The Handmaid’s Tale has unleashed a lot of horrors this season. Many episodes have been so full of despair they’ve been hard to watch. And while “Smart Power” does contain a few awful moments, taken as a whole it’s the most triumphant hour season two has delivered so far. Praise be.
In her golden-lit bedroom/prison cell, June takes a moment to remind herself that under the circumstances, “it does no good to want the impossible”—things like a reunion with Luke and Hannah, or a very sharp machete. But a moment is all she’s got, because Rita’s at the door: “We’ve been summoned.” Wife-beating asshole Commander Waterford informs them that he and Mrs. Waterford will be heading to Canada on “a short trip for work” (as if anyone in Gilead takes fun vacations). Nick will also be going, so a heavily armed young Guardian named Isaac is installed temporarily to watch over the household.
Tending to her dying flowers in the world’s most depressing greenhouse, Serena tries to beg off; after all, Offred’s in her third trimester. What if the baby needs her? “This trip is for the baby,” Fred says. “We’re building his future. You’re a crucial part of that! The Canadians think women here are oppressed, that they’re voiceless. I need you to show them a strong Gilead wife.” Serena Joy’s silent revulsion—we can see her face, but Fred can’t—is the only act of rebellion she can muster. So she passes on her misery to June, as she’s fond of doing, by announcing that as soon as the baby (which Fred assumes will be a boy) is born, Offred will be removed from the household. “I think we’ve all had more than enough of one another,” Serena says, which is true, but June’s still fearful. It’s going to be awfully hard to protect her baby if she’s booted back to the Red Center or into another posting, possibly one with an even more heinous family, as soon as she gives birth.
Heading to the market, June tells Janine of Serena’s plan, and Janine has a typically emotional reaction. Unfortunately, it escalates to her telling Isaac the Guardian to “suck my dick” after he calls her “unwoman” and orders her back in line. For that, Janine gets socked in the jaw with his rifle butt, a blow so cruel it knocks her to the ground. Back home, a desperate June pulls Rita aside and asks her to be a godmother figure to her baby. “I need her to have someone kind in her life,” she says. Rita can’t make any promises, but she does say “I’ll do what I can.” Later, June asks Aunt Lydia the same favor, though she phrases it a little differently, with a not-so-veiled reference to the Commander’s abusiveness. “I would never, ever allow anything to happen to a baby,” Aunt Lydia reassures her.
In their Canadian apartment, Moira, Luke, and Erin are watching a news report on the visiting “Gilead diplomats.” Moira recognizes Commander Waterford, so she and Luke hurry to the refugee center to see what can be done. “He’s a fucking war criminal,” Moira argues. She’s right, of course, and the lawyer that’s helped them so many times before agrees—but under these circumstances, she tells them, it’s simply not possible to arrest him. Instead, she suggests they lend their voices to the upcoming protests.
There’s an almost dreamy segment after that; the Gilead motorcade is rolling through the city, and Serena gazes out the limo window like she’s visiting an alien wonderworld—a place where people have cellphones, woman go to jobs and walk around freely like normal humans, young couples kiss on the street, and there are even homeless people, because real life isn’t totally controlled and sanitized. In their hotel lobby, they’re greeted by Canadian diplomats whose numbers include a woman and a gay man. Gasp! Fred’s swept off to his first meeting, and Serena meets her female handler, who presents her with a schedule of pre-planned cultural activities to fill her day. (Note: The schedule is made up of pictures, because Serena isn’t allowed to read.) Her handler has obviously been coached in how to respectfully interact with Serena, but there are slip-ups—when Serena asks her about her hobbies, she says she’s so busy with work she rarely gets to do anything else, but she does love to read. Must be nice.
Later, Serena’s by herself, waiting for an elevator, and a mother and daughter come up beside her. “Are you a princess?” the girl asks in awe. Serena, lover of children, responds gracefully, but the mom knows very well the evils that this tall woman wearing teal from head to toe represents. Ain’t gonna ride on the elevator with you, Gilead Wife, and no “blessings to you” can make the situation any better. Perhaps drawing on a coping mechanism from her life “before,” Serena turns and heads into the hotel bar instead of going upstairs.
There, she meets a man who seems at first like he’s flirting with her, though she assumes he’s a reporter (because, as we’ve just seen, she’s hardly inconspicuous in her Gilead get-up) until he reveals he has a political angle. See, he works for the American government—there’s still a tiny bit of the US left in the post-Gilead world—and if she wants to defect, he tells her, she could be on her way to Hawaii within the hour. “You’d never have to go back to Gilead again,” he says. “You can tell your story in your own words.” (A tempting offer that would return to her past life as a writer.) What’s more, he tells her, American scientists have been making real progress on the fertility problem. “Think of it, a baby of your own. And freedom.” She shoots him down, of course... but you have to think she was at least a little tempted by the offer.
Next, we see an anti-Gilead protest gathered outside the hotel; Luke’s there front and center, waving a giant family photo so the Commander will know exactly who he is. Waterford is dismissive of Luke’s (totally accurate) accusations of what’s happening in Gilead, but Serena and Nick are visibly rattled. Nick manages to track Luke down in a nearby bar after the confrontation, and though it’s a fraught and awkward meeting, Nick’s able to tell Luke that he knows June and that she’s pregnant, though he lies about who the father is, saying it’s the Commander (given the situation, you can’t really blame him). He also passes him that bundle of Mayday letters.
Luke, Moira, and Erin sift through the letters, desperate missives from women who’ve been enslaved by Gilead’s brutal, oppressive regime. Moira’s a bit disappointed; back at Jezebels, she thought the package she was smuggling to June contained explosives, “something to make Gilead go boom.” But as Erin points out, the letters could “go boom” in a different way—and they do, once they’re uploaded to the internet. The reaction is swift; Canada cuts off all diplomatic talks and immediately boots the Waterfords out of the country. Waterford fakes like he’s unconcerned and above it all, but he knows his position is precarious. At the airport, they’re met with a much angrier protest than before, mostly women (including Moira, who makes furious eye contact with the Commander inside the protection of his car). After, as the protestors are celebrating what feels like the first serious blow against Gilead, the group has a spontaneous sing-along of “America the Beautiful” that turns somber as everyone feels the enormity of what they’ve all lost.
Home in Gilead, Serena tosses the matches that the US emissary gave her—advertising a Hawaiian tiki bar, no less—into her fireplace. She’s going to stick with the life she helped build for herself, no matter how shitty it is. Nick’s able to tell June that he met Luke and gave him the letters, and what an impact the letters made once they were made public; he also tells her that Moira made it out and is staying with Luke. The look of joy on June’s face is incredible. In an instant, she’s rediscovered what hope feels like—and it’s intoxicating. Despite what she thought at the start of the episode, she realizes, she can want what’s impossible after all. “I know I should accept the reality of you being born here, make my peace,” she tells her unborn baby. “But fuck that.”
One more thing: Anyone else have a really bad feeling about what lies ahead for Nick? That one Commander who was his ally and mentor died in the bombing. He’s married to an ultra-pious teenager who seems poised to turn on him at any moment, especially if he keeps treating her like something he scraped off his shoe (and especially if Isaac, who seems to be sweet on her, keeps hanging around). Let’s not forget she saw the stash of letters before he went to Canada; based on that, she could be the one to blow his cover. And he’s in love with June, which is its own intensely complicated, impossible scenario. What kind of happy ending can he possibly expect?