Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 episode 3.
The major criticism you could level at The Handmaid’s Tale between seasons two and four was its halting progress. Forward movement was repeatedly compromised by a narrative need to keep our perspective character in Gilead. For June to witness and participate in each of the regime’s sick new twists, she had to stay put and stay alive. That meant miraculous recoveries, stymied escape attempts and a general sense that whatever cataclysmic event happened in an episode, the status quo would quickly resume (possibly the only thing this show has in common with The Simpsons).
When June reached Canada, the rusty gears finally started to move. Propulsion! Permanence! There was certainly no coming back from the dead for Fred. This story was now more than just an extremely well-filmed and well-observed safari of human suffering. It was actually going somewhere.
Somewhere backwards, if this episode is anything to go by. ‘Border’ saw The Handmaid’s Tale up to its old tricks. Janine didn’t die but pulled through, Serena didn’t move to Gilead to become part of a tantalisingly teased Waterford-Lawrence merger but was returned to the detention centre, and June is teetering ever closer to re-crossing that border and going back to Gilead to fight. It’s like the characters are on strings that won’t let them move forwards. Ann Dowd may have acted up a storm in Lydia’s deal-with-God scene, but how many times has Janine come back from the dead now? And how many of Aunt Lydia’s vehemently stated prayers have we heard?
That’s not to say ‘Border’ didn’t have highlights. One was the “I was lucky/Women always say that when they’ve done something extraordinary” exchange between June and Mayday agent Lily. Good observation from writer Aly Monroe. Another was Lawrence’s line about Gilead not having the proper infrastructure for “unusual women” to live within its borders. Of course the High Commanders couldn’t afford to have literate, educated Serena hanging around and having ideas. She’d make a mockery of their whole set-up.
Yvonne Strahovski really sold the moment that Serena realised she was yet again being bitten by the dog she’d fed. Her flirtatious goodbye to Mark Tuello the night before the council meeting showed confidence that Gilead would welcome her back, this time perhaps on the arm of a new and more powerful Commander. Instead, Gilead spat her out, because Serena always fails to grasp that the society she helped to create hates her, as it hates all women.
Did Serena really think Lawrence would marry one of the gang who forced him, his wife and June to perform “the ceremony” that prompted his beloved Eleanor’s final breakdown? She’s been getting high on her own supply. Those candle-bearing acolytes clearly aren’t healthy for her imperious streak.
If not Lawrence, then might Mark Tuello be Serena’s next target? Fred accused him of ‘coveting’ Mrs Waterford last season. The question for viewers is whether those puppy dog eyes he’s been making at Serena are for real or another manipulative spy ruse?
Unlike this time last season, we know where Nick stands romantically, and after their phone call so does June. He loves her, but is obligated to his new wife Rose, the daughter of a powerful High Commander. (“How lucky that you two were able to stumble upon such a wonderful match,” came Serena’s subtext-laden blessing. From the woman who tried to seduce Commander Lawrence with a kicking baby bump and the promise of a social-capital son.
June and Nick’s phone call absolutely did not need to happen at the Walking Dead-style Mayday woodland camp, but the new location gave us a change of scenery and fleshed out the show’s lore. Mayday wasn’t just the friends we made along the way, it turns out, but a real Underground Railway-style organisation that assists Gilead escapees. Introducing that set-up did one useful thing: offered June a potential future. If she’s not able to reintegrate and live as a family with Moira, Luke and Nichole, then Mayday could be a place for her – June Osborne, the surprisingly diminutive rebel fighter who does extraordinary things.
Not-so-extraordinary was June’s opportunistic decision to intimidate Serena by ambushing her car. Don’t mistake me, it clearly succeeded in terrifying Widow Waterford, but as a counter-move to Serena’s slyly brilliant Hannah-show last episode, the bogey man act lacked finesse. Bringing those two physically together – even separated by a car window – so soon felt like it dissipated the tension built up by their cross-border exchange of fire. If their rivalry was all about cunning gamesmanship before, then June just tipped over the board and howled at the moon.
Serena, we were reminded this episode with the introduction to High Commander MacKenzie, is by no means the only threat to Hannah. That whole discussion around the new purple dress signified Gilead itself creeping ever closer to June and Luke’s daughter as she reaches puberty and is duly thrust into the nation’s flourishing child-marriage market. If anything’s going to lure June back over the border into Gilead, it’ll be the urgent need to save Hannah from a fate like Esther’s. Just look at her face when that sympathetic Guardian explained his rush to get back with the words “I’ve got a wife and kid, can’t leave them behind.” She knows the feeling.
The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 airs weekly on Hulu in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 in the UK at a tbc date.