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Commander Joseph Lawrence on The Handmaid's Tale

'The Handmaid's Tale' Fans Are All Asking The Same Question About Commander Lawrence

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Hulu’s The Handmaid's Tale started as a story set in the Waterford household. The lead cast of characters included Commander Fred Waterford, his wife Serena Joy, their chauffeur Nick, their Martha Rita, and of course their Handmaid June, known at the time as "Offred” (literally “Of Fred”). But since Season 3, a new Commander has been part of June's story: Commander Joseph Lawrence, the supposed architect of Gilead's economy. But is Commander Joseph Lawrence good or evil? The Handmaid’s Tale does a good job of leaving viewers guessing.

Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 follow. Season 3 began with Serena Joy going over the edge after losing Nichole. In a helpless rage, she set fire to her marital bed, where she and her husband raped and impregnated June. The house fire took the building down with it. Although everyone survived, it was the end of an era. Serena Joy went to live with her mother and her husband was demoted. Nick was promoted and given orders to leave the city and head to Chicago, where rebel Americans had taken the city. And June was Offred no more. After a short stay in the Red Center, she was reassigned to Commander Joseph Lawrence's house and renamed "Ofjoseph."

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It wasn't the first time Commander Lawrence had turned up in The Handmaid's Tale. Actor Bradley Whitford, who plays the character, had a guest arc in Season 2 when he took on Emily as the household Handmaid after she was brought back from the Colonies. That meant, going in, viewers knew some perks come along with this assignment at his house, although perhaps not the ones someone like Lydia would be pleased to boast about.

Lawrence may be Gilead's architect and a powerful man in the government. But his perks are more of the kind for Handmaids who desperately want to be left alone. As viewers learned in Season 2, Lawrence's wife hates Gilead. She would tear the system apart brick by brick if the world let her. Since they won't, she spends most of her time on anti-anxiety and antidepressant meds, locked away in her room. That meant no “ceremonies,” no pregnancies, and no harassment.

But what June discovered upon moving in was that it's not just in quietly not participating in the daily horrors of Gilead where Lawrence's behavior deviates from the norm. Lawrence also turns a blind eye when it comes to his Marthas. By the time June takes residence, she discovers there's an entire resistance network all but openly operating out of his kitchen.

Since June's reason for returning to Gilead instead of fleeing to Canada at the end of Season 2 was to either find or create this precise network with the idea of tearing down Gilead from the inside, it's like she landed in the ideal home base. Perhaps Lawrence would even pitch in and assist. After all, a handmaid needs her allies.

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But, like most revolutions, nothing is that simple. Lawrence is, after all, the guy who dreamed up the philosophies of Gilead. He's emotionally detached from situations. He may stop Aunt Lydia from attacking June with a cattle prod in front of him, but he's not trying to dismantle the system either. He’s more interested in musing about the amount of electricity those cattle prods deliver. Lawrence is the guy who thinks nothing of "playing devil's advocate" and "just asking questions," with a complete disregard for the fact that he's treating the humanity of others as an abstract thought exercise. He treats both the Marthas and June like a cat would a small injured predator caught in between its paws: willing to test their loyalty and sneer when they fail to impress — and sometimes even when they succeed.

But as Waterford noted to June when they discussed her new placement, Lawrence is, above all, a survivor. If his family's in danger, all bets are off. He'll throw his longtime Martha to the Guardians if that's what it takes to protect his wife or his household. He is a man who genuinely believes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Lawrence may not be wholly evil, but without a lever to push him into doing the right thing, he's not the safe harbor fans were hoping June had found. In the end, the only people she can trust in Gilead are women.

The Handmaid's Tale is streaming on Hulu.

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