The Handmaid’s Tale: 5x08 Motherland.
June and Moira have escaped Gilead. They’ve suffered horribly. They’ve lost so many of their friends to this regime. Crossing the border was meant to be a reprieve. For almost the entirety of The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada has been the promised land across the border: a place that still holds to the same ideals of democracy, justice and freedom that the architects of Gilead removed. And yet, the inevitable has happened – more and more protestors are outside their doors each day, turning their lives into chaos. There is constant chanting, there’s xenophobic writing on the pavement (that, as Luke remarks, Moira and June seem to be so much better at removing – June responds that it’s all the practice she got from washing blood off the Wall, another small horror for Luke to contemplate). Their little bit of happiness – their house, which is meant to be a safe haven after so much suffering – is under siege. Luke suggests moving, to Alaska or Hawai’i or Europe.
This is probably a good time to contemplate the political ingenuity of Commander Lawrence. He has a moment of insight later in the episode, where he shows more of himself than we’ve ever seen before, but for now he is touring an empty village on an island that is going to become New Bethlehem. There are McMansions everywhere, a promise of a “one country, two systems” – ironically, a place where Gilead can play-act America, so that the refugees it so desperately needs back to maintain its population, can return to without feeling the boot so directly on their neck. Again, perhaps with a sense of irony, Lawrence compares it to Hong Kong. In a later conversation with June, he claims that his ultimate goal is a reformation of Gilead, for it to ultimately become New Bethlehem rather than for New Bethlehem to be reabsorbed into the motherland, but at this point, who even knows when this calculating man is being genuine, if he knew the implicit point he was making when comparing it to Hong Kong.
What a perfect point in time for him to be making his sales pitch about his empty village as well, considering the dire situation of refugees in Canada. Lawrence knows that he only needs to convince one person for this to succeed: If the woman who is so visibly an antagonist of Gilead agrees, others will follow. And he also knows how to get June, what the hook is: he promises not only a reprieve from the protestors and the uncertain future in a land that doesn’t want to accept refugees anymore, but he dangles Hannah in front of her like bait. One day soon, Hannah will be married and running her own house, and nothing will keep June from seeing her if she is back in Gilead.
As an aside here, in an episode that so clearly showcases the political reach of the Wheelers, who have somehow managed to get their hands on baby Noah, I do wonder if Gilead has infiltrated the Canadian political system. Not that a system needs to be infiltrated to result in the kind of xenophobic horrorshow at display here, but it is quite convenient for Lawrence that all of this is happening right now as New Bethlehem is finally finished and ready to be moved into. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was more than one powerful Canadian family with Marthas at home who aspire to have Handmaids of their own.
Serena has been trying to reach June but nobody picks up her calls. She is visited in prison by Mrs Wheeler, who accepts a delivery of freshly pumped breast milk for the baby they have now successfully stolen. This is truly the worst possible of all worlds for Serena, who has been stripped of all influence and has to listen to Mrs Wheeler explain that they’re trying a “cry it out” method on one-month old baby Noah, who has yet to cry it out and is desperate for any kind of human affection. Ever incapable of masking her true feelings, Serena gives this woman who holds so much power over her a whole speech about how she has “overthrown a country”, which obviously does nothing to sway her away from her conviction that Serena is an unfit mother (also, it’s irrelevant, since all they wanted from the start was the baby).
To make the situation worse, Lawrence makes a stop at Detention Prison for his publicity tour, and tells her that he has managed to negotiate a deal for her: she will return to Gilead, but first, she will go back to the Wheelers to nurse the (constantly crying, because questionable parenting methods) baby. She will, effectually, finally fully become what she has compared herself to: a Handmaid, with no legal rights, entirely at the disposal of the Wheelers. It’s the theme of the episode, how far mothers will go to be reunited with their children, and as June ponders Lawrence’s proposal, Serena has to consider if detention without Noah is worse than sharing June’s fate.
