The Handmaid’s Tale has long alluded to various efforts of resistance and subterfuge, going all the way back to that package of letters June carried from the butcher in Season 1. While there’s clearly a more militant Mayday armed resistance responsible for actions like the handmaid suicide bomber last season, the Marthas have been rumored to be an effective underground network all their own.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 has shown us more of that Martha network than ever before, with June even going undercover as a Martha in Episode 3, appropriately titled “Mary and Martha.” Before this season started, we spoke to several of the stars about it, including our (and the Waterfords’) favorite Martha, Amanda Brugel, who plays Rita.
Who are the Marthas?
First, some background. Marthas are Gilead’s servants, doing all of the cooking and cleaning necessary to maintain the homes of the elites, the Commanders and their wives. They’re women who haven’t done anything the Sons of Jacob deem horrible enough to be “un-women,” like being LGBTQ or holding on to another faith, but they can no longer carry a pregnancy to term. Some, like Rita, have had children in the past who have passed away.
The term itself is a biblical allusion, from the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus visits a home where one sister, Mary, listens at his feet, while the other – Martha – cleans the house and complains to Jesus about her unhelpful sister. Careful sleuths figured this out long ago, but the show confirmed the provenance of the term Martha with the Season 3 episode title “Mary and Martha.” Their brother also happens to be Lazarus – yes, the rising-from-the-dead Lazarus – but that’s not relevant to this story.
Interestingly, Jesus responds by saying that Mary has the right idea, implying that listening to his teachings is the way to go, not worrying about how clean the house is. As usual, the Sons of Jacob interpreted the Bible in a way that is as damaging as possible for the majority of women while elevating a small subset of women. It would seem that in their minds, only Wives get to be like Mary and enjoy leisurely activities, while Marthas are meant to toil away.
Some interpret the name of Mary to be a reference to Mary Magdalene and her profession of sex work, even though most Biblical scholars agree that Martha and Lazarus’s sister Mary and Mary Magdalene were two different characters. But for the purposes of The Handmaid’s Tale, it certainly sets up a useful parallel, given how the Marthas are typically distrustful and sometimes even judgmental of the handmaids. We’ve seen Marthas call handmaids whores and resent their relative freedom of movement and lack of chores, while conveniently forgetting that the ceremony exists.
What is it like playing the most famous Martha? Brugel says, “It felt like a huge responsibility at the beginning because I was the lone representative of the Marthas. Like sometimes you would see people and there was Hannah’s Martha, but I think that everyone thought that Marthas have the one personality – and that’s Rita, and I love that we’re getting to know them as individuals. There’s the Martha Beth and the Martha Sienna, and a bunch of other Marthas that come up and so I love that these voiceless women are all getting finally a voice.”
Why Marthas make the perfect spies.
The real MVPs of last season, the Marthas helped June escape with Holly/Nichole. The Martha network has been hinted at for a long time, but this is the most directly we’ve ever seen them in action, and the biggest swing we’ve seen them take. Not surprisingly, June was concerned that she might have burned that bridge by staying in Gilead to save Hannah, as Nick pointed out in the season 3 premiere, even if he didn’t name the Marthas specifically.
To remedy that (and likely also because she now knows just how powerful they are), June has made it a point to cozy up with Marthas whenever possible, including the multiple Marthas in Commander Lawrence’s household.
While Handmaids are watched like hawks due to their value as fertile women, Marthas blend into the background. Handmaids are made to wear red in a gesture that’s both symbolic (Gilead thought The Scarlet Letter was too subtle) but pragmatic, since their red clothing makes them easy to spot and their white bonnets make it hard for them to see what’s going on. They’re always watched but have a hard time observing others.
Marthas, on the other hand, wear a drab green that can almost look grey on screen, and are meant to fade into the background. So much so that actor Amanda Brugel felt almost invisible on set. She told Den of Geek, “The first season when I first put the costume on, people kept bumping into me on set, like all the time. And I was like, I am six feet tall. How do you not see me? And it really, as an actor with an ego (laughs) it really affected me. Because I was like ‘im standing right here!’ but it really helped.
