In typical The Handmaid’s Tale fashion, the Emmy Award-winning series comes roaring back with two explosive brand-new episodes (both directed by Elisabeth Moss) dropping today on Hulu to kickoff season five. In the season four finale (Season 4, Episode 10, Wilderness), viewers were left celebrating Fred’s murder in the woods, Gilead Salvaging style. But the episode closed with Luke in shock over June’s bloody appearance and June asking for five more minutes with Nichole and then she’d go; but go where? Season five picks up immediately where we left off.
Episode 501 – Morning
“June confronts the consequences of killing Fred. A scared Serena makes an unexpected decision.” (Morning, Season 5, Episode 1)
We open to the sound of a shower running and bloody hands submerged in water while “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers eerily plays. June is standing outside the shower while the camera rotates. June is spiraling and flashing back to chasing Fred in the woods. She’s reveling in the memory as her husband Luke (played by O-T Fagbenle) knocks and interrupts her reverie. June shuts the water off and walks out without washing up, leaving Fred’s blood to linger on her skin. After running into Moira (played by Samira Wiley) and Luke in the hallway, she rushes outside where they continue to question her. She tells Moira what she’s done, “I did it. I killed him…. By her hand. By her fucking hand.” And she drives off, leaving Luke and Moira reeling in the driveway.
We cut to Commander Nick Blaine pulling up to a house we have not seen before. He walks through the front door and is greeted by his new wife, Rose (played by the lovely Carey Cox). She fixes her husband a cup of coffee herself, not wanting to wake the Martha. We see that the new Mrs. Blaine walks with a cane (she has congenital hip dysplasia) and returns to the dining room table opposite Nick where she asks about June and whether she did what she needed to do. This appears to be a kind match between the newlyweds, but what is most shocking is that Rose appears to know a bit about June, stating “Maybe June can find some peace now. I’ll pray for her.”
Meanwhile, Serena Joy Waterford (played by Yvonne Strahovski) is still in her cell at the I.C.C. Detention Center doing a bit of prenatal yoga. She appears to be peaceful and relaxed until armed guards burst into the cell to relocate her for her own protection and that of her baby; for what, she has no idea. As they handcuff her and begin rushing her through the halls, Serena asks if it has to do with her husband. She is approached by Marca McPhadden (played by Nadine Whiteman Rodan), from the I.C.C., who informs Serena of her husband’s untimely demise. The sound becomes muffled as everything slows down, reality setting in. Throughout the episode, Serena flashes back to dancing with Fred at the gala in Washington, DC.
June arrives at a diner in the middle of nowhere, where the former handmaids that helped her murder Fred are waiting. Viewers are treated to a montage of them all eating while “Gettin’ Happy” by the queen herself, Dolly Parton, blasts. The jarring song ends with June’s inner monologue: “Everything tastes better when Fred’s dead.” But does it? The former handmaids grow restless and begin talking of their own dreams of revenge. Daniella (played by Natasha Mumba) brings June out to her car’s trunk where she shows her several guns and hands one to June, asking her if Nick can get her former mistress to No Man’s Land, or else help Danielle go back into Gilead. June resists, asking where Emily is.
In one of my favorite scenes of the entire episode, June is finally confronted by BIPOC women who have helped her. Danielle pointing out that “He was YOUR monster…now it’s MY turn.” As June continues to push back, Vicky (played by Amanda Zhou) points a gun right at her saying “Shut up, June! She was here for you…are you here for any of us??” DING DING DING!! This is the moment I’ve been waiting for! June has been helped by so many other women over the course of the series, even if it has hurt or even killed them, but she almost never returns the favor. She is so focused on herself and her own freedom that she forgets how many people have been horrifically harmed through Gilead’s formation. And in this season five opener, she is forced to come face to face with it. Vicky fires her gun straight up in the air, and all the former handmaids scatter, leaving the diner.
Mark Tuello (played by the incredible Sam Jaeger) arrives at the holding house where Serena is waiting. After she demands to see Fred’s remains, Mark informs her that Fred was transferred into Gilead custody at the border in a prisoner exchange deal with the United States government, but Mark has no idea what happened to Fred after that. He then reveals that two items arrived at the I.C.C. Detention Center addressed to Serena: a wedding band and a severed finger. The moment he hands her the photo of Fred’s body hanging on the wall spray painted with the Latin phase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, it’s clear on her face that Serena knows exactly who killed her husband: June Osborn.
