Season 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale takes a deep dive into the fractured mental state of trauma victims.
After the shocking ending of last season, The Handmaid’s Tale picks up right where it left off. June (Elizabeth Moss) is trying to figure out how she fits into this new life as a refugee in Canada. Serena is still in a state of legal limbo as she awaits the birth of her baby. This is compounded even more by the death of her husband. Janine is back under the care of Aunt Lydia, who prepares to have her assigned to a new commander. Aunt Lydia now relies on her to keep the other girls in line. Gilead continues to try and establish its legitimacy to the rest of the world.
While The Handmaid’s Tale has always been a cautionary tale, this season seems even more poignant considering the current state of democracy in the United States. Gilead is a country where women are reduced to nothing more than wives and walking incubators. They have no political autonomy, are banned from working in all industries, and, as we have seen time and again with Serena, even when they are able to contribute, a man takes credit for their ideas.
With the elimination of Roe v. Wade in this country, the blatant attacks on our democracy, and the rise in fascism. Gilead no longer seems like a dystopian nightmare, but a potential reality. Fighting for women’s autonomy continues to be a guiding thread in the show. As June says at one point in the season, we’re not just vessels. “We are people. We have lives.” If only our own government could see us this way.
Elizabeth Moss’s performance continues to be powerful and poignant
This season dives deeper into June’s fractured mind as she tries to recover from her years of rape, abuse, and torture. While she has become an icon of the resistance, this season turns more inward. June eschews helping other former handmaids and focuses solely on trying to get her daughter, Hannah, back. Not to mention, taking revenge on Serena. While it might seem as though there has been a shift and the show is now presenting her as an anti-hero, as the season goes on we see that all the decisions she’s making come from a place of love. However, they are filtered through a lens of extreme trauma.
Elizabeth Moss’s performance continues to be powerful and poignant. She has truly embodied this character. The aftermath of trauma is something we don’t often see represented in Hollywood, except perhaps when it pertains to military PTSD, and mostly with men. Season one of The Sinner comes closest to showing us how trauma can manifest and violence can be triggered. As we have seen with shows like Law and Order: SVU, when the media presents fictional stories that address these pertinent issues, people develop a greater understanding of them, and change can start to happen.
In the real world, we have seen instances of women killing their abusers and being sent to jail. Just this year there seems to be a glimmer of hope that things can change. In 2018, Chrystul Kizer was arrested when she was 17 for the murder of Randall Phillip Volar III. During her arrest, she claimed Volar was her sex trafficker. If convicted, she would receive a mandatory life sentence. She was finally released in 2020 after several advocacy groups raised her $400,000 bond. Then, on June 2, 2021, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals released a published decision. They found that the trial court had erred when denying her the ability to raise, as an affirmative defense, a Wisconsin statute related to victims of human trafficking and child sex trafficking. This decision was upheld by the Wisconsin state Supreme Court in July 2022.
Also this year, in an extraordinary turn of events, just this year, Governor Gavin Newsom of California pardoned Sara Kruzen. Kruzen was a victim of teen sex trafficking. She was tried as an adult at the age of 16 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in September 1995 for killing George Gilbert Howard as he attempted to sexually assault her. Howard sex trafficked her for years, starting when she was a teenager. As Kizer’s advocacy representatives stated when she was arrested, “Chrystul’s case highlights the urgent need for the criminal legal system to stop prosecuting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.”
THE HANDMAID’S TALE – SEASON 5 FOCUSES ON JUNE AND SERENA
This season is really about June and Serena. Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) as Serena continues to demonstrate a calm and poised exterior with anger and frustration boiling just under the surface. It is perhaps Serena who has the biggest character arc this season. With the death of her husband (though he was supposed to be tried for treason in Gilead) she loses her protection. And while she still has the status of a wife in public, her new position as mother starts to give her a glimpse into the lives of the handmaids.
