“Smart Power” Forges Hard Alliances and Gears Up for The Handmaid’s Tale Finale

“Amazing house, tons of character, nice view of the yard. Owners are super polite, but creepy as fuck. Some ritualized rape required.”

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Three stars seems a bit generous June. Still, June’s inner monologue reviewing her room for Airbnb instantly reveals the central theme that will come to be explored over the course of “Smart Power”: finding common ground and making compromises. While June is quick to admit that the Waterford home is less than ideal, she still has a chair, sunlight, and a healthy baby. It’s certainly better than the caged existence Aunt Lydia threatened her with when she was recaptured. And besides, the evil you know is better than the evil you don’t.

Surviving in Gilead requires finding some common ground. The unyielding oppression puts each character on an island, where they’re looking out for themselves first and foremost. While Serena and June were able to bridge that gap while Freddy (Krueger) Waterford was away, his return has restored the status quo. In order to work together then, our main characters have to find what little common ground they have to survive.

The Commander heads up north to do just that with the Canadian government, hoping to build something through diplomacy. While he’s greeted with thinly veiled hostility, there’s not a whole lot the Canadian government can do about Gilead’s oppressive homophobia and sexism at the moment, especially with Gilead effectively holding its own people hostage. He brings Serena with him, because who better to prove that the women of Gilead aren’t oppressed than the woman he beat with a belt last week for disobeying her husband’s orders?

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Serena can’t help but notice how much nicer life is here in Canada. Sure it has its warts the homeless men camped out on the sidewalk remind us of that but its beauty outweighs them. Where Gilead feels closed off and bleak, Canada’s glass buildings and mirrored surfaces create open spaces out of thin air. Couples express their love publicly. There’s an astounding lack of armed guards and indistinct radio chatter. Women are free.

But that’s not why she’s here. From her itinerary that has pictures instead of words, to the garden flourishing far beyond her humble greenhouse, to having to tell them that she loves knitting (she detests it), Serena is reminded that she is here to live out the lie. When a little girl asks her, “Are you a princess?” she’s not far off. Serena’s role here is to be put on a pedestal, to live at the top of a tower she’s been locked in for her own good.

That dissonance makes her a prime target for an American agent. He offers her cigarettes and the freedom to be impolite, but more importantly the chance to write her story, to be published, and to be passionate again about her work if she defects. In what’s left of the United States on Hawaii, they’ve even made breakthroughs in the fertility crisis. It turns out that it’s not the women who are infertile, but the men (something tells me this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this idea).

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As enticing as this pitch is, he knows she’s never going to go for it and so do we. There’s too much narrative weight riding on Serena in Gilead and it would be totally out of character for her to run away. She’s sunk way too much into the creation of Gilead to give up on it now. But still, Serena considers his offer of “treason and coconuts” just long enough and the seed is planted.

For Nick, the trip to Canada presents some equally challenging decisions. When he spots Luke at the protest of Gilead, he reaches out. It’s not that he wants to bring Luke back into the fold – he absolutely doesn’t. Luke is just as skeptical of working with Nick, but they find common ground in helping June. Nick gives Luke the Jezebel letters that June has tried to get out of the country since the middle of last season and takes Luke’s message back to June. Nick tells her that Luke loves her, that Moira got out, and that Luke promises to never stop until he saves her. Then he adds in that he loves her too, but, in the shuffle of great news, that kind of gets lost on June.

It would be easy to write off what Nick does here as an easy choice. It is the right thing to do after all. But often, the right thing and the easy thing are not the same. There’s a real double-edged sacrifice here for Nick: to remain faithful to June, he has to risk losing her.

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If Luke is back in the picture, Nick’s dream of a life with June and their baby goes from unrealistic to impossible, which is a tough pill to swallow. On top of that, he’ll be stuck with Eden, which might seem inconvenient to him, but may in fact be much more dangerous. While it’s completely understandable why Nick has kept her at arm’s length, his reluctance to even pretend he’s interested is troubling. In the short time we’ve known her, she’s already implicitly threatened to report him for being gay and found his incriminating letters. Should she ever want to, she certainly has ammunition to take him down.

Meanwhile, June’s attention has turned almost completely to her unborn baby. She doesn’t want to leave her child, but she knows that soon things will be out of her control. Serena will soon separate them and June needs to make arrangements for someone, anyone, to look after the baby’s best interest. If we learned anything from last episode, it should be that wives of commanders cannot effectively fill the role of mother.

But finding a guardian is easier said than done for June. Janine is a handmaid who isn’t allowed to see her own baby, let alone someone else’s, and Rita can only half-heartedly promise to do what she can, which as she points out is probably not that much. That leaves June with one option: Aunt Lydia.

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At first glance, her appeal to Lydia is ridiculous. This is the woman who swings her cattle prod around like drum major’s baton. But as we’ve noted before, Lydia does care deeply, in her own fucked up way, about her girls and the children. While Lydia and June see eye-to-eye on almost nothing, they can both find common ground in caring for a baby. For Lydia, this duty is so sacred that she is even willing to take up the title of godmother, which we’re told is borderline blasphemous in Gilead. That the staunchly devout Lydia would make this compromise hits at the heart of the value of common ground in this episode. It can bridge divides that seemed insurmountable and make allies of even the starkest enemies.

Yet, as willing as June is to make a compromise with Lydia, Luke’s message gives her hope. Maybe compromise isn’t the only option. Maybe it’s okay to give this Airbnb 1 star instead of 3. If Moira got out, then maybe it’s too soon to give up on escape.

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With only one episode remaining, we have to expect Chekhov’s baby to be born in the season finale. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but I expect the unexpected from Serena. In some ways, she’s been a more primary character than June this season and we’ve gained unique insight into her conflicted nature. While her number one ambition is to have a baby of her own, she’s recently rediscovered her passion for work and will soon be faced with the fact that this baby is not hers. Even if she can get rid of June, Nick is still going to be around, so long as Eden doesn’t do something to mess that up.

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By the way, Eden’s sharp, and I’m not totally sure what she wants, which could be a nice wrinkle to mix things up in the finale. As for June, while Canada might have the public consensus to wage war on Gilead, I doubt that it will directly impact anything in the Waterford home until next season. Mayday, however, has been weirdly quiet since their bombing, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some fireworks from them. Either way, there are a ton of thematic threads running through this story, and I’m fascinated to see which ones will be borne out next week.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • “You can’t keep people apart who smell like each other.” I love that everyone just calls her Janine. She’s just too sunny of a person to ever keep down completely that they’ve given up on trying to use the Gilead names.
  • Serena may be locked up in a prison of her own making, but damn, her brow game is strong.
  • No baptisms in Gilead, does this further my reluctant theory that this might be a Jewish dystopia? God I hope not, I don’t want to deal with the Internet firestorm.
  • Serena: “You know I wouldn’t betray my country” Mark Tuello (the American agent): “I thought you already did.” That’s a pretty sick burn.
  • I want an Aunt Lydia flashback episode so badly. How did she become this radical? Did it have to do with her nephew dying after only 4 days? Why does she bring up that “it wasn’t my fault” completely unprompted? Like, that’s a weird thing to say.
  • “We believe the women” is a nice line that acknowledges the #MeToo movement and ties it into this world. For the entire episode, the Commander claims that there is misinformation about the rapings, trying to make it a he-said-she-said battle without letting “she” say anything.
  • “It’s sad what they’ve done to you.” The Canadian official is right that what has happened to Serena is sad, but much of it is her own doing. Yeah she probably didn’t think it’d ever be this bad, but in a lot of ways, this is the bed she made.
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