The Handmaid’s Tale: What the No-Man’s Land Flashback Really Tells Us

Season 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale delves into the long and strange kinship between Serena and June.

Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 7.

The seventh episode of Season 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale has shown another twist in the complicated relationship between June and Serena. These two women, united by circumstance in the oppressive state of Gilead, are inextricably tied to one another in ways unique to them both. Other major fixtures in their lives come and go while their mutual antagonism and strange understanding of one another remains one of the few constants in their lives.

This season alone has seen June refuse to shoot Serena in a moment where she very well could have ended the threat the woman posed to her family. In turn, episode 6 saw Serena pull a shocking about-face in choosing to shoot June’s intended executioner. For two women that have consistently antagonized one another, this may seem surprising, but there has always been more to the dynamic between June and Serena than meets the eye. Through flashback sequences told during Serena’s birth process, we learn a bit more about why these two never seem to fully write one another off despite everything they’ve cost each other.

June’s brush with death in episode 6 and Serena’s surprising moment of rebellion show the two of them fleeing across the countryside in a stolen car as the latter goes into labor. June attempts to flee, but is beset with guilt as she realizes that Serena won’t be able to make it alone, and helps her to the abandoned barn where much of the episode takes place. At that moment, we are taken to the not-so-distant past, where Serena’s husband Fred is to speak at a Council meeting while a Handmaid Ofclarence goes into labor in another part of the house, surrounded by wives and Handmaids.

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When Does the Flashback Take Place?

The flashback sequence doesn’t specify exactly when it takes place, but we know it occurs before the first season because Serena introduces June to the Ofclarence household as “our new Handmaid”. We notice that Janine is still pregnant with the daughter soon to be known as Angela. Her eye has already been taken and is uncovered, indicating that Gilead’s cruelties toward her are well underway but that she is not yet wearing the eyepatch Aunt Lydia eventually gives her.

Though Janine’s physical state gauges the timeline, we also learn much through June’s nervous, traumatized behavior. She has clearly not yet learned the ropes of Gilead, and when she is meant to return a greeting, she can barely get out the words. Indeed, her communication is all through her eyes as she tentatively takes in her surroundings. Ofclarence struggles, and Aunt Lydia rallies the group of women with the zeal of a political speaker.

The Return of Alma and Brianna

Due to the behind-the-scenes departure of Alexis Bledel’s Emily Malek, she is conspicuously absent from the gathering. However, longtime fans will be thrilled to see Alma and Brianna, two Handmaids that were with us since the first season only to meet their devastating end in season 4’s “The Crossing,” in which a last minute attempt to flee their fate as doomed denizens of a Breeding Colony led to them being crushed by a train. Alma and Brianna were particularly impactful examples of the injustice of Gilead, both having refused to stone Janine when Aunt Lydia called for it and being forced to undergo a mock hanging in punishment. The two were solid allies to June and the resistance, and their arbitrary deaths after so much hardship remain one of the most crushing moments of the series. Seeing them here with so much potential for escape makes this scene all the more upsetting.

Ofclarence’s Real-World Resonance

Though not explicitly stated, the name Ofclarence could very well be a reference to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most regressive political figures in the U.S. over the last many decades and a major figure in overturning Roe vs. Wade in June 2022. Showing Ofclarence’s body with Aunt Lydia concluding that this brutal end is actually a moment of triumph as she fulfilled her only purpose in life adds an extra element to the reality facing people of all genders in the United States today, where people are increasingly defined by their reproductive organs over who they are. The end result is clear, with a woman gone and hardly mourned as her entire life is offered up as a sacrifice to a higher power whose motives seem suspiciously in line with those of an oppressive state. Tellingly, as doctors go to work attempting to save her child, Aunt Lydia demands that Offred pray for the life of the child, sparing no words of hope for the Handmaid that has perished in the fulfillment of Gilead’s cruel system.

Serena the Outsider

With June and Serena playing completely passive, mostly non-speaking roles in the drama of this flashback, the strange connection between them is all the more evident. During the birthing, in which Ofclarence’s mistress pantomimes labor pains on a specially designed two-tier birthing chair (Gilead is nothing if not well-branded), Serena smiles and rolls her eyes so subtly that only June could see, and June smirks. Later, after Ofclarence has perished, the wives celebrate the life of a new child. Gathering around in a sunny nursery while the Handmaids are left with the bloody reality of the birth, Serena stands separate from the others, hands folded, quietly distressed. June looks at her through the window, and they share a second glance, this one full of mutual sadness.

This flashback urges us to understand June’s act of sympathy toward Serena throughout this episode. Likewise, we see that Serena has not ever fully fit in with the power dynamics of Gilead, and her seemingly sudden rebellion in the last episode against a system that is increasingly hostile to her as an unmarried woman clicks further into place. Though June helped rip Serena’s husband Fred to pieces, there has always been something in her that recognized a tortured soul in Serena. Without forgiving her, without loving her, June still finds it in herself to understand her, and that allows her to fulfill one of her greatest acts of heroism for a woman who should be her mortal enemy.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US and starts on Channel 4 and Prime Video on Sunday October 23rd in the UK.