Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 4.
Poetic. Justice. That’s what Serena was just served by The Handmaid’s Tale. Not to the extent of Fred being ‘salvaged’ by a group of women his regime inducted into brutality, but poetic justice all the same. Serena’s panicked face as her baby bump was being worshipped by a bible-spouting moon unit who’s bought the miracle act she’s been selling was sweetness itself. Be careful what you wish for, Serena. Make yourself an icon and you can’t control who worships you.
Or who points a gun at you. Hands up who wanted June to pull that trigger? Nobody? Makes sense. It would have been far too easy an end for both characters after this long a journey, and far too morally compromising for June to have murdered a pregnant woman – even this pregnant woman. June’s glance down at that bump explained what stopped her the second time she faced Serena while holding a gun in her hand. Babies and children may be collateral damage in Gilead’s power games, but nothing we know about June says that she would ever enact her savage impulses on a child.
On a Gilead fanatic who tells her that she’s lucky to have been enslaved and repeatedly raped? That’s a different story. That opening scene at the swings was one of this season’s best so far for what it revealed – not only June being quick to violence, but how Gilead is perceived by the outside world. It’s easy to forget that not everybody has, like us, had front row seats to the barbarism. It’s also easy to accept that in exchange for what Gilead offers, not everybody would care all that much about the barbarism. At the very least – like those from the West who choose to vacation in say, Dubai, or buy sweatshop fashion – people are often willing to ignore barbarities if there are benefits.
What are the benefits of Gilead? As Ofglen 2/Lillie put it before they cut out her tongue and she pivoted to blowing herself up along with that Red Centre, everybody in Gilead has a bed, a job, clothes and food. Pollution is down, organics are up, and the globally dwindling birth rate is rising. What’s not to like?
Well, quite. The introduction of people like Swing Set Woman, the fanatical Mrs Wheeler and the rest of Serena’s Canadian fan club allowed The Handmaid’s Tale to confront a couple of uneasy truths. One is that regimes as barbaric as Gilead in our world are regularly appeased for economic reasons, the other is that nowhere is safe. Where there’s religious fundamentalism that disallows human rights, there’s a threat to society. Having lived through it once, June sees Serena’s soft power “Information Center” and lovely gift baskets, and knows what they really mean: bodies on the wall.
That’s why June took the news of Serena’s release with such dazed acceptance. To her, it’s very simple: to stop it all from happening again, she has to kill Serena. And one day, she will. Unless husband Luke – or so he says – gets there first. And in the meantime, June and Luke will turn each other on with their Bonnie and Clyde outlaw vibe, fetishize each other’s gunshot wound scars, and have what looks like some of the best sex of their lives. It’s hot being a righteous assassin.
Serena wasn’t exactly doing damage control to minimise the threat to her life this episode, quite the reverse. Safely behind the walls of her new Gilead-themed castle, she clearly felt emboldened. When Commander Lawrence warned her against underestimating June, she prodded the wound by sending that invitation. Was that Serena’s attempt to replace her fear with control? Or does she subconsciously feel that her final confrontation with June is coming and, with that act of needless provocation, is trying to hasten the inevitable?
However Serena’s fictional analyst might describe that behaviour, they wouldn’t applaud it. Nor would they applaud her cruel goading of Luke about his failure to rescue Hannah and the “support” his wife received from Nick in Gilead. O-T Fagbenle was terrific in that scene, from his surprising endorsement of June’s violence, to the vulnerability he cracked open when he switched from posturing to pleading with Serena to help him get Hannah back. You’d never see that appeal come from June’s lips; she knows Serena’s sadism all too well.
Speaking of sadists, ‘Dear Offred’ jolted Aunt Lydia’s piece along the board as she went from making a deal with God a couple of episodes ago to making a deal with Janine in this one. Lydia wants to turn things around. She wants to act with more… compassion, she tells the woman whose eye she plucked out for misbehavior. Commander Lawrence may have burst her new Handmaid scheme bubble with his unfiltered take on what really goes on in Gilead, but Lydia’s still determined to change.
Janine’s nothing-to-lose attitude was a kick to watch (Madeline Brewer is always a kick to watch), as the power dynamic between those two finally shifted. If this new co-management scheme delivers, it’ll give us some long overdue development from the Red corner. Aunt Lydia with compassion? What might that look like? Will she ever break the chain?
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 at a later tbc date in the UK.