June Finds Redemption in a Game-Changing Episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Halfway through season 5 of Hulu’s grueling dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, I often asked myself why I was still watching the series. After seasons spent spinning wheels and rehashing the same plot points, watching the show became an exercise in endurance. How much brutality could the audience handle? And how dark can June go before viewers lose their sympathy for the series heroine? Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale still makes a powerful case for itself, thanks to career-best performances from Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski, as well as stunning production design and cinematography. It also remains painfully politically relevant as America (and the Supreme Court) are treating Gilead as a how-to to dismantle reproductive rights across the country.
The first half of season 5 was admittedly a struggle to get through. Though she has found asylum in Canada and has been reunited with estranged husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), and baby Nichole, June struggles to shake her traumatic past. And after brutally and righteously murdering Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in the season 4 finale, June is empowered by violent revenge. She spends the ensuing episodes stalking Serena Joy, as the two circle one another without making a move. And June’s toxic vengeance bleeds into her family’s peaceful Canadian life. She and Luke endanger themselves in a journey through No Man’s Land to find out more about their lost daughter Hannah, which results in them getting captured by Gilead sympathizers. They are separated, and June is brought to be executed before a pregnant and nation-less Serena Joy, who has been living under captivity with the Wheeler family, much like a handmaid.
But Serena Joy cannot bring herself to shoot June for murdering her husband. And as the two drive away, Serena goes into labor, in the middle of nowhere, with only June to help. Episode 7, “No Man’s Land”, is largely a two-hander between Serena Joy and June, as June helps deliver Serena’s son in an abandoned barn. June initially leaves Serena after Serena refuses her help, going back to their car before resigning herself to returning to the barn. As labor continues, the episode flashes back to June’s introduction to the Waterford house, and a birthing ceremony at a local Commander’s home.
During the absurd ceremony, Serena and June share a knowing glance, a recognition that the histrionics of the Commander’s wife are over the top. It’s a reminder that Serena and June have always shared a connection, a mutual understanding of their situation. Despite Serena being an architect of Gilead, she has chafed under the misogynist regime, and we’ve watched her suffer at the hands of her own design while propping up the system. Serena Joy is every woman who votes against their own self interest, who acquiesces to sexism and cruelty because they think it will offer them a modicum of protection and power. It’s what makes her such a fascinating and complex character, more nuanced than the craven rapists running Gilead. Serena has had glimpses of these moments before, when she takes over Fred’s correspondence and enlists June as a copy editor while he’s in a coma. She experienced a similar awakening when she gave baby Nichole to June to take to Canada for a better life. But she always falls back to her self-righteous hypocrisy, returning to Gilead again and again for them to carve off more pieces of her. But now that she is literally in June’s shoes, a handmaiden herself, does she begin to have some acknowledgement of the pain she’s inflicted on June and everyone else.
Serena does not deserve forgiveness, and June is not offering it. But June does give grace and empathy during Serena’s birth, largely for the sake of the child. When Serena asks June why she didn’t kill her, June realizes it’s because she didn’t want to. After the baby is born, Serena urges June to leave her to die and take the baby, calling herself a vessel and abdicating responsibility under the guise of God’s will. June responds, saying that Gilead only saw women like her as vessels, not as humans. “We mattered. We were, we are people. We have lives, … And that’s why I’m going to save yours, Serena. Because this isn’t Gilead, and I am not you.” It’s a tour de force performance from both actresses, and a game-changer in their relationship going forward. It’s also one of the best episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale in recent memory.
It’s a much needed moment of both catharsis and redemption for June. She’s been traveling down this dark path for so long, losing her own humanity to violence, brutality, and trauma. And it’s completely understandable and justified. But while June has endured so much, the prospect of losing her soul and her self to vengeance has been bleak. In the barn with Serena and the baby, June finds herself once more. She is better than Gilead, she is better than Serena. She is the heroine of the story, and the experience of the birth releases her from some (but not all) of the bitterness and anger she continues to carry. It’s the beginning of a healing journey, and one that we’re eager to see June embark on.
(featured image: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)
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