Like them, she is reduced to nothing more than her uterus. Her autonomy is chipped away. Then, when the council of Gilead appoints her as a kind of goodwill ambassador, she starts to realize just how little freedom she has. Despite having good ideas, she can’t get anyone to listen to her. She finally convinces Commander Lawrence to take one of our ideas to the council. When asked how he was able to get it approved Lawrence replies matter-of-factually, “I got them to say yes by not being a woman.” All of this leads her to make a life-changing decision towards the end of the season. Even after this, we still see her continue to grapple with her religious fervor and desire for freedom. It is an interesting dichotomy to illustrate and Strahovski performs it admirably.
The other character that has a decent amount of character development is June’s husband Luke. Beginning as a passive supporting husband, living with June’s trauma day in and day out causes his anger to grow and he starts taking more risks. He harbors a growing hateful resentment towards Serena, resulting in him making a powerful decision in the final episode. It was nice to see the writers give him a larger role this season.
By Biggest Critique of the Season
This leads to my one critique of the season. While it is difficult to fit in numerous storylines in such a short amount of time, I was a little disappointed by the lack of story development for the supporting characters. Moira is essentially reduced to babysitter/second mom to baby Nicole. A gross underutilization of Samira Wiley’s talent. Rita has very few appearances and Emily is completely absent from the season. We are only told that she has returned to Gilead to help the resistance.
Janine is once again under Aunt Lydia’s control, in and out of the hospital and brainwashed as ever. Esther seemed like such a promising addition last season. From wife to handmaid, this would have been a fascinating angle to explore. But, despite a stellar performance by McKenna Grace, she is given little to do. Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is powerful and infuriating as ever. Just when it looks like she’s going to come around and see that what is happening to these girls is wrong, she falls back in line.
That being said, she does have a small victory at the end of the season which shows that male domination does have a limit in Gilead. Nick also had an interesting change with the addition of a new wife. Again, this is a story I wanted to see more of as we learn that she is at least somewhat aware of his subversive activities. Where did she come from? What is her background? And while Bradley Whitford continues to deliver a stellar performance as Commander Lawrence, he is almost reduced to nothing more than a talking head. His relationship with June, so important in previous seasons, is virtually removed. While before we saw him questioning what Gilead has become, this season he doubles down on the country and takes it to new levels.
Mark Tuello also has a potentially interesting story arc through his relationship with Serena, but they stop short before fully investigating it and relegate him to sitting outside closed doors as others conduct business. And let’s talk about Hannah. For someone who is the catalyst of virtually all of June’s decisions, we know nothing about her and her life. While the show spent lots of time unveiling the lives of the handmaids and wives, we never see the lives of the children. We cryptically learn that Hannah is now of age and going to a school to prepare her to be a wife, but that’s all we get. It would be nice if the show focused a little more on Hannah so we, as the audience, can connect to her as we follow June on her journey to save her.
We are also never shown why characters are helping smuggle people out of Gilead, passing messages, and proving supplies. In one scene, while June and her husband are trying to gain information about Hannah, they take refuge in an old bowling alley and drink beer with a Gilead soldier who is helping the resistance. The husband comments that he was so young when Gilead formed, it is all he has known. So why would he be helping the resistance? These are the questions I’m left with after the season ended.
All that being said…
All that being said, the show narrative is strong, the acting is superb as always and the very nature of the show continues to be a poignant cautionary tale of how quickly democracy can crumble and fascism can dominate. It was also nice to see June spend most of the episode living in Canada, no longer surrounded by the day-to-day trauma and life and death situations from previous seasons (something I know some critics were starting to complain about). Removing this element, gave the writers the opportunity to really dive into her mental state.
While it’s not as action-packed and stressful as previous seasons, I think the change in tone was positive. It allowed the audience a little breathing room (especially important considering everything we’re dealing with in the real world), and the opportunity to really dive inside the minds of these characters and witness how trauma continues to shape their day-to-day lives. If you’re already a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale then you’ll want to watch this season. And for all those outraged over Roe v. Wade, I encourage you to start at the beginning. But a word of caution, take it slow. I’m glad the show is released weekly as I don’t think binging it would be good for your mental health. I know it isn’t for me.