The Handmaid’s Tale tests the limits of a mother’s love in season 5, episode 8

How far would you go for your kid? Would you become a slave?

Amanda Whiting
Monday 12 December 2022 07:10 GMT
The Handmaid's Tale season 5 trailer

Ever since June got to Canada last season, The Handmaid’s Tale has trained a glaring spotlight on motherhood. Did June fail Hannah by escaping to Toronto? How does she make that up to her daughter from a thousand miles away?

As June tells Serena, who rots in immigration detention rather than capitulate to Mrs Wheeler’s demands, “You cannot help your child if you’re not with them.”

That’s probably not strictly true, but feels true in both their cases. To challenge their oaths that they’d do anything for their kids, the series forces them into accepting the worst of terms to prove it. Serena (Yvonne Strahvoski) does eventually agree to return to the Wheeler mansion, though in the capacity of Noah’s wet-nurse as she’s clearly “unfit” to mother her one-month-old. She takes June’s advice, too, cribbed from hard years sharing a house with a woman who wanted to steal her child: smile, bide your time, plot your revenge.

But June (Elisabeth Moss) is asked to make an even more complicated exchange: proximity to Hannah for a half-life in “New Bethlehem”, an idea that Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) has previously teased but never fully explained. The biggest threat to Gilead right now is the lingering ghost of a democratic America. But geopolitics have changed since the revolution, and American refugees in Canada have worn out their welcome. Nichole can’t even sleep through the night for the protestors yelling outside her nursery window.

What is New Bethlehem? Picture a tiny, liberalised enclave inside Gilead’s borders where refugees can seek amnesty. To kick it off, Lawrence would like about 100 families to repatriate, starting with June and Luke. They could visit Hannah, who would live elsewhere under the strict rules of Gilead – including an arranged marriage – but they could see their daughter with their own eyes. They could touch her. With Commander Nick Blaine in charge of the semi-independent colony, the citizens of New Bethlehem would be allowed to read and write. There would be no handmaids and no hangings.

Knowing that regime change can be swift, would you risk putting yourself back into arm’s reach of your former slavers to be near your daughter? Would you bring Nichole into a country that could make her a wife or a handmaid or worse?

Who’s the handmaid now?

When “Motherland” – the extremely on-the-nose title of episode eight – opens, Serena is cooped up in Canadian immigration detention, obsessively calling June and Rita and probably Mark Tuello, too. Anyone who she thinks might help her. But her only regular visitor is Mrs Wheeler, who probably wouldn’t come at all if it weren’t for the fact that Serena’s been pumping breast milk for her infant son.

The Wheelers agree to take Serena back despite the fact she shot Ezra (it was only in the kevlar vest!) because Noah just won’t sleep. “I’m not a handmaid,” Serena tells Lawrence when he compels her to accept the offer. But in Gilead, there are only two types of mothers, and Serena is no one’s wife. By the end of the episode, accede to their demands, and watching what happens next might be the most engaging storyline the show is running right now. There’s always been a tension between Serena and June, premised on the idea that for all their differences, they share deep reserves of will power. Will Serena take on the Wheelers as June destroyed the Waterfords?

Could Serena take on the Wheelers?
Could Serena take on the Wheelers? (Hulu)

Trouble in Little America

Until now, we haven’t seen too much interaction between the American refugees and the Canadian citizens who surround them. Turns out, the Americans who escaped north are increasingly the targets of protests and vandalism. Luke suggests they relocate to Alaska or Hawai’i – the parts of America that remain intact. But those places are far from Hannah. June measures her motherhood in the distance between them. She’s not going anywhere. It’s been almost a year and she still can’t forgive herself for travelling this far to freedom.

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Commander Lawrence’s great atonement

New Bethlehem isn’t merely a tool to improve Gilead’s relations with Canada by stemming the tide of refugees. It’s part of Lawrence’s glacial, attritional plan to wrest power over Gilead back from the “religious nutjobs” he underestimated during the nation’s formation. With Commander Putnam conveniently deceased, he can make a run at reform. New Bethlehem is being pitched to the other Commanders as a halfway house for former expats, but secretly, he tells June as he invites her to take part, he hopes it will be a model for a new version of Gilead, without rape and suffering. This is his chance to start making things right.

June doesn’t care about that. All she hears is that she’ll get to see Hannah. She’ll grow old near Hannah. One day, she’ll meet her grandchildren. But Luke isn’t enticed. He doesn’t trust Lawrence. How can they even think of bringing Nichole, their free daughter, to a place where she might be enslaved as her mother was?

Lawrence’s dubious offer does make an effective bargaining chip with the Americans, who haven’t really bothered with June since Fred’s death. The Americans – represented by Tuello, who is apparently their only civil servant – are desperate to stop June from returning to Gilead. She’s the poster girl for the resistance. It would be a PR nightmare not to mention a blow to morale.

Obviously, June doesn’t care about that either. All she hears is that Mark Tuello has zero plans to help her see Hannah. But using a video of Hannah that Lawrence sends June as a good will gesture, the Americans are able to determine the location of the special wives school Hannah attends. The Americans are planning some kind of raid. Things on The Handmaid’s Tale have been so bad for so long that a rescue mission seems too good to be true. Honestly? Even New Bethlehem, terrible as it is, seems too good to be true.

But maybe the right measure of a mother is her willingness to keep going – to maintain the belief that, despite the distance or the threat, she will save her kid. If it is, June Osborne has to be the best parent there’s ever been.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is airing weekly in the US, with episodes following in the UK a few weeks later

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