Incredible performance work from Yvonne Strahovski, Elisabeth Moss and O-T Fagbenle allow this slow-burning episode to live in those powerful moments.
Secrets might well be the downfall, as we continue to see cracks in the rigid structure of Gilead on "The Handmaid's Tale." Within cracks lie opportunities, and June uses one to get a message to Luke, and score a favor to be named later. Leverage is a very powerful thing.
Serena used secrets, as well, and may yet use more. As Fred continues to try and reconnect with his wife, he concocts a secret plant to reunite Serena with their child (such as it is) briefly in Canada. Is this a ploy to bring her closer in alignment with him? Was he always planning his episode-ending move?
But the Waterfords aren't the only ones harboring secrets and using them to further their own agendas. Serena's trip to Canada may yet bear fruit unrealized as she came home with a secret of her own, after delivering June's directly into Luke's hands ... and with it the real truth about Nichole's parentage.
With all these secrets bubbling beneath the surface, it's no wonder that we're starting to see more and more cracks in the rigidity of Gilead. No, Aunt Lydia remains as strict and frustratingly obtuse as ever, but there are other subtle signs that things are loosening up just a bit here and there.
It's a very minor moment, but nevertheless significant when Serena hands the medallion over to Rita to look at before she packs it to bring to Canada in hopes of giving it to Nichole. Rita read the inscription on it ... out loud.
First, Serena allowed her to read the medallion when women are not allowed to read, and secondly, Rita confidently read it aloud. Now, Serena has fallen way off the tracts by this point in her arc, but it says a lot that the dynamic in her household has shifted this much that Rita is at this level of comfort with her.
At several points in the episode, June is referred to by her real name and Luke is acknowledged by both Waterfords to be her husband, with assurances that he will be safe if the Waterfords can only see Nichole one last time. This is a huge admission, though it is also likely just manipulative to get what they want out of June.
Also huge, though, was June not only finding and listening to the old mix tapes Commander Lawrence made for his wife back in high school, but also the fact that the Lawrences themselves were listening to the music themselves openly and in the house. Yes, Lawrence is unorthodox for Gilead, but it may be no mistake that we're seeing more defiance of and ignoring of the strict orders of the regime.
The Waterfords had to get June on board to facilitate the meeting, with Lawrence's involvement, which meant she would have to call Luke and ask him to meet with them and bring Nichole. This is a huge ask, considering she'd not seen Luke in years by this point, and he is currently international public enemy number one for the Eye network.
Nevertheless, June relented and agreed to make the call, but not without striking a bargain of he own. "I want you to owe me," she tells June. Once again, it's a sign that June is playing things smarter on this run-through than she has in her previous efforts to free Hannah and escape Gilead.
The negative side effect of this might be the glacial pace of this season thus far -- it's shocking that we're five episodes in and so little has happened -- but everything that's happened so far has been so intentional we can only hope it will all pay off later.
In other words, things like this moment, this favor, need to pay off in later episodes so we can look back at this ramping up portion of the season as laying the groundwork for the fireworks to come. Otherwise, it's going to leave people feeling flat and uninspired.
Not enough can be said about the power of performance on this show, and while Elisabeth Moss had several amazing moments throughout this episode, none was as effective as the controlled tension on her face through her entire conversation with Luke and even the immediate aftermath when she made her way back to her room and refused to collapse in tears. This June is done crying, and everything is now fuel for the fight.
With June's help, Serena got her wish of seeing Nichole one last time (or was it?) when Luke agreed to meet her at the airport. It was a public meeting with Serena in normal street clothes, and it was an absolutely beautiful scene fraught with tension and power.
Yvonne Strahovski has plumbed new depths of power as an actress for three seasons now, but this hour was the first time O-T Fagbenle really got the chance to show why he's among television's strongest ensemble. Both performances are so powerful in this scene that you can feel Luke's barely-contained rage and Serena's barely-contained anguish.
Once again, she seems to slip into some rage of her own when she tells Luke that she's been keeping June safe. Is this a threat? Or is it a plea for him to let her in? We know she slips him June's tape at some point during this meeting, but we don't know if it was in the box with the medallion or if this happened after this comment.
Honestly, Serena has been the most complex and richest character on the show since she started balking under the reins of Gilead herself, and we kind of love that her motives remain somewhat mysterious. She seems to genuinely sympathize with June, but she also helped build this world.
