The latest Handmaid’s Tale answers the question: Where exactly does one go after one turns one’s house into a smoking s’mores pit? Why, a holiday by the sea, of course!
The episode, titled “Useful,” gives us a glimpse into what Serena’s been doing since the last time we saw her. There’s a whole lot of grieving for the missing baby Nichole, some smoking and a little listening to her mom tell her how terrible she is — mix in the waterfront location of Serena’s folks’ house, and it’s essentially Club Dread.
Back at the Lawrence household, June and the commander try to get a read on each other (it doesn’t go well) and Nick shows up at an inopportune time with some unwelcome news (that doesn’t go great, either).
Read on for the hour’s highlights.
LEAGUE OF RATHER MEDIOCRE GENTLEMEN | June stands on a street corner, peering up at the corpses hanging from the street lights above her. “I don’t think Cora’s up there. I don’t think Lawrence would do that,” she voiceovers. Still, “If I’m going to survive this, I’ll need allies. Allies with power.”
Back at the house, Beth and the new martha, Sienna, are prepping for a big meeting: Apparently, all of the commanders come to Lawrence, because he won’t attend meetings. (Side note: I still don’t think I like Lawrence, but you’ve gotta admit: That’s a pretty great power move.) Beth and June whisper about how the flow of information seems to have slowed, likely because most of the marthas who knew anything about the resistance movement were rounded up and killed.
When the commanders start to arrive, it’s not long before Fred Waterford and June are alone in the dining room together. She wonders how Serena is doing, and he’s flip: “She’s tough,” he says. “She’ll be OK.” Then she asks what he knows about Lawrence. He calls him “an interesting man” and a “visionary” who helped bring Gilead into being, but admits he’s always been hard to read. “Well, if you can’t read him, I don’t know who can,” she replies, slipping right back into the flattering mode that served her best around him. When she presses him for more about her new commander, Fred says, “He does not like to be bored.”
SAY IT AIN’T SO, NICK! | When June enters the study, which is now full of commanders, she is surprised to see Nick sitting among them — and you’d better believe that Lawrence clocks the moment they glance at each other. The men are discussing a process called “salvaging,” which is not fully defined but which seems like a punishment worse than being sent to the Colonies. Lovely.
When a discussion about the difference in gender abilities comes up, Lawrence decides to humiliate June by mocking her former profession (book editor) and then commanding her to fetch Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man from his bookshelf. While she’s there, we see some of the works Lawrence wrote. They have titles like, Problematic Populism: Upheaval During the Fertility Crisis and the Long-term Effects on American Prosperity and The Religious Geneology of Western Economics. She retrieves the book in question and kneels to give it to him, then he dismisses her. “See? Women can be useful,” he quips as she leaves, making all those awful men laugh at her expense, so she sits in the dining room and tries to immolate him via extreme stinkface.
But later that night, June tries a different avenue. “I’m not proud of myself for this, or for any of it,” she tells us via voiceover as she approaches his office, where he’s sitting alone and poring over some files in his lap. “Binders, full of women,” he says (ha!), and starts quizzing her on whether she’s good at making friends, influencing people, “intimacy,” he says, drawing closer and seeming to be into the come-hither vibe she’s giving off. He gets very close to her face, then flatly asks, “Did this really work on Fred?” (Sorry, June, but that was funny.) He wonders how the Waterfords “could not notice how transactional you are” and then refutes her theory that if she can get him to like her, he might help her out at some point the way he did Emily.”
“I helped Emily because she was unnaturally smart and could be useful to the world someday,” he notes. “What did you ever do to help anyone?” He brings up some details from her past — sleeping with Luke while he was still married, how she didn’t pick Hannah up from school when she was sick — and then calls her “useless.” But our girl can’t leave without giving it back to him, and good: If he hadn’t created the system that made Gilead possible, none of them would be in the situation they’re in now, she points out. “It must be hell being a man like that. Far worse than ‘useless,'” she spits.
“How tempting it is to invent a humanity for anyone at all,” he muses, then announces they’re going to take a drive.
JUNE’S DILEMMA | Lawrence brings June to a wire holding pen full of women. They’re bound for the Colonies the next day, but he hands her the binder and tells her she can save five, who will be made into marthas. She won’t choose, so he tells her she’s condemning all of them to death. “I am not responsible for their deaths,” she protests. “You are. Gilead is.” But he calls that a “technical distinction” that won’t matter to the women in question. June, still refusing, returns to the car and cries.
The next day, Nick reappears at Commander Lawrence’s home. He’s a commander now, too (“It was my due,” he explains, and OH SHUT UP, NICK) but he won’t use his position to help her liberate Hannah and make for the border. “What are you good for?!” June cries. It’s a fair question. Nick non sequiturs that he’s getting deployed to the front at Chicago, and he wanted to say goodbye. She gives him a very curt one and he walks out of the room, but he’s waiting outside the door when she has a quick change of heart and comes after him. They do their finger-clasping thing, then she draws him back into the room and closes the door. Angry and disappointed nookie is better than none, I suppose?
TOUGH… LOVE? | Let’s check in on Serena, who’s staying at her mother’s house. Rita is there, too, and she seems to have softened a bit toward the sad, nine-fingered blonde. Rita makes a leather cover for her mistress’ hand that makes it look like she’s got all of her digits; if you listen carefully, you can hear the show’s CGI staff heaving a collective sigh of relief the minute Serena straps it on. “You will get through this, ma’am, by His hand,” Rita tells her. “What’s left of it,” Serena deadpans. (Ha!)
Serena joins her mother’s prayer circle and cries as they beseech God to bring Nichole home. Elsewhere, Fred delivers an impassioned speech about how he used to revel in little glimpses of Serena when they were first married, and how if he loses her, he loses everything. “That sounds good. Would you like to run through it again?” a woman asks… and that’s when we realize he’s practicing the monologue on an escort at Jezebels. FRED!
Later, Serena wants to tell her mother about her marriage to Fred, “what it was like between us and the things we did,” but the older woman won’t hear it, calling her a “spoiled little girl” for wanting things always to go her way. As Serena weeps and apologizes, Mama turns the screws: “You know there’s no place in this world for you without Fred.” And when Serena continues to cry, her mom deems it “self-pity.” After all, “You gave that baby away, and it wasn’t even yours.” Ouch. Also: True.
PERSONNEL MATTERS | The next morning, June comes down to find Serena in the Lawrences’ parlor. “Serena, only a mother could do what you did,” June reassures her, and they’re both teary as June urges her former mistress to think about all the women who’ve had their children ripped away from them. She adds that they have to help each other. “We cannot count on them. They hate us, Serena,” she says. “They are not on our side.”
Serena sadly points out that she tried to change things, and it didn’t go well. “I’m not that person anymore,” she sniffs, but June isn’t hearing it. “You’re scared. Use it,” she pushes. “Maybe we’re stronger than we think we are.”
Later, Lawrence comes upon June sitting with the files from the night before in her hand. “I made my choices,” she announces, handing him her five selections. Then she walks into the kitchen and announces to Beth that they’ll have five new, hand-picked marthas for the resistance: an engineer, an IT tech, a journalist, a lawyer and a thief.
In her head, June talks to her dead mother, Holly. “You wanted a women’s culture. It wasn’t what you meant, but it exists,” she says, more buoyant than we’ve seen her for a while. And then she mentally addresses the men holding Gilead’s women down: “We’re coming for you. Just wait.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!