Under the Eye: “Useful”

Here’s the thing about dead bodies hanging in a town circle. It’s not a good look for any community. That’s the last thing you want to put in your tourist brochures. Ladies, back me up on this. As we often open an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on a cheery note, we have June, Ofwarren, and Ofglen looking up at the bodies of Marthas hanged for “heresy.” Janine says, “They’re starting to smell.” Again, not good for Gilead’s Chamber of Commerce. Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) looks like he knows the secret to success: pretend to be busy and annoyed at the same time! It’s fun for the whole family, except there are no families in Gilead. I’m thinking of introducing Yakov Smirnoff jokes into these essays. In America, you watch television. In Gilead, television watches you … and so forth. That’ll get old in a hurry.

I can’t imagine being catered to by fearful women. I’d rather not, even if I thought I were a brilliant man who deserved sub-humans to tend to my every need. It’s a bizarre life structure to have. In addition to looking busy and annoyed, Lawrence likes to spend his time fucking with his Marthas, as well as June. He’s an unpleasant man, but he does have a sense of humor about himself. He hosts a gathering of assholes-I’m sorry, I mean Commanders. Waterford takes the opportunity to catch up with his former handmaid. June quizzes him with regard to Lawrence’s quirks and eccentricities. This is sweet. Like a horrible family reunion with an abusive dad or pederast uncle.

The Commanders contemplate military strategy while debating the use or purpose of women. Is this Gilead? Just sitting around with brandy and cigars and talking about women? How do they get the trains to run on time? In the middle of all this, Lawrence puts June on the spot, acknowledging her background as a book editor, asking if she can reference books about sexual politics between men and women. When he asks for a specific book, June has to play it cool and pretend she can’t identify the titles, because women either can’t read or can’t be allowed to read. Indeed, the other Commanders in the room are very curious to see if she will find the book on her own or wait for help from the “literate” men. She makes him navigate her to the precise place where a particular book is located. June stares daggers into the invisible abyss.

The two biggest strengths of the series have, so far, been Elisabeth Moss and Bradley Whitford, and thankfully we’re treated to some wonderful debates between the two characters they play. After a few moments of playing the roles of dominant and submissive, they’re on equal footing with their anger, because anger is the great leveler. Lawrence’s position is that he is trying to make a better, safer world for children like Holly and Hannah. He tells her she has done nothing to help people, and he’s probably right. June was, and still continues to be, a selfish brat; an overgrown baby. Lawrence has marked her for the manipulator she is. Lawrence takes her to what looks like a stockade filled with women bound for the Colonies. He tells her he is in the position to select five of these doomed women to become Marthas, thus sparing their lives.

He makes June choose the five, and perhaps that will give her a rough idea of the cross Lawrence must bear in his position. When June refuses to choose, he tells her he won’t choose any of them. June doesn’t want responsibility for their inevitable deaths, and … that is June. In a nutshell. Nick shows up at the Lawrence house, and confirms that he has been promoted to Commander, but that he can do nothing for her. He’s being deployed to the front (somewhere in Chicago), and he wanted to say goodbye. Goodbye, Nick — ya big loser! I suppose I should get into the dynamic between Serena and her mother, but there isn’t much to discuss. Serena leaves Fred to live at her mother’s house, and her mother is just another vacuous moron in the clutches of Gilead, so she’s no help. Maybe I could feel the slightest bit of sympathy for Serena. I could, but I can’t.

Serena is still a monster, so watching her cry in front of her indifferent mother does nothing for me. Mom doesn’t care because, in her words, “You gave that baby away, and it wasn’t even yours.” That’s cold. That’s some serious family cold. The environment is so toxic, Serena seeks out sympathy from June. I swear. None of these people know how to read a room. I’m pretty sure, if she had the tools and the time, she would leap over a few chairs and tables just for the opportunity to slice Serena’s throat, but June enjoys the “long con.” She even manages to play Lawrence’s game. She makes her choices for Marthas. She sees them as recruits for the resistance, based on their personal biographical information: lawyers and thieves the lot of ’em! Now, that’s smart power. Though nothing happens in “Useful,” it’s not a bad episode, and it doesn’t leave much room for inspection and analysis into the flawed world-building of the show as a whole.

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