Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 10.
Season five’s tagline was “Some sins can’t be washed away”, but it could have been the words June delivered in this finale: “America wasn’t Gilead until it was, and then it was too fucking late.” That was this season’s warning, and its justification for telling a story so bleak that our hero just got chased out of the sanctuary, and away from the husband, she’d spent four seasons striving to reach.
If this show wasn’t making such a valid and timely protest with June’s storyline, it’d be pure sadism by this point. June’s more than earned a happy ending, but the potential of using her character to dramatize the asylum experience was too great to let her rest yet. Thus, the Handmaid’s tale becomes the refugee’s tale; June’s story now mirroring those of real displaced people who thought they’d stepped onto solid ground only to discover it was quicksand.
Remember Emily being clapped by strangers as she walked into that Toronto hospital? It didn’t take long for that applause to become jeers, and for those jeers to become violence. Little by little, The Handmaid’s Tale has turned up the temperature on Canada’s intolerance, and with Gilead’s help, June’s been forced out before it reaches boiling point. First came the Waterfords’ fan club, then the Wheelers (proof that no society should let an individual get rich enough to fund their own personal army), then the street harassment, and then the angry men with guns. Canada’s not Gilead now, said season five, but it could be, and so could anywhere. It’s a dismal but grimly realistic conclusion to draw.
The finale’s view on the state of the world might have been bleak, but it still emphasised the existence of goodness and love. Three men made sacrifices – to a greater or lesser extent – to protect June and Nichole. Mark Tuello risked his position to get them on a train, while Nick and Luke exchanged their own freedom and safety for their daughter, and for the woman they adore. (Nichole has two dads, both in love with her mother, and when this is all over we demand the sitcom that scenario deserves.)
Two dads, a mother, plus whatever Serena is to that little girl – doting former kidnapper, creepy auntie who gets you a bible every birthday? That final reunion in the train carriage made a nicely wry counterpart to the high emotions of June and Luke’s goodbye. Serena’s moonstruck “Hi June” meeting June’s ‘Seriously. Her?’ eyebrow-raise sliced through the intensity and set up the journey ahead. Looks like the road trip is back on for season six.
What’s the betting that Serena’s going to interpret this coincidence as yet more proof that June is her own heaven-sent angel? Of all the punishments this show has laid on June Osborne, her inability to shake Serena is perhaps the meanest. It’s certainly the funniest.
There was obviously nothing funny about the brutal car attack, which proved that finale director Elisabeth Moss hasn’t run out of inventively sickening ways to shoot her character’s pain. Almost every scene leading up to the attack, and most after it, were made ominous by the old horror movie trick of whistling wind and silence. June’s been the star of a horror movie since this show began – she’s its final girl.
Or one of two. Janine is still fighting, having spent season five looping the loop between obedience and rebellion under Aunt Lydia and her weird-ass mother’s love. Like June with the New Bethlehem proposal, Janine turned down the offer of mandated, supervised time with a daughter she’d have to pretend wasn’t hers, and instead let Naomi Putnam have it both barrels. The intense satisfaction of that moment was only compromised by Ever Carradine playing Naomi’s utter cluelessness about being a baddy in this story so well that you almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
Lawrence lost any shot at our sympathy when he turned a blind eye to Gilead targeting June (spot the bumper sticker on that SUV? That regime’s branding has always been on-point). It’s not the first time Lawrence has done that; he also voted for the Chicago air strikes that nearly killed June and Janine in season four. This betrayal was a step too far for Nick, who wrestled with his conscience and came down on the side of: fuck it. He could either watch helplessly as Gilead killed June and maybe Nicole, or he could take Mark up on his offer and turn US spy, so he did. Finally! Long-awaited movement from Nick Blaine, who’s gearing up for an eventful final season.
Before he can bring Gilead down from the inside, Nick needs to get out of that prison cell. Will Lawrence repay the favour from the season four opener and open the door? There’s no guarantee now that Bradley Whitford’s character is on his Gilead ascension, complete with wife, child and a home that’s no longer an art-filled intellectual sanctuary for independent minds, but a ‘Daba Daba Dab’ confection of roses, frills and pastel macarons, where mouthy Marthas get muzzled and carted off by the Eyes instead of tolerated.
Lawrence’s new conformity is steadily shedding him accomplices. He’s lost June, Nick, and very likely Aunt Lydia, who won’t forgive the order to seize her beloved Janine. Meanwhile, June’s stuck with an accomplice she never wanted, and in the exact same boat (read: refugee train) as her former tormentor. With one season remaining of this story, we say Godspeed, Miss Osborne. And I guess, in the spirit of magnanimity – Godspeed, Mrs Waterford too.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 is available to stream on Hulu in the US and airs weekly on Sundays on Channel 4 and Prime Video in the UK.