If last week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale achieved a milestone in that it finally got me to sympathize with Serena, “Smart Power” does something far more essential. It holds her accountable.
This happens through a very intense diplomatic trip to Canada. She goes because her husband Fred asks her to. It’s strictly for his own purposes of course, as Canadians (rightfully) believe Gilead’s women are oppressed and voiceless. Serena’s played a diplomatic role before in the first season where she hosted a foreign female ambassador, but that was on her ground, and thus on her terms. This trip is outside of her world at a time when she’s still reeling emotionally from her husband’s physical abuse. She’s felt disconnected from Fred for virtually the entire series, but now she is afraid of him.
It doesn’t make her sympathize any more with June, as she informs her she must leave their home soon after her child is born rather than waiting until the baby is weaned. With such an act of cruelty, it’s easy to relish the reaction of many Canadians to Serena, which range from forced politeness to fear to outright disdain. Just the simple act of looking out of the car window clearly fills her with longing and regret. People are engaging in actions that were once normal: walking down the street unescorted, displaying affection for their loved ones, or just looking at their phones. But such simple acts are no longer part of her everyday reality.
Moira and Luke-along with many other American refugees-also have strong feelings about the Waterfords’ visit, although their passions are directed at Fred. Moira became familiar with him during the time she was forced to work as a prostitute in Gilead, so she is able to tell Luke that the man who raped his wife is now in Canada. It leads to a series of confrontations few could have seen coming, with Luke not only calling out Waterford, but Moira making sure Fred sees her sign with her real name on it at their protests. But it is Moira who unnerves Fred far more. She is the one who forces him to realize that a woman he saw as a meek, disposable sex object managed to escape Gilead’s grasp.
The hostility Gilead provokes unnerves Serena, but not enough to try to atone for her actions. When a representative of the American government offers to fly her to Hawaii so she can share her story, she firmly rejects his offer, saying she would never betray her country. He quietly replies, “I thought you already did.” It’s a powerful statement, but an even more powerful one is yet to come from another unlikely, but far more fruitful meeting. Thankfully, there is one person in the Waterfords’ party who still has a heart and a conscience.
After seeing Luke, Nick seeks him out and turns over the packet containing testimonials of life in Gilead from various women. Luke and Moira then upload them to the Internet, which causes such a reaction that the Canadian government stops the talks and informs the Waterfords they are no longer welcome. When the prime minster tells Waterford, “We believe the women,” it shouldn’t be the episode’s most powerful moment. It shouldn’t be so revolutionary to take the word of so many women detailing their sufferings. But it is. One of the other female ministers even wonders aloud just how Serena lives with herself.
The truth is, Serena is too invested now, even with her happiness, her marriage, and her life in shambles. To publicly admit the culmination of her life’s work was not only a mistake, but a lie that has resulted in unspeakable harm to herself, her home, and its citizens, is too much for someone whose primary trait has always been selfishness.
June is somewhat sidelined, but she gets a few moments of her own back in Gilead. Her baby will arrive soon, and she seems resigned to the fact that her child will be raised in the toxic atmosphere that is the Waterford household. In order to provide some sense of safety and well-being, she reaches out to two very unlikely allies. One is Rita, whose prickliness and knowledge of her status in Gilead hasn’t prevented her from showing compassion to June. This shines through yet again when Rita agrees to do what she can to show what basic human kindness look like. The other is Aunt Lydia. A truly dangerous woman to be sure, but June also knows she could be her best bet to guard against the physical abuse Fred could very well indulge in. June also gets a kind of inspiration from Nick, who continues to do the best he can by the woman he loves. He not only passes along a message from Luke, he tells her Moira made it out. It’s a moment that should bring them closer, if the show wasn’t so ironically moralistic about marriage, even a forced one with a child bride.
It nevertheless makes June strive to get her child out of Gilead once again, but with the birth looking imminent, who knows if anything will come of this?