Hulu’s two-part premiere sets the stage for a battle between Elisabeth Moss’ June and Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena that could escalate to a global scale as Gilead pulls back its curtains to the world.
After a 15-month hiatus, “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes back at a time where its story is perhaps even more relevant than when it first premiered back in 2017. Certainly in a post-Roe v. Wade America, its themes about women’s diminished roles and rights in post-America Gilead are resonating strongly in some sectors.
The Handmaid garb has become synonymous with protests in the real world over legislation and policies that seek to restrict women’s rights and bodily autonomy, so it’s just as powerful seeing their fictional counterpart representing those losses in their entirety.
With June (Elisabeth Moss) completely freed from the yoke of Gilead and living as a free woman in Canada, we found ourselves wondering what connection could be used to keep us immersed in the true horrors of those women subjected to sexual slavery for their fertility — as well as more time with the delightfully awful Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
As it turns out, Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) recapture was only part of the story. As this two-episode premiere played out, it looked as if our new entry into the horrors of the Handmaid’s life will be none other than young Esther (Mckenna Grace), the former teen Wife made Handmaid.
It’s not yet clear how this narrative will ultimately connect with the larger story that’s already begun to build in the aftermath of Season 4’s finale murder of Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) at the hands of June and some of her fellow refugees in the No Man’s Land between Gilead and Canada, but we suspect all things will tie together.
After all, the closing moments of this two-hour premiere certainly connected Serena and June in an even more disturbing way while they were in completely separate countries.
June Tries to Self Destruct
Once again, Elisabeth Moss proves just how much she can convey through the sheer force of her presence and facial expressions. She runs the gamut of emotions in these two episodes as she deals with not just the overall trauma of her time as a Handmaid in Gilead, but the more immediate aftermath of finally getting the revenge that has driven her.
At first, she is euphoric with herself. Just as quickly it reverts to horror, self-loathing and questioning why it feels so good to have killed him with her bare hands. It’s as if she is a times a passenger in her own body to her rage and need for revenge.
She joins the other women who helped her carry out the act in a diner for a celebratory meal, but when talk shifts to which person they’re going to kill next — with one woman ready to go back into Gilead to kill the Wife she was stationed with — June suddenly backs down.
“He was your monster. And we tore him apart for you,” the woman argues. “Now it is my turn.” She’d already given June a gun and said she could get more. This with these women was turning into something much bigger and much darker.
Yes, June got her revenge, and used these women to help make it happen, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready or willing to return the favor. She’s now in a different place than them. Their blood is still boiling, while her bloodlust has at least partially been satisfied. There is, of course, the matter of Serena.
Just as June lacked the self-control to not kill Fred, she also lacked the self-control to not goad Serena by sending her Fred’s wedding ring and the finger it was one after she’d ripped it from his body. At times, she seems horrified by herself.
In one powerful scene, Moira (Samira Wiley) tells June she’s actually scared to let June care for her own daughter Nichole, to which June tells her she’s scared, too. Then Moira admits she’s afraid of June herself, to which June honestly admits, “Me, too.”
It’s as if she has this other side of her that rises to the top and takes control, filling her with a completely out-of-control bloodlust. As she came down from that initial high, but had to acknowledge how much she enjoyed killing Fred, she was so consumed with guilt and fear of herself that she turned herself into the Canadian police.
The problem with this plan was that she killed Fred in disputed territory, so she’d technically broken no major Canadian laws. Aside from an $88 fine for transporting his finger across the border, she was free to go — which left her feeling even more awful than before.
June was feeling the need to punish herself, or at least to be punished for what she’d done. At the same time, a part of her knew that in a way, the bigger thing she’d done might just be the finger.
When Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), from what’s left of the U.S. Government, dropped by to assure her the Canadian government was going to file no charges, he complicated things by thanking her for what she did. Awful though it may be, and has hard as it is for her to just live with scot free like this, Fred was even more awful.
June, at least, is fully opening up to Luke. Perhaps knowing that she’s going to not get punished or put away or killed for her actions leaves her feeling she has no choice but to figure out how to move on with her life, only she has no idea how to do that.
And, as Luke was so quick to point out, it did her and them no favors for her to poke the bear that is Serena Waterford by making it clear that it was June who killed Fred. Serena is as driven as June and will not let that slide any more than June could have let Fred go to Geneva and get away with all he’d done.
Serena Plays Puppet Master
As a woman, Serena has no pull or power in Gilead, but we also saw that she was one of the main designers of the nation and is certainly smarter than Fred ever was, and most of the male Commanders. She’s also completely without a moral compass.
While we won’t believe that she put together this huge, dramatic plan that we’re sure to see playing out in future episodes from the moment she learned of Fred’s death, we do believe it started coming together somewhat quickly after she found out June was behind it.
When she emerged from seeing Fred’s body to two rows of people holding candlelight vigil for her and Fred, it reminded her that there is power in perception. And perception can trump truth. When it comes right down to it, people can be made to believe what they’re told or shown.
And so, she started setting the stage for her return to Gilead by first demanding that Tuello allow her to take her husband back to GIlead to be buried in the nation he helped create and build. Tuello agreed to go with her, abut as a diplomatic envoy, his rights were below even her own.
