Warning: Contains spoilers.
“Smart Power,” the ninth episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2, has several electric confrontation scenes between characters who seemed unlikely to meet for at several more seasons — if ever. It opens with Offred gazing out the window at the Waterfords’, musing about the three-star AirBnB reviews for her room and its historical antecedents: a room in a rooming house in former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. “Reduced circumstances” are a theme here. All women in Gilead have had their circumstances reduced. They no longer have fiscal power, or any other form of power. Women in this episode are reduced to being symbols, even Rachel Tapping, ostensibly the most powerful American woman left on the show. She can’t actually send Marines to arrest Waterford. The best she can do is serve as a symbol of the U.S. carrying on with diplomatic forms and symbols. She can make people feel better. And that’s about it.
Price above Rubies. We keep hoping that she’ll have a transformative moment, but she never does. Serena seems miserable in the aftermath of the beating she received at the end of episode 8. She doesn’t want to go to Canada with the Commander for his upcoming diplomatic trip. But Commander Waterford needs her as a symbol. “The Canadians think that women here are oppressed and voiceless. I need you to show them a strong Gilead wife.” Oppressed and voiceless is exactly how Serena Joy feels. The whacks to her bottom last week delivered the message that she is no longer an equal partner in a marriage, but chattel. She has to present a lie.
We can note the changes in the Waterford relationship since the beating. She is no longer responsive to his touch when he recites a Bible verse to her, although Bible verses were once a pre-sex turn-on for them. Fred can choose to respect or not respect her. It doesn’t really matter. Serena will never admit to buyer’s remorse.
Send Me Dead Flowers. Predictably, Serena Joy’s reaction when faced with her own powerlessness is to hurt someone even less empowered than herself: Offred. She exerts her phenomenally cruel will, telling Offred that she has to leave as soon as the baby is born instead of staying on to nurse it. Serena Joy has done her homework on infancy and pregnancy, and she would know how important breast milk is for child development. She claims to love the baby and want the best for it, but she puts her own turbulent emotions ahead of the baby’s needs. Slapping Rita around isn’t good enough to slake Serena’s power trip today. She can’t have someone around who has seen her vulnerable. This is a continuation of her choice to reject June’s offer of comfort last week. When faced with evidence that she made bad choices, Serena always reacts in line with the backlash effect. She rigidly doubles down and avoids evolution or reckoning. The baby is not the most important thing; power is the most important thing.
Diplomatic Limits. Up north in maple syrup land, Luke, Moira and Erin are watching CQN (Canadian Quick News?) footage of the Waterfords walking from the plane to the limo. Rachel Tapping at the embassy can’t do anything. She may agree with Luke and Moira that Waterford is a war criminal deserving of arrest, but she can’t do anything.
On the way to the Commander’s meeting with the Canadian diplomats, Serena Joy ravenously watches normal life moving on around her from the car window. None of the Canadians speaks to her or looks at her once, except for Genevieve, the aide who stays behind to hand her the printed sheet with pictures indicating her planned cultural activities for the day. Mrs. Waterford has nothing of import to do. Her value is now as an object for display. Her brain doesn’t matter. She’s just as capable as anyone walking into that room, but they don’t even see her anymore. She’s been given the same meaningless fluff itinerary that any traditional, minimally educated, unqualified political wife would have been given in the early 20th century, except that at least those wives got to read their schedules.
Serena, previously the star of the marriage, stands in the background as oily Fred charms the delegation with his French skills and disingenuously parries the minister for immigration, Kevin McCullough, who tells him, “I was very fond of visiting the States before. With my husband.” It’s the first time we’ve seen Waterford confronted by an LGBTQ person in a position of power. Waterford thinks gay people are degenerate and would string McCullough up at the wall back home in Gilead. But here, Fred has to make some hollow remarks about hoping that they’ll both return once tourism is running again, and McCullough replies, “When we feel welcome.” It feels good to see Waterford forced to treat a gay person with respect.
Rita’s Godparent Audition. Offred doesn’t have many cards left to play, and seems to be drifting toward breaking the vow she made to her child at the end of this season’s fifth episode, accepting that she will inevitably lose this baby. She’s looking for someone to do what she can’t. In a moment alone with Rita, Offred asks her to act as a godparent, telling her, “I want my baby to know kindness. I need her to have someone kind in her life.” Rita says she’ll do what she can, but she’s just plain scared. It isn’t enough. Nobody but June is going to put this baby first.
The Last (?) Temptation of Serena Joy Waterford. The Canadians at her hotel treat Serena Joy like a spectre of doom, staring and refusing to share an elevator with her. Serena goes to the bar and exercises a freedom she no longer has back home: ordering Riesling by the glass and sitting down with a handsome smoker, whom she assumes is with the press. His name is Mark Tuello, and he knows exactly who she is. He’s done his homework.
Serena deduces, correctly, that he didn’t run into her by chance. But he’s not a reporter. He works for the government, “helping people.” Mr. Tuello offers her a cigarette, then a plane to Hawaii, then the opportunity to publish in her own name. But Serena is not tempted: “So far all you’ve offered me is treason and coconuts.” Her value to the reduced, legitimate U.S. government is symbolic too, “A Commander’s wife would be excellent propaganda.” For all she knows, they could subject her to interrogation, and she already disrespected the state when she plotted its overthrow.
Then Tuello offers up the pay dirt: a biological baby of her own. It turns out that the real Americans have been working on fertility. They may not have the military resources to successfully wage an all-out war on Gilead from Alaska and Hawaii at the moment, but they’ve figured out that, if they can solve the fertility problem by scientific means, they will undermine Gilead’s reason for existing in the first place. He tells her, “Gilead blames the fertility crisis on women. On their sinfulness. We see the problem often originating with the men.” (I was right! It’s been the men causing the fertility crisis all along!) Serena turns him down again, but her hand trembles following their goodbyes. He’s gotten through to her.