Is her selfish desire to have a child -- by regaining Nichole -- overshadowing the compassion that has grown in her bosom since last year? Or is she working her own angles with Fred, as she and June had earlier discussed? It's both frustrating and kind of fun not to know, and especially as she's such a pivotal character and so much could turn depending on what she does and why.
Like, for example, the fact that she did deliver June's tape. After discovering Commander Lawnrence's secret mix tape stash, June actually recorded a more genuine message for her husband on one of them and somehow got Serena to deliver it -- we can only hope that she doesn't think this act fulfilled Serena owing her. That would be no fun.
Nevertheless, it was another gut-punch and powerful message for Luke to have to process, hearing his wife's voice for the second time. And this time June presented him the secret origin of Nichole, which has to be one of the most challenging messages for a husband to ever hear.
Yes, it's good that Nichole is not the product of Fred raping June. That still occurred, but it was through a loving relationship with Nick that this baby was born, and the coupe had even given her a different name: Holly.
So while he gets to hear that Nichole is not a child of ugly violence, she is the child of another man that June loves. Luke has proven to be pretty understanding so far, and it certainly helps that he has Moira there to talk things through with, but this is a lot to ask.
Especially as he doesn't know the extent of June's current feelings for Nick ... plus, there's the fact she was basically telling him to move on and have his own "full life."
When Serena landed in Canada for her fateful meeting, she was again met by Mr. Tuello, the same government official who tried to convince her to flee Gilead during the Waterfords' last visit there. He was no less successful this time, but he did manage to stash a phone and a message into her purse before she left.
That message said simply, "If you need me."
Serena did not acknowledge the phone directly, but neither did she hand it over to the Eye that was flying with her.
In other words, as usual, her motives and thoughts about it will remain elusive for the time being, just as her thoughts about Fred's episode-closing move remained elusive from June and the audience before the final credits rolled. So many questions so few answers.
Before June even made it to the Waterfords' final surprise, we got a very unusual encounter with her new walking partner, Ofmatthew. This girl has given three babies to Gilead and yet she seems to have not only drank the Kool-Aid but it's running through her veins.
Earlier in the episode, she basically trashed Luke as a kidnapper and hoped Nichole would be returned to Gilead. By the end of the hour, though, she revealed to June she was pregnant again. Gone was her optimistic pro-Gilead routine. She was sullen and quiet and, most surprisingly, extremely uncertain.
So uncertain was she, in fact, that she said she'd yet to tell her Commander she was late. So was the patriotism always an act, or has she changed her tune? And if so, what changed it? She's become an interesting character in that she's either bizarrely on board with systemic rape or she's been hiding her true feelings better than any other woman in Gilead.
Either way, this one scene made her an even more interesting character than she already was. It was almost disappointing it ended so abruptly.
After all the secrecy throughout the hour, it came as an absolute shock that the Waterfords were going public with a plea to the world and the Canadian government to return Nichole to Gilead and their "family." That they forced June to be a part of this, standing dutifully behind them is disgusting.
That Serena refused to acknowledge June or answer her plea to understand what was going on could be taken several ways. Either Serena was just as blindsided by this deal -- which seems likely considering she told Fred it was over after her trip to the north and he countered with, "It doesn't have to be."
It's possible she always knew this was the plan, but we kind of doubt it. And we're not sure if she's on board with it or not. She doesn't want Nichole to grow up in Gilead, but at the same time she wants to be with her. Which sacrifice is she willing to make? This has the fingerprints of Fred all over it.
We know Gilead was considering a letter to Canada because they don't have an extradition treaty, so it would be interesting if Fred did this without the consent of his government, though we doubt he could pull that off. More than likely, this is a government-sanctioned move.
It's also a very provocative one, as it puts Canada into an uncomfortable international position. They've already got sanctions against Gilead and have condemned what they believe is happening -- and is -- so how could they stand by their principals and send a child back into that world. On top of that, they've been taking refugees.
Regardless, it makes Luke the most famous and wanted man in both Canada and Gilead. Canada has to respond in some fashion, which means they'll need to at least talk to Luke before deciding to turn this into something bigger (like a prelude to war) or just hand the child over. Considering how this show trades in bleak, it could go either way.
It's been a slow burn this season, but a powerful one made palatable with amazing performances and brilliant scenes. That said, we really hope this is going somewhere.