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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Handmaid’s Tale explores the razor-thin line between Gilead and Not Gilead

Image of Samira Wiley in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale
Samira Wiley stars in The Handmaid’s Tale
Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Considering we are still reeling from the pandemic-induced Shecession, it feels appropriate that we have a very special “women in the workforce” episode in this season of The Handmaid’s Tale. At least that’s what I’m calling it since so much of it focused on how two very unlikeable but capable ladies had to overcome barriers, biases, and bro culture in order to do the job they so desperately wanted to do.

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There have been several moments over the course of the show where June and Aunt Lydia mirror each other, especially when it comes to their drive. This is one of those moments. Over in Chicago, June is realizing that Leader Steven is way more interested in humping Janine than in actually, you know, resisting. She is desperate to go on missions, help with the trades, figure out how to kill even more people with her bare hands. Over in Gilead, Aunt Lydia is leaving her frustration on that treadmill with an intensity usually reserved for Peloton fanatics right on January 1. A new batch of girls is ready to undergo Handmaids bootcamp and she wants nothing more than to be their drill sergeant.

June, done with any submissive behavior or soft power tactics, tries to be direct with Steven. She wants to go on trading missions across town but, as he points out, “fresh meat stays here.” Excellent choice of words for a guy who charges sex as an entry fee. Lydia, confident that protocol and pious attitude will help make her case to the Head Aunt, is shut down. (I don’t know what the official title for the woman who makes this decision is so I’m dubbing it Head Aunt until someone corrects me.) She then turns to Commander Lawrence for help—okay, to blackmail him into giving her the position. But it’s the only recourse she has left, aware that only a man has the authority to grant her true wish.

As much as I want one of those Gilead bombs to drop right on top of Steven’s head, I can appreciate what the writers are doing with his presence. As any straight woman who might have been wooed by a DSA member knows, just because you and a dude have a common enemy, it doesn’t mean that they actually see you as an equal. (Kidding, kidding! #notallDSA #ivotedforbernietooitsfine) Look to any admirable political movement around the world and you’ll probably find at least one Steven really killing the vibe for the women who have an actual stake in the game. June’s frustration is palpable. She can no longer ride on the infamy that the Angel Flight had granted her in certain circles, and it’s Janine’s wily flirtatious ways that end up swaying Steven. Yet another instance in which the line between Gilead and Not Gilead is razor thin and so often crossed. The same can be said of Aunt Lydia’s more cunning tactics, closer to the traditional male sphere of politics. She too has to carve Not Gilead spaces for herself in order to accomplish what she wants

In other words, men’s bullshit is still running all their lives.

The workplace shenanigans extend to Commander Lawrence’s wobbly position in echelons of power. When the episode begins, he is standing before the Gilead Council in that podium they use for criminals, tortured prisoners, job interviews, I don’t know. It’s a catch-all, but it clearly means that you are several steps down in the hierarchy. He is pushing for a ceasefire at the border to help alleviate the sanctions that have depleted Gilead’s economy and bring in aid. He is voted down, even by Eyebrows. After Aunt Lydia dishes out the dirty secrets of the Council members, Commander Lawrence proposes his ceasefire again. One can assume that he’s let them know he has scalding hot tea and is ready to spill it for this time they vote in favor. With one caveat: they get to bomb the borders first, including Chicago. By then Eyebrows is very well aware that June might be in the city, which not only makes him sad, but will probably lead to a rift between him and Lawrence down the line.

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Image of Elisabeth Moss in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale
Elisabeth Moss
Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Lawrence. What to do with Lawrence? What to think of him? While Nick’s sole sights are on saving June, I cannot for the life of me get a read on what Commander Lawrence’s end goal is. I even went down a massive internet rabbit hole to refresh his whole trajectory during the course of four seasons and I still have nothing. He’s coming off more and more as the kind of guy who thinks the economy is a god unto itself, meant to justify any sort of horror as long as it keeps churning. His main negotiation with Lydia was based on his own desire to have a seat at the table. Is it pure political pursuit at this point? Were his previous rebellious antics an attempt at finding other paths for glory? It’s not like the ravenous quest for power is out of the realm of possibilities in anyone involved with politics, causing all sorts of shifting positions and hypocrisies. TL;DR it’s getting annoying.

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This wasn’t an explosive episode (pun!) and after last week’s sublime storyline with Rita, it felt like a bit of a lull. However, it did lay down some intriguing groundwork for whatever developments are to come. Aunt Lydia again has a realm to lord over and she is determined to get June back in her grip. Nick is also hellbent on finding June. Lawrence now gets to sit with the Big Boys. And June is leaving Steven’s mediocre fight for freedom in search of a group called the Nighthawks, whose signature move is incinerating soldiers.

At least that’s where we think she’s headed until another plot twist falls from the sky.

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Stray observations

  • Though the city looks like it’s been razed by a feral pack of Big 10 frat bros on Cinco de Mayo, someone behind the scenes clearly loves Chicago! Did you catch all the references? The Art Institute! Sue, the T-Rex! Do-Rite Donuts! Dante’s Pizzeria! June looking like a Naperville mom with that hoodie and Cubs cap!
  • If the badassery of border rebels were solely determined by the quality of the tacos in each region, Chicago would be number one. I SAID WHAT I SAID. I don’t care what California and Texas have to say about this.
  • Not gonna lie, Aunt Lydia’s retirement facility could take all my money for a chance to spend my golden years there. Give me a puzzle and some comfy couches and I’m good.
  • Had a momentary flashback to my Opus Dei high school as Aunt Lydia led the new Handmaids in exercises. In a cold sweat I muttered under my breath our motto, “Para servir, servir” during that whole scene. Seriously, that could easily be put in the Handmaid Bootcamp Diploma and nary would anyone consider it out of place.
  • Back to my question from last week about Janine and her decision to acquiesce to Steven’s sexual request: It was revealing to hear her voice out loud how she was doing it out of her own volition and that her dream scenario was having a baby again. Janine has absolutely terrible taste in men, but she is at least clear on what she wants from them.
  • If there’s a Coldplay cover sung by a soft-voiced woman, you know executives are confident they’re about to serve you a stirring-emotional-TV-moment. Did it work?
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Ines Bellina is a writer, storyteller, and bon vivant. When she's not working on her novel or overscheduling herself, she sings love songs to bulldogs.