Alexis Bledel
Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)

There are scenes in “Postpartum,” the penultimate episode of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, that come as a genuine surprise. That surprise isn’t the result of shocks or twists, though there is something a little twisty—or perhaps twisted—about Emily’s first night in the Lawrence household. Instead, the surprise comes from an abrupt shift in tone, from bleak and unsparing to that of a gothic funhouse, laced through with a wryness usually only glimpsed, however briefly, in June’s voiceovers. All of a sudden, The Handmaid’s Tale feels like it’s turned a new corner, in one storyline at least, and found a whole new color palette with which to play.

And when it turned that corner, it also found a legitimately intriguing male character, and that’s the biggest surprise of all. Perhaps I should have started with that one.

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Bradley Whitford’s gothic, off-kilter turn as Commander Lawrence, and his thrilling pas de deux with Alexis Bledel, serve as an easy point of contrast with most of the other male characters (and, frankly, performers) in The Handmaid’s Tale, but they are also well worthy of examination on their own. What must first be said is that as startling and strange as the Lawrence house sequences are, and as welcome as they might be as a change of pace, they seem to be a bit out of place, given this episode’s positioning in the season. How, with all that happens in those few brief scenes, could this storyline be satisfactorily resolved in just one hour? Perhaps that would be possible if such an hour focused only on Emily, the Lawrences, and their jaded-as-fuck Martha (“Try it, old man”), but there is no universe in which June (and thus Elisabeth Moss) does not play a central role in next week’s finale.

While it’s thrilling to see The Handmaid’s Tale test its borders a bit, to try on a little Jane Eyre for size and play with the bleakly comic potential of a well-timed sip of dark beer, the late arrival of this change seems to undermine its potential. It’s possible, of course, that Whitford (and Julie Dretzin, who plays Eleanor Lawrence) will return next year, but if that’s not to be—and I suspect it isn’t—it will mean that these fascinating scenes are a mismatch, and not a new window through which to peer. That would be a shame.

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Fascinating, they are. In just a few short scenes, we learn a great deal about Commander Lawrence and the Lawrence household more broadly. Some of the credit there is due to production designer Elisabeth Williams (also of Fargo) and director Daina Reid, who together make the shift in tone immediate from the visual language alone. (Does Lawrence have a Basquiat in there?) Some of it is due to writer Eric Tuchman, whose work, particularly in the beer scene, is filled with small, strange shifts and gives Whitford and Bledel so much room to play. As with the introduction of any good story line, it leaves the audience with plenty of questions and seemingly limitless possibility. I’ve watched that scene closely several times now, and each time brought something new and ugly.

But as stated above, what’s perhaps most electric about those sequences is how good Whitford is, and how dynamic (and terrifying, whatever his intent) Lawrence is as a character. It has the unfortunate side effect of underlining how poorly or broadly developed most of the show’s other male characters are at this point. This isn’t an argument that the series should spend more time with Waterford, Nick, and Luke, but that they should spend that time better. (It’s also worth noting that while all three actors have had excellent moments on this series, there’s a bit of a Three Bears situation when it comes to their performances. Joseph Fiennes does much, much too much, and often of the wrong things. Max Minghella does too little—I would rather restraint than histrionics, but Nick has startlingly few facial expressions. O-T Fagbenle is, for the most part, Just Right, though he has precious little to do. Whitford is on another level from all three entirely.)

One such example of time that could have been better spent: Rohan Mead’s Isaac. We meet Isaac as a sort of counterpoint to Eden, a terrifyingly young soldier whose obvious commitment to the job and Gilead makes him a powder keg. He’s introduced as being callous, ruthless, and savage, with that baby face making his presence all the more upsetting. Then he’s kissing Eden. Then he’s dead.

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What’s frustrating is that, while it’s totally possible to engage with a character like Isaac—someone successfully indoctrinated by a brutal regime, who is both responsible for his reprehensible actions and the product of a world designed to take people like him and transform them into remorseless soldiers—The Handmaids’s Tale doesn’t stop to explore those complexities. Instead, he is one thing until he is the other, instead of being all things at once. That the show doesn’t choose to develop that character is perfectly fine. That it seems to expect its audience to care about the death of that character is decidedly less so.

What’s also less than fine is the damage that choice does to the end of Eden’s storyline, which feels both ineffectively manipulative and like a waste of immense potential. Eden (Sydney Sweeney) is a character in possession of the complexities described above, but the show (admirably) allows us to engage with those, as they do with nearly all the show’s female characters. The Eden terrified that her “husband” might be a gender traitor, the girl helpfully cleaning her new home and stumbling onto potentially lethal information, the young woman who innocently believes in everything Gilead claims to be—that person is far more interesting to me than the Juliet we see crash gracefully into that pool full of balls-and-chains.

Sweeney does beautiful work with her final scenes, mining them for all the pathos she can, but Eden’s death isn’t about Eden. It’s about changing the dynamics in the Waterford household yet again, separating Nick and June (whether out of guilt on Nick’s part, an impulse to protect June from the same fate, or both remains to be seen) and bringing Serena and June back together.

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How this latest iteration of the messy, messed-up June and Serena team-up will assert itself remains to be seen. That particular back and forth might be wearing, if it weren’t for the fact that Moss and Yvonne Strahovski are both so good. Strahovski and Ann Dowd both do masterful work on this series, and a big part of their success comes from the fact that they play these monsters as people. Serena can be the woman who helped design and implement this nightmare; the woman who petulantly refuses to allow the birth mother of the baby she stole to breastfeed it, despite the fact that it’s the best thing for the daughter she claims to love; and a person who desperately wants to be a loving mother, to care for the baby in her arms, to give love to that child and to mourn the senseless death of another. She never lets us forget who Serena Joy is, but she also never plays her as merely a villain. Some of the world’s most dangerous monsters believe that they are good at heart.

And that brings us to the Joseph Fiennes problem.

Part of what makes Whitford’s appearance on this show such an incredible breath of fresh air is that he, like Strahovski and Dowd, is playing layers upon layers. Every pause is loaded. Every sniffle carries weight. Every word cuts two ways. Even his eyebrows tell a piece of a bigger, more complicated story. Yet despite all the complexity, all the layers, he never lets you forget that this man is a threat, a nightmare. Joseph Fiennes has had great moments on this show—he was great, for example, in the big Waterford showdown last week—but I can think of no single scene in which he does half as much as Whitford. Compare only their silent reactions when they first see June and Emily in this episode. Whitford’s Commander is startled, stares, puzzles, takes the measure of, moves on, comes back. Layers on layers.

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Fiennes’ Commander stares and condescends, until June’s dress is wet with breast milk. Then he leers. Later, more staring and leering. Admittedly, his scenes with Strahovski are significantly more complicated, and I don’t think he’s aided by the way the character has been written. But Fiennes, and Commander Waterford, have been a weak point on this how for some time. Let’s hope this study in contrast helps The Handmaid’s Tale to course correct next season.

Stray observations

  • According to the closed captioning, it’s spelled “Nichole.” Also, the Martha in the Lawrence house is named Cora.
  • If you’re now a Sydney Sweeney fan, look for her in Sharp Objects, which starts on HBO this weekend.
  • Fuck bran muffins.

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