With new versions of Gilead on the rise in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, it only makes sense that the show would flash back to show the beginnings. This not only peels back the layers on certain characters' emotional journeys, but it also showcases poetic parallels between the Gilead that rose (and is continuing to evolve) in America and the one that is now rising in Canada.
In that vein, Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) got the spotlight in the fifth episode of Season 5, titled "Fairytale." Both were architects of the original Gilead in their own ways and both are now facing down new versions: Serena is living with the Wheelers (played by Genevieve Angelson and Lucas Neff), a Canadian couple deeply invested in Gileadian ways, while Lawrence is trying to evolve the system (calling it New Bethlehem) to welcome back those who fled Gilead.
"The flashbacks to the beginning of Gilead are very much to underline the similarities between things that are going on in the current story and the past, but also, you want to harken back to Serena — how she felt at the beginning — because she's adrift," creator and showrunner Bruce Miller tells Metacritic. "She's away from her country and she's saying, 'What was the core of that? What did I feel at the beginning that made me do all this? For a minute it felt like it was going to be good and maybe I can reignite that.'"
The flashbacks with Serena showed her touring a version of CPS (Child Protective Services) that housed older children who had been separated from their parents because their parents were being put into the Gileadian system and they were unwanted for adoption. It was early enough in the infancy of Gilead that handmaids were still just an idea, and special schools to determine children's paths in this new regime did not seem to be in place either.
It was a sobering look at just how far things had come (or fallen, depending on your worldview) in the few years it took Gilead to rise. And that serves as an equally distressing foreshadowing for what could come in Canada.
In the Wheelers' home, Serena is limited in what she can do and where she can go. While not technically a prisoner, as she was only sent there because the cultural center where she was living and working was shut down due to building code violations, Serena is certainly being treated as if she is lower in status than the Wheelers. And if she can slip so far, what hope does the average person have?
"The reason I thought was important show them is I wanted to get a feel of what it's like to be somewhere where Gilead was rising. So, in America when Gilead was rising, these things were happening kind of out of sight — there were all these people making decisions and imprisoning people without really talking about it, and then turning those things into laws," Miller explains. "Not only is Gilead rising in Toronto, [but also] it has some very powerful people who are advocating for it and that's how these things happens: People who quietly advocate that their lifestyle should be your lifestyle. So it had to be someone who has power and influence and is really kind of cosplaying Gilead, but it isn't funny because what they're cosplaying is misogyny and human slavery, and they're trying to make it palatable to everybody a little at a time."
And then there is Lawrence, who has expressed remorse for how out of hand Gilead got already but also does not want to play into Gileadian rule of "only married men can stay in power" since he has no plans to remarry after the death of his wife. He comes up with the idea of New Bethlehem, designed to be a safe haven for Gilead refugees and just a little looser in rules, because he wants to keep the country on a "moderate path." But he acknowledges that Gilead is a bridge too far, so he is "hoping that there's some sort of in-between land," Miller says.
"There's more freedom of choice — it's very, very restricted from a government point of view, but people can live their lives a little more within as long as they stay within their borders and don't break the rules outside of their house," Miller says of New Bethlehem. "He's not as interested in their private life because he's not totalitarian. When you're talking about, how does Gilead affect my sex life?, you're talking about a totalitarian state, and I don't think he is that person. So, I think the Venn diagram is that it almost is 100% with Gilead except in the enforcement part: They probably have most of the same rules, they're just kind of winking and saying, 'We won't enforce that.'"
Who would believe that wink is one of the biggest questions of the show now. But a close second might be how Serena will get herself out from under the Wheelers' rule — and if she even deserves to.
The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays