, not martyrs. Martyrs inspire. Heretics are just stupid. Was I being stupid?
June has been stupid, and she has been smart. What will she be this season? And who will be her allies – the powerful allies she’ll need to survive? Let’s talk about this week’s release of the first three episodes of Season 3.
Serena fascinates me. An early proponent of a variation of Gilead – before the Handmaid concept was developed (by men who loved the idea of subjugating women), she saw a return to a Biblical way of life as a way to bring control to an out-of-control world. And between her gunshot wound and the widespread but unacknowledged male infertility crisis, she’s been denied the one thing that she thinks will restore some happiness to her own life. Denied the reading and writing that she loved, denied the intimate relationship with her husband that she loved, she needs to have something to pour her frustrated intellect and huge need to care into.
And finally – no matter how it’s achieved – through the miracle of Gilead’s laws, she has a child, but she also has a problem. She’s allowing herself to finally see that this structure she fought so hard to set up has been perverted into something she never conceived of, and she knows that as a strong woman herself, that this just isn’t right for humanity, and for women in particular. How can she bring up another girl, the first generation raised in Gilead, when she knows how horrible this is? So at the end of Season 2, she makes a huge selfless sacrifice, and hands over this child – not hers in any way except love – to be saved from this life.
Now though, as Season 3 begins, the enormity of what she did has crashed on her. The fact that she put herself and her husband in danger – that’s not important. But what she really did was turn herself inside out, give away the only thing that made this existence tolerable. She failed in attempting to make an inroad into a change for women and lost not only a finger, but any respect that the men of Gilead may have had for her. She’s lost that child that made the smallest piece of her life worth living. And she can’t bear it – if she could, that burning bed would have been the burning of the entire system.
Her mother is no source of comfort – Mom is the practical sort – you made your bed, now lie in it. What are women without their men? You want more than you can have, you asked for this, make the best of it. But that’s part of the problem – she can’t. She’s been betrayed by everything important, and sees no way to find importance in anything else.
Between last season and this, we’ve seen several strong women stripped of their will and reduced to permanent or at least temporary insanity. Janine had a break with reality. June retreated into a robotic existence. And now Serena has sunk into a deep depression, destructive and suicidal. Janine has found a way to live with her situation and remain cheerful – probably denying 90% of what’s around her. June came out of her temporary mindlessness angrier and more strong-willed than before. And what faces Serena on the other side?
June asks her to think of all the mothers who have had their children taken away from them, to use this newfound feeling and do what she can. “I tried,” Serena tells her. “Try harder,” June pushes. But Serena doesn’t think she has any more to give. “I’m not that woman any more.”
She obviously has some kind of revelation, standing in the water at the end of Episode 3. I was sure that she went out to drown, to let the water take her, but whether she had a flash of a path forward or a moment of grace, she came out of the ocean ready to face the world. And whether she was ready or not, to face Fred, who rehearsed his speech to win her over by telling it to a naked woman in his bedroom. But what mask will she be wearing? The angel of vengeance? Or the submissive wife of Gilead?
Season 3 starts seconds after Season 2 ends – having handed over her baby to Emily, hopefully to make it to Canada and escape Gilead, June must now figure out how to get herself back into Waterford’s house and survive. But she has an unexpected encounter with Commander Lawrence, who just engineered Emily’s escape, and he reluctantly agrees to take her to steal Hannah away and then get them both out of Gilead. Had this worked as planned, we would have cheered and the show would be over.
But quickly, she realizes that she has no chance of making it. And only by the mother-to-mother understanding of Mrs. Mackenzie did she get out of this one. While it doesn’t look like the devoted women of Gilead are willing to work from the inside to bring this down – I really wonder how much input or agreement the men sought or received when this was all cobbled together – they do understand the burden this places on other women, and in many cases, seem willing to help in little ways. Some of their coldness toward the other groups must be fear – I have this position, where I am taken care of, my social standing is probably higher than it was pre-Gilead, and if I screw this up, I could be killed. So you have this undercurrent of fear, another of anger, and going forward, the gap between the haves and not only the have-nots, but the required-to-give-it-to-thems will only grow.
June is walking a very fine line – the Handmaids are the most closely guarded women in Gilead. Sure, you can replace a Martha, you can replace an of the Econo women, you can replace women working in the Colonies – but it’s harder to replace a fertile Handmaid. Not only are they watched and guarded, they’re also treated like non-people – the only thing they’re good for are their wombs. But that’s extremely important! June is using that position – having few duties in a household, expected to be seen and not heard, as a way to move quietly through the system, but able to say more to the men who have been intimate with her than other women in this caste system. She questions Fred, she questions Lawrence, she has to show “proper deference” when in public and around other Commanders, but knows that her value to Gilead gives her some latitude in private.
And she takes advantage of that in these episodes – jumping into the escape effort for the Martha, looking for ways to survive and get her way with her old and new Commanders. She knows family secrets – if she goes down, they go down. She lashes out at Lawrence after he says she edited books nobody wanted to read, and gets away with speaking to him like that.
It must be scary, knowing if nobody had ever read your books, we would all be better off. Scary seeing numbers in your binder become real women.
