For better or worse, “The Handmaid’s Tale” just dropped one of its most scream-worthy episodes ever.
Season 5’s “No Man’s Land,” written by Rachel Shukert and directed by Natalia Leite, focuses on one location and its characters: June (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena (Yvonna Strahovski), who just went into labor somewhere between Gilead and Canada. There’s a lot to scream about in this episode — especially if you’re Serena — from the tense birthing sequence to the shifting dynamics between these two women and what it all means. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is generally a show worth screaming over, where women have no rights and June’s self-righteous hero complex regularly hurts as many people as it helps.
Here are 22 times I screamed during “No Man’s Land,” in the order that they occurred.
In retrospect, I don’t know what outcome I could possibly have expected but for this deeply chaotic show’s de facto protagonist and antagonist to be thrown together for a bottle birthing episode in the wilderness. This scream was the result of my own hubris, and I deserve it.
June has multiple opportunities to just abandon Serena in this episode, for which no one would blame her. At this point she’s not positive that Serena is even in labor, but what she knows for sure is that this woman was maybe about to kill her and still could. But it doesn’t take much deduction to look at Serena’s physical state and realize what’s happening.
“Are you in fucking labor?” June asks in a fittingly incredulous tone. She asks Serena her symptoms, to which I say “Are you fucking kidding me?” and try not to scream some more (I will fail). June takes the wheel and it’s giving “Thelma & Louise” in the worst way as they embark on whatever the heck this is.
My notes just say “this bitch,” which feels appropriate. Serena chose to leave Gilead (not something June can say at this moment) and its natural birth movement, and she’s in Canada under very specific restrictions that don’t really allow her to travel freely. What I’m saying is beggars can’t be choosers and fugitives in labor can’t decide they’d rather give birth in an abandoned shed than a hospital because they hate needles and modern medicine. THERE IS AN OBVIOUS CHOICE HERE, SERENA.
And that’s just the cold open.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has done flashbacks before, but this is the first the feels truly retconned, taking us back to when June was first assigned to the Waterfords as if this is something nostalgic. As another handmaid gives birth in the lap of her Commander’s wife, surrounded by a circle of other handmaids, June and Serena catch each other’s eyes and have what can only be described as a Moment. They appear to both fight the instinct to laugh and have to look away from each other in order to keep a straight face. It’s terrifying.
I accept (begrudgingly) that she did not want to leave this woman to die, but now June is actively making this woman’s life easier — or maybe she just wants it to be quiet by the time they both have to sleep.
This woman is in no position to be fighting back. June’s sudden altruism may be perplexing, but Serena is now experiencing a medical emergency. If there were any time to give up her values and loyalties and beg for help from the first available enemy, it’s now. Instead, she pushes June away and screams “You’re trying to kill my baby!” though honestly that is a valid concern given the history.
June leaves, which is absolutely justifiable after everything that Serena put her through, but eventually goes back to help. She might be convincing herself and us that she’s stuck there with Serena, but June Osborne has used and killed too many women at this point in order to serve her own sanctified image of herself. She might loathe Serena, but every kindness she shows this woman is one she can use to feel superior, as perversely pious as Serena herself purported to be.
With June’s encouragement, Serena gives birth to a baby boy. The sequence includes shots of the two women holding each other, smiling, crying, offering and receiving encouragement. It is likely intended to be beautiful, to appeal to the innate humanity of the viewer and some secret bond shared by birth givers, but as an outside viewer it’s impossible to divorce from context and a vague “Women gotta stick together” sentiment.
This entire show is built around Elisabeth Moss’s dead-eyed stare, and that’s exactly the look she gives Serena in the immediate moments after the birth, when June is holding the baby with a barely concealed malicious glint in her eye. But that look vanishes quickly, replaced by a warm, open smile as she says “he’s perfect” (unnecessary!) and hands the baby to a crying Serena.
The episode has an overall tendency to conflate childbirth for motherhood and substitute biology for true allyship. June asks routine questions like how the baby is latching, and shares a story of Hannah’s early struggles. Need I remind everyone present that Serena has been using Hannah as bait against June for years and is probably responsible for her child’s impending marriage to an old rapist in the immediate future? I guess I do need!
Part of becoming the face of the rebellion is that June got accustomed to being well-liked. The Waterfords were never among her fans, but they gave her purpose — purpose which has shifted and recalibrated since Fred’s death. She didn’t want to kill Serena because without a living Waterford she doesn’t have a face for her enemy, for her mission, for what makes her important.
Notes: “girl what”
Now is when the aforementioned change of heart kicks in. Serena is not the same person she was a few hours ago, her priorities shifted and laser-focused on her child. She admits that Fred was a monster and June’s husband Luke is a good man. She wants her son to be a good man, to be raised by people who aren’t capable of what she and Fred did. Those are solid points, but June is entirely capable of murder and explicitly wanted to kill Serena until a few minutes ago. And the feeling was mutual! Do not give her your baby!
June’s response to this is “Oh shit,” and that pretty much sums it up.
For everything? Absolutely unreal.
Would it even be “The Handmaid’s Tale” without some classic June staring and pontificating? To be fair, these are things she has wanted and needed to say to Serena’s face for years, but let’s not pretend that it’s going to make an ounce of difference. “Who we were, where we came from, what we wanted — none of that mattered to you, to any of you,” she tells Serena. “I don’t care that you’re sorry. We mattered. We were — we are people. We have lives.”
She saves Serena because “This isn’t Gilead and I’m not you,” — even claims that she’s doing it for Noah — but is acting selfishly, as always! June is going to use this moment in the future, whether to elicit mercy from Serena or expose her wavering beliefs to the rest of Gilead.
Because it’s never a bad time for manners, ladies!
Wheeler’s forces apprehended June and Luke and then beat him severely before separating them — but none of it matters. The triumphant hospital reunion is yet another instance of June being impervious to harm and consequence while others around her are not so lucky.
SHE IS A WAR CRIMINAL. YOU TESTIFIED AGAINST HER.
In the hospital, Serena is arrested for violating the terms of her stay in Canada (told you so!), at which point she is detained and told that Noah will be taken from her. She is understandably shattered to hear this, and shrieks out for the closest thing she has to an ally: June. The episode is a tour de force by Strahovski, one in which Serena’s audacity never fails.
If nothing else, “The Handmaid’s Tale” does seem to be on the path to radicalize Serena Joy, but let us not conflate reform with redemption. Serena, Fred, and everyone else running Gilead have engaged in nonstop fucked-up shit for years and do not deserve mercy for finally seeing that. Serena and June were not high school rivals who reconnected and reconciled years later. They wanted to kill each other HOURS AGO. Even as they move forward with new shared experiences, they’ll have a hard time forgetting the past — and even if they don’t, everyone around them will.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.