Luke vs. Commander. Luke and the Commander have an explosive confrontation outside the hotel, when Luke breaks through the police barrier. This scene contains three unexpected confrontations: Serena with the evidence that a real family was ripped apart, Nick with the fact that the woman he loves is still already married, and Commander Waterford with the husband of the woman he raped. Luke, like Tuello, has a conception of a world after Gilead, one where Waterford will have to pay for what he’s done. “You can remember my face because I’m gonna remember yours. And this is all gonna be over someday.”
Waterford sanctimoniously plays at turning the other cheek. The Commander takes a line from the Trump playbook: blame the media and claim that they are the liars. His “lying media” tactics made my blood boil. The international arms of multinational news organizations would have remained mostly intact but powerless after Gilead slaughtered their American colleagues. They are doing their best to bring the truth to the people, while Gilead paints an erroneous picture. If anything, people are suffering due to failure to trust the press.
Luke meets Nick. Nick tends to put others first. He feels responsible for Eden even though her presence is a bore and an annoyance, and he left work that he badly needed to look after with his alcoholic brother. So it’s in character when Nick tracks Luke down at a Toronto bar, where he tells Luke that he’s a friend of June’s, that June is pregnant, and that the baby is Waterford’s. Nick does a fundamentally decent thing in lying about the baby’s paternity; what kind of man would tell a distraught refugee that he knocked up their captive wife? Nick doesn’t have to do any of this. While we’re on it, why doesn’t Nick say that he’s seen Hannah, since he drove Offred and Mrs. Waterford to their place? But that info is many months old.
Nick also gives Luke the letters that June smuggled out of Jezebel’s last season, which were burning a plot hole in his trunk like a flaming potato since Eden found them there in the last episode. Luke tells Nick to tell June that Moira made it out, that she’s living with him, that he loves June, and that he’s not going to stop fighting.
Aunt Lydia Finally Gets a Shred of Backstory. June must be desperate if she’s asking Aunt Lydia to be her child’s godparent following Rita’s half-promise. Neither of them is likely to be enough, or put the baby first. Rita has to protect herself, and Aunt Lydia puts Gilead and rules first. Aunt Lydia won’t tell Mrs. Waterford that Offred must stay until the baby is weaned, or intervene in any meaningful way, although she does promise protection when Offred hints at the violence in the house, that “Any man that would hurt a woman would hurt a child.” Aunt Lydia is a last resort. Aunt Lydia won’t teach the baby to read if it’s a girl, but she can offer some physical protection.
We finally get a human and personal moment from Aunt Lydia at the end of the conversation. “I was godmother to my sister’s child. He died when he was four days old.” So Aunt Lydia had a family, including a sister who didn’t see her as a monster, who liked and trusted her enough to charge her with the baby’s spiritual well-being, and possible guardianship for it in case it was orphaned. Where is that sister now? One practical reason that we know nothing about Aunt Lydia’s past is that nobody likes her enough to ask her about it. Viewers my be champing at the bit for Aunt Lydia’s origins story, but her charges are too busy fearing and hating her to ask her any personal questions.
Meeting Canceled. The Waterfords get some comeuppance after Luke uploads the Jezebel’s letters. It’s astonishing that the letters would go viral quickly enough to put the brakes on the meeting, but that’s what happens. The PMO tells Fred, “We believe the women.” Serena has no rejoinder beyond, “Go in grace” when a female official tells her, “I don’t know how you live with yourself. It’s sad, what they’ve done to you.”
Remember the last time that Fred Waterford put Serena Joy in front of a foreign diplomatic group? She won the day for him. But this time, she does nothing. Remember how she spoke at the university engagement? She could step forward and turn that meeting around if she still had the fire in her. She doesn’t. Even if she chooses to act otherwise, to double down, something in her has broken. She can double down in her head, she can double down emotionally and she can find new, crueler ways to take it out on Offred and Rita, but something in her interior is broken. In the moment that the Canadians called off the meeting, she stood in the background with tears in her eyes.
My Name Is Not Ruby. The Waterford motorcade is surrounded by protestors shouting “Free the women” all the way to the airport. Fred displays his real feelings about freedom of speech. “Look at this. They can’t even control their own people.” The “Republic” part of “Republic of Gilead” is window dressing. It’s a theocracy. Moira is in the crowd, and she knows that both Waterfords saw her and her “My Name Is Moira” sign. “Not Ruby, asshole,” she mutters. Hopefully, this is a sign that Moira will reach a healing point where she can handle intimacy again. Moira deserves a satisfying romantic storyline and some consensual sex scenes as much as any character on this show.
F— That. Nick relays Luke’s information, as promised. Offred shows a flash of the old June as she observes that Luke and Moira will kill each other if they’re living together. Nick also tells her about the letters. “It made a difference.” Whose side is he on, anyway? He’s an Eye, but he’s happy about the results of the leak. As June once inspired Moira to do the impossible, Moira now does the same for June. She tells the baby, “I know I should accept the reality of you being born here. That I should make my peace. But f— that.” She’s through with making peace. Whether anything comes of this remains to be seen.
The return from Canada also points to further disintegration of the Waterford marriage. Contrast the return from Canada with the hot night of forbidden, consensual sex between a loving married couple that they shared following Serena’s triumph at the Ambassador’s dinner last season. There is no longer any sense of physical connection between them. Serena Joy goes to her room without touching her husband and throws Mark’s verboten Hawaiian matches on the fire. It’s tempting to look for signs of change, but she’s a true believer. Serena Joy is to Handmaid’s Tale viewers as Lucy is to Charlie Brown, forever yanking the football away. Stop hoping.