Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale up to Season 5 Episode 3
After spending many seasons mired in the casual cruelties of Gilead, our protagonist June Osborne finally made it to the comparatively safe shores of Canada, where she has been granted asylum. However, as longtime fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will know, safety is never a promise in this dystopian world, and even at a distance, Gilead is an ever-present threat. With her daughter, Hannah, born before the Gilead regime, still trapped behind the border, June is walking a razor blade on which any mistake on her part might lead to her daughter’s harm. As of Season 5’s first three episodes, we see that even physically safe, Hannah is still under threat, which has shaken any sense of calm June may have had.
Though the end of Season 4 showed June orchestrating the graphically violent murder of Fred Waterford, the Gilead higher-up under whom she served as a Handmaid, Fred’s wife Serena is very much still in the game, and their mutual animosity has only grown with his death. Serena has long been one of the most captivating antagonists of the series, showing the unique position of someone oppressed by the totalitarian regime but who uses her comparative privilege to enforce the oppression of other women. The complicity of women in the oppression of women was a major theme of The Handmaid’s Tale even in the early days of the Margaret Atwood novel that ultimately inspired the series, and nowhere is that more clear than with Serena.
Stunned by the news of Fred’s death in the premiere of Season 5, following episodes have shown Serena refusing to step back into the shadows as a shamed widow. Instead, she has used her suspicions of larger conspiracies at play to pressure Gilead into hosting a lavish wake for her late husband despite his status as a traitor to the regime, followed by an extravagant and public funeral. Gilead is known for its secrecy and a general unwillingness to share its goings-on with the outside world, so the funeral made an enormous statement while evoking a surge in sympathy for the authoritarian government. Serena was sent to work as an ambassador in Canada, meaning she and June are again near one another. Women idolizing Serena and Gilead have already gathered to support her.
Hannah as an Instrument of Control
Back in Season 1, the impetus for Gilead’s systemic control over its people was the sharp decline in birth rates that left many families shattered before they’d even truly formed. This was an excuse for an extreme far-right sect to overpower government systems and establish a new world order that touted itself as simplistic and god-fearing while those within the system know it to be anything but. As such, even in the pre-Gilead flashbacks detailing the surrounding events around Hannah’s birth, Hannah has always been one of the most potent instruments of control wielded over June.
Upon Hannah’s birth, a grief-stricken woman attempted to take Hannah from June after her own child died in childbirth. Though Luke and June regained control of the situation, protecting their child played a major factor in their decision to attempt to flee to Canada the first time, which in many ways set the series in motion. When June and Hannah were captured, June was assigned to Serena and Fred, while Hannah was given to new parents Commander and Mrs. MacKenzie. To ensure June’s obedience in the birthing process, Serena took June to see Hannah and threatened that if June were to rebel, Hannah would be in danger. Later, in Season 4, we saw Hannah cruelly kept in a glass container as leverage against June, though she had forgotten June and feared her due to years of successful brainwashing from her adoptive parents and others.
Hannah as a Battleground
Five seasons in, the truth is that Hannah has always been in severe danger, which is only confirmed by the reveal that she is physically safe and sound, but in the presence of Serena at Fred’s funeral. After Moira and Luke attempted to convince June to exist in the moment rather than obsessing about Serena, the widow made it clear that June would never be able to forget her by having Hannah be the one to hand her white flowers for Fred’s casket on live TV. Squeezing Hannah’s hand affectionately, the trace of a smile crossed Serena’s lips as June gazed at the screen in horror.
At the end of Episode 3, June organized a blockade and used it not to harm Serena but to issue a threat that she should never go near Hannah again. However, given their history, it seems unlikely that Hannah won’t continue to play some role in Serena’s plans to disarm and destroy June, as she is now perhaps the only leverage Gilead has against a woman that has freed not only herself but countless others. Though the establishment often dismissed June, Serena always recognized her power despite their mutual hatred. She has never underestimated June the same way as the commanders did, and her fear of June will no doubt play a major role in what she does next.
Hannah/Agnes: Rebel /Conformist?
What remains to be seen is what side Hannah will incline toward. Episode 3 saw several mentions of her parentage leaning in seemingly opposite directions, with some commenting that her steely reserve was much akin to June’s, while Hannah’s adoptive parents noted that she was so well-behaved it was difficult to tell she’d come from a woman they consider demonic. Indeed, even those raised within Gilead from childhood have been known to rebel, as seen with Eden, who internalized the state’s oppressive teachings yet still met a tragic end when her assigned husband Nick wanted nothing to do with her, and she fell in love with someone else.
Alternately, Esther was a child forced into an arranged marriage with an elderly man whose desire to be a father well past his prime led to him encouraging war crime-level atrocities against his young Wife. Assigned to training to become a Handmaid after poisoning her husband, Esther ultimately lashed out at her trainer Janine and herself by sharing poison-dipped chocolates when she came to understand that her reassignment would only be a continuation of what she had suffered before. Both of these cases show that even adhering to the teachings of Gilead can have catastrophic effects on Wives and Handmaids alike, and Hannah has no guarantee of safety whether she rebels or not. This knowledge only makes her standing all the more tentative and, for June, Luke, and Moira, alarming.
If not for the circumstances of Gilead, Serena and June are two women who may never have even crossed paths, but their stories have become intertwined at their roots. Their differences are stark, casting them as near opposites, but the shared traits of tenacity and resilience make them each other’s most dangerous foe. Serena is not all bad, but it doesn’t change the incredible harm she commits, just as June is not all good, but it doesn’t make the comfort she has given others any less vital. With the tension between them mounting to new heights and their conflict now given a global stage, Hannah remains the wild card that could tip the battle in any direction.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Hulu on Wednesdays in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 at a later tbc date in the UK.