The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 11
“Ice queen.” Hostage negotiator. “I trust June, she keeps her cool.” Steadily, this episode nudged us towards an image of June as imperturbable, someone who can keep her head when all around are losing theirs. When Eleanor held Joseph at gunpoint, June counselled the need for self-control. When the Lawrences left her in the lurch, June kept her shit together and devised a new plan. Everything before the events at Jezebels assured us that when she laid down on that bed, June would steel herself and endure Winslow’s sick punishment.
All the better to surprise us with.
“Liars” was built on surprise: Eleanor’s gun, the Lawrences’ escape and subsequent return, the appearance of High Commander Winslow, and the Louboutin kick June gave him to the face … Yahlin Chang’s script went from swerve to swerve, keeping up the pace and pushing the plot onwards.
The episode also ended with one of the series’ most energizing sequences yet. As Kate Bush made a return to the soundtrack, director Deniz Gamze Ergun (Mustangs) gave us a rousing montage that reframed domestic work as an act of resistance. Tidying, scrubbing, making beds … the Marthas coolly carried out their duties not in service of Gilead, but in rebellion against it. They arranged flowers, smoothed sheets, cleaned carpets and calmly fed a man’s corpse into an incinerator – not forgetting to leave a chocolate on the pillow as a final touch.
I say ‘man’, but Winslow was really Gilead personified – a golem sculpted from its misogyny, sadism and hypocrisy. From the Commander who presided over the literal sewing shut of women’s mouths, his sadism shouldn’t have come as a shock, nor should his presence at that assault den, Jezebels (even the arty room dividers come with hidden Swastikas – did you see?). Winslow’s plea of “My children” as June loomed over him, a mighty, bloody avenger, elicited no sympathy. After the degradation of Jezebels and that distressing fight scene, watching a symbol of Gilead’s corrupt masculinity disappear into the flames was a triumph.
It was one of two triumphs this episode, the other being the fall of Fred Waterford. (Just in case he didn’t already come across as enough of an arsehole, The Handmaid’s Tale was good enough to accessorize Misogyny Ken with dickhead shades and a Mercedes convertible for the occasion.)
The schadenfreude of Fred’s arrest would have been easier to enjoy had it not come with a mystery to solve. In a humanizing moment as he was led away, Fred protested that Serena hadn’t done anything wrong, but is she as innocent as he thinks?
In general terms, of course not, but in this specific case? Did Serena mastermind Fred’s arrest, sacrificing her worm of a husband in exchange for immunity and access to Nichole? If so, at what point did she switch sides, and how long has she been playing him? Since DC? Since the ballroom dance? Since he forced Joseph to rape June, thus setting off a bomb in the Lawrence marriage?
Fred and Serena’s road trip scenes being an act of carefully pitched ambiguity, we can’t yet know. Yvonne Strahovski’s performance was so finely balanced that at any given point it was possible to read her as reconnecting with her husband or saying goodbye to him.
Fred said all the right things in that conversation – admitting to his infertility for what seems like the first time, saying he doesn’t give a damn about the Winslows, he doesn’t need pomp and status, he doesn’t want to miss their daughter growing up … but the carefully inserted reminder that he used to be in marketing felt as though it was there to undermine it all. Commander Waterford is a PR professional; his words are like water.
Our best clue that Serena has switched the horse she’s backing mid-race was the resentment and pain in her question, “How could you take that away from me?” when the couple were nostalgically discussing her once-burgeoning writing career. (Oh, the tellingly casual sexism of that “You were trying to fatten me up”/“I didn’t want other men looking at you” exchange). That accusation was the moment it felt impossible for her to have forgiven him. Fred may come to regret having put Serena in the driving seat.
Between Winslow’s murder, Lawrence losing his grip and Waterford’s arrest, thrillingly, Gilead’s Commanders are crumbling like chalk. Hallelujah and Godspeed.