The Handmaid's Tale: 2x09 Smart Power.
June: That’s what I am now, my circumstances have been reduced. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones. I still have circumstances.
These are not small things. These are not things to be dismissed, these are things that are possible, in my reduced circumstances. This room, this house, the way to the store and back. Everything else is impossible. Hannah, Luke. A dive bar with great music. A really sharp machete. It does no good to want the impossible.
There are many people in Gilead who have very little power. This powerlessness is by design, a strategy to keep the Commanders in power in spite of their shortcomings and frequent failings. There is a hierarchy of powerlessness, from the Wives to the Marthas to the Handmaids, and Gilead has made good use of the tensions that this causes – carefully constructing a home in which women are less likely to help each other. There is also a whole mass of people that the show rarely shows, people like those who helped June when she escaped and paid so dearly for it, who are both socially and economically disadvantaged and live in a constant fear that keeps them complacent and quiet, apart from the few among them who somehow find the courage to save lives.
The great misconception that Gilead has is that these women it subjects have no power. Or maybe Gilead is well aware and so scared of that fact that it does everything to hide the fact that they still possess power from women. When he goes on his diplomatic trip to Canada, Commander Waterford needs Serena to come with him to be what June was a few months ago – proof that Gilead does not enslave women, proof that she is willingly subjugating herself, that she chose this role freely. It is a moment loaded with tension, after what Fred did to her to punish her – she flinches, she turns her back, she is pondering her situation deeply, and with new eyes. She is to serve as proof that women aren’t oppressed or voiceless, except she is now in the process of realising that this is exactly the world that she has helped create, that she is what she never wanted to be, a trophy wife for Gilead.
She still manages to put all of that frustration on June before she leaves – June who is in the third trimester. She tells her that she will have her leave the house as soon as the baby is born, instead of allowing her to wean the baby off as is customary. She says that it is for both of them, since they’re sick of each other, but that’s a deeply ironic statement, considering that it quite possibly signs a death warrant for June – who will either be asked to do the exact same thing again, for a different family, or be sent to the Colonies. It’s as much a direct threat as Serena can make, and maybe she is doing this because she thinks that June’s presence in the house is indirectly responsible for the complete breakdown of her marriage, for that completely skewed balance. In any case, that threat determines everything that June does from here on, because it puts a very clear end date on her attempts to protect her baby from Gilead.
The thing about smart power is that it does not contain any inherent idea about the amount of total power that is necessary, it’s more of a statement regarding the use of whatever tools are available to fit a particular situation. It’s a good title for this episode, as a lot of characters manoeuvre with whatever they have to achieve their goals – with varying results. Commander Waterford seems to be doing well to start off with, dealing with a country desperate to begin trading with its biggest and only neighbour again, a country that is desperately looking for ways it can disregard the blatant human rights abuses in that country. That’s why Serena is there – to give the Canadian government an excuse. She is welcomed with a schedule that contains pictographs instead of words and in the best moments through the episode, she regards this world with a sense of awe – a world that she has helped to change so profoundly in Gilead, that is still the same here across the border. Women talk about how much they work. Couples kiss on the street. All the while, she is made aware of the fact that here, she is a curiosity at best, a despised symbol of a tyranny at worst. A curious child looks at her and asks her if she is a princess, a horrified mother tries to get as much distance between herself and this woman who stands for a country in which women are condemned to a life she cannot imagine. She tries to connect with her hosts but is inevitably brought back to being a Gileadean specimen. Again, it’s hard to feel sorry for her, considering she was so instrumental in creating this in the first place, and she always seems smart enough to have been able to predict that it would end like this.
She regards this world that looks like the one she remembers. She goes to the hotel bar and orders “A Riesling by the glass, if you have it”, which must be pure nostalgia, an artefact from a life she once led in which women could walk up to bars and order alcoholic drinks, and would have one they favoured. A well-dressed man walks up next to her, orders a whiskey and lights a cigarette, as if he escaped from a world even older than the one she remembers. He offers a cigarette, and is then reprimanded for smoking inside, which is against policy (a truly great moment, considering). He then takes a seat next to Serena.
She knows what he is straight away. She knows the whole thing is a charade, that the first person who has approached her here as anything but a complete curiosity is doing so because it’s his job: this man is from the American government, which, as we find out here, actually does represent the remaining nation reduced to Hawaii. It’s the same government that, when Luke and Moira approached its representatives after finding out that they’d send the man who has repeatedly raped June, pretended to be utterly powerless and incapable of acting, as it could not influence the Canadian government to do anything, much less arrest Serena and Fred for their actions. The one thing people like Mark Tuello still can do is this – rely on the fact that Serena is what everyone assumes her to be, a hostage to a country has despises woman. Someone who will eagerly and willingly leave everything she knows behind for a new life in Hawaii. You would think that it would sound like a tempting offer, especially after what Serena has been through so recently, but Tuello doesn’t realise what an insult to her it is to say that the baby that June is carrying isn’t hers, that it is nothing to return to. And he is, of course, utterly wrong when he promises her a baby of her own after all the research about how the fertility crisis was caused by men, because Serena knows well that she isn’t able to have children (in fact it is astonishing that Tuello’s department wouldn’t have realised that). It is a tempting promise, to write her own story, to publish it, but Serena knows that she would only be the puppet for a different country, that he is asking her because he needs her for his own propaganda. As much as it is a promise of freedom, it is also an attempt to own her in a different way. So she goes back. She pockets his Hawaiian matchbox which, back in Gilead, may as well be from Mars.