Once there, she again proved how bold she is by pushing both Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whiteford) and her former driver, now Commander Nick Blaine (Max Manghella) into supporting her idea for an internationally broadcast full-honors state funeral for Fred.
Now, Fred was ultimately a traitor to GIlead, which is why he was nearing personal amnesty for all of his crimes against humanity. He was ready to sell out his nation for himself, but that wasn’t going to stop Serena from taking advantage of this opportunity.
During the wake for Fred at their former friends Commander Warren Putnam (Stephen Kunken) and Naomi’s (Ever Carradine) home, she walked into a sitting room filled with Commanders — a huge no-no for any woman — and took advantage of the leeway they’d give her as a grieving widow to suggest a far more elaborate funeral for Fred than they’d planned.
Her argument was that it was time to show the secretive Gilead to the world by sharing that they grieve like everyone else. As she made her pitch, which the Commanders were dismissive of, first Joseph and then Nick joined her case, arguing that it will show that they can be merciful even to one who betrayed them.
Serena was ultimately dismissed so the men could make the actual decision, but her work had been done and Joseph was able to seal the deal — she’d previously threatened to expose him as involved in June’s murder of Fred, which she had no real proof of. As usual, Joseph treads this line between decent and awful, and certainly helping Serena with anything is far more on the awful side.
Janine and Esther Over Chocolate
In the midst of the wake, Aunt Lydia brought her new batch of Handmaids, as well as Janine, to the Putnam house. Warren was looking for a new Handmaid, and the extremely young Esther (Grace is only 16 years old herself) was ultimately approved by Naomi.
Mrs. Putnam showed a little bit of decency and grace herself when she allowed Janine a few moments with her daughter and then made the comment that she is appreciate of those who helped bring her daughter into her life, referring to Janine. Of course, we recall moments of decency from Serena, too, years ago so we’ll think nothing of it.
What was on display here, though, is a Janine that appears to have been completely broken by Auny Lydia and the Gilead system without June around to push her and push her and then push her some more.
While Esther is convinced to try and fight the system, Janine is urging her to keep her head down and that the best thing she can do to protect herself is to be pregnant, because then you’re treated like a princess.
At the Putnam’s house, immediately after meeting Esther, he pushes everyone (including Aunt Lydia) out of the room and as creepy music starts playing, he starts feeding her chocolate. The whole scene was deeply disturbing, as it mostly stayed on Esther’s face as she uncomfortably bit from the chocolate he was hand-feeding her.
Later, those chocolates came again into play as she revealed to Janine that she’d stolen some from the Putnam house. As she and Janine ate from the stolen sweets, Janine again tried to lay out the company line for Esther, but after a while, Esther recalls that when she’d first met Janine (when Esther was a Wife), she hadn’t liked her.
She’d decided that she was right the first time, saying that Janine didn’t really care about her. Like everyone else in Gilead, she had used her. In Janine’s case she’d sold Esther out to the Putnams in order to get more time with her daughter.
At that moment, they both start coughing up blood, as it becomes clear that Esther poisoned the chocolates. She’d told Janine she didn’t want to be posted, so clearly she was even more disturbed by Warren than we were. She’d rather die — and take Janine with her — than endure that kind of life. Will they both die? Will only one? If only one does, we have a feeling it will be Esther who escapes that way and Janine who must continue to suffer.
Her story appears unfinished, and we’d hate the idea of it ending with her murdered by her young charge while she’s been broken by the system and is disconnected both from her daughter and he freedom. Her death here would be meaningless to June’s story and the larger story. In this tale, everything connects eventually.
Serena Begins Her Revenge Tour
Right now it’s an international funeral, but we suspect it won’t be long before it’s an international incident and perhaps ultimately an international war. There is one more season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to go before we move onto Margaret Atwood’s sequel adaptation “The Testaments.”
And the closing moments of this episode revealed just how far Serena had gone with this statement, which clearly was for a global audience — but more importantly, for an audience of one.
We absolutely appreciated the scene that showed both June and Serena getting ready for their big day. Serena was going to attend Fred’s funeral, while June was going to the ballet with Luke. Serena was dressed in black while June was in all white, setting them as the yin and yang, the good and the evil.
But before they’d fully dressed, they both put on a pair of black knee-high boots, zipped up the sides. The boots were nearly identical because underneath what the outside world sees, these two deeply damaged women are so very much the same. There is a blackness rising inside them, pitting them against one another.
And neither cares who they have to burn to get the other. If June was obsessive and crazy about killing Fred, Serena is going to take that to the next level. And she’s goading June every but as much as that finger as about goading her.
As Luke and June smiled and laughed outside, they suddenly realized all the big screens on the buildings around them were suddenly broadcasting Fred’s funeral. There was the body and there was Serena. And there were some children from Gilead coming to meet her. And look, one of them is presenting Serena with a bouquet of flowers.
It’s June and Luke’s daughter, Hannah.
In a scene completely improbable, we cut back and forth to Serena and June seeming to stare one another down through the television screen, culminating in a wicked smirk from Serena as if to say, “Check.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” drops new episodes every Wednesday on Hulu.