As Canadian protests against American refugees grow more angry, June considers a desperate opportunity -- meanwhile, Serena faces harrowing path to see her son again.
After an unexpected "bottle episode" last week, to use classic television terminology, with June helping Serena deliver baby Noah before Luke turned Serena in, the world of "The Handmaid's Tale" expanded again this week.
After sharing that deeply intimate moment in the barn, Serena and June certainly aren't friends, but they did find themselves in uniquely parallel circumstances this week, albeit very different at the same time.
Also this week, and for the first time ever, Commander Joseph Lawrence completely pushed aside the façade and laid himself bare in a powerful performance that had us wondering if Bradley Whitford might score another Emmy for his work on the show.
We know "Handmaid's" isn't as sexy to Emmy votes in its fifth season as it was in its riveting first two years as it revealed the horrors of Gilead on a weekly basis, but the acting performances are certainly just as riveting.
The dangers may have changed, but we appreciated the unexpected twists and turns of these past two episodes. Just as we thought June was going to be forcibly taken back into Gilead, she was rescued by Serena, of all people, and wound up safe and clear in Canada, even reunited with Luke.
But then, this week, another opportunity to return to GIlead surfaces, but this one supposedly on her own terms and with certain protections in place ... if you can trust any of it.
Joseph was the "architect of Gilead," and now his vision has evolved and expanded to New Bethlehem. Commander Putnam was vehemently against him, but after he raped his Handmaiden before she was assigned to him, Joseph was able to dispatch him legally.
That helped Joseph ascend to an even more powerful and influential position among the Commanders. His position seems somewhat less precarious now, without the likes of Putnam looming over him and doubting his every idea.
Putnam's vision for GIlead was strict, callous, amoral and cruel. It's an irony that it's based on Christian values when it eschews them almost completely in how it treats its own. Or maybe it's less irony and statement on other entities that have done the same across history (and the present).
With Putnam out of the way, Joseph pitches his island sanctuary for refugees, which he likens to Hong Kong's relationship with China, to the other Commanders.
What's so delicious about Joseph as a character is the layers of complexity. He seems to be a basically decent man, but he is part of this horrific regime that strips away basic humanity so easily. It may not have been designed for cruelty to reign, but it certainly nurtures and rewards that behavior.
As such, even as he's pitching this idea as a place that refugees can return to Gilead without being beholden to its strict laws and policies -- as well as opportunities to reconnect with their families -- there's a benefit for GIlead, too.
America is still a part of the United Nations, as GIlead is seen more akin to the Taliban than a legitimate government. They're a terrorist organization that usurped control of a country. If they want to play on the world stage, they need to rehabilitate their image, but they also need to weaken America.
"Little America," positioned in Canada and other outlying regions like Alaska and Hawaii, would be weakened if so-called American citizens willingly relocated to New Bethlehem. This would strengthen Gilead's position, as well as their hold on the nation.
Now, all he needs to do is convince people to come back and be welcomed with open arms. And who would be the biggest get but the biggest and most famous refugee of them all?
As part of his pitch tour, Joseph's first stop is June herself. He offers her the opportunity for reunions with Hannah. He says that he can't stop Hannah's fate as a future Wife to a Commander, but June could be part of her life.
He further promises that Nichole would not suffer the same fate as her older sister should June and her family return. Joseph seems sincere, but Luke is understandably concerned for multiple reasons. How can anyone trust the "Nazi" who designed GIiead, for one? And then there's the fact that Joseph is just one man. How can he guarantee what everyone else will do? And what if he dies?
Nevertheless, as we've seen countless times from June, she'll do anything, risk anything to be near Hannah and try to rescue her from Gilead. Unknown at this point is if Hannah would even want to go after seven years separated from her mother and father. At this point, nearly half her life has been Gilead; it's basically all she knows.
But that's a problem for another day. The problem for today is what to do about this offer. The writers did a fantastic job of accurately framing Luke and June talking and fighting this out, with hurtful words and phrases thrown out, lashing out in frustration and emotional exhaustion. It's the way real people would process this impossible opportunity -- or potentially disastrous trap.
Ironically, it's a conversation with Serena, who's been in a detention center since she was taken at the hospital, that pushes June deeper into considering this opportunity. We'll get to that more later, but it sends her to see Joseph again.
They'd spoken briefly, where he hinted at his internal struggle, talking about how his efforts to save humanity -- remember, this is a world with declining birth rates and serious fertility concerns -- both worked and didn't.
In a clear criticism of modern America, he explained that the American dream was already dead, having collapsed under the "weight of long-term capitalism and rampant consumerism." It's a sentiment that's certainly been echoed in some chambers in the world outside the show.
His vision was one to save humanity, but he said that to pull it off he had to work with "religious nut-jobs," and he "underestimated their depravity." In their second meeting of the hour, Joseph peeled back all his layers and revealed himself fully to June.
It was after she lashed out at him when he said he couldn't save Hannah from getting married. She charged him with "all the women tortured, raped, abused in a world you created!"
With this, the mask fell off completely and Joseph was more vulnerable, raw and exposed than ever before.
"You think I don’t know? You think I don’t know the misery that I’ve caused? You think I’m unaware? I was trying to save humanity," Joseph practically whimpered. "And, you know, I did. I f---ing did it."
"Then it got away, away from me. It went septic," he continued. "You think I wouldn’t take it back? I’d take it all back. I’d let the whole f---ing human race just die out, just so I wouldn’t have Gilead on my conscience."
