The Handmaid's Tale Goes Abroad in the Terrific "Smart Power"

(Episode 2.09)

TV Reviews The Handmaid's Tale
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<i>The Handmaid's Tale</i> Goes Abroad in the Terrific "Smart Power"

The Waterfords’ trip to Canada is going… awkwardly. And the Guardian who’s babysitting the household is, what, 19? Yikes.

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) didn’t want to go, but the Commander (an increasingly monsterized Joseph Fiennes) says she needs to show the Canadians that Gilead women are not “oppressed” or “voiceless.” (Yeah, maybe you should have thought about that before you beat the crap out of her with your belt for using her own brainium, Fred! Jussayin’.) Serena may have a mean streak, but she’s not an idiot. So it’s an interesting move, telling Offred (an increasingly large Elisabeth Moss) she’ll be dismissed as soon as the baby is born.

Moira (Samira Wiley) sees the Waterfords on the news, getting off the plane. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) has seemed awfully resigned to the situation so far, but now he’s activated. At the refugee center, they’re told there’s nothing for it—they are all guests of the Canadian government and they don’t have the power to send in the Marines to drag Waterford off in manacles; not for being a rapist, not for holding June against her will.

Serena’s driven through the streets of Toronto. She looks nervous. She’s not wrong to be nervous; in a world where people wear whatever they like and kiss on street corners, she knows people see her as a freak, a war criminal, or both, and she’s starting to notice they might have a point. Their reception by government officials is awkward. One minister notes stonily that he used to love visiting the U.S. with his husband, when they felt welcome. Serena is clearly stung by her itinerary, which of course is “written” in cheery graphics and dotted lines and arrows since she’s not allowed to read. After her brief stint as a stealth Gilead legislator, that’s gotta suck. First stop: The botanical gardens, where Serena finds herself under scrutiny in a giant greenhouse full of tropical foliage and orchids. (I love the use of hothouse imagery in this season, I really do.)

Guardian-boy is among many who have not learned how to deal with Janine (Madeline Brewer), and when she gets emotional on a walk over the idea that Offred won’t be able to nurse the baby, he ends up whacking her in the head with the butt of his rifle. (Sorry, Aunt Lydia.)

In the hotel bar, Serena orders a drink (Riesling? Of course it’s Riesling…) and is approached by a rugged looking dude who offers her a cigarette. She knows this guy knows exactly who she is (“I quit smoking. Your information is out of date.”) She assumes he’s a reporter, but he’s with the government—the American one. He offers to extract her from Gilead, send her to Hawaii. Let her write her story, publish it. She notes that a Commander’s Wife would make excellent propaganda. He agrees. But they both know it isn’t really propaganda if it’s true. (I wonder if the bruises on her ass have gone away yet.) Amid the potted plants and long windows of the bar area, she almost seems like she’s back in that greenhouse again, and the thought of being surrounded by quiet and palm fronds and Pacific breezes is probably not 100% distasteful even if she calls his offer “treason and coconuts” out loud. But he’s not offering just that: Fertility treatments in the remaining United States are pretty advanced. She could have a baby of her own.

“If you had done better research you would know I would never betray my country.”

“I thought you already did.”


There’s a welcome party waiting for the Waterfords at their hotel, the kind that looks a hell of a lot like an angry mob. At the forefront? Luke, holding a picture of June and Hannah and screaming “Waterford, you piece of shit! You raped my wife!”

“That’s Commander Shit to you, Sonny. And: Faaaake News!” OK I’m paraphrasing. But Waterford’s rattled. And Nick (Max Minghella) sees the photo. And he knows. He finds Luke in a bar and tells him he knows June. Luke loses it and takes a drunken swing at him, but Nick stands his ground, gives Luke the letters, and promises to tell June that Luke loves her, that Moira got out, and that Luke hasn’t given up. We like Nick.

