Season 3 (spoilers, Episode 3)
She looks at him, her white bonnet stark against the red of her her dress and the gloom that suffocates the room. She avoids the scorn in his eyes, persisting with the assumption of his guilt and remorse. But she is wrong. His condescension cuts through the overbearing intimacy of the moment:
“I helped Emily because she is unnaturally smart and could be useful to the world one day. If you were smart you would have gotten on that truck.”
She is not smart. She stayed behind for her daughter – to try and be her mother. Only, her daughter already has a mother, he reminds her:
“You met Mrs McKenzie. She’s a lovely woman. She never stole anybody’s husband. Do you know that she organised a thousand food baskets for orphans in Africa back when there were orphans. What did you ever do to help anyone? Except edit esoteric, useless books that no one was ever going to read instead of pick up your sick daughter from school.”
“Useless,” he mutters, as he turns his back on her.
After wreaking havoc with the Waterfords in the Seasons 1 & 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 3 sees June Osborne enslaved to Commander Joseph Lawrence, making her Ofjoseph. He’s the man who helped Emily escape with June’s baby, and also the man who allows an underground resistance to operate from his home. Sounds like June’s landed peachy. Ha. Commander Lawrence is also an architect of Gilead.
He’s a genius, a philosopher, a humanitarian, all juxtaposed with a righteous indignation that, for a moment, forces June’s indomitable spirit into an abyss. He taps into the fear that she is nothing, useless, temporary. Expendable. Boring. It’s an anxiety born from a culture of excess; a world that lauds intellectualism and adjudicates success by money. Lauded. Adjudicated. Gilead is different but old fears die hard. Commander Lawrence revives an existential angst that is rooted in meaning – worth and identity. It’s brutal and also entirely real.
June is no giant intellect (Lawrence’s words) and, clearly, she’s a shitty mother (putting her inconsequential job above the well-being of her daughter) as well as a shitty human being (stealing another woman’s husband). So inept a human being is June that it’s here that one of Margaret Atwood’s most chilling comments enters into the show; when Lawrence – says:
“How tempting it is to invent a humanity for anyone at all.”
Stop. The. Clock.
It’s a total twist.
Atwood’s original line in her novel (also The Handmaid’s Tale), is said by June (Offred) in reference to Commander Waterford, who she knows is a monster (he’s one of Gilead’s chief enforcers) but has also been kind and gentle to her (in a weird, Stokholm Syndrome kind of interpretation)…it’s an oxymoron that tempts June to impose kindheartedness and compassion onto someone who is a proponent of torture and tyranny. But she catches herself and we breathe a collective sigh of relief on her behalf.
In a fierce move, June’s observation is thrust back at her in Bruce Miller’s TV adaptation whereby Lawrence implies that June is the monster. Here the commander breathes a sigh of relief for almost inventing humanity for his Handmaid (the horror). Just…how? Like, is he even in the same town? It’s sickening. But also quite brilliant – that Commander Lawrence finds June inhumane. Lawrence delivers the line in reaction to June’s fury at the atrocities wrought in the name of Gilead and all that it stands for – but he speaks with a distant calm, almost not directed at June personally because, really, she is merely a symptom of a people, a world, corrupted by mediocrity.
It’s such an intensely brilliant dialogue because not only does it tap into June’s (and society’s) fear of worthlessness but also raises the idea of relativism – a topic in vogue, emanating from a century in which excess has made truth (largely) indiscernible. Commander Lawrence feels justified in his totalitarianism of Gilead; the murder and human rights abuses and that pervade Atwood’s dystopian world. A means to an end and all that. He tells June:
“I think I care more about your daughter than you do. I am saving the planet for her. I am replenishing the human race for her. What are you doing?”
(Well actually, Commander Lawrence, June is currently facilitating resistant action that will lead to the freedom and preservation of many women and children (including her own baby) trapped in Gilead. Hashtag FYI.)
Lawrence does acknowledge that June is good at making friends, good at influencing people and good at intimacy and yet these character attributes are not good enough to redeem her implied apathy. He condemns her for her choices; her very human choices – in Gilead, June’s only redeeming factor is that she is fertile. For which she is rewarded with the privilege of rape. But at least she’s not sent to the colonies, along with all the other disobedient, pointless women in the world.
Has the Commander forgotten that he, too, is human…something that might taint the purity of his ideology? Is he blameless? Or could Lawrence, with the vehement implementation of an autocratic regime, be overcompensating for some or other identity crisis of his own? Who is he to judge? Why does his moral code supersede that of anyone else?
And it’s right about now that a juggernaut of philosophical thinking propels its way in; what is morality and is it absolute? If we apply Handmaid’s Tale to this behemoth of a question, the outcome of relative morality is nasty – it’s Gilead. And Gilead sucks. Do we then deduce that absolutism is the antidote to Gilead; that truth, in the essence of its nature, is the key to the persistence of humanity, according the essence of its nature?
None of it matters anyway. Commander Lawrence is a man.