Many other things happen, before she goes back. The home she will return now contains a desperate June who is trying to find a way to protect her baby in a future in which they will not live in the same house. She is using her own remaining power, which is to know those around her. She knows that Rita loves children, that Rita is a constant in the Waterford household. She asks her to give kindness to a child that will likely experience none from Serena and Fred – and in spite of the fact that Rita is powerless, that the Guardian in the house who is keeping them prisoner, who is a loss less kind than Nick, could break her jaw without any consequences, she says she will try her best. It’s as close as June can get to a binding promise like a godmother would give – we find out that there are no godmothers in Gilead, likely because it is a level of power, or responsibility, that Gilead doesn’t trust women with.
This is the power that June is left with. She can appeal to Rita’s kindness, and she can appeal to Aunt Lydia’s sense of responsibility for all the children of Gilead. She is threading on thin ice, she is told that it is up to Serena whether to keep her around or not, but she knows exactly what buttons to push. She indicates that Fred is violent towards women, which is accurate, and that in her experience, men who are violent against women are the same against children. She asks Aunt Lydia for her protection, and she gets through to her, because she realises that at some point in her past, she must have lost a baby that was under her protection (in the end, she tells her – her sister’s baby, and the haunting words, “it wasn’t my fault”, considering the way she tortures her Handmaids with the idea of being punished by god). This is what she can provide the baby with, for now. Except…
Across the border, the absurdities of this world, of this delegation, play out. Moira recognises Commander Waterford, tells Luke that this is the man who is keeping June prisoner. Imagining watching that man on television, watching him being part of a diplomatic delegation to the country that gave you shelter. They are told, by the American government in exile, that their only power lies in protesting, in being heard that way – that there is no hard power that will arrest, or take any other action against, the Waterfords. Luke gets close – close enough that Fred, Serena and Nick recognise June’s photo in his arms. He shouts, powerlessly, and is ridiculed by Fred, who knows that he has all the power of a travelling diplomat behind him. Later, Nick finds him in a bar – “I know June, she is a friend” - and is first subjected to all of his rage, until Luke realises that his responsibility lies in doing more than that for June. He finds out that she is pregnant, that Nick doesn’t know where Hannah is, and asks him to tell June that he loves her, that he will never stop trying. And then, in the most decisive moment in this episode, Nick gives him the letters that have travelled so far. Consider their path, from June’s decision to work for Mayday, to convincing Moira to bring them to her before she escaped, to Rita keeping them safe for her while she was gone, to Nick keeping her from burning them, when she had almost given up – and now, almost magically, they land in Luke’s hands.
Moira complains that they aren’t explosives, that she wants to blow Gilead up, but smart Erin (previously TBA) realises that this is exactly what they are. As much as Gilead has been trying to gain acceptance, to appear civilised, to be regarded as the kind of country that isn’t too dirty to do business with, it doesn’t take much to blow it all up. It’s ironic that Ofglen’s attack on the centre opened this channel, this opportunity, for Fred, and now this much more precise scalpel of a public relations disaster ruins it for him. Luke and Moira leak the letters. It’s enough to completely outrage the public, making it impossible for a democratically elected government to continue the diplomatic talks (at least in this for once utopian version of international relations). In this version of events, it isn’t diplomacy that is the vanguard of foreign policy – those who end up holding power, the most unlikely power of all, are those able to shape public perception, to shame the Canadian government into ceasing to deal with Gilead. They return shamed, ridiculed, shouted out of the country. One of the last things Fred sees is Moira, holding up a sign that states her name, reclaiming herself.
And this is what Nick tells June, when he comes back. That Luke loves her, and won’t stop trying. That Moira made the miraculous, impossible escape, that should never have happened and yet did. It’s a new hope. Maybe she won’t have to rely on Rita’s kindness and Aunt Lydia’s selective protectiveness after all. Maybe they can both be free.
Title is a reference to a international relations theory, best summarised with this quote:
We must use what has been called smart power---the full range of tools at our disposal---diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural---picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.
Hey it’s Joel from Parenthood!
On the sidelines but quite likely with some kind of consequences, Eden once again tries to connect with her husband, by baking him cookies with actual chocolate (which, considering how trade relations with other countries go, is a true rarity in Gilead). It fails. A few scenes later, a different Guardian turns out to be very interested in her cooking, maybe opening up a whole world of possibility, of what she is missing out on. I wouldn’t disregard the possibility that young Eden is a ticking time bomb for Nick.
In another truly horrible moment, Janine is struck down with the butt of a rifle when she speaks up against June’s new Guardian. June is dragged away before she can check if Janine is okay.
There was a moment in the interaction between Luke and Nick where I thought that Luke would legit walk away from this moment out of complete anger without accomplishing ANYTHING to help June. Moira is so much more reliable guys.
Pretty sure that at the end of this, Serena doesn’t agree with Fred that they are lucky in many ways. Gilead is ultimately doomed, but the hard part will be everyone who will still be lost on the way.
There is a moment that is meant to be moving, when Moira and Luke and Erin and all the others sing “America the Beautiful” – but it inevitably falls flat, in this moment in time, to watch them grief the country they lost to Gilead, considering what it’s been like to follow the news. “This Land is Your Land”, maybe, a defiant reference to the protesters at the airports when the immigration ban first came in (but would that have been too blatant a reference?). I try to imagine what June’s mother would have thought of that, who was protesting America, not Gilead, and all those murderous tendencies that already existed when it was still a democracy.