In The Handmaid’s Tale’s fifth season, June (Elisabeth Moss) learns that her rage doesn’t behave as she had anticipated. Hide caption on Hulu
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In The Handmaid’s Tale’s fifth season, June (Elisabeth Moss) learns that her rage doesn’t behave as she had anticipated.
Hulu Early in the administration that later chose three of the five Supreme Court justices who finally overturned Roe v. Wade, The Handmaid’s Tale made its Hulu debut in the spring of 2017. The story of a woman who had been abducted, separated from her husband and daughter, and held captive by a couple who repeatedly raped her in the hope that she would give birth to a child that they would also take from her attracted attention at the time because it provided a dreadful example of what the worst-case scenarios for losing one’s freedom might entail.
But throughout the years, its shortcomings also drew increasing amounts of attention. Most obviously, June (Elisabeth Moss), the film’s protagonist, is a white woman, and it appears that most of the other women employed as handmaids in Gilead are white as well. “This could happen here” was a foolish warning to those who knew that enslaved women and indigenous women, among others, have known for a long time about captivity, forced separation from their children, the loss of autonomy, and the violence of rape in the context of purported “ownership” of or state-sanctioned dominion over other human beings. Referring to the show when bemoaning the loss of physical autonomy came to stand, at times, for a restricted vision of what that meant because it failed to take race into account when talking about the slavery of women and notably the forcible control of their fertility.
At the same time, the show battled with issues of inertia from a narrative standpoint. It centered on June’s three main goals for more than three seasons: escaping, exacting revenge on her captors, the Waterfords, and reuniting with Hannah, the daughter Gilead kidnapped from her and her husband and placed with “parents” who were actually captors. And for a while, it looked as though June would keep trying to make progress on various fronts only to be stopped or change her mind, which became tedious.
When June departed Gilead in the fourth season, the show’s perspective may have changed in a significant way. She managed to flee through Chicago and was granted refugee status in Canada. She was reunited with her husband Luke, friend Moira (Samara Wiley), and daughter Nicole, the child she had while imprisoned and had successfully smuggled out earlier in the narrative. June testified during the trial of the Waterfords, who had been detained and accused in Canada, in one of the best and most straightforward passages of the entire series. One of June’s goals was accomplished when her independence was guaranteed.
Then, toward the close of season four, she pulled off an even more startling about-face. She managed to get Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) out in the woods unprotected at night where she and a bunch of other former handmaids beat him to death through a mix of strong persistence and knowing the right people. While Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) was still incarcerated in Canada, revenge had been exacted—at least against Fred.
After June and her friends have just killed Fred, we return for season five. She sent Serena his finger as a joke and as a piece of evidence. The logical follow-up query is: What will June’s penalty be for doing this? The new season’s early response to that question is not fully satisfactory, but it does allow June to focus her efforts on just one remaining goal: getting Hannah out of Gilead. Otherwise, she is ready to end her involvement in the greater conflict.
The issue with that turns out to be the fact that June is a leader of their important resistance movement to some ladies of Gilead (past and present). And now that she is free and has exacted her retribution, other women start to turn to her and wonder if her fight has anything to offer anyone else. Because the other ladies naturally shared her desire for vengeance and assisted her in obtaining it. Now that they are expecting her to do the same, they are shocked by her lack of interest. Another woman, a Black woman named Danielle (Natasha Mumba), who assisted in the murder of Fred, claims: “He was your monster.” “And we dismantled him for you. It’s my turn now.” If you stop after you reach your own personal freedom, are you still a leader? Inspire people? What is owed to her fellow countrymen by a lady who was fortunate enough to fulfill her own goals? Vicki (Amanda Zhou) pulls out a revolver and points it at June, saying, “She was here for you.” “Do you exist for her? Are any of us here for you?” In this scenario, June transitions from being viewed exclusively in terms of her traumatized state to also being seen in terms of what she owes to other people and whether she has ever been genuinely interested in resistance.
At the same time, the show starts investigating Serena’s active involvement in the oppressive Gilead system as well as her complicity in it. This season, Strahovski does excellent work as a woman who is perpetually attempting to position herself in a way that will be comfortable and secure for her. The program has always acknowledged, but is now facing more directly, that one of the major risks to weaker women in any oppressive society is really stronger women who decide that giving in to injustice will benefit them more than fighting it. According to this claim, patriarchy would fail without the support of the women who benefit from it.
Serena has played a different type of victim in some previous episodes, one who is undoubtedly in a better situation than June but nevertheless experiences violence (like the chopping off of her finger for the sin of questioning authority). She is now, however, almost wholly a figure of threat. Serena now serves as the main embodiment of Gilead’s harshness in place of Fred. Serena wants June put to death, and she wants it so badly that she wants Canada to alter its whole judicial system in order to accomplish this. Serena hopes that as a refined pregnant woman who practices yoga and sees herself as someone of special importance, she can persuade the state to carry out her wish to kill her enemies rather than pursuing someone through the woods to give them a beating with her own hands. Serena shares June’s desire to kill her enemies.
The fifth season continues to explore June’s fury and her total lack of interest in apologizing, forgiving, or finding healing. Even though her husband and closest friend urge her to move on, June is overwhelmed by her righteous rage in addition to her burning desire to win Hannah back. The Handmaid’s Tale exploited June’s rage as fuel during the prison seasons; it was what kept her going and, more importantly, what stopped her from giving up. Early on during her stay at the Waterfords’, she etched “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” into the wood of her room. This rage served as a catalyst and a tool.
But now that June has left Gilead, her rage is still present. It has, if anything, expanded. Whereas previously she had to be forced by Aunt Lydia to take part in the ritualistic killing of a man with the state’s approval as a punishment for breaching the law, she killed Fred cheerfully and with joy. Less because she is incapable of healing and more that she rejects the very notion. She is irritated by those who think healing is possible and offended by those who feel it is her duty. She occasionally vibrates literally with bloodlust.
Stories about trauma survivors frequently center on a representation of them as desolate, lost, and looking solely for calm. The willingness to explore trauma as a motivator of rage that demands retribution and can result in tunnel vision and the loss of all other purposes in life, rather than as a wound that always responds to love or inevitably spurs growth, may be the most audacious aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale at this point.
None of this changes the criticisms of the show that have been voiced for a while. Still, June and Serena are the two main subjects of the episode. It cannot be made to become something that it is not. However, it now takes a more nuanced approach to its analysis of the two women. Serena’s level of active aggression and participation as well as June’s amount of individual rather than collective resistance have both been given more careful consideration in this research of complicity. The story of a trauma survivor whose eyes continue to darken with the same coiled wrath even after the immediate threat has passed has become rare for television.
There is also another thing. Serena appears to be alone and cut off from her support system in Canada as the authorities tighten their grip on her. Then, even though she is still being held in custody, she leaves the jail on a supervised trip and finds something. The sidewalk is lined with well-wishers, Canadians who are attracted to the Gilead way of life and want to propagate it to areas where it has not yet taken root. After all, no repressive system is as straightforward as its most obvious culprits. Its growing propensity and tentacles are what make it terrifying.