The Handmaid's Tale season 3, episode 3: 'Useful' recap and talking points

It's a big week for Serena Joy Waterford, a character clearly at breaking point

Ed Power
Sunday 23 June 2019 22:00
The Handmaid's Tale: Season 3 Trailer

For a drama that ostensibly uses dystopian science fiction as a prism through which to interrogate toxic masculinity and the baked-in misogyny of certain strains of religious belief, The Handmaid’s Tale can sometimes look suspiciously pretty.

That is certainly true of season three episode three which often glows like a gloomy perfume ad. In one of its later scenes we watch the grieving Serena (Yvonne Strahovksi) stride into the ocean, face bunched with pain. She is contemplating suicide – a moment that might have been devastating were it not so gorgeously backlit, the campfire strumming of Roy Harper playing as accompaniment.

Surface sparkle is front and centre everywhere this week. This does not come as a massive surprise. Having surpassed Margaret Atwood’s source text, The Handmaid’s Tale is rationing its storylines, lest it run out of traumatising tarmac. Rather than charging in, season three thus proceeds with a stateliness that can border on inertia. Again and again we are invited – expected – to pause and luxuriate in the bathos. This can cast its own kind of spell. It also demands an extra level of commitment from the viewer.

Here are the other talking points.

Is Commander Lawrence a sociopath?

He was introduced as an angel of mercy helping ferry June, Emily and baby Nichole out of Gilead. But with June (Elisabeth Moss) opting to stay to track down her other daughter, Hannah, we have discovered the Commander to be a man of hidden shallows.

Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) is a bully, as he makes clear humiliating former book editor June by having her fetch a copy of Darwin as the other Commanders watch (he’s so powerful they come to him rather than the other way around). But he’s a show-off and daredevil, too, as again illustrated by the Darwin stunt. Women are forbidden to touch books. And Darwin is presumably on the prohibited list in this god-fearing New World Order. How brazenly he taunts his peers (including the still useless Fred).

Later, after June makes a half-hearted attempt at seduction, Lawrence explains he tolerates, even sometimes facilitates, acts of defiance because he understands dissent functions as a pressure release. Lawrence turns a blind eye knowing it will strengthen rather than undermine the regime. He also reveals that he saved Emily because she is “unnaturally smart”. Is he telling the truth – or merely ratcheting up the mind-games? Whitford’s magnificent inscrutability is essential here. June doesn’t like Lawrence. She hasn’t yet decided to what extent he must be distrusted.

Has Serena joined the resistance?

Traumatised over the loss of her “daughter” – really June’s – Serena went back home, to the cold embrace of her ghastly mother. Her grief is fodder for the local prayer group. When she visits briefly June at Chateau Lawrence, she is therefore clearly at breaking point.

Understanding they are both victims of Gilead in their own way June comforts Serena (“only a mother could do what you did”). And she beseeches her to join the Mayday resistance – though obviously without saying as much out loud (she doesn’t want Serena to lose another finger). Serena says she cannot – and at that moment clearly intends killing herself. But, having waded out to sea, she pauses and returns to shore. Do June’s words resonate as she changes her mind?

Has June outsmarted Lawrence?

In his latest ghastly game the Commander takes June to a holding area for women due to be sent to the colonies, and almost certain death. Five will be spared but only if June selects the survivors (thus condemning the rest to their fate). He is presumably trying to illustrate the degree to which murk has replaced morals in Gilead – how even doing the right thing can leave one feeling compromised and besmirched.

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She turns the tables and picks a quintet whose talents will be crucial to the resistance: an engineer, a computer expert, a lawyer, a thief and a journalist (are you sure June?). Perhaps Lawrence and his smirk will be separated from one another before this is all ended.

Did June and Nick say their last goodbye?

We don’t see June’s husband, Luke, in Canada this week. It’s probably as well as, back in Gilead, she has one last steamy assignation with lover Nick (Max Minghella). He is now a Commander about to be sent to the front line in the war to save Gilead. Their get-together doesn’t advance the plot to any degree – but reminds us of the humanity still kicking and wheezing beneath June’s traumatised exterior.

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