Meanwhile, in Gliead, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) has a rather interesting conversation with Aunt Lydia, whose presence she seems to have come to accept and even maybe kind of sort of appreciate. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) mostly seems quite willing to blow off Offred’s “insolence” and “forgetting the rules” on “hormones.” Until Offred asks if she was ever a godmother, at which Aunt Lydia retreats into her officious shell with a reprimand. Offred carefully suggests that the baby might not be safe with a man who “would beat a woman” and Lydia hears loud and clear and is not happy. I’m starting to get the sense that her investment in her occupation is more complicated and personal than a mere lust for power, aren’t you? If you weren’t already, what do you make of her exiting remark? “I was godmother to my sister’s child. He died when he was four days old… It wasn’t my fault.”


They exchange a long look and Lydia leaves Offred to sit on the divan, crying and half-smiling as though she feels reassured that Lydia will in fact be hawkeyeing that baby. It’s probably the hormones.

Luke, Moira and no-longer-silent Erin page through the packet of letters. Fake news? I think not. Preparations are underway to drop a different kind of bomb on Gilead. They always say “actions speak louder than words,” but nothing really beats both. The letters are uploaded. The response is instantaneous. The Waterfords are no longer welcome in Canada. “Go in grace,” Serena whispers, looking stricken. The enraged mob follows them to the airport, holding up signs with their names on them. Moira breaks out of the crowd and raps on the car window and for a moment makes unmistakable eye contact with Waterford. My Name Is Moira. He looks away. “Not Ruby, asshole,” she growls.

At home, Serena unpacks, putting her interchangeable, identical teal-blue dresses on their hangers. She fingers the matchbox the American man from the bar had given her (from Hawaii, emblazoned with palm fronds and a tiki bar) and—reluctantly, it seems—tosses it into the fireplace.

One almost hoped she wouldn’t do it.

Nick visits Offred and tells her the letters “got out.” And that he had given them to Luke. If this wasn’t already a complicated conversation, that’d do it, I guess. He mentions that Moira escaped and is living with Luke. June’s overwrought enough to find the idea hysterical: “My God, they’d kill each other!” And Nick knows he can’t and shouldn’t try to compete with June’s “real” family, but he and June are also family at this point. They both know that. Shit’s complicated, that’s for sure.

The skeleton key to this episode isn’t an image. It’s actually the title. “Smart Power” means a number of things here: the power of intellect, the wisdom to wield power judiciously, the way intelligence (both connotations) can drop a bigger bomb than an actual bomb ever could. Knowing the power of your own value and the value of your own power even when the system tries to confuse you. It’s the bitter understanding of the power Serena has forfeited and the wounded, guilt-ridden attempts by Aunt Lydia to find some way to exert her power, such as it is, for good (while also being quite willing to use it to torture people). It’s the power of love and connection and common ground, the power of names, the power of truth. It’s Offred learning to navigate Gilead’s draconian landscape without losing herself and to understand, in a continuous stream of small revelations, how much power she actually has, even if it seriously doesn’t look like it right now. In Gilead, the easy thing to do would be to become Janine, so pummeled by the system that she’s like a babbling child (albeit one who can suddenly yell “suck my dick” at someone who has the authority to shoot her for shooting her mouth off). June has no such protective shell: She’s too smart, and too willful, to give in.

When you look at a very pregnant woman (and if you’ve ever been one, you know what I’m talking about) it’s easy to see something extremely vulnerable. And, in a way, they are (we unfortunately take it lightly in contemporary society, but the fact is, giving birth can absolutely kill you). But tired and unwieldy as one might feel and appear, a pregnant woman is basically God: She embodies and contains the pure power of creation—the profound intelligence of biology itself, the most mundane miracle in the world because it happens all over, every day. But as we cut to black on one of Elisabeth Moss’s signature thousand-yard stares and the internal monologue quip, “I know I should accept the reality of you being born here… but… fuck that,” if you don’t see a nuclear warhead in a red dress, you might need an optometrist. That’s power. The smart kind. Which, whatever you might have experienced or been led to believe, is the only kind that matters in the end. At least, it’s the only kind to care about if you want to live life on your own terms.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.