But Lawrence shows her just how scary it really is, and brings her into his circle of hell – making her responsible for selecting five out of hundreds of women to be saved from the Colonies, a certain death sentence, and brought into Gilead households. How can she make this choice? At first, she can’t. How can she make this “Sophie’s choice”? Which women does she save, which does she leave behind? And finally, June has a revelation – Lawrence, who has secretly acted on behalf of the women in his household, and by nixing salvagings – mass killings – in favor of using these women as “economic tools,” is giving June a chance to benefit not only the women she can save, but the Resistance as well. And so she chooses – not good cooks or housekeepers, but an engineer, an IT specialist, a journalist, a lawyer, a thief. All useful, in their own way, to the Resistance. She’s learning – listen to what isn’t being said, look through to what is actually being done, and act on it. If she can continue to walk that very fine line, she might survive.
June and Nick have an interesting moment – he comes to say goodbye as he expects to be deployed to the front – Chicago (my hometown, makes this a little too real) – and they have a little more than a handshake. Could June get pregnant from this encounter? We already know Nick is capable, unlike many of the men we see in Gilead. Lawrence would know for a fact that this isn’t his child – would he overlook that? What would another pregnancy do to June’s mental health and to her ability and her need to help the Resistance?
As much as I’m fascinated by Serena and repulsed by Fred, it’s Commander Lawrence who truly catches my eye. Who is this guy? We saw him last season, taking in a known damaged Handmaid, telling Emily that they don’t perform the Ceremony in his house, making sure she escapes when he could just as easily have turned her over for attacking (not, as we thought, murdering) Aunt Lydia. He’s one of Gilead’s architects, but doesn’t seem to be a believer in its most extreme tenets. He is obviously a misogynist – and not just in public, saying that women are like children, terrifying his Marthas but doting on his wife – but he looks for ways to quietly keep as many women alive as he can. He makes decisions that seem like they’re in the best interest of Gilead, but really are geared toward preventing killing women – saying they have value as commodities, as potential Handmaids, as Colony workers. He says it quietly, but with authority as a leader, and his choice is accepted as law.
He has no hesitation in humiliating June during the meeting with the Commanders – knowing that Handmaids are not allowed to read, he tells her to fetch a book for him. When she – rightly – hesitates, he explains, as he would to a child, how to find the book he wants. But could this have been by design? The book is sitting among several with his name as the author on the shelf – could he have been showing her, “this was my role in Gilead, I want you to see that I’m not the quasi-religious freak these other guys are”? He treats her in a mocking and condescending way – making her kneel to hand the book to him. For show? Because he believes that women are really beneath him? He does say that they have some value – “they can be fun,” he says to the laughter of the group. Is he trying to tell her things that he can’t just say out loud?
What is his relationship with his wife? Is she, as we suspect from last season, delicate mentally? Anxious? Did she lose a child at some point? Does she not want anything to do with Gilead, but trusts her husband to do what he can behind the scenes? She has moments of lucidity – when she distracts the Guardians from the blood smear on the wall, when she covers up June’s hastily dug grave for the dead Martha by planting flowers. Lawrence is solicitous and tender toward her, calling her “my love”; protective in yelling at the staff not to talk about her. It’s a strange, mysterious relationship, one I hope they’ll explore more. (There is an article going around just now – even though it’s from last season – speculating that Lawrence is a closeted gay man, and this “wife” is really a beard to keep him from having to prove his heterosexuality in any other way – personally, I don’t see it. But form your own opinion.)
My take? I think Lawrence is a brilliant man who saw the economy of the United States threatened by environmental and population threats, and in an academic way, formulated a strategy to turn it around. Picked up by men who maybe originally had a Biblical ideal (and maybe just saw the Biblical model as a way to impose male domination over what they saw as “uppity” women), it became the financial basis and justification for the violence that birthed Gilead. But he never expected it to go as far as it did, and as much as he disdains women and doesn’t believe in their equality, he certainly doesn’t believe in making them slaves, either. In order to personally survive and try to assuage his guilt at his role in this terrifying new world, he is doing what he can behind the scenes.
And he definitely has guilt over his role – the most telling line came after June came too close to the truth, with how frightening it must be to see his theories become numbers of dead women. “How tempting it is to invent a humanity for anyone at all,” he tells her – whose humanity is he questioning? I believe it’s his own, after all these years of seeing what became of ideas. I think Commander Lawrence will continue to be a pivotal, enigmatic force within the Handmaid’s Tale, and possibly the most power ally that June can find to help her survive.
Meanwhile, in Canada
A quick note about the Canada contingent. Emily has made it, but is having a very hard time integrating. Of course she is! She’s been through so much – ripped from her family, forced to become a Handmaid, killing the Guardian by running him over, sent to the Colonies, killing a Commander’s wife there, sent back to Gilead – she’s thoroughly traumatized. How can she find her way back? Finally, in the third episode, she calls her wife – can that relationship survive?
Luke and Moira – she seems to be managing a bit better, but she always, from the first time we met, seemed to be a very strong and resilient woman. Her mission now is caring for everyone around her, at the cost of her own self-care. She banters with Luke that if she didn’t have to take care of baby Nicole at night, she might be waking up with “some pretty,” but she’s tried to put herself out there, and couldn’t do it yet. She has her own demons to tame yet, and I think we haven’t seen her work through all the stages of grief yet. Luke is definitely confused by his feelings for this baby – yes, it’s June’s, but not his, born from a situation where he couldn’t protect her, where he couldn’t do his duty as a man and keep her from being brutalized. But who can resist the lure of a sweet baby face, from the complete and utter dependence an infant has on the adults around it? Maybe this child will help Luke recover and find his purpose.
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