When a season of The Handmaid's Tale ends with the brutal (but arguably justifiable) murder of a political leader from Gilead, the next season must begin with the consequences, both for the person who killed him, the people he left behind, and the wider world at large. But in a show as dystopian as The Handmaid's Tale, those consequences are never what they seem.
"I think there's a version of this show that we could do that would be the surface version that just has [June] wielding a weapon and wearing a cape and being badass, but that's not what Margaret Atwood wrote, and it's not something we're as interested as telling. We're interested in talking about much more complicated things — with all of the characters. We're much more interested in the emotional truths of these characters," series star, executive producer, and director Elisabeth Moss tells Metacritic.
Rather than June (Moss) have to face what she did to Fred (Joseph Fiennes) by either going on the run, into hiding, or on trial, for example, she gets away with it almost entirely scot-free (there's a measly fine, but we'll get to that in a minute). However, walking around free when her conscience is heavy might be a punishment in and of itself. (As creator and showrunner Bruce Miller notes, "June is a good person and she doesn't want to turn into someone who is amoral.") However, she also suffers when Fred's widow Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) turns his funeral into a public spectacle.
"We talked about Kennedy's funeral [as inspiration] because I knew that the person who had planned John F. Kennedy's funeral had done a ton of research. So, I was following on the back of Letitia Baldrige, the head of etiquette at the White House for Jackie Kennedy, and I think she planned the funeral. And so, it was taken from all of these military and civic traditions," Miller explains. "That's the feel she wanted — not just as a visual thing to boost her, but I think what she thinks in her head is, 'This is how the public Fred gets buried; this is what happens to people of that stature.' Especially in a nascent country, you're trying to build up the myth of it being created."
Directed by Moss, the first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 are bookended by June and Serena's relationship as their power dynamic shifts, cementing the idea that the season is "June vs. Serena," as Moss previously teased for Metacritic. But so much happens in between. Here, Metacritic and some of the team behind the show break down the biggest moments from the two-episode Season 5 premiere.
Although the Season 5 trailer showed June telling her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) about what she did to Fred, that admission wasn't enough for her. Whether you want to argue she needed to unburden herself or gloat (or much more likely a combination of the two so uncomfortable she didn't want to think about it), she ended up going to the authorities, too.
"She wants to be punished. She's been living in this world and Gilead where right and wrong are so screwed up, and good and evil are so messed up, and violence is the answer, and people are solving their problems in ways that they shouldn't be. And I think she's desperate for somebody to say, 'This is right, this is wrong; This is good, this is evil.' She really wants somebody to say, 'What you did was wrong,'" Moss explains.
But that doesn't happen. Because the crime took place in No Man's Land, the Canadian government has no authority there. However, because she sent Fred's finger in the mail to Serena, she was charged with a small mail crime and ordered to pay an $88 fine. Even Mark (Sam Jaeger) is no help to June, telling her she did something good.
So, when she doesn't get what she wants out of the confession, it first "unmoors her," Moss says. "It puts her in this place of not knowing who she is or what she's going to do next."
But then when Mark basically tells her she has the right to live what she did, she should be able to finally let out a breath. "Episode 1 is about, Can she be those both of those people — the killer, who ripped him apart with her bare hands, and the woman who holds her daughter?" Moss says. "This person who has been with her on this journey, and is in a very complicated position, is the person that ultimately says it's OK: 'You did the right thing. He wasn't supposed to live. Justice had to be served and you can live with yourself. Go upstairs and you can be a mother to your daughter and you can be a wife to your husband, and you can also be the woman who killed Fred Waterford. You can be both of those people in one person.'"
However, even if June is feeling a little better by the end of that encounter, Luke is still reeling from what he learned his wife is capable of.
"There's a fear that she could be dangerous — either to herself or even, not consciously but through some indirect action, to Nicole or to the household or to potential of getting Hannah back," Fagbenle says. "And so, when she's not just killing a man, but then taking the time to cut his finger off and then taking the time to post it to somebody, then you're like, 'Hey, that's not in Hannah's best interest to poke the bear, so to speak, [or] to go and confess to a police station that you killed someone.' That's really a big threat to Luke because the big objective is to get Hannah back, and June doesn't seem, at that time, to be working with that as the primary goal; she seems to be much more obsessed with Serena."
Miller tells Metacritic that his team of writers knew early enough that she wasn't planning to return that they could build this in, but that this felt like "the only option" for why her character would not be around June in Canada for an extended period of time.
"From people we spoke to — the refugees — they said it's so common and it's so unbelievable: You cannot believe anybody would go back, and it happens a lot. If you remember the girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram, they went back, which seems just insane when you think about it from the outside point of view of these girls were kidnapped and rescued, but from their point of view, they had a life there," he explains. "And so, what I wanted to show was that if you are too much of the person that you can only be in Gilead, you find yourself drawn back to Gilead."
Emily couldn't shake what she had been through or who she had become, but she is far from the only character feeling that way. To a certain degree, he says, there is a question of, "How much of their toe are they dipping back?" from all characters who lived within those borders once but no longer do.
That's certainly true for June, he says, because "June is trying to figure out: Is she just Gileadian? Is that violence, that degree of Old Testament judgment, part of her personality now? June is not out of Gilead yet; she's still being influenced by it; her daughter still there; her heart's still there; absolutely June's mind is still back there, on the people she hasn't saved; she hasn't excised herself from that world either."
