The Handmaid’s Tale season 5: The 4 biggest talking points from episode 3

It’s all-out war between June and Serena, and I’m both thrilled and disappointed.

Thrilled because Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski are astonishing to watch when their crazed characters are at each other’s throats.

The reasons for my disappointment are likely obvious to anyone who’s been watching this series since day one. The enemy might be the state of Gilead, who stole June’s daughter and made her a sex slave, but the bad guy has long been Serena. Before that, for June, it was Aunt Lydia. Even against the backdrop of dystopian patriarchy, The Handmaid’s Tale is a relentless catfight.

Now, Serena is being sent back to Canada with more freedom than she could ever access inside Gilead, plus the baby she’s always craved. She’s also been assigned a staff, a war chest, and the diplomatic mission to show the world that even totalitarianism has a soft side. It’s a lot, but I’d argue her foe June has even more: a band of misfit refugees to support her, her inexhaustible will to free Hannah from Gilead’s clutches, and the plain fact that she’s so unambiguously on the right side of this battle.

The hunt for Hannah continues

Episode three, “Border”, picks up on the heels of episode two. June, Luke and Moira are trying to decipher what they glimpsed of Hannah on that big screen in Toronto’s Dundas Square. She was wearing purple, right? They’ll later learn it’s the colour reserved for wives-in-training.

June is desperate to talk to Nick, who she spotted alongside Hannah in the funeral coverage. Moira (Samira Wiley) brings her to the border, where she knows of a group of refugees running suicide comms missions into Gilead. They completely fan-girl over June – for the role she played in trading Commander Waterford for prisoners last season, for the role she played in rescuing that planeful of children the year before. To Moira and Luke, June’s a loose cannon. But to these women, living on the fringes of no man’s land, she’s a hero. Of course, they’ll call Nick for her.

But the trip does more than restore an open line of communication to her Gilead-boyfriend. It quietly restores June to a place of hope. This is what “Mayday” is – a ragtag collection of people agitating for change. June wasn’t looking for Mayday when she battled her way from Boston to Chicago last season. She was Mayday the whole time. When she meets a freedom fighter who’s on his way back inside Gilead to meet his wife and child – “I can’t leave them behind,” he tells her – you can almost see the gears turning. She’s still Mayday. So what is June doing in suburban Toronto?

How to solve a problem like Serena

Sam Jaeger and Yvonne Strahovski (Hulu)
Sam Jaeger and Yvonne Strahovski (Hulu)

Serena Joy is too independent-minded to play the obedient role of Gilead wife, but she’s also too committed to the cause to quit her long green dress and remake herself as a liberal Canuck.

Still in Gilead after Fred’s funeral, she joins Nick (Max Minghella) and his wife Rose (Carey Cox), plus Hannah’s adoptive parents (The Mackenzies) and Joseph (Bradley Whitford) for the most dour of all dinner parties. They mostly talk about how important it is that someone kill June – everyone’s “mutual adversary”. After dessert, though, Serena propositions the widow Joseph with a marriage of convenience. She wants to come home to Boston and, as a wifeless man, Joseph’s days in power are numbered. But she misjudges him. Joseph’s whole thing is he doesn’t actually believe in the project of Gilead; it just excited him to have the power to make it in the first place

So Serena’s wrong when she tells Mark to head back to Toronto without her. She doesn’t have the power to decide to stay. The commanders call a special meeting to remind her of that. She gets on the plane because they say she has to get on it. She’s going to do her nation’s bidding abroad because it’s what they want.

In better news, I suppose, she’ll now be free to explore the vaguely romantic subtext that’s been building with Mark despite my best attempts to ignore it. The downside is that she’s within June’s enraged grasp.

Madeline Brewer (Hulu)
Madeline Brewer (Hulu)

Okay, maybe let Janine die already

I previously went long on how important it is to see June victorious before this show ends. But Janine? She’s lost a baby and an eye and – over and over again – her freedom. So maybe it’s time to let this girl escape her mortal coil. In a move as sentimental as it is egotistical, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) interprets Esther’s poisoning of Janine (Madeline Brewer) as a form of punishment directed at her. She asks that Mrs Putnam bring Janine’s daughter, Angela, to the hospital in the hopes the proximity can somehow revive her birth mom. This is Lydia doing penance and making amends. It works, but is it really a blessing to be restored to health if it means Janine spends the rest of her life working alongside Lydia?

Nick’s complicated web of entanglements

For a man who says little, Nick sure does attract a lot of attention. He’s threatened by Commander Mackenzie, who intimates that Nick may have married Rose to get close to her powerful father. Mark renews America’s offer to use him as a double-agent in exchange for an eventual escape to Canada, where Nick could be reunited with June and their daughter, Nichole. But he turns that deal down… at least for now.

Max Minghella and Yvonne Strahovski (Hulu)
Max Minghella and Yvonne Strahovski (Hulu)

And late in the episode, Nick finally talks to June by phone. He assures her Hannah is safe, albeit in that relative Gilead way. Then he drops the bombshell news that he’s married now. In a move that tells me Nick was a cad before he was a commander, he follows the admission with the sly reminder, “You know how things are here,” which feels like code for “but I’d rather be with you!”. Nick and June talk softly, like reluctant exes might. June wants to know if she’d like Rose; Nick wants stories about Nichole. June promises to stay safe, which is usually an empty assurance coming from June. But as a pledge to Nick, the last man to know and love her? I don’t know. I sort of believed her.

Which was naive, I see now. This show is truly magnificent at routinely delivering a big finish. It took only five minutes for June to throw herself back into harm’s way. She intercepts Serena’s car on its return from Gilead and tells Serena to stay away from Hannah, despite the fact that Serena is hundreds of miles away from Hannah – just like June is.

But June threatens her because she has to keep moving. The words “I can’t leave them behind” are rattling around her mind like an accusation or even an invitation. The only thing June wants is Hannah. The only thing that interests her beyond Hannah is her hatred of Serena. Even when June is hopeless and powerless, there’s always Serena to hate.