In times of trouble, it’s wise to think strategically. Redundancies are helpful. So is careful image management. The wise look for opportunities to tilt the balance of power, to take a calculated risk, to change the narrative. Moving deliberately is advisable. Acting impulsively often is not. But sometimes, the failure to act on an impulse can have catastrophic results.
That’s all to say that “Smart Power,” a tense hour of The Handmaid’s Tale, is a carefully wrought piece of television that mostly sets the stage for what’s to come, and yet there’s something about it that lingers. It’s as though everyone has retreated to their corners a bit, planning for whatever comes next, taking small steps to prepare for big moments. And in the midst of all that carefulness, all that quiet strategy, three people walk into moments that could be life-altering. Two of them take a big swing. One of them lets the moment pass. And it’s possible that at least two of them are now, essentially, doomed.
“Smart Power” doesn’t sideline June, but she’s not one of those three. Instead, she spends her hour dealing with a big revelation and then acting accordingly. Serena’s announcement—a well-timed reminder that, temporary alliance or not, brutal beating or not, this is still a woman intent on taking a baby from a woman who was repeatedly raped, and that she was and is complicit in those assaults—hits June like a forceful blow, which it is; she then spends a good part of the hour lining up two allies for the child she believes will soon be taken from her. One is expected (and Amanda Brugel finally gets a meaty scene, thank god) and the other is, well, not.
June chooses her redundancies wisely. Rita doesn’t seem to be a likely confederate, but anyone watching closely (and god knows June has been watching closely) will have noticed the flashes of compassion, the small kindnesses, the fearful, uncomfortable displays of warmth. Theirs is a quick but powerful scene—Rita understands what’s being asked, and is characteristically prickly about it, but accepts the burden of care June is asking her to take. It’s clear, heavy, careful, and terrific. Elisabeth Moss and Brugel are very good at their jobs.
The second is a surprise, and a risk, but one that makes good sense. She enlists Aunt Lydia (and it’s possible that Ann Dowd is the only woman alive who could make this scene work so well). Aunt Lydia is the enemy. She’s a monster, and she’s particularly terrifying because she’s so committed to her cause. She’s a true believer. That means that in almost every case, she can’t be corrupted. Hers, in her mind, is the side of the righteous, the only true way. She’s a hero, on a mission from god. But her mission, her righteous path, is all about children. Perhaps her tenderness toward Janine—who she called Janine occasionally, even in season one—comes from Janine’s sometimes childlike nature. The tears she sheds for fallen handmaids perhaps come from both grief for the children they’ll never bear, and for the women themselves, because she is an aunt to them. Confessing her fears for the safety of her child to Aunt Lydia is a risk, but it’s a risk June takes, because in this one instance, when the safety and wellbeing of a child is concerned, she can be considered an ally. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, she might have thought, and in this case, the enemy is anyone who would hurt a baby.
It’s possible neither of these alliances will amount to much. June ends the episode, not planning for the worst, but giddy at the hope of escape. But they set the tone for an episode in which everyone is asked to consider risks and options. Commander Waterford, faced with a massive PR challenge, totes along his favorite, and newly cowed, prop. Serena, confronted with the realities of a world very much like the one she helped to tear down, finds herself shaken, but when presented with the chance to get the hell out and right her wrongs (and she knows that they are wrongs, at this point), she chooses to continue the life of both oppressor and oppressed. She could have Hawaii, or she could have the baby she tells herself is hers. Not even the prospect of a child of her own (and it’s unclear if her government suitor is suggesting that she would carry her own child, which this season suggested is impossible for her, or if he’s proposing a legal, nightmare-free adoption) can persuade her to leave her monstrous life.
That’s the big opportunity Serena passes up, and it sure feels ominous. Nick and Luke each confront their own huge opportunity, and unlike Serena, they each choose to act. Nick does (mostly) right by the woman he believes he loves, getting information to her husband, bringing information back, and putting into his hands the bundle of letters June had to fight so hard to receive. Luke, realizing that his wife’s rapist is in town, sets aside his resignation and leaps into action, hurling his body at the man and shoving an image of his broken family under the noses of all who stand by, including Waterford’s wife and driver. When that driver makes contact, bearing a gift, he shares it with the women now in his life, and together, they choose to act.
It’s hard to imagine that theses choices will end well for Serena and Nick. Some part of Serena knows that her existence is a nightmare, that her actions are evil, and yet she passes up what’s likely to be her only chance to save herself and to attempt to right even some of her wrongs. Nick chooses rebellion, knowing his terribly young, victimized, true believer of a wife poses a danger to both him and to June. In that way, these choices are “table-setting” choices, setting us up for what comes next. But in another, they’re part of a cool, sharp hour, one that places several of the show’s main characters at a crossroads. Efficient, sure. Strategic, certainly. It’s a cog in the season’s machine—but it’s also damned effective, intimate, and powerful. It’s a cliché, but a useful one: “Smart Power” is the calm before the storm, as those in its path batten down the hatches, or else step into its early, vicious winds.
- Watching Serena walk around in her wife garb was wild. The printout without words was even wilder.
- Musical corner: I feel like the Rihanna/SZA needle drop shouldn’t work for me, but man, did it ever. It felt like Rihanna telling June not to lose her shit, just as June told Moira the same.
- I wish we’d spent more time with Moira, but seeing her with that sign was quite a thing.