The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 2 Review: Ballet

Serena puts her revenge plan in motion while Esther refuses to swallow Gilead’s Kool-Aid in a tension-filled instalment. Spoilers.

The Handmaid's Tale 5-2 Yvonne Strahovski as Serena
Photo: Hulu

Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 2

The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing if not balanced. Last episode, it showed the intoxicating bliss of taking revenge. This episode, it showed the destructiveness of being consumed by that intoxication. June’s dazed smile as she buried that gun in the yard, dreaming of the wrongs Serena had done her, wasn’t the smile of someone with a future, but the look of a fanatic. Increasingly in Season 5, June is finding her rage countered by the wisdom of acceptance. First by Sylvia, and now by Rita and Luke, she’s been warned her off her current path. If she continues to let herself be consumed by revenge, that’s exactly how she’ll end up – consumed.  

Unfortunately for June, she and Serena are currently locked in a Black Swan-style psychodrama where each is a reflection of the other. Hence the spliced sequence of their respective preparations for the funeral and the ballet – the same leather boots, the same three-way mirror, one dressed in black, one dressed in white. Even the shot lining Serena up against the Gilead statue angel wings mirrors that of June framed the same way in season three. And now June’s gardening? In any other show that would symbolise a healing return to life. In this show, it’s yet another link between her and her green-fingered nemesis. 

‘Ballet’ was Serena’s episode, as she swept about imperiously enacting her plan. Despite having zero allies in Gilead, and hating just about everybody she spoke to, Serena pulled it off. On that: has there ever been a TV show in which, whatever the actual words to come out of people’s mouths, pretty much every line of dialogue translates to ‘fuck you’? (maybe Real Housewives). Each exchange Serena shared at that oh-so tasteful wake carried an enjoyable subtext of contempt. Warren Putnam was like a brother to Fred? If you say so. Mrs Putnam dearly wishes Serena would return for good? Try telling your face, Naomi.

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The waspishness made those scenes a game for the viewer – hear the platitudes and the Under His Eyes and translate them to what’s really being said. Take Nick cutting Serena’s attack on June short at the airfield by telling her that the Lord had blessed him. Perfect doublespeak – Nick loves June and so his time with her was indeed a blessing. Take Commander Lawrence’s “You are a… marvel, Mrs Waterford.” We can bet that ‘marvel’ wasn’t precisely the word he had in mind. 

And yet Commander Lawrence and Nick rallied to Serena’s cause. As good pragmatists, they saw the soft-power sense in it, and what’s good for Gilead is currently also good for them – despite them not being true believers. As Mark Tuello’s spy thriller offer to Nick (more flattery, repeated reference to Nichole as Nick’s daughter. Everybody’s a manipulator in this show) demonstrated, Nick wouldn’t have come this far without knowing which horse to back in a race, so it’s interesting that he backed Serena against Putnam.

Commander Putnam. Who’d have thought that, after producing almost 50 episodes of the most distressing TV drama ever to air, The Handmaid’s Tale could still make us sick to our stomachs with something new? Putnam prodding that oversized chocolate into Esther’s stricken face like the creepiest of creepy uncles verged on the unwatchable. Not just because we know teenage Esther’s history of being abused by much older men, but also because this drama has trained viewers well enough to fill in its gaps. 

What happened after the camera did the same as everybody else and abandoned Esther in that GQ photoshoot lion’s den? Just look at the slimeball’s dishevelment in the meeting right after, and just look at her desperate resolve to die rather than end up as his personal toy. It wasn’t just chocolate pushed into that poor kid’s mouth.

Esther’s revenge against Gilead is a complicated one to celebrate because it risks swiping two of this show’s most watchable players off the board. If she succeeds in killing herself and Janine with those poisoned treats, then it’ll be a tragedy for the viewers, but god damn it if the girl’s not right. “Be good and you’ll be safe.” Get pregnant and be “a princess.” A baby is “the most complete love you’ll ever know.” Every word out of poor Janine’s mouth is a lesson she’s been taught not only in Gilead, but throughout her life. As have we all. Follow the rules and you won’t come to harm? Good one. Esther sees through the bullshit, having grasped that there is no protection for women in Gilead. 

Serena learned that lesson when she lost a finger in the Season 2 finale, and so made sure she was armoured for her second petition to the Sons of Jacob. Her protection this time around? Celebrity. She’s banking on her persona as the grieving, pregnant widow making her a symbol. More than a symbol, sanctified (even if she looked more like Darth Vader than a saint in that billowing black cloak). That perfectly framed shot of the Gilead statue angel wings shooting out behind her shows us that she’s aiming for angelic – as she pitched to the Sons of Jacob, “barren woman made fruitful by his grace”. Serena stage-managed Fred’s lavish funeral to position herself as a global icon – the prima ballerina in a meticulous performance. 

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The more support Serena can muster from her fan club around the world, the more protected she is. In public, she’ll act the part of the brave wife in the depths of her grief, but in private she’s drawing up guest lists and calculating every move caught on camera with one particular viewer in mind – June. Casting Hannah as the flower-giving girl on screen was a provocation so wicked that you really have to salute its genius. Talk about elegant but brutal. You killed my husband, says Serena, I have your daughter. What are you going to do about it? 

What will June, and Luke too after seeing Hannah on the big screen, do about it? They can’t, as Luke earlier urged, leave Serena behind, forget her, fuck her. Serena just showed June that she may have won the battle of Fred, but the war continues.

The Handmaid’s Tale airs on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 in the UK at a later date.