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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: The Most Political Episode Yet Shocks By What Feels Real, and What Feels Like Fiction

Episode 9 features some victories in a time when, reading the news, viewers might need it most.

The Handmaid's Tale -- "The Bridge" Episode 109 -- Offred embarks on a dangerous mission for the resistance. Janine moves to a new posting. Serena Joy suspects the Commanderís infidelity. Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

“The Handmaid’s Tale”


[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 9, “Smart Power.”]

This week on television, a key representative of a regime accused of serious human rights violations traveled to a foreign land to attempt negotiations with a rival power.

Also, there was a new episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Yes, this is a blunt comparison of two events: The premiere of “Smart Power,” the ninth episode of Hulu’s Emmy-winning drama, in which Commander Waterford of Gilead and his wife travel to Canada for a meeting with that neighboring government, and this week’s Singapore-set summit between Donald Trump and North Korean’s Kim Jong-un.

But to be clear, this isn’t meant to be a comparison between Trump’s America and Waterford’s Gilead. Instead, we’re looking at North Korea as a way of understanding “Smart Power,” specifically in the way that it depicts how Canadian citizens, and Canada itself, react to the presence of the Gileadean forces.

This is because genre-wise, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is technically speculative fiction (don’t call it sci-fi, or you’ll get in a fight with author Margaret Atwood), but series creator Bruce Miller has always put immense effort into making the story feel grounded and raw, without the protections that might come from a show more rooted in fantasy tropes.

But while within the confines of Gilead, the “Handmaid” world has developed its own sense of realism, the journey to Canada is a bit shocking, as we’re forced to confront how alien these two societies are — and perhaps even question the believability of this scenario.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- "June" -- Episode 201 -- Offred reckons with the consequences of a dangerous decision while haunted by memories from her past and the violent beginnings of Gilead. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), shown. (Photo by:George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Yet the show remains grounded in that same sense of realism, if only when one considers this week’s summit. The horrifying truth is that, thanks to the number of refugees from now-Gilead who have found safety in Canada, a lot more is known about life under that society’s rule, and thanks to TV, we know about life in North Korea, here in reality.

Accurate reports about the daily ongoings of North Korean citizens are hard to come by, but this week articles from the BBC and NPR highlighted the economic desperation that average families may experience, as well as the limits they experience on their personal freedoms due to many factors.

And yet, America is negotiating with North Korea. The real-life scenario isn’t a direct parallel with the events of the show, but viewers wondering how Gilead could have gotten as far as it did with Canada can look at the real-life news for an answer.

The biggest difference, of course, is how the episode ends. “Smart Power” features two confrontations viewers might never have expected to ever happen: Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) telling Waterford to his face that he’s a rapist, and Moira (Samira Wiley) shoving her real name in the Commander’s face.

But the real victory happens off-screen, as Nick’s (Max Minghella) decision to give Luke the Handmaid letters leads to them being distributed online, and Canada canceling further negotiations with the Gileadeans. It’s an unexpected win for a show that’s awfully scarce for feel-good moments, and it comes with a line that is perhaps shocking in how much it punches you in the gut: “We believe the women.”

“We believe the women” should not feel like a revolutionary statement, and yet it does, especially given the context: not the chaos of #MeToo accusations, but on the platform of international politics. Imagine true statements about life in an oppressed land managing to make it out. Imagine foreign leaders believing them. Sometimes, we forget how many dark corners exist in our world, how many we choose to ignore. Sometimes, we need the reminder.

O Canada, indeed.

As predicting anything about today’s news cycle is literally impossible, there’s no way Hulu or anyone else involved with “The Handmaid’s Tale” would know that the North Korea summit would coincide with this episode when it was initially scheduled. Yet it’s an episode that proves the show’s ability to be sharply political while while also entirely its own story. Season 2 has traveled down some rough roads, for better and for worse, but the show continues to speak boldly and bravely, its eye always on the details that make us see our reality in its fiction.

New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are streaming now on Hulu.

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