Season 2, Episode 9: ‘Smart Power’
What is Serena Joy thinking? In a story in which most characters’ motivations are clear, she has always been the outlier. Flashbacks have provided some clues: A reactionary ideologue in the years before the coup, she argued passionately for compulsory childbearing. The irony is that the revolution she helped foment left her powerless.
In this season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Serena’s catastrophic lack of foresight about Gilead has made her the show’s most fascinating character. As Offred keeps vacillating between complicity, resistance and surrender, the two women’s on-again, off-again alliance carries the potential to transform both of their lives. With Moira’s and Emily’s stories fading into the background in recent episodes, Serena has slowly become the show’s second lead.
This is a good thing, particularly because Yvonne Strahovski so completely inhabits both the old and the new Mrs. Waterford. Like Elisabeth Moss, she can communicate complex emotions without uttering a word; the scenes they share have become the highlights of most episodes. What’s frustrating is that viewers have access to Offred’s thoughts, in voice-overs, but not to those of Serena — whose unknowability is compounded by her isolation in the domestic sphere.
Most of the time, the show’s exposition and Strahovski’s performance are enough to close the gap between what Serena says and what she’s thinking. This week’s episode, “Smart Power,” is a pivotal one in her story, however, and it suffers from its failure to illuminate her interior life.
Having just saved the life of Janine’s baby, endured a beating from a husband whose cruelty she’d never recognized and refused Offred’s attempts to comfort her, Serena is off to Canada. The Rachel and Leah Center bombing has “created an opening,” as Commander Waterford describes it, and he is making his first diplomatic visit north of the border. “The Canadians think that the women here are oppressed, that they’re voiceless,” he tells his wife, with no apparent self-awareness. “I need you to show them a strong Gilead wife.”
It’s her first time out of the country since the revolution, and Serena is devastated by the way she’s treated. Protesters swarm her and Waterford’s limo. Mothers won’t let their daughters share an elevator with her. At the Montreal Biodome, a government liaison condescends to Serena with small talk about cooking and knitting. There’s something discomfiting about the way the show seems to be referencing the free world’s treatment of authoritarian leaders and the West’s intolerance of women who dress modestly in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Still, these scenes are a long time coming. “The Handmaid’s Tale” rarely zooms out to explore how Gilead interacts with the outside world, or how that world’s attitude toward Gilead affects the new state. The protests Moira and Luke attend are cathartic but useless; their anger that the Waterfords aren’t arrested and accused of committing war crimes must mirror that of real refugees whose adoptive countries hold polite summits with the dictators who destroyed their families. It is infuriating that Luke can get close enough to accuse the Commander of raping June and still change nothing about her life. When Waterford mentions, midway through the visit, that Canada is considering “extraditions” of individuals wanted by the Gilead government, the implications are chilling.
All of this seems to weigh on Serena as she looks at the relatively liberated women of Montreal with the longing of a child who has spotted an ice cream truck. Granted more freedom of movement than she has had in years, she ends up drinking riesling in the hotel bar with a man named Mark, who turns out to be a representative of the exiled American government. There’s a lot going on in their conversation: With her own marriage at its nadir, Serena is suddenly sitting across from a handsome guy who says his vice is “talking very respectfully to beautiful women.”
Even more attractive than Mark is his offer to set her up with a new life in Hawaii if she speaks out about what’s really happening in Gilead. “So far all you’ve offered me is treason and coconuts,” she quips, and for a moment “The Handmaid’s Tale” becomes a dystopian screwball comedy. Then he reveals that American researchers have made breakthroughs in fertility since the cataclysm, and that she could have a biological baby of her own in Honolulu. So science has outpaced religious fundamentalism in ameliorating the depopulation crisis. Imagine that!
Though she sends Mark packing, Serena keeps the matchbook that represents an escape route. She throws it into the fireplace the moment she gets home, for reasons viewers can only guess. This sequence of events exemplifies how rushed the show has become since the glacially paced early episodes of Season 2: By taking them to Canada right after last week’s beating, the writers avoid showing its impact on the Waterfords’ daily interactions. And by having Serena quickly rule out an option that should hold some appeal for her, they miss a chance to build suspense. Has she hatched some new plan for after she returns to Gilead? Does she still feel a connection to Waterford? And what’s the use of all these plot twists if they don’t clarify the motivations of the characters?
A solid episode on the whole, “Smart Power” does offer payoffs to a few slower-burning story lines. Nick finally meets Luke and can no longer conveniently ignore the fact that the woman he loves is married to a man who still cares deeply about her. (Notice that he doesn’t dare tell Luke that he’s almost certainly the father of Offred’s baby.) It’s an act of pure kindness that, upon returning to Gilead, he tells Offred that Luke is alive. Then he says, “I love you.” They embrace at first, but Nick abruptly leaves, presumably out of respect for Luke. I’ve never blamed Offred for having an affair; anything a handmaid can do to survive her bleak existence and exercise free choice seems warranted. But if Luke ever finds out the truth, will he understand?
More important (for the geopolitics of this alternate reality, if not for the show’s main characters), Nick passes Luke the Mayday letters Offred almost burned during her “obedient handmaid” phase. Uploaded to the internet, they force Canadians to acknowledge the extent of Gilead’s human rights abuses. The talks are canceled. The Waterfords are scolded and sent home. It’s a heartening twist, but if the various real atrocities on which “The Handmaid’s Tale” draws are any indication, it may still take years for the free world to intervene.
• Is Janine going to make it to the end of this season? She’s apoplectic about being separated from Charlotte. She’s cursing out guards. She shows no fear of beatings. And it’s hard to imagine where her story could go from here without getting repetitive.
• The show is slowly uncovering Aunt Lydia’s past — and making her more than a pious, one-dimensional sadist. In “Smart Power,” she vows to protect Offred’s child, now that she knows that Offred must leave the Waterfords’ after giving birth — and after Offred makes it clear that the Commander is abusive. And Lydia reveals to Offred that she was the godmother to her sister’s son, who died at just four days old. “It wasn’t my fault,” she insists, which is odd because no one would have otherwise considered that it had been.