With an episode title like Border, we know right off the bat that we will be seeing characters in transitions. The Handmaid’s Tale is known for their dual meaning episode titles and this third episode of season five is no exception. Today’s episode was written by Aly Monroe and was directed by Dana Gonzales.
Episode 503 – Border
“June and Moira join a rebel outpost. As a pregnant widow, Serena tries to restore her status. Aunt Lydia questions her strict methods of dealing with Handmaids.” (Border, Season 5, Episode 3)
We open with June sitting at home after seeing the footage of Fred Waterford’s funeral with Serena’s stunt of dangling Hannah in front of her, for the whole world to see. She and Luke are struggling to remember what color Hannah was wearing, clearly overwhelmed at seeing their daughter again but at twelve years old. Moira arrives after having seen the footage herself and remembers that Hannah was wearing a shade of deep purple. June has no idea what purple means, but Moira points out that she’s not wearing pink, “She’s not a little girl anymore.” It’s a well-known fact that Gilead marries off girls terrifyingly young, as we saw in season two, episode five (Seeds), Nick was originally married to fifteen-year-old Eden Spencer (played by Sydney Sweeney) while countless young girls (appearing to range from twelve to fifteen years old) were married off to grown men. June has always known that this future was possible for Hannah, further increasing the pressure and the necessity to get her out of Gilead as swiftly as possible.
Moira lets June and Luke know that there is a group of women near the Canadian border that can get messages across to people in Gilead. June jumps up in anger that Moira has kept this information from her all this time. Upon June’s questioning, Moira points out that she did not tell her until now “because I think they’re basically suicidal. They’re a bunch of fucking traumatized refugees and they’re the last people you need to be around right now.” June comes back with “You don’t get to decide that”, becoming fed up with everyone treading lightly around her all the time. Moira says “Fine, I’ll ask them to meet, for Hannah. Just me and you, though. No men allowed,” leaving Luke nervous at home.
June and Moira pull up to a woman standing outside of a pickup truck, who we learn is named Lily (played by Christine Ko), who then humorously points out that she thought June would be taller. She also reveals “I’m one of the women you traded for Waterford” in the prisoner exchange deal that June arranged between Mark Tuello with the U.S. government and Commander Lawrence of Gilead. June apologizes for not making the trade happen sooner. Lily is amazed by what June has been able to do with the trade and even with Angel’s Flight back in season three, episode thirteen (Mayday). June replies, “I was lucky” to which Lily says, “Women always say that when they’ve done something extraordinary.” But once again, June fails to credit all the people that helped her achieve these seemingly impossible feats. She could not have executed either plan alone.
June, Moira, and Lily arrive at a cabin in the woods surrounded by armed women. There is very markedly an upside-down American flag hanging up. The outpost is located near No Man’s Land, where there are fittingly no men around. Lily introduces June to the armed women at the camp and let’s June and Moira know that it takes awhile to reach people in Gilead through satellite phones and get past Gilead’s cell tower surveillance; it’s a slower process and will take a while to get to Nick. They enter the cabin and find a wall of polaroid photos of all the people they’ve been able to get out of Gilead. But there is a separate wall of photos of those they’ve lost. Lily mentions Mayday and June is stunned, “Mayday’s in Canada??” to which Lily says, “Mayday’s everywhere.” Lily elaborates about Mayday and June is choked up when she says, “We thought we made it up. We thought it wasn’t real. We thought we made it up because we had to.” Lily replies, “Well then, you were Mayday, too” further driving home June’s message that “WE are Mayday,” from season four, episode two (Nightshade).
Back in Gilead, Serena and Mark have arrived at Commander Lawrence’s home. Joseph opens the door and welcomes Serena inside, but tells Mark, “We have a strict, no spies allowed policy. No hard feelings,” leaving him to wait outside during dinner. Serena walks into the living room where the Mackenzies are waiting for her. Commander Mackenzie expresses his condolences about Fred’s death and somehow knows that it was June that killed him. “She couldn’t have done it alone…she had quite a bit of help.” Joseph strategically deflects and blames the Americans. Just then, Nick and Rose arrive to round out the dinner party guest list. It appears that Rose knows the Mackenzies already. Serena and Nick look pointedly at one another, and she asks how he and Rose met. Rose tells her, “We met a few months ago. Nick was in DC on business; it was love at third mutually attended gala.” The Blaines present Serena with a knitted sweater for the baby that Rose funnily points out, isn’t her best work, as she’s still working on her knitting skills. Nick notes “Oh, you should have seen the first one,” to which Rose says, “No one should have to see that.” Seeing Nick have an apparently loving and easy, real relationship apart from June is a bit jarring, but is so interesting to see. They appear to be well matched.
