You may have thought you'd seen it all on Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, but June (Elisabeth Moss) helping Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) give birth in a barn in No Man's Land and Serena immediately being separated from her baby not because of June but because of Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is a game-changing turn of events.
"The thing that I thought about for this season, honestly, is, 'What happens to June and Serena if you just let them go? What would they do to each other? If you said, "OK there's no more rules?"' So, that's what's happening here," creator and showrunner Bruce Miller tells Metacritic.
These two women, he continues, have had a relationship built on bonding over trauma, but in this instance, they have something else to focus on (namely, making sure the baby is safe and healthy) and "can be more open" with each other.
"They have a very complicated relationship, and as soon as we untether it, it spins around and they can't figure out whether they like each other or hate each other, respect each other or fear each other. June murdered her husband, but he couldn't have been any more abusive. So, I'll untie these two balloons, they're just float away because they've been tied up for four seasons unable to act. Now they can act, so what do they do? It's a huge surprise to both of them what they do," Miller says.
In the seventh episode of Season 5 of the series, aptly titled "No Man's Land," June and Serena's relationship reaches a new understanding.
Although Serena initially had a gun on June, forcing her to drive after she fled the Wheelers' home, when she goes into labor, June opts to help her first through the physical pain and then the emotional pain when Serena tells June to take the baby because she has no future. While June may consider that for a moment, ultimately, she doesn't run off with this new life.
She holds "that baby and realizes, in that moment, that she's doing exactly what Serena did and she's doing exactly what Fred did and she's doing exactly what Gilead would do," Moss says. "And you see her decide to not be turned into the person that they that they want her to be. It's a turning point. And that, to me, is a true heroine. If you can decide to be a better person — if you can decide to not take that path — that, to me, is heroism."
So, June hands the baby back to Serena and eventually gets them both to a hospital. And it is there that Luke reunites with his wife once again and makes it clear he called the authorities on Serena, who is now facing deportation with the baby in a child protection unit. As Serena yells for June to help her, June genuinely seems like she wants to — but Luke is holding enough anger for both of them.
"In some ways, Serena feels like [June] is the only person she can trust because she's the only person she knows what she thinks. Right now, that's her best friend in the world," Miller says.
Meanwhile, "I think that June feels that being magnanimous in this situation is good for her mentally, so I think that she's in a position where she can allow herself to feel a little sympathy for Serena because she feels like she's got people, she's got a life, she's got support," he continues.
Although The Handmaid's Tale has depicted births before — and ones that come with complications to boot — they were always in a very specific environment, as Gilead imparted rituals around the gift of new life. Serena's idea of what giving birth would be like could not have been more different than what it was actually like — one more big example of her losing more and more control all season.
For Strahovski, who has two children in real life, "reflecting the real thing" of childbirth was the most important part of "No Man's Land." This meant "vocalization or things that you might say and experience, especially with the added set of circumstances of panic and anxiety and the things that they're they're doing."
"I'm in no way trying to advocate for panicky pregnancies and births, but for the show, it was important at the stakes were very, very high. And as a first time mom, under the circumstances of having no one in the middle of nowhere, it would be quite heightened," she explains.
The actor shares that she and Moss "did a full pass throughout all the scripts to go through and say, 'What would be more real to say from her point of view in support of someone like Serena doing it for the first time, seeing she has done it?'"
In many ways, because The Handmaid's Tale has always been from June's point of view, how she responds to a woman in labor is muscle memory for the character and for the audience. Yet, Serena's dialogue — from the "It burns" of childbirth, to her surprised line reading at being given antibiotics in the hospital — sheds even more light on nuances of the unique situation they are in.
Take the antibiotics example: It's not that Gilead doesn't have any, Miller confirms; it's just that "they're difficult to get [there, and] the quality is always suspect because you're making it inside the country and it's rife with with all this terrible corruption. Half the pills aren't what they supposed to be, which is really the issue more than there aren't any pills."
The baby was not born in Gilead, nor in Canada, though: He was born in No Man's Land, where rules are murky at best.
"We have had tons and tons of discussion about what these disputed places are like," Miller says. "I actually think, legally, it belongs to the parent. That the citizenship of the parent makes the difference, and in this case, he probably has Gilead citizenship. And then probably when he's separated from her, if the people who are watching him became guardians, I think the baby would have the same status of whatever the family has."
Since the baby was taken from Serena, where he will live and who will care for him will be a big part of the story going forward. And so will June and Serena's newly evolved relationship.
"They are as much in a supportive dynamic as they are in fighting dynamic. Unbeknownst to them, they're kind of working together towards the same goals," Miller teases.
The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays