Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale episode 3.10 – “Witness”. When you’re not you and I’m not me. But, The Handmaid’s Tale finally finds a little bit of itself.
The Handmaid’s Tale we all know and love is still there. Yep, you may have to squint your eyes really hard, twirl around on your tippie-toes and do a rain dance in ancient Latin all at the same time to see it. But, it’s there.
As I’ve said in previous posts, the beauty of The Handmaid’s Tale is how it catalogs our character’s personal effort to stay alive in traumatic times. How do they face the trauma? How do they persevere through the trauma? Most importantly, however – does the trauma define them or do they define their trauma?
Enter Commander Lawrence.
“You helped to create this world. How long did you think it would be before it came for you?” June asks an extremely worried Lawrence. His life, his work, and the woman to whom he has given his entire existence, are now at risk.
This is one of the better turns for The Handmaid’s Tale in the oddly muddled season three as it finally brings us back to the human drama of what gave such viciousness to seasons one and two.
Is there a world in which a self satisfied Lawrence can truly take pleasure in knowing he provided a path out of the horror he created for all the children of Gilead? Sure, but is that worth the cost the life he shares with is beleaguered wife? No room exists for Lawrence between the hero’s life and the righteous life so he is forced to make a choice. What’s interesting is that it takes June, his “own” Handmaid, to coach him through the constructs he created however many years ago.
June may not be her, and he may not be Lawrence, but they have to play their roles in order to survive Aunt Lydia’s prying eyes. Of course, this begs the question, if they are not themselves, then who are they? Implicit in this statement is June’s lack of self, and Lawrence’s transformation into something far more complex. Does June willingly become the automaton she so carefully described in season two? It’s just a job. If so, does that mean she needs to acknowledge Lawrence as nothing more than a task for the completion?
But, most importantly, what does this say about Lawrence? Has he walked the fine line of being Gilead’s architect and dutiful husband for so long that he’s lost sight of his own humanity? Has he worked too hard to retain his humanity for so long that his humanity has been forever misplaced? June certainly implies that here. In order for him to survive, he has to be something other than what he is. But, what he “is”, is what has kept him alive and below the deck of scrutiny for this long.
This also calls into question what a “hero” actually is in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. Given Whitford’s incredible skill, you can sense there’s a little bit of reticence as he muscles out the word “hero.” Doe she know that he’s doomed? Does he know there is no way out? Does he know that no matter what he does, his life is still unworthy of the children he may save? Is he a hero for doing the job that June demands of him? This struggle of identity illuminates Lawrence’s struggle to stay within the bounds of his job, but maintaining a personal sense of propriety that is the antithesis of his occupation.
In other words, in order to live and continue to hold his position, as well as be the partner he needs to be, he has to transform into something he is not. Whatever that that transformation holds has yet to be seen. But, the transformation is compelling because of stakes.
I’ve written about stakes on this site ad nauseam, especially as it relates to The Handmaid’s Tale, because they are so fracking important. June, as we know, doesn’t have really much at stake here in this season. Yes, her life is in the balance but, as we discussed in the previous post, since June retains a goblin’s amount of plot armor, we know her life is never truly in danger. Lawrence, however, does not have that kind of armor shielding his character. His very existence lies in the balance of his choices.
Remember stakes are important because they provide drama, which forces our characters to make bolder choices, which gives the viewers insight into the characters true nature. Those stakes always boil down to this simple form – what am I risking, and what happens if I fail?
Lawrence risks his wife, and his job, his relationship with June, and should he fail – not only does he lose those, but he also ends up on the wall (or worse) next to the Handmaid’s he’s helped disenfranchise.
This is the human struggle, albeit one that he has brought on himself, that makes The Handmaid’s Tale special. Sure, there’s A LOT of world building that takes place, and the politics are mildly intriguing. The stuff with Serena is always incredible – especially as it relates to her asking June how she’s feeling. And of course, Fred is as petulant as ever and I think the show is trying WAYYYYYY to heard to keep him relevant in this story (c’mon let’s just get to the inevitable end of Serena’s betrayal already).
As bad as watching Fred is, however, watching Lawrence (and the ever awesome Bradley Whitford) struggle with his purpose in the world he’s authored is fascinating. It begins in the room where the art has been taken down, but it really catches gear when he must perform the unconscionable ceremony.
All three characters, Mrs. Lawrence, Commander Lawrence, and June, know what has to be done and they have to be wordless throughout the horror of their acts. This is not played for shock like it was with the Waterfords, but, rather, this reeks of tragedy for the Lawrences. They know the pain and suffering they are causing with his brutal act, and, yet, despite all the power Lawrence retains within the bounds of Gilead, there is nothing he, nor Mrs. Lawrence, or even the rebellious June can do to stop it. They are simply pawns to the growing game of Gileadan(?) torture chess.
I can’t help but wonder now if this move is what finally pushes Lawrence’s resolve to openly (within reason) help June’s efforts to save the children of Gilead. He has to be something he is not. Implicit in that is he is not the careful and mysterious Commander that he once was. In order for him to not be that, he must become more convicted with his beliefs, and since he has been pushed by the hands of Gilead to become the monster he tried to avoid for all these years, he has to go the opposite direction.
If his life is nothing but a mere footnote in the tainted history of Gilead and is all but guaranteed to come to nasty close as June suggests it will, now he must help June. It’s the only way he can redeem whatever shred of dignity he has left in both his eyes, and in they eyes of the most important person in his life – Mrs. Lawrence.
Mary & Blake Certified: A-
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