Meanwhile, June arrives at Syl and Emily’s house where she receives the gut-wrenching news that Emily has decided to go back into Gilead “to fight, to find Aunt Lydia if she can.” While June is convinced that she can go find her before it’s too late, Syl (played by Clea DuVall) aptly tells her to just shut up already. In a season one callback to her time in the Red Center, June says aloud that it’s her fault Emily left. To this, Syl tells her “I don’t care. She’s gone! I don’t need it to be someone’s fault. Why does it matter whose fault it is? So I can hate the right person? So I can hate you? What good is that?”, a stark contrast to the indoctrination the handmaids received in Gilead. June begins to spiral and leaves Syl’s house to end up in a public bathroom and starts furiously cleaning off the blood, fully realizing what she’s done. In a stunning shot mirroring Serena walking into the ocean in Season 3, Episode 3 “Useful”, June walks down the shore of a lake and into the water. Both women standing in bodies of water, realizing the consequences of their life altering actions. While June washes Fred’s blood from her hands and face, she flashes back to Hannah at the beach, pre-Gilead, and to their heartbreaking reunion at the Mackenzies’ summer home. When a stranger asks June if she is alright (if that poor woman only knew the full story), June realizes what she must do.
One of my favorite callback moments of the episode is when June is waiting to be seen at the Toronto Police Department and Luke arrives to attempt to stop her from turning herself in. As much as he just wants her to come home, she knows she must face the music saying “I can’t wait for the boots on the stairs”, remembering the feeling of waiting for Gilead to punish her in horrific fashion. June tells the police in detail exactly what she did (never mentioning that she had help). But in a shocking revelation, the police inform her that because it did not happen in the country of Canada, “it is not a concern of The Crown.” When June says “there can’t just be no punishment”, the police officer aptly replies, “that is between you and your deity of choice”. June is floored. She is literally getting away with murder, in an utterly brutal way. Hilariously, another officer informs her that she will be charged an $88 fine for transporting an unsecured biological sample over the border. Incredible.
We cut to Serena waiting to see Fred’s body. When Mark arrives, she tells him that she would like to petition to the Canadian government for them to revisit their capital punishment statutes. She is out for June’s blood. When Mark informs Serena that there will be absolutely no Canadian investigation into Fred’s death, she becomes enraged. Ripping the sheet from Fred’s body, she screams at Tuello in fear of her own life and the life of her unborn child. As they walk out of the Toronto police station, two lines of supporters/mourners are waiting for Serena, offering prayers and words of encouragement. It is clear that Gilead’s ideology is creepily spreading in Canada. Upon feeling bolstered by their support, Serena informs Mark “I am taking my husband home to bury him…in the nation that he founded.” And just like that, we see the Serena Joy that we all know and love to hate, back in her regular form.
Back at home, Luke announces he needs a drink while Moira is clearly worried about June and her mental state, while Luke would rather just make the best of the situation. While June and Moira talk about Emily’s decision to return south of the border, Moira points out that “it happens more than you think. People are breakable.” I only hope that this is not foreshadowing of June’s storyline, but only time will tell. When June offers to go give Nichole a bath, Moira let’s her know, “I don’t feel comfortable with you taking care of Nichole right now. It scares me.” June agrees with her. When Moira says, “You scare me.”, June replies “me too.” Mark Tuello decides to pay June a visit, having just left Serena. He tells June that Serena is afraid of her, but he also says, “Well done. You did something terrible that needed to be done. I understand what that costs. May he rot in hell.” And in my least favorite line of the entire season, says “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Now, here’s the thing, friends. I love the line and the role it plays in the book and show, both in English and in Latin. But having Tuello say it in this moment feels painfully cheesy. I love Mark’s character, for the record. But this line should have absolutely been cut from this scene. But anyway.
