The Handmaid’s Tale, episode five review: A riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture

Ed Power

How quickly we’ve plunged back down the rabbit hole on The Handmaid’s Tale this year. Season two was about physical torture – we bore witness as Gilead literally twisted the screws, sinking its claws into victims. But now, the torment is all emotional, as June (Elisabeth Moss) discovers in this traumatically topsy-turvy fifth instalment.

The episode really does take you on a journey. We begin with the heroine monologuing, slightly smugly, in an antiseptic supermarket. Her baby got out. She’s a Handmaid apart – the only one who knows her child will grow up in a sane world rather than a nightmare theocracy.

Yet the final scene could not be more different, as June glares at us and out into the abyss, throwing figurative daggers to the strains of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Why inflict Bono and chums upon the citizens of Gilead? Haven’t they suffered enough? Well, the song provides a window into the seething inner life of June, who has just learned she is being made accessory to a plot to force Canada to hand her daughter, Nichole, back to the ghastly Waterfords (in any event, it could have been worse – they could have flayed our souls with Coldplay instead).

This is the killer culmination to a riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture. Here The Handmaid’s Tale is playing a devastating three-card trick with our feelings. Initially, it seems that it’s Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) who is to be shoved through the grinder. She was instrumental in helping send her daughter out of Gilead. Yet now, she cannot live without her (never mind that Nichole is not actually Serena’s daughter – that’s how it works here).

June, who can sometimes be more sure of her position than the facts merit, agrees to assist Serena by contacting her husband Luke (OT Fagbenle) by phone. This all flows from Luke’s foolish lapse last week, in which he allowed himself to be caught on camera, with Nichole, at a street protest in Canada. Now, the Waterfords have a face and name, and this will cause Luke a world of woe.

His first hint that things are to change for the worse comes as June calls out of the blue. She’s done so as a bargaining chip: she contacts Luke and then Serena owes her. Her chat is stilted but she delivers the message: she wants – no, she needs – Luke to agree to meet Serena. And to bring Nichole.

One sneaky aside here comes via an insight into the personal life of June’s new commander, Lawrence, and his wife. Back in the pre-Gilead days, he wooed her by sending her mixtapes of his favourite bubble-gum punk bands. Leading up to the trip to Canada, June gets to muck about in the basement listening to these old cassettes. Do not adjust your bonnet: The Handmaid’s Tale has briefly threatened to shape-shift into Guardians of the Galaxy.

We’re soon back to dystopian first principles. Luke agrees to the meeting. But only in public and with Serena rather than both Waterfords. In the terminal, Serena breaks down weeping. Luke is understandably suspicious, though agrees to taking the keepsake Serena has brought for the child. The biggest jolt here is how different – more human – Serena looks dressed like a civilian, rather than in her usual Stepford flight attendant dark emerald.

Later, Luke puts on a cassette and listens to a hidden message recorded by June in the Lawrence’s basement. She still loves him, the child’s father is a man named Nick, Luke has permission to go on with is life. He’s in bits, understandably (hold on Luke – they’re going to make you listen to U2 next).

June, too, soon has reason to break down. But she instead maintains a granite-like wall of cold fury. She’s dragged off to chateau Waterford, changed into a nice new gown and then forced to stand in the corner as Fred and Serena go on television and beg the Canadian government to return their daughter. Serena has gone back on everything she promised and made June an accomplice to her and Fred’s attempted baby heist.

Did somebody say melodrama? In swoops Bono, howling his lungs out as June stares like the devil herself. A reckoning is coming down the tracks; June will not take this betrayal by Serena lightly. It’s often hard to imagine how The Handmaid’s Tale could get any darker. This week, suddenly and compellingly, it does.