"A lot of the show this year exists in liminal spaces — these spaces where things brush up against each other — so where does June hit Offred? Luke is trying to find June amongst it and pull her out, and what he ends up doing is changing himself to be more like [her] as opposed to wait until June comes back," he continues.
But on a more literal scale, others will be brushing up against returning to Gilead physically, both in traveling back to that Republic and in the ways that Republic is encroaching upon Canada, as Miller notes that "Gilead's the beautiful and stanky core of my world."
Esther (Mckenna Grace) gets assigned to the Putnam household, where Warren (Stephen Kunken) immediately takes advantage of his position of power and sexually assaults his new handmaid — not the Ceremony, just a regular sexual assault after letting her have some chocolate while his wife is elsewhere. He already lost a hand for similar crimes, but that seems to be a negligible price to pay for him to be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants.
The show didn't show the extent of the assault the way some previous attacks on women in Gilead. "What happens is so gross that you don't want to show too much of it," Miller simply puts it. And additionally, "that storyline is "a little more from from Lydia and Janine's point of view, and they didn't really know what was going on in there," he explains.
But the toll the assault takes on Esther leads her to try to kill herself — and Janine (Madeline Brewer). She redirects some of her anger at her situation toward Janine, who she feels "used" her by pretending to be her friend while really just wanting to stay close to her child, who the Putnams are raising.
So, Esther steals a box of chocolates to share with Janine, but unbeknownst to Janine (and the audience at first), she injected those chocolates with a poisonous substance, so her bliss over a rare treat quickly takes a turn, and both women begin coughing and spitting up blood.
"We thought it was a household cleaner," Miller says of what Esther would have used. "In a couple of the books, they use rat poison, but that's pretty easy to taste. There's a million things we thought you could find in the Red Center and women tend to poison people, and I always think of her as someone who, if she wasn't in Gilead, she'd be a great science student. She understands how those things work and that's how she was able to do it. She was on a farm, and she extrapolated things about materials and technology and some terrible poisons too. It just shows that the same things that make her able to survive are the same things that give her a little bit of an edge."
Lydia (Ann Dowd) finds them bloody and runs to her favorite first.
"The handmaid world for Lydia ends up being focused on Janine: She feels like, 'I may have been too harsh on her, but she justifies it in her head saying, 'You wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for me.' Both those things are true," Miller says. "So, this long journey with Janine has allowed Lydia to see that someone who disagrees with her is not evil."
Serena genuinely grieves Fred when she learns he was killed and then visits his body in the morgue. Even though they had an volatile relationship of their own and he cut off her finger (which some might argue means the finger June sent her of Fred's was not fully a threat, but rather a nod to how she is now free of an abuser too), she did love him and she also needed him for the power she wielded.
"I think she was spinning out. I think the news of Fred made spin out and then the news of June doing it made her spin out even more. In the morgue scene especially where she just tells Mark, 'What are you gonna do? You're gonna protect me?', you can see him distancing himself from Serena, so you've got all these characters distancing themselves from Serena," Strahovski says.
But Serena also begins to see supporters, too, even if they are strangers. Picking up where the fourth season left off with her in Canada, a small faction there is in support of bringing Gilead's ways to a wider world. That boosts her confidence a little, and her anger towards June for making things harder for her also sends her into planning mode.
"What the death of Fred does is, it isn't about Fred, it's about Serena: 'What's going to happen to me?'" Miller says. "I think the idea that she's putting [herself] first is a surprise, but she's not a passive person, so she might do something to ameliorate that. And that's what she tries to do. A good offense to protect yourself from the attack from June."
Strahovski calls the Serena you saw in the first two episode of Season 5 "unhinged" and notes that "all the things that she does -- the revenge part of it — is to say [to June], 'You're going to do this to me, then here's what I will do to you,' and she takes her Achilles heel, which is Hannah, of course, and puts that back in her face."
Serena begs for a public funeral for Fred, one that would be televised. She argues it is what is the good and proper thing to do for someone of his political standing in Gilead, but the motive that she keeps to herself is that she wants June to watch as the world shifts sympathy to Serena for being a widow — and also as Serena parades Hannah out at the funeral.
Although widows usually wear purple in Gilead, Serena is dressed in full black at the funeral, including a veil over her face. Hannah, interestingly, is the one dressed in purple, although it appears to be a different shade of purple than the widow's color.
What this means, Miller will only say, is that "the girls who are dressed up are not dressed up for the funeral, they're in their colors — the colors that reflect their station just like everybody else."
Little girls wear pink, but Hannah is older now and therefore in a new station on a specific path in Gilead.
At the end of the funeral, Serena looks down the barrel of the television camera lens that is filming the event and broadcasting to billboards in Canada, which June and Luke happen to be walking past. This is a moment that was not in the original script for the episode, Moss shares, but she "really wanted the two of them to look at each other." Of course, June would be staring up at the screen the minute she realized what was on it, and Moss wanted Serena to also acknowledge her back, even if from a distance and even if most of the world didn't realize what she was doing.
"The idea [was] Serena communicating to June, 'I did this for you. This funeral — all this pomp and circumstance, Hannah, everything — this was for you, June.' And June is looking at her and knows it," she explains.
Strahovski recalls that while filming that sequence, they "played with a bunch of different looks at the end." Some of the other versions were "more stoic or even more emotional," she reveals. "But then we threw in the little smirky smirk, and that felt exciting because I think amidst all the fear, she she is enjoying the revenge moment just as much."
The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays at midnight ET