An episode with eerie real-world parallels resonates as a painful wake-up call for several characters
“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.
Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale has gradually come to focus on Serena, as she’s one of the show’s most complicated — and compelling — characters. We see how that centering has paid off in “Smart Power”; there’s something so uniquely powerful about just watching her try to be in a place unlike Gilead. Back at the hotel, she waits for an elevator beside a mom and her daughter. Serena sticks out like a costumed foreigner in her “wife” attire, and she’s looked on by the mother with disdain. The daughter asks if Serena’s a princess; later, the mother indicates they shouldn’t ride in the same elevator. Serena offers them the first trip, and says, “Blessings to you.” It’s her standard form of greeting. They look at her like she’s insane.
She moves to the bar, ordering a glass of Riesling, before a man smoking cigarettes approaches her. One could mistake his interest for flirtatiousness, but Serena’s too familiar with the gawking. She assumes he’s press but he works for the “American” government, and swiftly offers her safe harbor in Honolulu — “a new life.” She shakes it off. “I’m afraid I didn’t pack for the beach,” she quips. “So far, all you’ve offered me is treason and coconuts.” She still entertains the conversation longer than she probably should, at one point confiding she has a child on the way. What the man responds can’t help but sting: “That’s not your child.”
As for the fate of that child: June is struggling to come to terms with it. While out walking, she first tells Janine about Serena’s plan to send her off after the baby is born, and Janine calls it out in front of Isaac as unacceptable; he smacks Janine across the face with his gun, without remorse. June then tells Rita, once she gets a private moment, and begs her to look after the child in her absence. And perhaps in the most poignant confession, she asks the same of Aunt Lydia during a check-up — forcing Lydia to weigh her dedication to Gilead’s rules against her dedication to the baby’s welfare. She agrees to protect the child, and even, at long last, gets a little personal with June, revealing she was once a godmother to her sister’s baby: “He died when he was four days old. It wasn’t my fault.”
Back in Canada, Nick, Serena, and Fred are on the move again and encounter a massive protest — a protest in which Luke is actively taking part. He’s holding up a sign featuring a photo of him, June, and Hannah, and the anguish on his face is near-harrowing. Luke finally locks eyes with Fred and goes after him, shouting, “You raped my wife.” Fred keeps his composure, sticking to his delusional script, but Serena behind him can barely face the scene, wracked with guilt. They all see the picture Luke is holding — they know exactly who he is, Nick included.
That night, Nick heads to the bar where Luke is drinking his pain away, and sits beside him. Luke recognizes him and tries running him off but Nick doesn’t budge. “I know June,” he confesses. “She’s my friend.” Luke recognizes in Nick a humanity, and realizes he’s there as an ally, not an enemy. Nick tells him that June is okay, but that she’s also pregnant (not telling him the baby is actually his), which sets Luke off again. Nick is there on a mission, however — to finally put those letters from Jezebel’s to good use. He gives them to Luke and leaves, promising to look out for June.
He reads through the letters with Moira and their third roommate, and are almost disappointed by them — stories of women whose lives have been destroyed, wrenching but nothing that can, as Moira, go “boom.” Or maybe they can. Indeed, the group decides to throw the letters online for all to see, and in their rawness, their unmistakable veracity, they sort of wake the Canadian government up, jolt them out of working on diplomacy with an authoritarian regime. (Seriously, the ridiculously timely real-world parallels of this episode are almost eerie.) Fred is humiliated and told to return to Canada, a voiceless Serena behind him, and they make their way through a protest of thousands, in embarrassment. One moment lingers: the sight of Moira, once a prostitute under the name “Ruby” who Fred was acquainted with, fiercely holding a sign against his car window that reads, “My name is Moira.”
Upon his return, Nick heads to June’s room to give her a full update: that Luke is okay, that Moira made it out safely, that the letters they’d kept secret for so long have finally been made public. June is overwhelmed by the news. Before learning anything, she’d tried romancing Nick, but he resisted; it’s the reminder of Luke’s existence, his undying love for her, that later keeps her from fully embracing him. Their emotional reality is unendingly complicated. And Nick does the right thing. He tells her he loves her, and leaves her alone in her room to think, where we met her as the episode began. But June isn’t considering Airbnb reviews anymore. She’s charged with optimism — and hope.