The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 3
June Osborne never used to be an activist. Pre-Gilead, she led a bourgeois life: college, marriage to a man, a nice apartment, a job in publishing. To her firebrand mother’s disappointment, June didn’t protest or organize. She sleepwalked into Gilead, not realizing that her freedom was something that could be taken away until it had already gone.
Post-Gilead, June is an agent of the resistance. It took considerably more than the usual undergrad module or Crass LP to kick-start her political activism, but it happened, and season three is all about watching that activism at work.
This episode, in which June was visited by three ghosts of Gilead past – Fred, Nick and Serena – and tussled with the inconstant, indecipherable Commander Lawrence, ended with June promising the patriarchy that she was coming for it; they all were, the waiting, watching women of Gilead. In an hour that reflected on how to assess a person’s use in society, June announced that hers would be in burning it to the ground. Who’s useless now?
Serena also made a resolution during that self-baptism in her own River Jordan. We weren’t told what it was, but her discarding the finger strap suggested that was no longer prepared to cover up Gilead’s ugliness.
There was plenty of that on display in “Useful.” From the creaking gibbets and swinging corpses of the opening scene to the caged Chicagoan women at the end, the regime was in full operation. And at the head of that operation, armed with his “binders full of women,” is June’s new Commander.
What is Commander Lawrence? Fred Waterford described him as “a bit hard to read,” much as one might describe Aunt Lydia as “a bit grouchy.” Is he a pragmatist? Game-player? Psychopath? Try sadist. His humiliation of June during that Descent Of Man scene was just that.
The Handmaid’s Tale is such an iconic role for Elisabeth Moss that it’s long overwritten her “Peggy from Mad Men“ tag, but this episode’s drinks-pouring scene brought her old show rushing back. Moss as the only woman in a room of boozing, cigar-smoking, swaggering men, humiliated for their entertainment and followed out by a ripple of laughter at a joke made at her expense? It was pure Mad Men, the only difference being the level of threat. In the 1960s, Peggy was forced to hold her tongue so as not to get fired; in Gilead, June has to do it so as not to get killed.
That wasn’t the episode’s only Mad Men moment. Fred’s hagiographic speech to Serena being revealed as nothing more than a pitch rehearsed in front of an anonymous “Jezebel” in a red-lit hotel room was a move cynical enough to have come from Don Draper himself. “I may not be a perfect man but I will try to be better.” Please.
Fred was closer to the mark with “If I lose you, I lose everything.” That at least was true. He’s not fighting to save his marriage, but to save himself. Status in Gilead’s ruling classes is directly linked to family. With a Wife, Fred is a Commander. With a Wife and a child, he’s a Commander with a big office and stars on his uniform. With a rebellious Wife, he’s demoted. And with neither wife nor child, he’s nothing.
Serena’s status in Gilead too, relies on her marriage. As her mother (Laila Robins) chided her, “there’s no place in this world for you without Fred.” Harsh but true. To survive Gilead, the Waterfords need each other.
“Useful” was all about surviving Gilead, and the alliances required to do so. Just as June did when she recruited allies to protect her baby in last season’s episode “Smart Power,” here she tried everything she could to understand what makes Commander Lawrence tick.
Putting aside his humiliating treatment of June and Sienna this episode, is there a way Lawrence’s actions might be interpreted as… humanitarian? He nixed the bombing plan, thereby saving lives. He stopped the Salvagings, and “saved” five of the Chicago women by appointing them as Marthas. The question lies in his motivation. Were all those measures simply the work of a cold-hearted pragmatist? (“There’s value to be mined there. Children, fertile women.”) Or is he doing what little he can to help?
When Lawrence set June the dreadful task of choosing which five women to save from a radiation-poisoning death, was it to torment or train her? By recruiting five workers for the resistance, did June subvert or fulfil his expectations? He instructed her to “choose the best people for the job,” but which job did he have in mind? That puzzle continues.
Directed by Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom) and written by Yahlin Chang, “Useful” was a tightly themed episode. Once again there were no flashbacks, though the visit to Serena’s mother, served as one by suggesting an origin story for Mrs Waterford.
How is a Serena Joy made? With maternal praise only for beauty and conversational ability, as if a woman is ornament and adjunct. With the veneration of status above all else. With patriarchal fundamentalism. With humiliating betrayals of intimacy. With the belief that the public face of a marriage means more than the private. And with cruelty. That’s the recipe.
None of that though, means that Serena can’t now remake herself. If the scales really have fallen from Serena’s eyes, she has the potential to be a powerful ally. Like this season, which has found new ways to fascinate without miring its audience in utter misery, people change. After all, June Osborne never used to be an activist.