I promised myself I wouldn’t make this hackneyed-to-death political comparison but … it sure feels weird to be back in Gilead in the context of a post-Roe world, doesn’t it? Actually, we begin season five of The Handmaid’s Tale in Canada, where somehow no one has yet referred June to a professional therapist experienced in dealing with compounded trauma and PTSD. Instead, she is fresh from Fred’s savage murder-by-beating in the woods, dreamily reliving the night while still covered in his blood.
Season four ended with a far darker version of June than we’d ever seen before. Season five begins with the consequences — and lack thereof — of Dark June. Can what June and the other maids did to Fred be called justice? Should June herself be brought to justice for leading the murder? Everyone is conflicted. It’s an obvious, maybe even trite, philosophical question to center, but given the incredibly gory stakes of this show, it’s working for me.
Moira, forever this show’s standard-bearer for conventional morality, is aghast. Luke insists that June did nothing wrong and has decided to just “take the fucking win.” June’s fellow handmaids are ready to begin their murder tour of Gilead, on which Emily already has a head start. Serena wants the Canadian government to reinstate the death penalty for June specifically. And June, who spends two-thirds of the episode out-damn-spotting her bloody fingernails, doesn’t seem to regret killing Fred, but at the same time, she thinks she belongs in prison.
Aside from a quick interlude to remind us all that Nick exists and is married, the episode focuses almost entirely on June and Serena, with Officer White Knight acting as their literal and figurative go-between. While Moira, June, and Luke are working out what to do with Dark June, Serena is granted some quintessentially June-like moments of internality, reestablishing and reinforcing parallels between the two characters. For instance, extreme close-ups of Serena’s pained face as she learns of Fred’s death are interspersed with scraps of warmly lit memories of the golden days in Gilead. Serena and Fred waltzing is Mrs. Waterford’s version of Offred’s visions of Hannah at the aquarium.
Plot momentum is minimal in this episode, which is more concerned with reacquainting audiences with the world of the show and June’s mental state — which is frayed, to say the least. It begins with Luke and Moira interrupting June’s post-murder reverie, freaking out as she eagerly confesses to killing Fred and accidentally gets his blood on baby Nichole’s cheek when she kisses her head. Moira exclaims, “You savaged him!” And June, not quite catching the tone, responds, “By her fucking hand!”
In this manic state, June appears to forget she was about to shower and races off to rejoin her fellow handmaids at a diner, where they all inhale pancakes and bacon to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Gettin’ Happy.” Her adrenaline high begins to wear off when she notices the bloody fingerprint she’s left on her juice glass and drains completely when the other women start plotting their subsequent revenge murder. Danielle and Vicki, who have started stockpiling guns in the trunk of their car, ask June if Nick can get more Wives across the border from Gilead for them to kill. When she balks, they demand to know why she won’t help them after they helped her kill Fred, who was “your monster,” not theirs.
They also tell her that Emily has already returned to Gilead on this mission of righteous brutality, which June correctly describes as bonkers and suicidal. At the same time, June’s attitude here is baffling. Why do you think these women helped you tear your commander to shreds in the first place, June?
But June is less interested in Danielle and Vicki’s sense of betrayal than she is in Emily, so she takes a contraband pistol and drives straight to Emily’s house to ask her wife where she’d gone. Sylvia confirms that Emily returned to Gilead because “it’s what she needed to do.” June snaps into action mode, promising to go find her and “fix it” because she’s the one who started Emily on this path. Sylvia, who has decided to make her peace, tries to tell June that losing Emily isn’t really about her. “I don’t need it to be someone’s fault. Why does it matter whose fault it is?” Sylvia asks. “So I can hate the right person? So I can hate you?”
Thus dismissed, June spots another bloody print on her car window and races to a public restroom to frantically wash her hands and neck, eventually driving to the nearest natural body of water and bathing her hands and face. For anyone not even passingly familiar with the plot of Macbeth, this is a visual metaphor for guilt. So, to Luke’s horror, she decides to turn herself in to the Canadian government.
Is June really going to prison? Of course not. Apparently, Fred’s murder was committed in a sort of no-man’s-land of disputed territory between Gilead and Canada, so technically, June has broken no laws. This would be just a hilarious bit of plot loopholery if it didn’t pay off so well thematically. She’s let go with an $88 fine for transporting Fred’s dismembered finger across the border that she can pay online, beautifully punctuating the absurdity of the entire justice system, even in the free world.
Speaking of the carceral system, Serena Joy is doing prenatal yoga in her improbably luxe prison cell when a guard enters to let her know she’s being moved to another location. “Is it about my husband?” Serena asks. “I don’t know your husband, ma’am,” the guard replies. She is hustled into a hallway, informed that her husband has been found dead and so she is being moved to a more secure location, and then shoved unceremoniously into an elevator by heavily armed escorts, which plays out in slow motion — kind of like a maid being hustled into the back of a red van.
Anyway, Officer White Night — excuse me, Officer Tuello — later comes to give her more details, including that the prison received a package addressed to her containing Fred’s ring finger, which immediately tells Serena that this was June Osborne’s justice, not Gilead’s. And after Tuello has reluctantly taken Serena to see her husband’s absolutely savaged remains, he has to tell her that not only will Canada not be reconsidering its position on capital punishment for June Osborne specifically, but Canada will not be punishing June at all because of the whole no-man’s-land loophole thing. The good news is that Serena can now start a new life in Canada! She wants to know how she’s supposed to feel safe, knowing that June Osborne is also living as a free woman in Canada, which is a fair point to which Tuello does not have a real answer. She furiously wrenches off Fred’s shroud so that we also have to see his mutilated corpse, possibly the goriest single image I’ve seen on this show. Entire chunks of flesh have been ripped from his body, revealing his bare rib cage, while his right leg appears totally crushed. It’s a brutal sight whose full weight only June and Serena seem to totally comprehend.
Well, Serena is feeling quite grim as she’s escorted out of the morgue, but then meets a small vigil of well-wishers who have gathered outside the facility. She’s heartened enough by their “under his eyes” to make an odd request. She would like to go back to Gilead to bury Fred properly in the nation he built. Apparently, having 15 Canadian Gilead stans is enough to convince her that she still has pull in that country, despite being a woman — whose husband had her finger chopped off because she read the Bible in public, let’s not forget.
The episode ends back at home with June, Luke, Moira, and Nichole, where Luke is pouring celebratory drinks but Moira and June are both still freaked out. Moira is too scared of June to feel comfortable letting her take care of Nichole by herself, which June, frankly, understands. But then Tuello, the human link between June and Serena, arrives with his own moral judgment. While Tuello clearly feels something for Serena (protectiveness? horniness?), he also gives June an unambiguous attagirl for what she did to Fred, even having seen the body for himself.
But of course, it is Luke — that absolute prince of a husband — who gets June to a semi-good place in the end by encouraging her to comfort Nichole, who is crying in the bath. Is this the end of Dark June? We shall see. (But probably not.)
• Nick’s wife appears to know all about June, including what she did to Fred, or at least some of it. Is this out of genuine sympathy or just out of Gilead-induced wifely loyalty? Or does she have another motive? I have so many questions.
• All we know about Emily is that the Canadian Red Cross is looking for her at the border, where it likely won’t find her. Alexis Bledel said she was leaving the show for good after season four, so it’s unlikely we’ll see her onscreen again.
• Tuello told June that Serena is scared of her but that “scared can be dangerous,” implying to me that Serena is about to make some terrifying moves.