June wants to go back desperately, and Luke is at the end of his rope. They fight about it, especially after she mentions to Luke that Lawrence is “a friend” who hasn’t profited from all the times he helped her (and yet, somehow, he’s managed to get rid of his political rivals and gotten his dream project finished!). She also basically calls him useless, which calls back Serena’s comments to him and makes him feel utterly miserable, like having his deepest fears confirmed. He says that he feels like him and Nichole will never be enough for June, but June doesn’t really see how that should play into her decision, considering that they will both be safe while she rescues Hannah. It’s an impossible conversation, since Luke goes into it with all of his anxieties and fears and June already has her mind made up, feeling confirmed in her decision after talking to Rita about how she would go to the end of the Earth if it meant being able to see her son again.
She only really works it out when she finally goes to see Serena in prison – another intense scene between the two. Serena doesn’t have any more cards to play and whatever intimacy she thought she shared with June is the only thing she can pin her hopes on, but June immediately tells her they are not friends, that she has not forgiven Serena for what she did. Earlier, Lawrence asked Serena if she has an “irony deficiency”, and June doesn’t even have to say it out loud now that Serena asks her what to do if she is forced to live with the kidnappers of her baby. June answers her genuinely though – pretend you’re a Handmaid, but plot revenge the whole time. It’s what she did, what kept her alive, and it’s a reminder how far she would go to make sure her children are save, and why she has to take up Lawrence on his offer.
She has a conversation with Lawrence, asking him to stop Hannah from having to marry. It ends up with him explaining himself – how Gilead was the only way to save the human race, but the guilt over the misery it caused is on his mind constantly.
Lawrence: I tried to save humanity and I fucking did it. Then it got away, away from me. It went septic. You think I wouldn’t take it back, I’d take it all back. I’d let the whole fucking human race die out just so I didn’t have Gilead on my conscience.
It’s unclear how genuine this is. We know that Lawrence is different from the other Commanders, who conveniently use the ideology of Gilead to hurt women directly, whereas Lawrence has never had a Handmaid, is reluctant to remarry. It is also a very convenient speech to give to a woman he wants to bring to his side, telling her exactly what she needs to hear to justify leaving Luke and Nichole behind. He promises that New Bethlehem is “It’s a better place. It’s the place we wrestle a better future out of an unchangeable past.”, and that hopefully, that better place will eventually better Gilead itself and turn it into a more liveable place (a promise he’s also delivered to Nick, along with the idea that he could be able to see the other woman he loves and his daughter).
Just as June’s mind is made up, escaping from her house to buy some apples for Nichole or maybe never coming back, she gets a phone call from Mark Tuello. He’s used the information they retrieved from No-Man’s Land and a video that was sent to her in the mail that shows Hannah in school (sent by, I guess, either the resistance or Nick?) to track down the school. Because June is so valuable, because Mark knows what it would mean to lose her to New Bethlehem, the American government will retrieve Hannah and return her. It’s ecstatically good news (June hugs a stunned grocer), and then we see Hannah, gardening, the noise of distant helicopters or aeroplanes coming closer. What are the odds that this will all work out, considering Tuello’s record?
In case you wanted to situate Commander Lawrence politically, this is a whole episode about how he arrives where he is now. Before mentioning his bait, he delivers a whole speech about the ravages that late-stage capitalism and rampant consumerism have wrought on the world, as if Gilead had been the sole logical solution to that problem that is now justified because it worked. I do genuinely believe that he has regrets and only used theology as a weapon (he’s too calculating and opportunistic to ever have been a true believer), but he is still clearly a certain type of political person to have ended up where he is now.
June throwing “I guess after all this, I’m a better Christian than you” was the one small moment of triumph she managed to wring from her conversation with Serena, in which I think she was also plagued with thinking about how it felt to lose her own daughter the way that Serena is about to lose her son now. I think now that the show has the Wheelers, it doesn’t really need Serena as a villain anymore, and she is more interesting a character and provides more opportunities for Yvonne Strahovski to shine that way.
It is interesting that June resents Luke for what he did to Serena - like she's scared to see this side of him that would ever think it was justified to do to anyone what they've suffered through. I'm still a bit on the fence if June's 180 on Serena and revenge is entirely earned, but this version is more layered and better for the story.
“Gilead’s gonna Gilead”.
Tuello appealing to June’s patriotism was… very Tuello.