Lydia arrives at the stark white hospital we have seen in seasons past. She first enters Esther’s room, where Esther is connected to monitors and equipment and she appears to be in some sort of coma. Visibly upset, Lydia approaches Esther, screams, and slaps her across the face. She does her best to get herself together and heads to Janine’s hospital room, finding her also unconscious. Lydia desperately begins to pray:
“Dear God, she does not deserve this! You know she does not deserve this! I know you’re not happy with my behavior sometimes. I’ve lost my temper, I’ve made choices. I was trying to keep my girls safe! Surely you understand that. Please do not punish her to teach me a lesson. I will turn things around; I can turn things around. I will do things differently. I promise you.”
For those of you who have read Margaret Atwood’s 2019 novel, The Testaments, (which is the sequel to the original 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale), this prayer that Lydia weeps through should pique your interest. The Testaments details the later life of a very different Aunt Lydia we’ve grown to know and fear (read my review of the book here). Is this incident between Esther and Janine the thing that breaks her and shifts her entire character arc?
Back at the Lawrence home, the topic of Joseph remarrying comes up over dinner. After Joseph pushes back, Serena expresses gratitude to the Mackenzies for traveling to attend Fred’s funeral. Commander Mackenzie says that it was to pay their respects, but also to speak to Serena about their “mutual adversary”, AKA June. As he details his concerns, Nick and Rose look knowingly at one another. He continues, “June Osborn is a cancer. We have to cut her out.” Serena, Joseph, and Nick exchange pointed glances.
While June and Moira are helping Mayday to prep supplies for future attacks against Gilead, they hear commotion and yelling outside and rush out to see what’s going on. The women of Mayday are pointing guns at a fearful, armed Guardian from Gilead. He struggles to remember the password that lets them know he’s safe, when a young Econo-woman runs in yelling the password saying that he’s her friend, begging them not to hurt him. He helped her escape and got her across the border to safety. As he turns to leave, June stops him and asks if he’s going back in, to which he says he must before he’s missed because he has a wife and a kid, “I can’t leave them behind.” We can see this sentiment has struck something in June. Over the first four seasons, she has been focused on the idea that she couldn’t leave Hannah behind in Gilead. After her escape in season four, June has carried the guilt around of escaping without her oldest daughter and it’s beginning to rear its ugly head.
After everyone else has left, Serena joins Joseph to sit and chat. They speak kindly of Eleanor, his late wife. Joseph looks at Serena’s pinky finger, pointing out that Fred should never have cut it off when she broke the law by reading. She agrees and even says, “I loved Fred, but a boy needs a strong father to guide him in this life. My husband made so many mistakes.” Joseph replies with “I’m sure you’ll have better luck next time,” and Serena takes the opportunity to hint at the idea of the two of them remarrying each other in a grab for power. When the baby begins to kick, Serena places Joseph’s hand on her belly to feel, and he promises to protect her and the baby.
Back at the hospital, Aunt Lydia is in Janine’s room, where she has yet to wake up, when Naomi and Angela Putnam arrive. Lydia reminds Naomi (and us) that it made such a difference when Janine visited Angela (her biological daughter) in the hospital when she was dangerously ill. The doctors are not optimistic about Janine’s condition, but Lydia is keeping the faith. Naomi asks Angela if she wants to say “hi” and sits her on the bed with Janine. This season, Naomi appears to have far more compassion for Janine than she ever has, telling her, “I’ll make sure Angela grows up to know where she got her beautiful smile and her sweet nature. You won’t be forgotten.” Has stolen motherhood softened Naomi over the years?