Back inside, June walks into the bathroom where Luke and Moira are trying to bathe Nichole and get her to stop crying. As June picks her up to comfort her, she says “You don’t have to take a bath if you don’t want to.” Luke and Moira leave her alone to care for her daughter. The season opener is bookended by two bath scenes, establishing the theme of washing away one’s sins. But is it possible?
Episode 502 – Ballet
“June struggles to move on with her life in Toronto. Serena plans an elaborate memorial. Aunt Lydia and Janine prepare Esther for her first posting as a Handmaid.” (Ballet, Season 5, Episode 2)
Episode 2 (Ballet) opens with Luke asleep and June wide awake beside him flashing back to Serena’s abuse of June throughout the series. All the while, The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream” plays, just as a it did in episode 1 (Morning) but warped. Restless, June gets up and heads outside and buries the gun from Danielle in the yard, reminiscent of Luke burying a persimmon in the yard for luck last season. Over the course of the series, we seen June attempt to control her own actions as much as possible in an effort to move towards healing, but she is not always successful.
Meanwhile, Serena and Mark Tuello’s plane has touched down in Gilead, presumably back near Boston. Serena is very notably back in Gilead wife teal. We see the box containing Fred Waterford’s remains being wheeled from the plane as Serena disembarks to be greeted by none other than Commander Joseph Lawrence (played by Bradley Whitford) and Commander Nick Blaine (played by Max Minghella). Serena asks to see the church where Fred’s funeral is to be held. As she looks around the altar of the church, the camera zooms out to one of smallest churches I’ve ever seen, seating maybe twenty people, tops. Not only does she insist on Fred getting a proper funeral, but she seems to know that Lawrence and Nick helped June kill him.
Back at the Red Center, Aunt Lydia (played by the incomparable Ann Dowd) is preparing the handmaids to attend Fred’s wake at the Putnam home. Oddly, she presents it as an amazing opportunity to impress potential commanders. We see Esther and Janine interacting a bit, and Aunt Lydia even allows Janine to accompany Esther as “her minder”, hoping to place Esther as the Putnams’ new handmaid. Over at the wake at the Putnam house, Serena arrives dressed in black as a widow alongside Mark. Commander Putnam forces Mark to sit by the front door the entire time. Serena continues to attempt to persuade Lawrence to give Fred a proper funeral, but he helpfully points out that Fred is seen as a traitor for all the information he revealed to the U.S. government and the I.C.C.
Meanwhile, Rita (played by Amanda Brugel) has come over to the house for a game night with Luke, June, and Moira. As they pull out several board games, June lingers on the Scrabble box, flashing back to her time being imprisoned at the Waterford house. As Rita heads to the kitchen to check on the bread (clearly having a hard time letting go of her Gilead habits), June follows her and begins to talk about Serena. Rita sets a clear boundary and does not want to talk about her, but June persists. As Moira walks in, June takes it too far and Moira and Rita both tell her to shut up. Rita points out that “I may not have been a handmaid, but I struggle too…I struggle every fucking day” further demonstrating June’s lack of care for others’ experiences.
Back at the wake, Aunt Lydia and the handmaids arrive where Lydia wastes no time introducing Esther to Naomi Putnam (played by Ever Carradine) who points out how young Esther is. But she eventually says fine and Lydia escorts her out. Not long after, sweet little Angela (AKA Charlotte) comes running in to hug Janine (her biological mother) and they have a sweet moment together. Naomi quickly ends it saying, “that’s enough”. Janine, feeling grateful for any interaction she can get with Angela says, “You have a beautiful daughter, Mrs. Putnam” to which Naomi replies “I thank God for her every day….and for those that brought to me” looking knowingly at Janine. Aunt Lydia brings young Esther into Commander Putnam’s study, where all the commanders have gathered. Warren dismisses everyone else except for Esther (played by Mckenna Grace). Lydia is clearly bothered by this but agrees and leaves. Once they’re alone, Putnam turns the creep factor up to eleven and offers Esther a chocolate but feeds it to her like a child. The commanders have always infantilized the handmaids, but this was especially creepy, even for Warren.
