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The Handmaid's Tale Discussion: 'Useful' shows the cracks in Gilead's facade
The third season of The Handmaid's Tale continues to inch closer to revolution, showing how this rigid society is a burden even to those who have built it. The facade of Gilead continues to wear away, and June is finally seeing her opportunity. The time to burn it all down is here, and June is ready to light the match.
That being said, there is still plenty of work for the resistance to do. As allies become increasingly murky and tensions run high, June must play the game even more carefully these days. The Handmaid's Tale is never an easy pill to swallow, so we — Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer — are here to help you untangle every interaction.
Learning The Enemy
Alyssa: You know, as awful as Waterford was/is, at least you always knew where he stood. He’s all in on Gilead and can be manipulated accordingly. You could see that plain as day in his interaction with June in this episode. He can’t help but want to give her things, because he craves that intimacy. It’s so transparent, and honestly, so gross. However, June is really in uncharted territory here with Lawrence. He’s volatile and unreadable, and I think that puts her in yet another precarious position. Sometimes you think that he’s on her side in his own weird way — bringing her into the meeting of Commanders in order to overhear what’s going on in the wider world — but then he’s making an example of her the next moment. I just can’t tell what his game is at this point.
Jessica: I think you’re right about June being able to manipulate Waterford much easier than someone like Lawrence, but I disagree when it comes to his motivations. I don’t think he’s ever been on June’s side. His defining personality trait is his inflated hubris. He believes he’s smarter, more essential to the continuance of human life, than any other person in Gilead. He helped Emily because he recognized her impressive intellect and that in turn, fed his own ego — “Here I am, helping another great mind who will one day change the world.”
Lawrence is narcissistic to a destructive degree. He’s so convinced of his own superiority that he’s become bored with this life he’s created in Gilead. His fellow commanders, who are motivated not by a desire to save the world through repopulation — which I believe was his endgame and the theocracy part just the necessary evil as he doesn’t seem a particularly religious man — but by a more emotional need to subjugate women, no longer interest him either. So what does he do? He plays with people. He’s playing with June and the Marthas in his employ because he knows that he’ll never face the consequences should things go wrong and because he knows their resistance is futile. He’s an egotistical a**hole, but damn is he such a great addition to this show.
Alyssa: That’s f***ed up, but you’re right. You can see his disdain for women in his loaded query: “If women don’t want to be defined by their bodies, why are they always using them to get what they want?” It’s just pure hatred for women and a total misunderstanding of how different the world is for them. He really takes his sick game with June to the next level, showing her the women in cages who are going to be shipped to the colonies and instructing her to choose five to save as Marthas. It was a power trip for him. "I get to choose whether people live or die. Can you make the same choice?" He makes it clear that he doesn’t think that June can make the same decisions that he, a strong smart man, can. It was a weird way to show his perceived superiority.
Jessica: Exactly. And it’s laughably ironic, this interaction with June. He seems to show disdain for his fellow commanders for how intimidated they are by women. That meeting in his library was basically a show of strength for him — “Look how scared you all are of these weak women. Here, let me prove they’re useful by getting one to retrieve a book from a shelf.” — and yet, he needs validation, to feel like he is superior to June by displaying how tough his job is, by proving she couldn’t handle it. He’s just as vulnerable as every other man in Gilead, and I’m hoping June can figure out how to chip away at this nonchalant kind of armor he’s currently wearing. His motivations are different from Waterford’s, but I think she’s starting to get a read on them.
Alyssa: I’m always bracing for the moment when June overplays her hand, but she certainly hasn’t yet. She’s learning, she’s adapting, she’s surviving. She and Serena have that in common. This season has shown Serena at her lowest after losing the baby, and that all comes to a head while she’s staying in her mother’s house. The scene with her mother’s friends really gave me flashbacks to the church of my childhood, honestly. The gossip masked as prayer requests. The ritualistic repetition of scripture. The lack of genuine empathy for a painful situation. It was hard to watch, but it was also an interesting piece in the Serena Joy puzzle. She’s waking up.
Jessica: I felt that scene in my bones. The PTSD from growing up in a Southern Baptist community resurfaced with a vengeance when that creep forced her to sit in the middle of the prayer circle. That, more than anything, wrung out a bit of sympathy for Serena Joy this episode, from me at least. It just confirmed what I’ve always known to be true — religious fanatics like that want to gloss over all of the hard parts of life.
They want to bury the bad, cover up the ugly, and God forbid you need a moment to just feel. Serena Joy should be allowed to feel the loss of her child, feel the betrayal from her husband, feel the devastation of her life literally crumbling around her. Instead, she’s told to smile and be grateful. She hasn’t suffered the way so many other women in Gilead have, but really, who are we to qualify someone else’s pain? What she’s going through is world-destroying for her. Give her a damn minute, you monsters!
Alyssa: Serena Joy always makes me feel so conflicted! Yes, she’s in pain, but she’s also inflicted so much pain on others. She has so long been a traitor to her fellow women under the guise of the greater good that it is hard for me to fully pity her. However, that scene with her mother got me pretty close. To have her own mother basically tell her to suck it up, it’s her own fault, get over it and take back her terrible husband was a real gut punch. Her mother’s cold resignation was another piece to understanding how Serena became who she is, and it was definitely an emotionally brutal picture.
