Warning: this review contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Last episode, Hannah was coming home, Lawrence was June’s trusted friend, and Serena was steeling herself to play the long game with the Wheelers. All change! Now, Serena’s back on the run, Lawrence and June are over, and Hannah’s still across the border.
Across the border, but not as distant as before. Episode nine’s most vital scene was the silent one that solved the Hannah mystery. All season, the girl’s been paraded in front of us, an obedient, pristine product of the Gilead system. We’ve seen her dutifully present flowers to the Widow Waterford, and heard her kidnappers/parents the Mackenzies describe her as an angel from heaven who couldn’t be more different from the devil June Osborne.
Well guess what, Mackenzies? Your kid’s no angel. She’s a chip off the old block! The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t hand out wins too often, so when they come they’re to be savoured. Watching Hannah sneak out that contraband pencil to write her name, not the one Gilead foist on her, and smile at her own rebellion was a sight to be relished. There was pathos too, in that name being printed in the unsophisticated hand of a five-year-old – the last time she was taught to write – instead of the fluent cursive of the almost-teenager she is. Hannah Bankole’s still in there, and in her own small way, she also hasn’t stopped fighting.
The Hannah scene was key not only as a win in an episode of losses, but for its novelty. Compared to a great deal in ‘Allegiance’, it was genuinely new and not a repeat of something we’d seen before. Serena’s whole current storyline is, by design, a re-run of June’s (she’s ticked off the June Osborne list: multiple escapes, giving birth in the wilderness, being slapped by her ‘mistress’, and endangering the life of a woman of color who helped her, so it’s almost a full house). We’ve seen June go through this cycle of hope-devastation-rebound-with-renewed-fight countless times. And June and Nick’s relationship has been stuck on repeat for seasons now.
Just how many teary, wistful goodbyes have June and Nick had? The one on the bridge, the one in the van, the one at the abandoned school, the phone call earlier this season, and now this – the last farewell? Every time, Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella act the hell of their characters saying they love each other and if only theirs was a different world etc. etc. etc. and then with tragic poise, they walk away. They’re good scenes, but they’re essentially the same scenes.
The air force raid gave us something new and familiar, in that The Handmaid’s Tale has never taken us inside mission control (a tense segment from episode director Bradley Whitford), but anybody who’s ever seen a war movie knew the raid was doomed the second Commander Elijah Vance opened his mouth. So, Mr Handsome Hero has an adorable daughter who’s the light of his life and his plan is to get back to her? Oh, honey. They may as well have put you in the coffin before you left the runway.
Personal mileage with this will vary (and full disclosure, I’m not American), but scenes of flag culture patriotism in The Handmaid’s Tale often feel like an uncomfortable fit with the rest of this boldly burn-it-all-down protest story. Luke and June were understandably grateful to Vance for the prospect of him rescuing their daughter, but would respect for military force really be their default position after living through Gilead’s coup? Admittedly, we’re talking about two people who got turned on by a gun in episode four, and also admittedly, once your country has been violently taken from you, its symbols and ceremonies must take on renewed significance.
Hating Gilead doesn’t mean a blanket rejection of nationalist ritual, and in this context and in every context, there’s value in restating the utopian ideals of liberty and justice for all. That said, wasn’t the final scene a cheese-fest? The hesitant fatherless daughter stumbling over her words, June stepping in to guide her and then slow-mo leaping to protect her from the bullets, the music soaring… The violence that happens as a result of anti-immigration rhetoric is a point well worth making, but the execution here was so emotionally dialled up and earnest for a show well capable of irreverence, that it became hard to take the scene seriously. As stated, personal mileage on that will vary.
Less hysterical was the episode’s focus on Lawrence and his uneasy progress along the high wire towards a better Gilead. Reluctantly, he assented to pressure to remarry, and even more reluctantly, it appears that Naomi Putnam recognises a lifeline when she sees one. Lawrence betrayed June to raise Gilead’s international stock, using her desperation to plant intel that led to that thwarted rescue mission. The strategy won him military kudos but lost him June Osborne, and a little more of his considerably stained soul. A fair trade? We’ll find out.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 concludes on Wednesday November 9th on Hulu in the US and airs on Sundays on Channel 4 and Prime Video in the UK.