Later, in what appears to be some sort of pool house or separate section of the house, Serena enters the all-male space where the commanders have reconvened. She proposes that they give Fred a proper burial to “show Gilead to the world” and make it “an international event”. Warren patronizes her but Lawrence agrees, and Nick vocally supports the idea noting that it will help Gilead look “merciful”. Serena presents herself as a symbol of Gilead: a barren woman made fruitful. Later, back at the hotel, Serena is debriefing with Mark, and she notably asks him for a cigarette (while still very pregnant, mind you). Lawrence arrives shortly after, announcing that he got the commanders to say yes to a global broadcast of Fred’s funeral “by not being a woman.” Ain’t that the way of the current world we live in? Sigh… Mark quickly leaves them to start planning the guest list filled with commanders from out of town.
Back at the Red Center, Janine and Esther are alone talking about Angela and what it was like for Janine to be pregnant, as Janine tries to sell Esther on the idea that pregnancy is her only means of protection. They share come chocolates that Esther stole from Putnam’s house at the wake earlier. As the conversation progresses, Esther mentions that she did not like Janine when they first met at Esther’s farm (in season 4, episode 1, Pigs) and follows up with “I was right the first time…You used me, like Aunt Lydia…you’re one of them.” Janine resists but Esther presses on with “You’re not June…you’re a disgrace. I fucking hate you.” She suddenly begins to choke and says “I’m gonna make June proud.” She continues to choke, and Janine starts to scream for help but begins to choke herself, both handmaids coughing up a terrifying amount of blood. Lydia and another Aunt enter the room panicking, trying to help the them, but their fates are left up in the air.
The day of the funeral has arrived, and we cut between June getting dressed for a ballet with Luke, and Serena getting dressed for Fred’s funeral procession. We see Serena standing over Fred’s casket crying as Lawrence enters to escort her to the beginning of the procession. The rest of the episode is intercut between a stunning, elaborate procession through the streets of Gilead, and Luke and June attending a ballet performance, all set to Op. 66, Act I “The Spell”: No. 8, Pas d’action from Sleeping Beauty, bringing back the dream theme that both episodes 501 and 502 opened with. Serena walks behind the coffin and is followed by Nick and Joseph and several other commanders, and then a group of wives. The ballerina is stunning and is the perfect comparison to Serena’s elaborate performance of the grieving widow. It’s all a show, and June is the main spectator. The funeral procession passes many econopeople, handmaids, and Marthas. Eventually, a group of pre-teen girls all dressed in purple approach Serena at the end of the procession. The camera zooms in for close ups of each girl down the line, until we reach the end to a twelve-year-old Hannah Bankole. BOOM. It wouldn’t be a premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale without a bombshell and here we are.
Completely unaware, Luke and June stop for coffee after the ballet, exchanging some adorable banter. Their relationship as a couple appears to be healing and heading towards a healthier place. As they walk downtown, they stop for a romantic kiss, but as June looks up, she sees the screens around the square are filled with disturbing images of the news airing Fred’s funeral. They both stop to look up and watch. They see young girls in deep purple approach Serena as June does the iconic look-up-into-the-camera. Then they see her: Hannah steps out and brings Serena a bouquet of white roses (aptly representing reverence and innocence), and Serena kisses her forehead. June and Luke are shocked, floored, all of the above. There she is: their beloved daughter they have been trying to rescue for over four seasons. They see her maturing face close up on every screen. The camera cuts between slow zooms on both Serena looking down with a devious grin, and June looking up in furious rage.
Where does the show go from here? Serena has pulled the ultimate threat: dangling June’s daughter in front of her for the world to see. What can June do? Maybe a bigger question is what SHOULD June do? Her judgement is not necessarily known for being one hundred percent sound, she’s suffering from horrific c-PTSD and is not coping well. But also, where does Serena go from here? She’s physically located in Gilead at the end of episode 2 but she is in a bit of limbo between Canada, Gilead, her connections to the U.S. government via Mark Tuello, and the I.C.C. One thing is for certain: this season has kicked off with a bang and established that it will all be about June vs. Serena. Some may feel that the episodes were a bit slow, but the emotional build up is so important after the catharsis that was season four. I can’t wait to hear what you all thought of these two episodes and to continue chatting about the show throughout the season! Hats off to showrunner Bruce Miller and the entire cast and crew for kicking off another incredible season! Happy season premiere day!