The Handmaid’s Tale: The enigmatic Commander Lawrence


Commander Joseph Lawrence has played a large role thus far in season three of The Handmaid’s Tale. What should viewers make of the at times perplexing character?

Note: this article includes SPOILERS through the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season three.

Hero, villain, or something in between? Commander Joseph Lawrence of The Handmaid’s Tale has spanned this spectrum over season two and the first three episodes of season three.

Viewers can surely appreciate a complex portrayal. There’s a fine line, however, between a character that effectively walks the line between “good” and “bad” and one that acts in ways that simply don’t make sense, perhaps to just serve the plot. Which best describes the complexity of Commander Lawrence? To answer this, it makes sense to briefly revisit his role in The Handmaid’s Tale thus far.

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Character Synopsis

The commander is introduced in season two when Emily is sent to his home. He doesn’t come across as particularly “friendly,” but doesn’t hurt Emily or force her to undergo the monthly “ceremony.” His motivations and background are fairly mysterious, but many of his ideas seemed to serve as inspiration for the Gilead society, particularly the economy and the Colonies.

At the end of the season, Commander Lawrence helps Emily escape. At the beginning of season three, the commander picks up June and agrees to take her to the McKenzies so she can try and save Hannah. June eventually is sent to the commander’s home.

When an escape attempt goes awry and a martha dies, Commander Lawrence gets really upset with June, making her bury the body alone. Later, a group of commanders gather for a meeting, and the commander humiliates June in front of them. In episode three, he cruelly makes June pick five marthas to save, with the rest being sent to the Colonies.

What to Make of the Commander

1. How can one explain the actions of the commander? On the one hand, he clearly has held some despicable views, as his books were seemingly instrumental in Gilead’s construction. It doesn’t seem as if he’s fully moved on from these beliefs either.

“Women like you are like children, asking for too much, taking whatever you want, damn the consequences,” he says to June after the failed escape attempt.

2. Humiliating June in front of the commanders isn’t overly significant, as Commander Lawrence needed to “put on a show” to prevent any suspicion. Still, his speech about women being “useless” doesn’t seem entirely contrived, suggesting he likely holds some of these views.

3. Forcing June to pick which marthas to save was definitely not a good look for the commander. He may not fully support Gilead, but at his core, he is not a “kind” person and seems to embrace chaos. As Fred says, the commander, “does not like to be bored.” This may partially explain the (not boring) mind games he plays with June.

4. Along the same lines, the commander’s “anti-boredom” lifestyle is reflected in his rulebreaking tendencies. The commander’s failure to report the marthas might not point to immense “inner goodness” in him. Perhaps he just doesn’t like complying with rules.

5. Although the commander is far from perfect, the role he played in Emily’s escape cannot be forgotten, and he essentially let the “resistance” operate in his home through the marthas. He gets angry when the injured martha is brought to the house, but he doesn’t report their attempted escape.

6. It appears that “on paper,” the commander holds some despicable views. In practice, however, he clearly is not fully comfortable with the society of Gilead. Why else would he aid Emily’s escape and not report the marthas’ escape attempt?

The commander argues he helped Emily for different reasons, saying, “I helped Emily because she was unnaturally smart and could be useful to the world someday.”

It’s not clear the commander is telling the truth, as there is surely a part of him that recognizes the horrors of Gilead. It’s hard for him to admit it however, as this would force him to come to grips with his role in the tragedy. This may be why he provides an alternative explanation for aiding Emily.

7. As much the commander is willing to help the resistance to some degree, he’s not willing to risk his life at the same level as someone like June. This might be why he gets so upset when the injured martha is brought to his home, as the situation could potentially have endangered him.

Furthermore, the commander seems only willing to help on his terms, when he is fully aware what is going on. He doesn’t like the idea of people operating behind his back. The line that he “doesn’t like liars” refers to this idea.

Next. The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 premiere recap: Night. dark


Commander Lawrence’s shift from Emily’s “savior” to June’s “tormentor” is definitely convenient for the show’s plot. With Commander Waterford somewhat out of the picture, the show needed a new “villain.” At the same time, however, the show is laying the groundwork for this complexity to be “earned.”

Some of Commander Lawrence’s actions seem contradictory, but they should make more sense as the season progresses. It’s difficult to pull off a complex character, but The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be making a concerted effort to do so. As a viewer, it’s satisfying to watch.