The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 episode 9 review: Smart Power

Serena’s position is once again explored to good effect in the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

2.9 Smart Power

In international relations, hard power means force, soft power means persuasion, and smart power—the title of this episode—means forging advantageous alliances. That’s what June did this week in an attempt to arrange protection for her baby’s future. It’s what the Commander attempted to do on his failed diplomatic visit to Canada. 

For viewers here in the UK, the timing of the Waterfords’ trip could hardly have been more apt. While our news was filled with images of a visiting dignitary, his silent wife, and the crowds who turned out to protest their regime, the very same played out in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fred Waterford even took a swipe at the “misinformation” spread by a media that “doesn’t care much about the truth”. Who could rightly say whether or not Melania Trump was met by an agent in the hotel bar and offered a flight to Honolulu during her time here, but art and life continue to be hard to dissect where this show’s concerned.

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Making Serena the focus of the last few episodes has been season two’s most productive move. By now, it’s no stretch for us to understand June. She’s our hero—a  prisoner, rebel, and dropper of mics in her badass inner monologue. To understand Serena though, to stare into that impassive face and try to understand what it feels like to be her and to have done what she’s done… surely making that kind of empathetic leap is the whole point of fiction. 

In the same way that Madeline Brewer’s presence in a scene adds a frisson of tension because Janine’s wiring seems to have fused the self-preservation instinct required to survive Gilead, Serena has become fascinatingly unpredictable. We know now enough about the two Serenas—the private one who breaks the law and hates to knit and the public one who walks three steps behind her husband and colludes in genocide—to wonder which is going to emerge at any given time. Who could honestly say they knew for certain which way Serena would swing when pitched the “treason and coconuts” offer? 

After all, we’d seen the look on her face as the car took her through Toronto city centre. That woman wasn’t seeing Sodom or Gomorrah—she was looking through a window into the freedom of her past. 

At least, that’s what I think she was seeing. Did I imagine her nostalgic memories of chatting to colleagues on a busy work day or kissing a lover in the open air? Or the wince of humiliation when she was presented with the pictogram trip itinerary? In an episode about accepting, and then doing, the impossible, perhaps truly understanding a character like Serena is exactly that: impossible.

One thing we do know is that whatever transgressions Serena makes against Gilead, she always ends up reverting to the mean (pun intended). Each step she took towards treating June like a person rather than a walking incubator was followed by two steps back. The kinship the pair almost reached during the Commander’s recovery disappeared after that beating. Disenfranchised, Serena snapped back to her former rigidity, and callously delivered the news that as soon as the baby was born, June would be surplus to requirements

June took the news like a punch. Then, ever resilient, she began to formulate a plan. If she wasn’t going to be around, this baby was going to need protection from elsewhere. First Rita was enlisted, then an even unlikelier ally: Aunt Lydia. Each agreed to do what they could within their own “reduced circumstances” (When Lydia’s flashback episode finally comes, you just know it’s going to be killer).

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June opened the episode with fatalism but—inspired by Moira—she closed it with courage. “I know I should accept the reality of you being born here, make my peace…” she told her baby (always a ‘she’ when June talks about her, always a ‘he’ when the Commander does), “but fuck that.”

Drop the mic. Drop the beat. The fight goes on.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Women’s Work, here.