George Kraychyk/Hulu
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June 13, 2018 at 01:48 PM EDT

The Handmaid's Tale

type
TV Show
genre
Drama, Sci-fi
run date
04/26/17
performer
Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley
broadcaster
Hulu
seasons
2
We gave it an A-

“Smart Power” offers some potent reminders to the central characters of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is an episode that works in contrasts, bringing the Waterfords into the free land of Canada by way of narratively isolating them, exposing just how restrictive and destructive their lives have become. And it wakes June up, again, to the life that’d been stripped from her — particularly, the husband she loved, still loves even, and lost.

Handmaid’s works best at its most humane and this meditative, quietly devastating episode is, accordingly, one of the season’s very best. It begins on a shot of June in her room, with her first large chunk of narration in a while, bitingly imagining the kind of review she’d leave for the place if it were an Airbnb. (“Owners are polite, but creepy as f—.”) She’s promptly called downstairs, however, for an unknown reason. The quiet of the episode’s early minutes is a punishingly fitting continuation of where we left off last week, with Fred beating Serena brutally for June (and us) to see. June being summoned under mysterious circumstances, then, doesn’t exactly portend good things.

Alas, the news is fairly neutral: Fred is headed to Canada in the hopes of healing its profoundly damaged relationship with Gilead — a pretty timely plot line, no? — and he’s dragging Serena along with him, to prove to skeptical outsiders just how “strong” Gilead women can be. (Nick, ever the loyal driver, is also along for the trip.) Serena is still shaken by the events of the previous episode, flinching at even the slightest touch from her husband, and she’s not exactly thrilled about going on the trip. There’s irony, particularly, in the idea of this woman — an intellectual who advocated for her own gender’s oppression — vying to prove she is not “voiceless.”

June will be left under the “supervision” of Isaac, a brutish 20-year-old guard, while the Waterfords are gone; but before they leave, Serena stops by June’s room to give her a parting gift — another cruel dollop of information to leave her with. “Offred, I’ve given it some thought,” she says. “You’ll be leaving the house as soon as the baby is born.” Serena doesn’t wield the insult with the usual sharpness, however; she sounds defeated, mournful even — as if this truly is the best option for them. “I think we’ve all had more than enough of one another, don’t you?” she adds. June’s heartbroken, but on that point, she can only nod her head.

Serena and Fred arrive in Canada — Luke and Moira watch the spectacle on television, and Moira immediately recognizes the Commander. Luke, understandably, is overcome with rage. He and Moira plead with a senior employee at the refugee center to have Fred arrested, Moira pointing out that he’s a “war criminal” and a “serial rapist,” but the response, of course, is that nothing can be done. Fred’s in Canada on official business and the Canadian government is going to hear him out.

The episode’s most striking scene comes next, and it’s virtually wordless. Serena, Fred, and Nick are en route to their hotel, driving through Canada for the first time. The camera stays fixed on Serena as she looks out the window, observing the hustle and bustle of daily life. It’s the dramatic opposite of Gilead; we’ve been to Canada before in Handmaid’s, but seeing it through Serena’s eyes renders the contrast sharper, and a little sadder, too. We see Serena quietly enamored by the sight of food carts, the sound of people yelling for taxis, the couples kissing in the streets without a care in the world. It’s a gorgeous sequence, and a strangely heartbreaking one — a visualization of Serena’s complicity, pain, repression, and sense of loss, all in one. At one moment, for no particular reason, she audibly gasps.

Serena and Fred are greeted by a group of Canadian officials, one of whom is a gay man who makes that fact immediately known. (Fred’s discomfort is a joy to watch there.) Serena is offered a schedule of cultural activities while Fred heads off with the men, a subtle indication that even in a free society, sexism and gendered roles persist. Serena is first taken to a garden where she marvels at the orchids; the woman who’s joined her asks if gardening is a common hobby of “wives,” before asking if that’s the correct term. Serena notes they all have their passions, but it pales in comparison to her companion, a self-professed workaholic who has a love of French literature. She says, later, that she hears Serena also enjoys knitting, and then cracks she herself is not much good at it. Serena tries laughing it off.

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