Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 7 ‘No-Man’s Land’.
It’s pretty remarkable that an hour like this one – a mostly stationary, whispery two-hander hinging on emotional catharsis rather than action – is TV now. Time was, television shows had to be accessible to latecomers wandering the schedules. They had to wrap up plot points by the time the credits rolled. They had to be about crack commando units sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, or mighty princesses forged in the heat of battle. Whatever TV was, it wasn’t this – an intimate exploration of vengeance vs mercy told through characters we’ve come to know better than we know ourselves.
The intensely internal focus of ‘No-Man’s Land’ probably won’t make it a crowd pleaser, and would definitely make it baffling to an outsider, but to viewers who’ve invested in June and Serena’s story, it was pivotal. Years of enmity between these two characters resolved with surprising… intimacy. June reclaimed the power and personhood Serena had stolen from her, and didn’t even need a gun in her hand to do it. Her generosity wasn’t capitulation; it was grace.
After a kinetic start containing all the classic ingredients of a thriller (girl, gun, car and ticking time-bomb in the form of Serena’s dilating cervix) director Natalia Leite instantly switched gears. Instead of a high-speed car chase, ‘No-Man’s Land’ gave us a quietly intense showdown. June and Serena psychically battled in that moodily lit barn until each came away with a renewed grasp on the strength of compassion.
It felt good to watch June feel good as she walked in slow-mo down that hospital corridor, having taken the proffered hand of her old enemy. Elisabeth Moss’ face showed a similar dreamy satisfaction to when she’d torn Fred to pieces, but this time it was less unhinged, more in control and much more at peace. It showed how June has changed since the beginning of this season. This time around, she didn’t revel in seeing the blood of a Waterford on her hands, the sight of it lurched her conscience into action and forced her from that car back into the barn.
Of course, it made all the difference that the blood came from labor. Like June told Serena, she wasn’t saving her, she was saving baby Noah. But unlike Gilead in those flashbacks to Ofclarence’s death, June wasn’t about to treat a newly delivered mother as if she were disposable. To June, Noah and Serena belong together like all babies and mothers belong together. Taking the kid and leaving the mother to die is Gilead’s style, not hers.
That was the climax of June’s catharsis, comparable to her courtroom speech in last season’s ‘Testimony’. Prompted by Serena’s ravings about God’s will and vessels, and remembering Aunt Lydia’s babbling about the same, June confronted her with Gilead’s dehumanization of Handmaids. “We mattered, we were people, we are people, we have lives.” Serena’s apology was irrelevant – this was about reclaiming the selfhood Gilead had stripped from Handmaids, as summed up by Ofclarence’s body being wheeled out of that grotesque delivery suite like trash while the Wives cooed over their new toy.
It was an intense episode, driven by two performances we now just expect to be extraordinary and are never disappointed. Writer Rachel Shukert found useful places to bring the tone down off the ceiling every so often. June’s “Maybe they’ll have a manger,” gag was one, while Serena’s ‘yeah right’ face at the mention of evolution, and June’s eye roll at Serena’s antibiotics protest were others. They’re quite the double-act.
It was a kick to see these two interact in a scenario where June had all of the power, and then used it not to punish but to be better. All of it was leading up to that final hand-clasping in the hospital bed – a single gesture that signified closure on years of pain. Until… Luke.
Serena was right about Luke Bankole being a good man, but good doesn’t equal saint. The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 has taken care to bring Luke’s experience more into this story, presumably for exactly this moment – one in which his rightful anger would unwittingly sabotage June’s transcendence.
Luke may not have been in Gilead, but it still took everything from him. He’s been goaded, beaten and made to feel powerless about the loss of his wife and daughter. When he saw the chance to dish out some eye-for-an-eye justice on Serena using the proper channels, he took it. And who could blame him? June’s not the only person Serena hurt. Luke’s entitled to need vengeance too. His Old Testament need just happens – in a dramatically perfect way – to be calamitous for this episode’s message of rising above rage to choose radical hope.
If this episode was designed to reprogram viewer sympathies, it worked. There was a time when no indignity suffered by Serena Joy Waterford would have seemed too brutal, but after being witness to the preceding hour, the final sight of that stateless, desperate woman screaming for her baby – a sad reality for many border detainees – felt like anything but justice.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US and will start on Sunday 23rd of October on Channel 4 and Prime Video in the UK.