The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 5
You’ve heard the one about the scorpion and the frog? It’s a bleak but savvy fable about the kind of harm done by instinct, even when it’s against the best interests of the perpetrator.
There’s this scorpion see, we’ll call her Serena. She wants to cross a river, so asks a frog named June if she can ride on her back. Now, June’s wary of this plan. She’s concerned that Serena may sting her but Serena tells June not to be ridiculous. If she were to sting her mid-river, they’d both die. June sees her point, and off they go. Halfway along, Serena slams her sting into June’s back, and seconds before they both perish says “What did you expect? You knew I was a scorpion.”
What did we expect? We knew that Serena was a Wife of Gilead. We knew the cruelty of which she was capable. And we knew that her decision to send Nichole away from danger, to somewhere the child wouldn’t lose a finger every time she sang The Alphabet Song, was the anomaly. Serena’s betrayal was in her nature. You’d have to be a fool to expect otherwise.
A fool, or in a position like June’s, with no choice where to place your trust. June could no more refuse the Waterfords’ request than she could strut out of the Lawrence house and hail a cab to Canada. When she was given their word that everybody would be kept safe in the Toronto airport plan, she had no alternative but to take it and hope. Humanity from the Waterfords? Some hope.
“Unknown Caller” gave this season its first unhappy ending and our first hint that June’s resistance arc isn’t going to be a steady ascent. For four episodes, we’ve watched alliances made and risks survived. It’s been victory after victory, reason to hope after hope. Now, we’re back to the gut-clenching status quo: June livid and powerless, Serena and Fred presenting a united front as a poster couple for Gilead.
It’s movement at least. Gratifying as season three’s victories have been to watch after the brutality of season two, the story has inched along at a crawl these past weeks. Though the latest of the Waterfords’ low blows comes as no surprise, it’s a dramatic turn that rearranges the pieces. To judge by the veins popping in June’s forehead in that final clenched-fist close-up, her tentative alliance with her rapists is over and they’re back on opposite sides in this war – a point underlined by U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” this episode’s closing battle cry.
The Lawrence mix-tape memories also involved music-as-message. Back when the Commander was just plain old Joseph Lawrence, he used songs to express his love for Eleanor. Empathetic and fragile, she was clearly an unwilling passenger on his route to Gilead, while it’s still hard to gauge his position on the new regime. This episode showed the pair of them looking fondly back to the past – Mrs Lawrence with the cassettes and Commander Lawrence complimenting her hair for looking “like it used to.”
June urging Mrs Lawrence to hold on to the sliver of the man who made those tapes – words that bore fruit when she saw the pair listening to that old song together – felt like more than simply kindness. As Commander Lawrence shrewdly pointed out last week, June is a transactional person, and recently, she’s also been a teacher. She taught Serena the pain of mothers being separated from their children by taking away Nichole. Perhaps by encouraging Mrs Lawrence to build a bridge to the past, June is hoping to rehumanise the flippant, unreadable mass that is Commander Lawrence. Play the man enough Nick Lowe and maybe he’ll admit where he stands on Gilead. Is it “we” or “they”?
Luke made his position on Gilead abundantly clear this episode, in which O-T Fagbenle capably bore the weight of his scenes, especially his moving wordless reaction to June’s cassette tape confession that Nichole wasn’t born as a result of rape, but of love.
On the same subject, Ofmatthew – another of this season’s enigmas – is now expecting baby number four. Marissa Jo Cerar’s script hinted that there’s more to June’s walking partner than unlikeable piety – Ashleigh LaThrop’s character is another mystery to solve.
Despite consistently good work from Yvonne Strahovski, Serena is a mystery few will have the patience to solve. Just when all signs pointed to her rebellion, she dug her heels in to Gilead’s soil. Like June, she was given the option of escape, but refused. Unlike June, she doesn’t have Hannah as an excuse. When Serena told Mr Treason and Coconuts for the second time that she only had one home, hope of her turning to the resistance dissipated. Was she genuinely appeased by Fred giving her a seat at the table at the Sons of Jacob meeting? (“She’s up to date on her vaccinations” – note that even Gilead’s ruling classes aren’t dumb enough to be anti-vaxxers). Were we just being led on about Serena’s burgeoning resistance?
In some versions of that scorpion story, by the way, it’s not a frog, but a tortoise. The shell protects it from the sting, and as punishment for the scorpion’s betrayal, the tortoise tips it into the water and watches as the hateful creature sinks to the riverbed and drowns.
Just an idea.