To stay in business over a long time, a series has to evolve. I understand that. But reinvention is tricky and in the search for more road, a series can also lose its way. The Handmaid’s Tale is not the taut, menacing thriller it once was.
In truth, I’m not sure it has any politics anymore. Men like Commander Lawrence, Gilead’s main architect, are allowed to take a hero’s turn, however slight, while women are reduced to hysterical rage. June, Serena, Mrs Wheeler, and Rita, who last week told June that she would return to Gilead if it meant she could see her son again. This week, its the Canadians who attend the grand opening of Gilead’s Toronto fertility centre. On The Handmaid’s Tale, women are increasingly led by their wombs.
It’s still a good show, but it’s also a lesser one – a well written and exceptionally acted action melodrama. Its world is one of brutal violence, impossible coincidence, and love triangles.
Operation: Get Hannah back
The idea that Mark Tuello and the displaced US military was about to recover Hannah along with 29 other stolen American girls was always too good to be true and any loyal viewer, if they listened to their hearts, knew it. From the moment Commander Elijah Vance took out his wallet to show June and Luke a photo of his own daughter, Emma, it was clear we’d never see him again. What surprised me was how quickly his plane went down.
The rescue effort, shot down from the sky by Gilead’s surface-to-air missiles, doesn’t make it close to Hannah (Jordana Blake) in her Colorado Springs wives’ college. But the audience does get a rare glimpse of her. She says a placid good night to Aunt Paula and kneels by her small bed for prayers. Just when I was starting to fear she was a true-believer, though, she sneaks a pencil and writes her name on the margins of a wordless “book” girls are allowed in this world. How did Hannah learn to write? Can she remember it from before she was taken? More telling, though, is what name she doodles: Hannah. The name her true parents gave her and not Agnes, the name she was assigned in Gilead. The series has long been focused on how June will get her little girl back, but here we see she’s not a little girl anymore. And maybe she’s not waiting to be rescued, but dreaming of her own escape. Maybe she’s more like her mother than she can possibly know.
WWJD: What would June do?
Hannah isn’t the only one with shades of June to her spirit. Serena’s situation at the Wheeler’s mansion is increasingly precarious. Mrs Wheeler calls Noah “my smart boy”, emphasis on the my; she tells Serena that it’s time to start pumping her breast milk rather than nursing Noah directly.
“You can’t help your child if you’re not with your child.” That was the advice June gave Serena last week and it’s becoming something of a guiding principle as season five approaches its conclusion. When Mrs Wheeler (Genevieve Angelson) tells Serena (Yvonne Strahvoski) that she alone will be bringing Noah to the opening of the new fertility centre, Serena does precisely what June would do: she ingratiates herself to Mr Wheeler, who is not much for flirting, but open to the logic that the vessel God blessed with a miracle pregnancy would be good to have on display. Suddenly, Serena’s on the guest list.
Of course, this infuriates Mrs Wheeler, who calls Serena a whore and slaps her twice, but Serena’s crafty. She knows that the bigger and more visible she remains – the symbol of the future of fertility in Gilead – the trickier it will be for Mrs Wheeler to take Noah.
She does not, however, possess June’s patience for the long game. When Mrs Wheeler asserts her dominance once again, Serena does a runner. Last we see of her in the season’s penultimate episode, she and Noah are escaping into the car of a good samaritan who stops to pick up the Gilead escapee and her newborn.
A marriage of convenience
Commander Lawrence, for reasons that are under-explained, has finally accepted the conventional wisdom that to remain a leader in Canada, it would be best to take a wife. He picks Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine), who you may remember was recently widowed when Joseph had her husband executed. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers, and the offer will keep Naomi and her daughter, Angela, as safe as any woman can be in Gilead.
Joseph (Bradley Whitford) needs to stay in power so that he can continue to atone for the creation of Gilead – a promise he made to his first wife, Eleanor. So even after he thwarts the US rescue mission, he has the gall to call June (Elisabeth Moss) and ask her to disown the Americans for putting the girls in danger in the first place. Plus, in the aftermath of the attack, Hannah is a symbol, too. He needs them both in New Bethlehem now more than ever for the experiment to work.
That said, attempting to sweeten the offer with the promise of Nick (Max Minghella) presiding as commander is a bridge too far for June and for me. Seriously? Are you really tempting a woman back into the orbit of her former enslavers by saying she can see her now-married boyfriend again? June is insulted by all of it. She tells Mark (Sam Jaegar) that she’s done with Joseph and his false promises. She’s Team America for the long haul.
So he sends her on a mission: convince Nick to defect to Canada. June goes to meet him, and he explains why it’s impossible. Rose is pregnant. “You can’t help your child if you’re not with him.” They exchange I love you’s, long glances, and finally a hard goodbye.
June isn’t successful in her recruitment, but she does better at a PR event. Little America hosts a vigil for Vance and the fallen soldiers, though you can barely hear the speeches over the din of anti-refugee protests. Emma – Vance’s young daughter – is charged with leading the Pledge of Allegiance but she stumbles over the words in the commotion. June moves to the centre of the stage to help her, which means she’s nearby when the gunfire sounds. She’s blanketing Emma with her own body when the bullets tear through the American flag that hangs just behind them. June is more than a symbol of the resistance now – she’s a target.