The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 2
One swallow does not a summer make, and two data points don’t form a trend, but bugger me if that wasn’t another hopeful episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Admittedly, it involved June taking a cattle prod shock to the gut and hand-burying a murder victim in the frozen ground, but around the edge were victories.
These victories were less dramatic and more domestic than last week’s border crossing: Flowers were planted on a grave. Emily made a phone call. Luke kissed his step-daughter. And a Martha brought a Handmaid a tub of ointment. Each of these small acts though, signified unity. To a regime like Gilead, which thrives on division, unity is a weapon.
As is empathy. Gilead relies on stamping both out and drawing stark divisions between people, for good reason. Humans instinctively mistrust outsiders. We resent what we perceive as other people’s privilege and status. If you’re trying to subjugate a population, giving everybody separate color-coded labels is a good place to start. See also: cattle prods.
(Being in the same color-coded group is no guarantee of neighborliness, of course. June’s new walking partner –read: spy –seems to have been specially selected for her loyalty to the regime. That bug was squashed with a few smart words, another of this episode’s miniature triumphs.)
June’s major victory this episode was in muddying up Gilead’s color-coding by crossing a social border. Stumbling upon Beth, Cora and Alison in the kitchen, she spied an opportunity to fight and by the end of the hour, had proved herself a useful soldier in the resistance army. Marthas don’t trust Handmaids? Now Beth trusts June. It’s a start.
There were more barriers broken in the Canadian stories, which showed characteristic emotional wisdom. Crossing that river was the simple part for Emily. Now she has to rescue herself from the ruins of what Gilead did to her. Luke too, was bound to have ambivalent feelings about Nichole, his wife’s baby but not his own, whose very presence reminds him that he failed to save Hannah. Moira’s good sense helped them both, and their final scenes were both breakthroughs.
As the Canadian storylines develop, they serve the same valve-release purpose as the flashbacks did previously, offering fresh scenery and a new chattering soundscape to give us respite from the suffocation of Gilead.
Even in Gilead, the Lawrence house is another fresh setting. Its grandness and number of staff mark Joseph out as a man more powerful than Fred Waterford. It’s a different style of home too, rambling and disordered, the opposite to the Waterfords’ chillingly perfect show house. The Waterfords’ art is a symbol of their taste and wealth, while the art on the Lawrence walls is unframed, expressive and feels handmade. What does it tell us about its enigmatic owners?
If Beth and June are two soldiers now, they face an unpredictable and hazy enemy. Is the mercurial Commander Lawrence a threat or an ally? He’s earned a level of privacy, and uses it to fill his home with Gilead’s strays, but seems a reluctant rebel. Joseph Lawrence appears loving towards his wife but, as seen in his dismissal of Cora, callously unconcerned about others, and as seen in his explosion at June, can be ferocious.
Mrs. Lawrence (Julie Dretzin) is another question mark. Twice this episode, she showed herself to be a friend to the cause. Is her unspecified condition alleviated by or down to those red and white pills? The Lawrence enigma is season three’s best mystery.
Until now, the world of the Marthas has also been a mystery. Unlike the Handmaids, we haven’t visited their training centres, witnessed their rituals, or learned their state-directed mantras “God bless our labors,” apparently, and “Through work we’re cleansed” – Gilead’s take on “arbeit macht frei.”
(The Mary and Martha of the title, for info, refer to the Gospel of St Luke passage about Jesus visiting the home of two sisters, one of which – Mary – sat at his feet to listen to his teachings while the other – Martha – did all the housework alone. Instead of chiding Mary for laziness though, Jesus said she had her priorities straight and God’s wisdom was where it’s at. I’m paraphrasing.)
The underground network that carried out June and Nichole’s escape at the end of season two was our first glimpse of the rebels hiding in plain sight. While we were being told stories of Wives and Handmaids, the Marthas’ pale green dresses have blended in to the back of shot. As June remarks while in disguise this episode, Marthas are designed to be invisible.
Who better then, to form the resistance? Godspeed you, Breaking Bad. God bless your labors.