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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Worlds Collide and Letters Ignite in ‘Smart Power’

Season Two, Episode Nine

Worlds collide in the ninth episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Smart Power.” On a diplomatic mission for the Gilead, the Waterfords cross borders and visit Canada, a part of North America that hasn’t devolved into conservative extremes and is still tentatively civil with their neighbors. It’s a smart move on the show’s part, as the world of Gilead and the Waterford home is already purposefully stifling for its characters (and perhaps, its viewers), who are simply visitors to the confining landscape. The second season has been teasing us with hard-earned possibilities of escape and cuts to Moira’s (Samira Wiley) life in Little America. And now, it’s finally giving us a satisfying and refreshing episode that forces Gilead’s creators to step outside of their comfort zone and reckon with what they’ve done.

It’s not just the setting change that revitalizes the show. If anything, Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) interactions with Canada are the truly fascinating and heartbreaking parts of the episode. In the first part of the episode, Serena looks outside the car window as she drives by people walking casually in the streets, a couple kissing with little regard for bystanders, and buildings absent of security guards. Serena gasps a little, a small but powerful gesture. This scene is cleverly lit, washing over Serena’s wonder-filled expression and the outside world in a hazy, dreamy light. Sometimes it moves in slow motion. It’s beautiful, but also a little sad—this world can’t be a reality for Serena.

And it’s sort of her fault. Little by little, the show starts to piece together the obvious truth that haunts Serena—that her pre-Gilead actions were never necessary to keep what used to be America alive. Though she waxed poetic about the dangerous situation the world was in (how birth rates were rapidly declining), it becomes increasingly clear that her and other conservatives’ methods were more than extreme. Serena is handed a schedule with no words—just simple pictures—by a presumably high-ranking Canadian woman who loves to read in her free time and studied French literature in college. Serena meets a child who asks Serena if she’s a princess, the go-to role model for young girls. Both Serena and girl's mother know that answer is undeniably, “no.” Serena and the pair choose to take separate lifts, despite Serena’s reverence for children. There’s so much brilliant and subtle irony and condescension wrapped up in these moments. This world exists with the freedom and equality the Waterfords fought to take away and may very well continue to do so despite whatever apocalyptic chaos is on the horizon.

Meanwhile, in Gilead, June (Elisabeth Moss) struggles to come to terms with Serena’s recent announcement—that June will not be staying to breastfeed the baby after giving birth, meaning June won’t be able to see her at all. She takes precautions to make sure that her child will grow up with protection in a violent household, calling upon Rita (Amanda Brugel) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to be her makeshift godmothers.

But that may not even be necessary. Towards the end of the episode, Nick (Max Minghella) and Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) meet. Nick passes on the letters written by the women of Gilead—the ones June thought she burned when she was still in her stress-induced delirium. Luke publishes them online, and Canada gets angry. The diplomatic mission is cut short, and the Waterfords are booted back to their own country.

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Change is coming for Gilead, whether the Waterfords want it or not. This delightful plot progression is perfectly paced in time for an explosive Season Two finale and a fitting preface to Season Three. “I know I should accept the reality of you being born here. Make my peace,” June thinks to her baby. “But fuck that."

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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