Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Season 3, Episode 3: “Useful”
Directed by Amma Asante
Written by Yahlin Chang
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Mary and Martha” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “God Bless the Child” – click here
“Heresy” is the official reason those who are part of the resistance were hanged— June (Elisabeth Moss) watches the bodies of several Marthas swaying in the wind. Gilead doesn’t even want to entertain the idea there’s a revolution, of any kind.
No martyrs. Only hanging, rotting bodies.
Back at the Lawrence home, June wonders what it’s like be a man “watched by women” as she thinks of Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and how wielding the power of gender over others might feel. He’s an especially powerful member of Gilead. Other Commanders have to come to his place for meetings. There remains something sinister about him, despite his relative tolerance of June and the Marthas, and helping Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape.
At the house, other Commanders soon join Joseph. When Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) arrives he winds up chatting with June. He asks how things are there. She tries to get info about Joseph, whom Fred calls “an interesting man.” Everybody’s slightly confused by him, even the other Commanders. Double so for the viewer: he was an architect of Gilead’s economy, a major part of its creation, simultaneously now helping women escape at least SOME horrors he helped originate.
Lots of Gilead business talk at Lawrence’s home. Plenty of sexism and misogynistic talk while June a.k.a Ofjoseph has to listen about “an individual‘s value as it pertains to gender.” She gets asked by Joseph if there are any books on the topic, given she was part of the literary world. He ignores anything she might potentially say, asking her to fetch a copy of The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin. A subtly embarrassing moment for the Handmaid. She must then kneel and present her Commander with the text.
Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is spending time with her mother, as well as the old lady’s prayer circle. She attends the circle, called into the middle. They use prayer to help her through her rough time. She’s not entirely feeling as faithful as she did once. Perhaps the religious / patriarchal bonds keeping her in place are beginning to actually rust away. She doesn’t like that her mother told the prayer circle everything about her marriage. Once we see what her mother’s like it isn’t difficult to comprehend how Serena succumbed to internalised misogyny. Meanwhile, Fred’s rehearsing a speech he’ll give to his wife, talking it over with a naked woman in his room.
That night, June brings the Commander tea and Joseph’s going through “binders full of women” (a nice Mitt Romney dig). She’s continuing to try and get a read on the man. He seems like he’s trying to figure out how best to use her to his own advantage. He goes on about some misogynist shit. She shoots back at him about the faults of men. Commander Lawrence claims he helped Emily because she was “unnaturally smart” and could be “useful” to the world. He’s deluded himself into believing his Gilead crusade is righteous. Doesn’t stop June from shitting all over him, calling him “far worse than useless.” She knows he probably only does what he does so he doesn’t kill himself over the guilt of seeing his theories turn into real executions(etc).
“How tempting it is to invent a humanity
for anyone at all”
Commander Lawrence takes June with him on a drive to an area where there’s a factory. Inside, he leads her through a set of cages filled with women, of all ages. They’re all going to the Colonies, except only five, which Joseph was able to make Marthas. It doesn’t impress June, when so many more women will basically be sent to their death. The Commander asks her to choose which five survive. An ugly, cruel game.
If June doesn’t play, all of the women die. She refuses to take the responsibility. Nevertheless, it’ll weigh on her soul because she’s a moral person, unlike Joseph, perpetually proving he’s a horrid creature.
Nick (Max Minghella) comes to see June. She asks about Lawrence, needing to know more about him. She’s frustrated with Nick’s inability to do anything about it. Worse, he’s getting shipped off to Chicago to fight, potentially never to return to Gilead. That’ll be one less person she can count on, one less glimmer of hope in a sea of horrific men.
The next day, June gets another visit, this time from Serena. The Commander’s wife asks if the Handmaid thinks of baby Nicole. June does, all the time, and Serena, too— it’s just the latter isn’t used to dealing with the worst parts of Gilead, privileged, ironically, by her barren womb. Surprisingly, June considers Serena “a mother” to her baby. She also wants her to think of “all the other mothers” who’ve been robbed of their dignity and children. She wants Serena to help change things with her.
But can Serena truly change herself?
In the meantime, June’s decided to help save at least five women, giving names to Commander Lawrence— might only be five, but it’s better than none. That’ll be five more women to add to the resistance, chosen specifically for their various talents.
Soundtrack note: “How Does It Feel” by Roy Harper is the final song of the episode
The revolution WILL be televised! This is why Season 3 continues to do the best work of the series, at times, because we’re finally getting through to seeing these women working at overcoming all this madness. They’ve been trying before, mostly just hanging on for dear life while surviving Gilead’s horror. This time around, the rebellion is becoming much more active and autonomous.
“God Bless the Child” is next.