The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Finale: Sisterhood of the Traveling Moms

Even though this might be the first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale that June has spent basically no time in Gilead, these ten episodes have been full of herrings as red as a Handmaid’s robes. After teasing which of her men June was going to end up with—crossing the border into No Man’s Land with Luke, separated but then reunited, over and over; Nick pacing back and forth over the Gilead/Canada border, fraught phone calls and furtive hospital visits—of course this season wasn’t going to end on June deciding on one of them to run with.

Instead, it’s the last person she would have chosen, and yet in the moment I still burst out cackling because it’s the only outcome that makes sense.

But first, a murder truck and “Kokomo.”

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 5

This attempted-murder-via-car was shockingly violent, even after all of the quiet, violating acts we’ve seen in Gilead over the past several seasons—probably because this took place in Canada, the supposed sanctuary city. It had the surreality of a nightmare; I kept expecting June to wake up from these intrusive thoughts, but no, a stranger deliberately hit her and then ran her over again. It would have matched her current mental and emotional state to imagine someone snapping her arm under their tire, but even worse is facing the reality that someone else had this thought and carried it out. And, as we saw, would have finished the job with a rifle if a desperate Luke hadn’t intercepted him.

But then the only one to die is the would-be murderer, and suddenly Luke’s a wanted man. After ten episodes of June walking around with a gun tucked into her waistband, testing the boundaries of how much Canada will let her operate independently of its laws, it’s her husband’s actions that set the ticking clock on them. It’s not fair, but something needed to happen to escalate the situation and make Canada unequivocally unsafe for June and her family.

The plot of this finale really hinges on the show’s various pairs, so we’ll dive deeper into it via these unusual (or oddly fitting) duos.

 

Nick and June

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Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

In the middle of the season, I was sure that June’s phone call sign-off “Try to be happy” would be something of a last word between her and the Eye-turned-Commander, Nichole’s father who was now expecting another child born under even more miraculous circumstances (by Gilead standards). But instead The Nick and June Show has played over and over, ad nauseam, with an in-person reunion that was honestly pretty forgettable.

His allegiances are fairly inscrutable at this point. Even as Lawrence seems to be settling more into a villain role, Nick seems morally ambiguous at best, and pretty committed to remaining within Gilead’s system. His brief forays across the border are almost like trysts, even if all he does is sit by June’s bedside while she’s unconscious in the hospital, and then agree to work with Mark Tuello on some secret mission for the Americans.

Hopefully the final season will see Nick actually doing something, as opposed to just reacting every time June is in danger.

 

Luke and June

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Photo: Russ Martin/Hulu

Much of this season was Luke and June finding their way back to one another after all of the years and the trauma between them. Even though they had sex at the end of last season, that was more of her fucking her way back into stability, and it wasn’t entirely consensual on his part. But after uniting against Serena (though before she and June bond over her giving birth in the middle of nowhere), they have the kind of reunion sex that says they understand each other’s new self.

It’s not surprising that Luke becomes the impetus for them to first flee and then to be separated at the train. Serena taunted him, even June herself said (before apologizing) that he didn’t do anything while she suffered in Gilead. She had to talk him through how to be caged in No Man’s Land and how to take a beating without entirely losing hope (the optics of which are still odd, coming from a white woman, but in this universe make sense as she has plenty of experience with depersonalization and torture). So of course Luke would leap at the chance to not just defend her, but save her life—but it’s too extreme, and the price is giving up the temporary home they’d created.

It seems to be an unspoken rule of dramatic storytelling that if two people go to a train station together, they’ll somehow get separated. Because we’d already seen Luke and June dodging in and out of Gilead this season, it didn’t seem likely that they’d board that train for the remaining United States together. But it was still rough to watch their goodbye via phone—so much more heartrending than June and Nick’s quasi-farewell call—with him saying, “We’re gonna find each other. We always do.”

And then: “You take care of our baby.” Dammit Luke, why you gotta be such a good guy? This whole season was about trying to rescue Hannah—and you know that’s gonna continue into the final season—but he sees Nichole as his, because she’s June’s.

 

Gilead and New Bethlehem

Lawrence’s great experiment seems to be coming apart at the seams within its own borders, thanks to the evil in the hearts of Commanders like Fred Waterford and Warren Putnam. His Eye turns inward in the cases where it can’t possibly ignore the immorality, yet the women remain mostly unscathed for their subtler yet still dehumanizing actions: Serena merely gets shuffled away in another country, Naomi gets married off, and Lydia still operates within this system. Despite each of them slowly recognizing that they do not get special treatment, they still seem to regard their own situations (including their sympathy for people like Janine) as exceptions and not reason enough to change the rules.

