The waspishness made those scenes a game for the viewer – hear the platitudes and the Under His Eyes and translate them to what’s really being said. Take Nick cutting Serena’s attack on June short at the airfield by telling her that the Lord had blessed him. Perfect doublespeak – Nick loves June and so his time with her was indeed a blessing. Take Commander Lawrence’s “You are a… marvel, Mrs Waterford.” We can bet that ‘marvel’ wasn’t precisely the word he had in mind.
And yet Commander Lawrence and Nick rallied to Serena’s cause. As good pragmatists, they saw the soft-power sense in it, and what’s good for Gilead is currently also good for them – despite them not being true believers. As Mark Tuello’s spy thriller offer to Nick (more flattery, repeated reference to Nichole as Nick’s daughter. Everybody’s a manipulator in this show) demonstrated, Nick wouldn’t have come this far without knowing which horse to back in a race, so it’s interesting that he backed Serena against Putnam.
Commander Putnam. Who’d have thought that, after producing almost 50 episodes of the most distressing TV drama ever to air, The Handmaid’s Tale could still make us sick to our stomachs with something new? Putnam prodding that oversized chocolate into Esther’s stricken face like the creepiest of creepy uncles verged on the unwatchable. Not just because we know teenage Esther’s history of being abused by much older men, but also because this drama has trained viewers well enough to fill in its gaps.
What happened after the camera did the same as everybody else and abandoned Esther in that GQ photoshoot lion’s den? Just look at the slimeball’s dishevelment in the meeting right after, and just look at her desperate resolve to die rather than end up as his personal toy. It wasn’t just chocolate pushed into that poor kid’s mouth.
Esther’s revenge against Gilead is a complicated one to celebrate because it risks swiping two of this show’s most watchable players off the board. If she succeeds in killing herself and Janine with those poisoned treats, then it’ll be a tragedy for the viewers, but god damn it if the girl’s not right. “Be good and you’ll be safe.” Get pregnant and be “a princess.” A baby is “the most complete love you’ll ever know.” Every word out of poor Janine’s mouth is a lesson she’s been taught not only in Gilead, but throughout her life. As have we all. Follow the rules and you won’t come to harm? Good one. Esther sees through the bullshit, having grasped that there is no protection for women in Gilead.
Serena learned that lesson when she lost a finger in the Season 2 finale, and so made sure she was armoured for her second petition to the Sons of Jacob. Her protection this time around? Celebrity. She’s banking on her persona as the grieving, pregnant widow making her a symbol. More than a symbol, sanctified (even if she looked more like Darth Vader than a saint in that billowing black cloak). That perfectly framed shot of the Gilead statue angel wings shooting out behind her shows us that she’s aiming for angelic – as she pitched to the Sons of Jacob, “barren woman made fruitful by his grace”. Serena stage-managed Fred’s lavish funeral to position herself as a global icon – the prima ballerina in a meticulous performance.