Jessica: I’m right there with you. I’m constantly questioning whether I should sympathize with this woman or not. At the end of the day, though, I think it’s less about Serena Joy deserving our pity and more about how we relate to her struggle. I think we can still want to be an ally of a woman like Serena Joy without that desire reflecting on her sins and moral ambiguity. Serena Joy is not a good person, but it’s not up to me to decide how she’s punished for what she’s done. I think, in the world we live in, and certainly in a place like Gilead, women — no matter their past mistakes — need to at the very least empathize more with each other. We’re all going through hell. We don’t have to support the ones who are still contributing to our oppression, but the ones who are finally clueing into how f***ed up this place is for their gender, maybe we should be a bit more gentle with them?
Alyssa: Exactly. I think the important thing is to judge Serena Joy’s actions going forward. So far this season, it really feels like they’re going to make real strides in the revolution, and having someone like Serena on their side would be a major benefit. Serena has realized that these men won’t save her, won’t protect her, won’t even treat her or her child like people. Why should she continue to cape for them? I think her conversation with June showed that she is finally starting to realize the truth: that these men hate women and are not on her side at all.
Doing What Needs To Be Done
Jessica: Speaking of the revolution, can I just say that ending was hella empowering. I just want to go around, screaming in the face of every privileged white man — “I AM YOUR NIGHTMARE!” Look, I know this show often blatantly caters to our fanfic imaginations (who hasn’t written a 25-chapter story of women slowly toppling a patriarchal society to help them sleep better at night?) but I am here for the tone the ending of this episode set in terms of where the season is heading. We’ve seen enough suffering, it’s time to get to work.
Alyssa: Exactly. The final bits of this episode shows a June that is determined to do so. First with her conversation with Serena, and then in her goodbye to Nick. As heartbreaking as it was, I liked this scene because it showed a June who wasn’t going to let Gilead dehumanize her. They may have taken her freedom, her family, and at times her will to live, but they couldn’t completely break her. She still feels things, she still cares about people. That humanity is going to be what fuels her going forward, working to secure a better world for her daughters. Losing Nick is only going to strengthen her resolve, I think.
Jessica: I hope we don’t lose Nick forever — because, Max Minghella — but I appreciate this new drive in June that I felt was missing in season two, partly because their romance took up so much space. Not that the sexy times aren’t welcome because we need a reward for all the torture porn this show gives us, but I think, in a weird way, June does her best work when she’s on her own. In this strange house with this new commander, no baby Nicole, no Waterfords, no Nick, she’s stepping up to the plate, organizing her own resistance, making tough decisions and getting sh*t done. That’s only going to be good for her character growth going forward.
Alyssa: I’m ready to see her go all in with the Marthas’ resistance. She showed a ruthlessly savvy side in her choices for who gets to stay — if you’re going to keep people alive, you might as well pick the ones who will help your cause (yikes levels of pragmatism, but I get it) — and she’s going to need to tap into that more than ever if they’re going to be successful. Up until now, it’s felt like these women were trapped just trying to survive in a system that hates them. Now, it feels like they’re going to tear it all down. Damn. Sound familiar?
Jessica: I sure as hell hope so.
Jessica: Personally, I think this back-and-forth with Commander Lawrence is going to fuel much of the action this season, and rightfully so. He could be June’s biggest ally in the fight against Gilead — the information we learned from that single Commander meeting alone was more than anything we got in seasons one and two, combined. He could also be her biggest enemy, which is why we’ll probably uncover more about his backstory, his wife, and why he created this hellscape in the first place.
Beyond that, I’m interested to see where they take Serena Joy next. Is she going to blatantly defy her husband and Gilead’s principles like she once did? Or is she going to play the longer game, pretending to be the dutiful wife while working her will behind the scenes? Right now, she’s plowing through such emotional turmoil, I could see it going either way.
Alyssa: I 100% agree. I am interested in seeing how these people in (relative) power react to a system that’s imploding. This kind of regime is untenable for the long term, so people are going to have to make choices. With Lawrence, is he going to go all in on Gilead because he was one of its architects? Or is he going to grow some of that humanity that he denied having? With Serena, I think it’s far more likely that she’ll start resisting in her own way, but we’ll see how willing she is to help the women who don’t share her privilege.
With June, I’m mostly just excited to see her keep this trajectory going. She’s been stripped of pretty much everything except for the hope that she can save Hannah, and I think that makes her a formidable opponent to Gilead. Bring it on. I hope we get a look back to the group in Canada next week too because I need Emily to get her family reunion. She deserves it, and frankly, so do we.
Jessica: Right? Just give us one good thing, Handmaid’s Tale! But to your point about Lawrence, I feel like, once June starts making headway in her revolution, the dude’s either going to go into survival mode and turn on his fellow commanders in exchange for amnesty, or he’s going to double-down and make life even more hellish for June and the Marthas. I don’t see him helping this rebellion unless it promises a better, more interesting life for him.
Also, I’d love to see a flashback of him working some menial job, or being sh*t on by his colleagues or something. This guy reads like someone whose perceived brilliance was not acknowledged in the old world and now he’s comforting himself with this position of power. Honestly, all the men in Gilead read like that. Quick question though: do you think we’ll see a major character die this season? With all of the upheaval and revolution-planning, I feel like the show’s setting us up for some kind of sacrifice.
Alyssa: I think that’s a strong possibility. Up until now, being forced to keep living in Gilead felt like more of a punishment than death. Now that there is even a whisper of possible change, to be killed when a future finally feels a bit in reach would be utterly devastating. So yeah. You’re probably right. Death is coming.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.