It seems unlikely that Gilead will fully dismantle its established systems; if anything, the new generation of Wives (including Agnes/Hannah) and up-and-coming Commanders like Nick will be the people that Gilead will point to as a better example of the nation’s ideals than the founding generation.

I’ll be curious to see if Gilead’s fertility clinic in Canada gains them enough of a foothold. The Wheelers were proof enough that there is a vocal contingent of Gilead wannabes, some combination of desperate for children and desiring to yoke everyone into this backwards, abusive culture.

New Bethlehem got enough screentime this season that I have to imagine we’re going to revisit it at some point before the series finale. Maybe the tensions in Canada will ignite enough that other Gilead escapees will be lured back. June was too big of a get, the price too great for her to publicly support Gilead (even if it would have meant getting to visit Hannah in some weird custody arrangement), but I think some of next season’s action will take place there.

 

June and Lawrence

I don’t want to hold up one example as a cure-all, but every time these two trade thinly-veiled threats over the phone or even in-person, I can’t stop forgetting that they were forced to have sex with each other while the Waterfords lurked outside the door, to ensure that they did not believe themselves outside of Gilead’s system. That she had to walk him, a middle-aged man in tears, through raping her.

But of course, let’s not forget that this man would not have been in that scenario had he not literally created Gilead. Bradley Whitford plays Lawrence so close to the vest, at turns awkward and menacing, that I truly don’t know how seriously to take it when he grasps at power; it still seems self-consciously performative, always shaded with irony. Yet that seems its own commentary, that he seems harmless or even a potential #ally, until he suddenly decides to put his own needs ahead of everyone else’s freedoms.

 

Naomi and Rose

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Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

A pair of Gileadean Wives both forced into humiliating situations: Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) getting a Handmaid-esque renaming as Mrs. Lawrence, with this surreal wedding where she’s made to look younger (wavy hair down for the first time ever, I believe) despite in no way being a blushing bride, and everyone just has to rictus-grin and go along with the wedding portraits.

And poor Rose, glowing with her pregnancy yet watching helplessly as her husband strides right into the Lawrence home to deck the groom for potentially putting a hit out on his ex-Handmaid long-distance girlfriend in Canada. But also… come on, honey. Rose’s introduction in the first two episodes made it seem as if she and Nick had a more complex partnership in which she understood his feelings about June, but it seems as if he downplayed that, and now she realizes that her marriage is no different than any other Gilead union.

 

Lydia and Janine

Despite myself, I’m emotionally invested in these two, though their subplot also feels stretched way too thin over these episodes when it could have covered more ground. Clearly we needed to get to the answer of what will finally radicalize Lydia, and that seems to be Janine getting carted away by the Eyes to… the Colonies? Who can say!

Lydia offering Janine back to Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) mirrors how Janine offered up Esther as an excuse to see baby Angela again, even though Lydia’s motives were ostensibly more for Janine’s benefit; she knew the other Aunts could not see her continue to display favoritism toward this troubled Handmaid.

What I thought was going to be the final straw for Lydia was witnessing the deliberate cruelty with which Naomi treated Janine, dangling Angela as a far-off reward if Janine could handle getting through the summer just the two of them. Ann Dowd killed it with the face acting, stunned that Naomi would make poor Janine go through yet another probationary period as if she couldn’t trust her with the child, especially after the premiere in which Naomi actually acknowledged Janine as Angela’s birth mother.

And then Naomi has the fucking gall to call Janine a “friendly face.” This first generation of Wives truly thrive on self-delusion, convincing themselves that the women they had a direct hand in enslaving—the mothers of the children they kidnapped—are somehow their buddies. I’m so glad Janine told her off to her face, even if she gets her tongue cut out for it. Not even Angela is enough for Naomi to have power over her now.

I am still shocked that Janine didn’t take a step on the road to Aunthood this season. Especially after Esther poisoned her in the second episode, I was expecting some season finale symmetry of Janine performing a botched hysterectomy or some other surgery that would take her out of the running in terms of fertility.