“It helped inform my physicality. It really helped inform how I felt and therefore how I communicated with my body, so it was really helpful. It was really helpful to be able to find her, and to be able to find how that feels. Because I don’t have a lot of text to be able to communicate how I feel. So I can do it through physicality and the costumes. Even the slightest movement helped to be able to convey to the audience how invisible I felt.”
The Martha’s use that invisibility their advantage when it comes to spycraft, passing notes as they go about their chores and listening in on conversations because no one important even realizes they’re in the room. For those who watch Killing Eve, it’s a move reminiscent of the Season 2 assassin The Ghost.
As Brugel said of Rita in the Waterford household, “Being in that house and being sort of the undetected lone observer, I think she’s had opportunity more and more to watch people, watch their intentions.”
An old friend returned this season: Beth, the Martha from the kitchen at Jezebel’s , is stationed at Commander Lawrence’s house. When we previously saw her in Season 2, Beth and Nick had a friends-with-benefits relationship, and traded contraband like liquor, pregnancy tests, and information.
Max Minghella, who plays Nick, told Den of Geek, “I was thrilled. Kristen, who plays Beth, is really quite a special actor…She just had a big effect on everybody on the crew [back in season 1]. Everyone was extremely impressed by her. And she only had a couple little scenes to do, I think in the first season, but really kind of made an impact and really brought a lot of pathos to it.”
Minghella continued: “So I wasn’t surprised at all to see that she’s really going to become a very, very significant part of season 3. It’s very clever I think.”
Beth knew Nick was an Eye and she let him know that no one at Jezebel’s had rebellion on their mind. Their exchange implied that he wasn’t acting entirely off-books. Rather, it seems the Eyes don’t mind if there are some illicit substances in Gilead, so long as it’s with their knowledge/control. The intelligence wing of the Sons of Jacob, the Eyes will look the other way in exchange for information, as evidenced by their stance on the existence of Jezebel’s.
So what exactly happened between then and Season 3, when we see Beth taking a rather active role in helping her fellow Marthas move people in order to help the resistance? We don’t know for sure, but one possibility is that being in Commander Lawrence’s house radicalized Beth.
Another prospect is that she was always involved in the Martha network but didn’t trust Nick – after all, this is Gilead and he’s an Eye. Of course, it could have simply been time, and the way Gilead wears on people. Hopefully, we’ll soon get a Beth-centric episode to see her past as a James Beard award-winning chef and her path within Gilead.
June working with the Martha Network
This season, we’ve seen June work more deliberately with the Martha Network, both to redeem her credibility after they worked so hard to get her out of Gilead and she stayed, and in the hope that they will help her rescue Hannah.
June’s first foray into helping the Marthas came about in Commander Lawrence’s home when she convinced him to let a Martha stay while she was in transit. Unfortunately it blew up in June’s face when the Martha returned with an injured compatriot who ended up dying, but June at least proved her loyalty to the Marthas. Later, when Commander Lawrence challenged her to select replacements and she chose people who would be helpful to the resistance, she won him over in addition to making a strategic move.
But not all of June’s attempts have been successful, as we saw with the recent death of Hannah’s Martha, who told June that Hannah’s school is in Brookline and how to see her. While we now know that it was Ofmatthew who snitched to the Aunts, there was a crackdown on Marthas and it would be easy for them to blame June or handmaids in general.
What would Rita think of all these risks June is taking, especially now that they’ve become so close? “I think she would think that she’s crazy. I think a lot of people expect Rita to be like the person behind the [resistance].” But so far, other than a few small moments like helping with the letters June left behind or the tapes she wanted to get to Luke, both of which were more favors to June than moments of revolution, Rita doesn’t seem ready for resistance.
“I think Rita would just tell her friend to just shut up and just stop. I think that she doesn’t have the bravery that June does…She doesn’t have the drive to escape because she doesn’t have anyone else. She doesn’t have a Hannah, she doesn’t have a Luke. Everyone within her life is gone. I think from her perspective, June’s constant rebellion is confusing and it’s hazardous, and she just wants June to stay because if June leaves it’s yet another person who will have left her behind.”
Given how many lives June has endangered lately, Rita might not be the only one.
Delia Harrington a freelance writer and photographer focusing on social justice and pop culture through a feminist lens. She loves post-apocalyptic sci-fi, historical fiction, and feminist comic books. You can follow Delia @deliamary.