This is a deep dive into the events of Episode 9 of Series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale. Spoilers are a given, as we discuss all of the plot points within the episode. New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale premiere every Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS Australia and at 5pm at SBS On Demand.**
Watch episode 9, 'Smart Power', at SBS On Demand:
We’ve often pondered the parallels between The Handmaid’s Tale and contemporary politics, but never have events within Gilead so closely mirrored actions by the current occupant of The White House, that we're dealing with them in real life and on screen within the same week. To quote June, this is the new normal.
Mere days after the 45th President of the United States sparked tensions with Canada, of all places, in the wash up of the G-7 Summit, this week’s The Handmaid’s Tale episode (‘Smart Power’, the 9th in this 13 episode series), presents a Gileadian bizarro world version of same, as Commander Fred and Serena are unceremoniously booted out of Canada mid-trade talks, in what seems to mark Gilead’s first significant foreign affairs disaster.
Likely the writer’s room on this particular episode thought the prospect of a snafu between the United States and Canada so preposterous, that a diplomatic incident with Gilead would demonstrate just how far the theocratic regime had strayed from the American reality. And yet, this week the writers get to take credit for accidental prescience on a number of levels, including the highly unusual step of meeting for a summit with the reclusive leader of a cult-like province with a sketchy human rights record! Such are the interesting times in which we now live.
The bulk of the episode takes place within America’s polite northern neighbour, as Fred and Serena embark on a diplomatic mission. No, June doesn’t get to go (we’ll get to that), but Luke’s confrontation with the man who regularly rapes his wife, sets off a chain of events that makes the Waterfords' stunt “go boom”. The neatly tied package we’ve slowly watched embark upon its stunted journey across the two seasons, from Jezebels, to Moira, to June, to Rita, back to June, on to Nick (with a heart stopping side venture to Eden), and finally over the border to Luke, before safely being returned to Moira, is a poignant and powerful mini Mayday. The handwritten testimonials speak to Gilead’s obscene human rights abuses, and their publication works far more effectively than a grenade-wielding Handmaid. Revelations of goings-on in Gilead spark an International Incident. People take to the streets, and women reclaim their names in front of the man intent on assigning them possessive versions of his own.
'Smart Power' opens and closes in June’s attic-like bedroom, and her demeanour shifts from despondent Offred (reflecting on her “reduced circumstances”), to spunky June (“fuck that”) over the course of the episode. In the early moments she receives a terse warning from Serena (herself smarting from yet more humiliation from Fred), that her days as their Handmaid are numbered; she won’t be required to wean the baby once it’s born. “I think we’ve all had more than enough of one another. Don’t you?,” Serena says with a loaded and deeply coded iciness that demonstrates she well remembers saying, “I won’t forget your help” to June way back in last week.
But hey, the sorry business of her exit is a whole trimester away yet! First up Serena needs to fulfil her wifely duty and perform the role of Gilead’s contendedly unencumbered trophy wife, upon the world’s stage, being handed pictorial schedules and fake-raving about her despised knitting, in a non-conversation with a busy Working Woman. Serena, striking in her dark teal robes, stands out as a marker for her faith / her country / her writings / her husband, and draws attention from all quarters in her solo wanderings in Toronto. Fred had made it clear that her presence is purely a non-verbal PR exercise, thus it stands to reason that we see her untethered throughout. No Guardians rein her in and that seems entirely intentional: If Gilead really, truly oppressed its women, how could they go and enjoy a crisp white wine in a hotel bar? Fake news!
The darkly fascinating psychology of Serena takes yet more turns in this episode, as she marvels at the free women of Toronto from inside her tinted limo, and she strikes up a conversation at said bar with an Interested Male Patron that evolves into a thwarted defection attempt. A representative of the exiled American government, ‘Mark’ woos Serena with the promise of a quick getaway to Hawaii but she’s a wake up to his routine - “All you’ve offered me is treason and coconuts,” she quips in a revealing glimpse at both her wit and her personal boundaries. He gets as close as possible by playing to her Achilles heel and promising a near-miracle: fertility treatment that could result in a child of her own. Like, really hers. Hawaii has no need for Handmaids, he explains, since outside of Gilead, male fertility problems (yes, he goes there), are being treated: “Gilead blames the fertility crisis on women. On their sinfulness. We see the problem often originating with the men. Some of the best scientists in America have been working on fertility for years.” She sends him on his way, but not before hedging her bets and keeping his number on a matchbox… at least, until she and Fred get kicked out of the country and her opportunity for tropical treason narrows.
Serena ends the episode by turfing the matchbox into the fire (where it very definitely won't "go boom"), and we’re left to contemplate how next week might further complicate our curious and complex attitudes towards Serena Waterford nee Joy, victim, perpetrator, and one of Gilead’s leading actual gender traitors. Might ongoing self-interest further propel her towards rebellion? With four eps to go, I say yes. And also no. And definitely maybe.
Continue the conversation in SBS' dedicated The Handmaid’s Tale podcast, Eyes on Gilead. This week, Sana Qadar, proud Canadian, enjoys seeing her homeland oust a dictator, Natalie Hambly recalls the way intimate revelations of atrocity can cut through the narrative like no other, and I note a poignant moment within this episode that nods to a classic American movie, which is also about trauma and government-sanctioned brutality.
**This episode of Eyes on Gilead contains important messaging about broadcast changes next week**