 

Hannah and Agnes

Like June and Offred, we’re talking about two identities within the same body. For me, Hannah secretly writing her own name in endearingly crooked handwriting, and then looking up at the same moon as June, was just not enough character development this season. The series has treated her as more of an object or an idea, which makes sense when it’s coming from June’s perspective, clinging to memories of her daughter from five years prior. But actually watching Agnes/Hannah in the young Wife training camp-slash-sleepover implied that we would get a better sense of her Gileadean life from her perspective. Fingers crossed for next season, though we should definitely get answers in that regard in the adaptation of The Testaments.

 

June and Serena

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Screenshot: Hulu

“Hi, June.”
“Hi, Serena.”

The utter banality of this exchange is delicious. Just two sleep-deprived moms bumping into each other on the refugee train to Alaska. Each boarded expecting to be alone with her child, only to find the only other person who will really understand what she’s going through. Even if June killed Serena’s husband, and then her husband tried to get Serena separated from Noah. It doesn’t quite balance the ledger, and if anything, it serves as a crucial reminder to Serena that she hasn’t had power over June since she cradled Agnes’ face on television.

The Serena birth episode gave us flashbacks to the early days of Offred’s service in the Waterford household, when she and Serena were something approaching allies: At a birth, they silently commiserated over the spectacle of a Wife pretending to labor, back when Offred still had time to get pregnant and Serena still had time before she was reminded of her infertility and her Handmaid’s inability to conceive (all Fred’s fault, we know now). It was early enough in Gilead’s infancy that these two women could engage one another as closer to intellectuals.

But it also harkens back to Naomi mistaking Janine for a friendly face, with Serena doing the same. Even if June might have appreciated that moment of levity, that yeah, I know it’s ridiculous eyeroll, it doesn’t change the fact that Serena enslaved her and other women.

But now Serena has been treated like a Handmaid. Now Serena has a child of her own womb, a child she was willing to hand over to June the way she did with Nichole; twice over, she has fulfilled the role of the “real mother” in the Judgment of King Solomon tale. The fact that she boarded a train with a bunch of other American refugees (…does she still have her U.S. passport after all this time?) smacks of Wifely self-delusion that she can just adopt her old citizenship like she didn’t work to blow the country up. But maybe she finally gets it.

It’s a great way to end the season, though it still leans toward what I was worried about in the premiere: prioritizing a tight, myopic focus on these two white women on opposite sides of the ideological divide, instead of keeping with the more intersectional exploration of Gilead that the last few seasons have demonstrated, as they expanded beyond the bounds of Margaret Atwood’s novel.

But for the first time in five seasons, it’s a new expression on June’s face.

 

Box of Chocolates

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Screenshot: Hulu

  • That window seat shot of June in the bulletproof vest was a great callback to Offred sitting in the window seat of the Waterfords’ home.
  • I think that this opening was the first time we’ve seen June wear anything approaching red (pink, but still) since her days as a Handmaid.
  • Similarly, watching her drink out of the teal mug seemed a very pointed fuck-you to Wife culture.
  • Speaking of the Wives, the worldbuilding-via-costuming continues to be fantastic, especially in the Wife bridal salon. Which made me wonder—did the Waterfords and the Lawrences and the other architects have formal wedding ceremonies in the early days of Gilead? Or did they just don their Wife and Commander garb and continue to be married, in an entirely new cultural context?
  • “My June?” My heart.
  • Nitpicky aside, but—how the fuck are you going to run anywhere with a 21-month-old with just a diaper bag packed with extra clothes? Packing a car for a week away with our ten-month-old takes multiple trips before we’ve even added in our own stuff.
  • Only in writing this did I realize that June and Luke (and Nichole!) got a very hurried goodbye to Moira. What’s the poor woman going to do now, aside from advocate on Luke’s behalf?
  • While “Kokomo” more than earned second place, I have to give this season’s most distinctive musical choice to Luke crooning Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to June, and their poor Gileadean contact Jaden asking if that’s a song that he wrote. (chefskiss)
  • …except that I just realized how perfect of a music choice “Kokomo” is, to sum up the beginning of the moms’ journey: We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow… Good job, show.

 

How long do you think Serena and June and Noah and Nichole will be travel buddies? Will I get my hoped-for time jump in season six? (Most likely not, too many loose threads to explore next season.) Will Lawrence be the big bad? Will Lydia blow it all up?

Natalie Zutter appreciates that this show still makes her yell “bitch you did NOT” at the screen. Theorize about the final Handmaid’s Tale season with her on Twitter (for as long as that’s an option, anyway).

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