While escorting Serena back to her hotel room, Mark Tuello gives his honest view of Gilead thus far, pointing out that it’s merely “surface level beauty doing its best to cover up a stunning amount of hypocrisy.” Serena invites him in to discuss something. When Tuello asks if it can wait until they get home to Canada, Serena replies, “I am home.” Mark is confused and surprised that Serena would give up her freedom north of the border to remain in Gilead. Serena thanks Mark for all he’s done for her, to which he points out, “it’s my job.” Serena steps closer and gives him a gentle kiss on the cheek. For all you fans who have been shipping Serena with Mark, here’s your big moment. After all the built-up tension between the two characters, Serena gives a seemingly simple but meaningful goodbye to Tuello. He tries to convince her to leave as planned, but she seems to think she will be remarrying in the somewhat near future. Just then, someone arrives to summon her to tomorrow’s council meeting. Mark says his goodbye. I thought that this relationship could go a lot of different ways, but this felt pretty anticlimactic to me, and we will see why later.
Back at Mayday’s camp, Lily wakes June and hands her a satellite phone after finally connecting with Nick. Both Nick and June are relieved to be able to speak again, and Nick lets her know that Hannah is safe, having just left dinner with the Mackenzies. June asks him about the color she saw Hannah wearing in the funeral footage and he replies that “she’s ready…new school…training for future wives.” June is gutted, this is the number one thing she has feared for Hannah since the inception of Gilead. Nick is sorry he can’t do more, but June pushes forward, suggesting that he transfer to a posting closer to Hannah to watch out for her, but he can’t. He lets June know that he has new obligations, “I have a wife.” He’s kept it from her for obvious reasons but decides it’s finally time to let her know about Rose, the newest Mrs. Blaine. June asks about her and whether she would like her, and he says that yes, she actually would. They shift gears and talk about Nichole, which is downright heartwarming, despite their situation. Nick points out that they won’t be able to talk again for a while. Echoing Nick’s goodbye from season four, episode nine (Progress), June says, “Hey Nick. Try to be happy, okay?” and hangs up.
Back at Janine’s bedside, Aunt Lydia is asleep and wakes to find an empty hospital bed. She panics and rushes to find a doctor who directs her outside. She finds Janine awake in a wheelchair with a hospital staff member and her condition has very obviously improved after a visit from her daughter Angela (AKA Charlotte). Lydia finally breathes a sigh of relief. And after all that Janine has been through, so do I. How much more can this poor woman take?
Outside the council’s chambers, Serena waits to be called in when Lawrence stumbles upon her. He asks her if she has certain expectations of him. After saying no, he says “I’m sorry, Serena.” Once inside, Serena approaches the podium before the council of High Commanders and Commander Lawrence. Commander Mackenzie tells her that they’ve made a decision about Serena’s future and present her with “an opportunity to be useful.” They’ve decided to make her an unofficial Gilead ambassador, to be stationed in Toronto. Serena is floored and disappointed that they have not made a place for her back in Gilead. Joseph points out, “You’re an unusual woman, Serena, and we don’t have the proper infrastructure for unusual women to live within our borders.” On the verge of tears, Serena digs deep and finds her strength to demand a staff, substantial budget, and protection. The council agrees and she walks out. She ends up on the plane, which Tuello was holding in case she changed her mind. Serena craves power but forgets that the men of Gilead will never concede a piece of true power to a woman.
June and Moira are still at Mayday’s camp talking about Hannah and her future. Lily let’s them know that the Americans are escorting Serena back into Toronto, and even tells June which airport. And Lily has not yet learned that you should never present June with an opportunity for vengeance. After landing back in Toronto, Mark instructs guards to take Serena back to the I.C.C. Detention Center. As they start to drive back, they are met with another vigil of supporters offering their prayers and well wishes. After passing the group, they see that a car is blocking the road. Serena asks what the holdup is when suddenly something slams into her window and it’s June. She screams, “Never touch my daughter again. NEVER TOUCH MY DAUGHTER AGAIN!!” Serena is completely terrified and yells at the driver to back up and get away.
In countless interviews promoting this new season, cast and crew have emphasized the theme of June vs. Serena, and I think we are really about to see that come to the forefront. And what of Hannah’s future? At twelve years old, she is already being place on the path to becoming the wife of a Commander. The pressure to get her out and soon is at its all-time high. And where does Janine go from here? She has experienced an incredible amount of trauma since Gilead took power, and honestly, I need this show to give her a break already. Frankly, I worry more about Janine than I do June at this point in the series. And where will Lydia go next? Can she really turn things around and do better? But the bigger question is what is her version of better? As the late Fred Waterford pointed out in season one, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”