He went on to say that New Bethlehem is a place "to wrestle a better future out of an unchangeable past." He sees it as a template that, in time, can inspire Gilead toward positive reform. He envisions a Gilead that doesn't trample on human rights and allows people to come and go freely.
When she asked him if he really believed he could fix it from the inside far more effectively than the American governnment and Mayday could from the outside, he said that he has to believe it. It's either he believe it can be done, or he kill himself, the way his wife did, rather than live in this world he'd created.
June was determined to go back to Gilead after these conversations, even if it meant leaving Luke and Nichole behind (after he made it clear there was no way Nichole could go there). At least, until a convenient McGuffin arrived in the form of a CD video of Hannah.
This episode picked up a month after Serena's capture, so that's how long she's been pumping milk for a baby she's not been allowed to see at all. In fact, the Wheelers apparently gained legal custody of Noah during her incarceration.
It's been a little jarring how quickly Serena has fallen, from the woman taunting June on the big screen with Hannah to this fallen prisoner, sadly pumping milk for a baby she's not allowed to see.
A visit from Alanis Wheeler only makes things worse, and proves why Yvonne Strahovski also deserves all the accolades for the complexity of her performance on this show. Apparently, Alanis subscribes to the "cry it out" method, even for a one-month-old baby.
She shuts down any of Serena's attempts to talk her out of it, acting just as cruel, domineering and vindictive as she had when Serena was living under her roof -- and as Serena was toward June all those years ago. The parallels are striking, and clearly intentional.
We did get a laugh when Joseph came to visit her later with the good news that he'd secured her a station back at the Wheeler house to nurse her baby and get him to stop crying (but that's it).
Serena told him she wouldn't live in the same house as her kidnappers, to which Joseph asked her, "Do you have an irony deficiency?" Serena clearly knows exactly how hypocritical she's being, but there's certainly precedent in real life.
There are politicians who have passionately supported anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation only to have a complete reversal of position when someone in their family comes out as a member of that marginalized group. It's easier to dismiss someone's humanity when you "other" them first. When it gets personal and it's about you or yours, it's much harder to live with.
For Serena, it couldn't be much closer, as suddenly she is finding herself in the Handmaid position. The Wheelers have basically told her that they'll be raising Noah as their own, but she's allowed to live in a room in their house and be a human bottle ... as needed. But that's it.
Struggling with her own decision about her own child, June came to see Serena to see what she knows about New Bethlehem. She also made it clear to her former captor, that despite what happened in the barn, they are not friends and she will never forgive Serena for what she did.
What she did do, though, was turn the other cheek, which she figured makes her a better Christian than Serena.
"How do you go and live in a house with a woman who’s trying to steal your baby?" Serena asked an incredulous June. Serena knows the irony and hypocrisy, but now that it's her baby, she doesn't care.
So June offered her the best advice she could think of in the moment. Do whatever you have to do to be with your baby. Move in with the Wheelers. Be the good Handmaiden. But the whole time, plan your revenge.
When Serena asked if that's what June did, she asked her to think about what happened to Fred ... and what had happened to Serena.
The final shot of Serena for this episode is her returning, humbled, to the Wheelers where she takes full responsibility for everything. They are every bit as awful as she and Fred were, but Serena seems to know the role to play. It works, too, in that we see her getting to be with her child, breastfeeding him and sharing that special moment.
We also have no doubt, based on how clever and cruel we know she can be, that she will do exactly what June advised her to do. The Wheelers have no idea the viper they've allowed in their house.
June was just an average, regular person and and look how she turned out after a few years in Gilead. Serena is starting out much more callous and selfish. We can't say we're rooting for her, as we're not sure reform and redemption are possible (we thought maybe a few years back, but she's too petty and cruel), but we are looking forward to the Wheelers getting their comeuppance.
June's reluctance to believe that Mark Tuello and the American government in exile could do anything to help them, as they'd done nothing yet to rescue Hannah, didn't keep her from looping Mark in to a CD she got.
It was such a random thing, with Luke telling her she got a video and then her playing the video, which was of Hannah. We get that it was probably Joseph trying to convince her to come to New Bethlehem, but it was awfully convenient timing.
She gave the video to Mark, who promised to look into it. Then, at the end of the episode, he called to say that they'd used the metadata in it to track down the Wife School Hannah was at. They were planning a raid to get her out.
He'd also told them earlier that they were planning a military strike, though he declined to offer any more details. Seeing Joseph's plans to weaken America by luring refugees to New Bethlehem, Mark was desperate to keep June from taking him up on it.
The problem was that when a distracted June euphorically ran home in celebration, and then she and Luke and Moira were joyously celebrating a raid that had not happened yet, we immediately grew suspicious.
This is "The Handmaid's Tale." Happiness does not exist in this world, and that was a lot of happiness on our screens in that moment. It certainly looked premature. Does the level of that happiness mean that the inevitable heartbreak will be equally strong?
How badly is the raid going to go? Could Hannah actually die? Or if it goes well, how much is Hannah not going to want to be reunited with her parents? We just don't trust that moment of joy, and now we're scared.
There are two episodes left this season and one more season to come after this. Then, the narrative shifts to Margaret Atwood's sequel, "The Testaments." Fans who've read that book might be able to speculate some of what's to come, but that depends on how tightly they want to stick to those storylines as they shift perspectives.
Regardless, with a sequel series on the line, we're no longer even confident that there will be any happy endings for anyone as "The Handmaid's Tale" wraps. It's been bleak since the pilot. it's hard to imagine it any other way.
"The Handmaid's Tale" continues with new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.