Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episodes 1-9.
When Esther, a 14-year-old child being sexually abused by her elderly ‘husband’ and others he invites to assault her says “maybe there are no good men in Gilead,” it’s hard to argue. In season four of The Handmaid’s Tale, June gently tells her that she thinks there are good men everywhere. “It’s just complicated. Gilead makes it hard to be good.”
June’s right on all counts. For all Gilead’s performative piety, goodness is not something it values. The regime inculcates cruelty and precludes solidarity. In the aftermath of its bloody power-grab, dissenters were wiped out and disobedience became punishable by death. Anybody who’s survived to this point – seven years in by season four – has found a way to live with unconscionable things, either as a prisoner of Gilead or a collaborator in its brutality… Or, like Joseph Lawrence, as both.
Bradley Whitford’s character is a keystone in Gilead’s edifice. He’s part of its ruling Commander class, and the head of a wealthy household. An economist, he co-designed Gilead’s mechanism, and has a hand in its foreign and domestic policy, law, security and international trade. His books on the infertility crisis and export economics prior to the coup were a major influence on the formation of the Handmaid system. His work legitimised a process by which women and girls had their rights stripped away, and were imprisoned and raped to reverse the national drop in birth rate. Measured strictly by the birth rate metric, it’s a successful system. Evaluated on a moral basis, it’s less of a winner.
Commander Lawrence isn’t an amoral character, nor is he a villain on The Handmaid’s Tale. In season four, both Nick and June explicitly tell him that he’s a good man, and relative to the other Commanders (the lowest of low bars), they’re right. On several occasions, Lawrence’s arrow has pointed to decency. He was devoted to his wife Eleanor before she took her own life, he didn’t force his Handmaids to take part in ‘The Ceremony’, and he arranged the means of Emily’s escape to Canada. He helped June too, by turning a blind eye to the Mayday network operating out of his home, and facilitating her rescue of 86 children.
Yet elsewhere, Lawrence seems to hover above the realm of right and wrong, as a pragmatist with no compunction about causing harm if it achieves a given goal. He backed air strikes on Chicago that were guaranteed to kill civilians, he offered Janine up to Aunt Lydia as sacrificial chew toy on which to work out her sadistic urges. And though personally he would never lay a finger on 14-year-old Esther, as one of the architects of the process that enables her continued abuse, and that of countless other women and girls, he’s responsible for that too. Outside of Gilead, as Eleanor explained to June in season three as the reason they couldn’t leave, Lawrence would be tried as a war criminal.
Is Lawrence eaten up by guilt on the inside? His casual, offhand demeanour doesn’t suggest so, but actor Bradley Whitford’s performance leaves space for interpretation. When Aunt Lydia demanded personal custody of June should she be recaptured, Lawrence agreed despite knowing how barbaric Lydia’s punishments would be, saying, “I can live with that.” He’s been living with with a lot, it seems, including the knowledge that he helped to create the system that destroyed his beloved wife’s sanity.
Every so often, Whitford allows real feeling to invade Lawrence’s ironic, breezy tone. In season four, episode three, Lawrence tells Nick to move on from June. When Nick says he can’t, the Commander says “I know” in a way that tells us he also can’t move on from the loss of his wife. At the end of a phone call with June in episode nine, Lawrence tells her the same thing about her daughter Hannah. Try to be grateful you’re free and move on, he says, before hanging up and gently adding, “If you can.” One of the Commanders’ mistakes in creating the Handmaid system, Lawrence once told June, was in failing to take maternal love into account. However detached he appears, love is something that Commander Lawrence seems to understand now.
In summary, the character is a mass of contradiction, which makes him unpredictable, great to watch and no doubt great to play. Lawrence’s season four arc started in custody as he awaited punishment for June’s mass child break-out having happened on his watch. Thanks to Nick, he was granted a stay of execution. Having survived what he’d assumed would be his death, there’s now a sense of devil-may-care fearlessness about Lawrence. He’s already lost Eleanor, he almost lost his life… what does he have to lose now?
That could explain the risky alliance Lawrence forged with Aunt Lydia this season. She blackmailed him over his transgressions to get reinstated at the head of the Red Centre, and he used her dirt on the other Commanders to get back onto the Council. His pitch to Aunt Lydia was, “Let’s fix this country, let’s make things right again, together.” Were those words simply designed to appeal to Lydia’s patriotism, or is he truly on a mission? And if so, what is it? Does he want Gilead to prosper or to fall? And does the audience want to see him punished or redeemed?
So far, Lawrence’s cards have been played very close to his chest. He could equally be working to ensure Gilead thrives, or secretly pulling levers to bring the whole thing crashing down. He might be a clandestine ally to June and the Canadians, or – as Luke describes him in episode nine – just an asshole. He’s most likely both. What Commander Lawrence isn’t, thanks to Whitford’s layered performance and this team of writers and directors, is simple or clichéd. He’s a complicated creation who feels at this point as though he could genuinely go either way. A good man in Gilead? Perhaps. Or at least one trying to atone for past wrongs.
The Handmaid’s Tale season four is streaming now on Hulu in the US. Season four is airing weekly on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK.