Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: Serena and June’s brief alliance came to a dramatic end when Fred found out about it, and Janine got to see her baby girl again. But we were mostly mad at the Fred thing. Dammit, Fred. There had better be some comeuppance on the horizon. Here’s my recap for episode 8 if you missed it.
If you don’t want spoilers, turn back now because we are about to leap into ‘Smart Power’ with giddy and reckless abandon. If you’re staying, grab yourself one of Eden’s special chocolate chip cookies, pour a glass of Riesling (if you have it) or better yet, try one of my new Handmaid’s Tale cocktails: Treason & Coconuts! Pour some Malibu over ice, add a shot of Blue Curaçao for that authentic Wife-On-Tour hue, then a few drops of bitterness and a little dash of treachery. Give it a stir, and sip while a baying crowd jeers at you. Mmmmm. Yummy.
You deserve a little treat! We finally have some movement, and God knows, we needed it. As much as I love this show, it has been frustrating that nothing ever goes anywhere. Plans never work, escape attempts fail; characters disappear to die a slow painful death then come back; even grand gestures like Lillie’s sacrifice and Team Waterford Women fizzle out almost immediately. I understand why; this is part of the horror. Gilead is inescapable. But it’s started to feel like a convoluted attempt to keep the characters in place in order to generate more seasons of misery. The lengths they will go to, to keep June at that house…
Here’s a terrible analogy — Season 2 has been like really horrendous, painful constipation, and finally this week, there was a little gurgle in your guts and you’re like, “Ooh, hang on, there’s a development downstairs! Aslan’s on the move!” It might not be ready yet, but something epic is brewing, and you know it won’t be pretty, but it will be really satisfying once it’s done. (Too much?)
Finally, ‘Smart Power’ gives us some potential movement, and some actual movement. June has been put on notice; she’ll be leaving as soon as the baby comes. She’s devastated, as it means that any time she thought she had to come up with a master plan to escape is running out faster than she thought.
“I think we’ve all had more than enough of one another. Don’t you?”
The devastation is not just because she was nursing a hope that she could keep her baby (at least for a bit longer) but because it means change. It means a new household. She hates it in this house — the Waterfords are “creepy as fuck” — but she has an ally in Rita, and she has a lover and a potential saviour in Nick. She can find ways to break the rules with Serena and Fred if necessary. As awful as this house is, it could be worse. But for us, different might be progress.
It doesn’t seem that way at first, because the idea that ‘different could be worse’ is embodied by Isaac, the 20-something guy tasked with babysitting the Waterford household in Fred and Serena’s absence. As the total opposite of Nick, Isaac throws his weight and his gun around, enjoying his responsibility with flashes of sudden and horrible violence. It wasn’t wise for Janine to smart-mouth him, but I like new feisty Janine, and she was right — Serena’s plan to oust June just isn’t fair.
But June seems to accept her fate for most of the episode. Instead of fighting back, she recruits godmothers for her baby. Rita is chosen for her kindness, a trait we don’t get to see too often because Rita is very guarded, but it’s there. Rita is a quiet, background ally and as such is probably a safe option. There isn’t much she can do — in a rare moment of rebellious chat, she shows her contempt for Isaac and admits that she is relatively powerless — but she will do what she can. It soothes June to know that her child will “have someone kind in her life.” Heaven knows, she’s seen precious little of that in the Waterford house.
“There you go. I got you someone.”
Her next choice is riskier and perhaps more surprising. Who would choose a brainwashing, vicious zealot to be a godmother? But desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s not like June has a lot of options. And to be honest, I was cheering her on when she broached the subject with Aunt Lydia. Because if Aunt Lydia has a redeeming feature, it’s that she will do anything to protect a baby. Remember how she lectured Serena earlier this season? The power differential between Serena and Lydia might look like it’s skewed in Serena’s favour, but it isn’t — Serena is a rule-breaker, and Aunt Lydia has never broken a rule in her life. Sure, she has committed atrocities, but in the world of Gilead, those were legal. If it came to a fight between Aunt Lydia and Serena, I wouldn’t bet on Serena. Zealots are certain, and Serena’s been wavering lately.
There seemed to be a real moment of bonding between June and Aunt Lydia this week, almost like they were treating each other like people for the first time. And when Aunt Lydia told June about having been a godmother to her sister’s baby boy, this honestly haunted me. She really was Aunt Lydia. Her nephew only lived for 4 days, and then Aunt Lydia was a Real Aunt no longer. Think of the grief of that. Being an Aunt again in Gilead must have been like a dream come true, a chance to bring new babies into the world to replace the boy she lost. Every time a handmaid calls her Aunt Lydia, she’ll be reminded of that pain, and it must spur her on. Bloody hell, I’m feeling really sorry for Aunt Lydia, and this is disturbing. Bring on the Aunt Lydia episode, that’s all I can add here.
So June has lined up the kind godmother, and the fierce, powerful godmother. She has ensured that her child will be cared for and protected in her absence. She’s also ensured that Aunt Lydia will be keeping a very close eye on the Waterfords. All things considered, she’s done some good work. Things are in motion.
But the really satisfying action of the episode happened elsewhere. The change of scene to Canada was highly welcome, because it put some of the key characters in the same place for the first time and it meant that something could happen. And oh, boy, did it. In case anyone was still on the fence about the Mayday bombing, it’s clear that it has made things worse for a lot of people. Not only did it take more of a toll on handmaids than Commanders, it also allowed Gilead to look like a victim in the eyes of the world, and opened up an opportunity for diplomacy with their neighbours to the north. One of the things that is now on the table is the extradition of illegal immigrants. Yep, that would mean Canada sending back people like Luke, Erin, and Moira. Dammit, Mayday!
The relationship between Fred and Serena couldn’t be worse following last week’s abuse, but they need to put on a good show in Canada for PR reasons. The Canadians are on their best PC behaviour as well, despite some very pointed selection of diplomats on their side. They play along, being all culturally sensitive and hospitable, much to the frustration of the American refugees. Don’t be nice to them — they are the enemy!
When Moira saw Fred’s arrival on TV, I might have shouted something along the lines of, “YES, TRACK HIM DOWN AND KILL HIM, MOIRA!” It didn’t quite work out that way, but she and Luke were gunning for him anyway. She wants Fred arrested for war crime and serial rape (GO MOIRA GO!) but diplomatic immunity gets in the way. The only recourse they have is protesting.
But here’s the thing, the Americans develop their own weapon of mass destruction: the Truth Bomb. It works better than Mayday’s Actual Bomb. And the Waterfords face a veritable bombardment (puns intended).
Truth Bomb 1: Show Me The Way To Honolulu
It’s not an easy visit for Serena. But it’s a bit hypocritical looking longingly at normal life in Canada when you were the one orchestrating the new world order…
Relegated to the decorative Wife role once more, Serena has to pretend to like knitting again. She’s left alone and vulnerable, an object of suspicious and contemptuous curiosity. She’s ripe for turning, or so Smooth American Spy Man assumes. After the shaming of last week, his approach could have gone either way. Serena could have power, freedom, and a baby — all she needs to do is turn.
She won’t. So he hits her with the truth. “That’s not your baby.” With that, he cuts through the premise of the handmaid system in one short sentence. It really isn’t hers. Remember the ridiculous birth scene, where the Wife acts out labour as well? Serena knows that’s coming, and that it’s ridiculous. And that the child growing in June’s womb has nothing to do with the Waterfords in the slightest.
This one doesn’t do enough damage. Serena claims, “I would never betray my country”, to which Mark responds, “Thought you already did.” BOOM. Yeah, Serena, they offered you a good deal, but you are a traitor and a terrorist, and if you think this cosy deal will wait around for you to wake up, you might be disappointed. This one hits home. She’s shaky, and despite her protestations about quitting smoking, she grabs that pack of cigarettes. She felt that one. America: 1, Gilead: 0
Truth Bomb 2: The Shame Grenade
This one was lobbed by Luke. Oh Luke, you were beautiful and brilliant this week! Calling out the whole damn lot of them in public was just…well…
Because Fred is an utter wanker, he shakes it off (yes, pun intended). Blah blah FAKE NEWS blah blah. Serena, already wounded from Mark’s attack, looks like she might throw up though. And seeing Luke has punched Nick right in the guts. He’s not just an idea anymore. He is real. So is June. They were a family. The Waterford party is outnumbered, vulnerable. The crowd roars for their blood. It’s a premonition of what their fate will be if/when (PLEASE BE WHEN) Gilead falls. America: 2, Gilead: 0
Truth Bomb 3: You’re Not Innocent In All This, Nick
Nicky boy — not only have you completely failed to get June to safety, but guess what? You had a hand in shaping this world. You were tempted by the rhetoric. Sure, you might have seen the light since then, but only when it touched you personally. Luke includes you when he says, “You people are fucking monsters”.
Nick’s also faced with the reality that he is having an affair with a married woman, and he is troubled by it. As Truth Bombs are falling all around, he resorts to some little lies instead, telling Luke that June’s baby is Fred’s, and that June is his friend. He also redeems himself quite a bit with the letters, so the Truth Bombs have worked their magic on him as well… America: 3, Gilead: 0
Truth Bomb 4: Read All About It
This was the biggie. Moira’s frustrated that she risked her life for words not C4, but Erin sees the letters’ potential: “This could go boom.” And it does. The pen is mightier than the sword. They upload the letters, and the damage is immediate. The Waterfords are expelled, the crowds come for them, and Canada gets to look good again.
“We believe the women.”
Did they expel them just because it was politically untenable to work with Gilead? Or does their disgust finally overrule their politeness? Hard to know for sure. I hope it’s the first one.
All of this seems to bounce off Teflon Fred, the sanctimonious little goblin, until a brief flash of what might be shame, in the car. It’s Moira — she hasn’t come to kill him (UNFORTUNATELY), but instead to kill Ruby. She gets to reclaim her name, and look him in the face as she does it. Plus, she gets to call him an asshole. Huzzah!
America: 4, Canada: 1, Gilead: BIG FAT ZERO
Just when you thought the episode had given us enough treats, we have some ACTUAL JOY (not the Serena variety) when Nick passes on Luke’s message to June. She knew that Luke was out (and the cute parallel between the way they both asked if the other was OK was very nicely done), but Moira’s fate had been uncertain. If anything, the news of Moira is even more delightful to June than the news of Luke. Moira is once again that talisman for her, the heroic figure who inspires her to fight back. She’s the ultimate godmother. And she is fighting for June too.
The relationship with Nick seems to be over. They are uncomfortable with each other now that they have talked about Luke. Nick has put himself in a precarious position, and the Waterfords are vulnerable too, but June? June has got her rebellious mojo back.
“I know I should accept the reality of you being born here. Make my peace. But fuck that.”
Fuck that, indeed. It’s time for a change. Please let it be time for a change. Pretty please.
See you next week! I’m off to get another round of Treason & Coconuts in. Eden, could you perhaps pop some chocolate laxative in the next batch of cookies, and while you’re in the kitchen, tell Rita to go easy on the beans. We’re about ready to pop.
Additional Thoughts: The Perils of Nearly-Pointless Nick
Nick might actually end up headless. He’s done more damage to the regime than Lillie did. And he’s left a trail. Fortunately, Gilead will do all they can to suppress the news from Canada that the Big Truth Bomb has gone off, but if a tiny whisper of it reaches Eden’s ears, Nick is a goner.
Nick seems to know this. Did he think that Team Awesome would use the Truth Bomb so quickly? They had to use it straightaway, to disrupt the diplomatic negotiations, and enjoy the moment when the Waterfords left in disgrace. Perhaps part of him was hoping that they’d wait to give him some cover. But why the hell would they care about him? They don’t know how much he’s (sort of) helped June.
If Eden squeals on Nick, she will be a goner too. Ah, Mrs Blaine, you say he had letters? How would you know unless you READ them, hmmm? She’s not the sharpest tool in the box, so might accidentally get herself in trouble. Seriously, though — would it kill Nick to be a little nicer to Eden? She’s so miserable she’s actually been flirting with Isaac. This is not good. Be better, Nick.