Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: June and Serena called a truce and shared some genuinely lovely moments together in the barn, as June helped Serena give birth to Noah. Serena showed some awareness, finally; she apologised for everything, and many of us got misty-eyed about it because we are suckers. She wanted to give Noah to June and die there in the barn, but June decided to save them both. Blissfully unaware of the recent developments, Luke sics ICE on Serena, who promptly arrest her and take Noah into custody. Here’s my full recap for episode 7 if you missed it!
This week: It’s all about dreams. Not just any dream will do; these are the desperate dreams that we cling to in the dark, that bring us comfort and tell us everything is going to be all right. Our main characters are busy dreaming big dreams and pooh-poohing everyone else’s. Lawrence is still trying to make
fetch New Bethlehem happen, and both June and Serena are prepared to sacrifice everything for their children. Spoilers are ahead for episode 8; apologies for the ear worm in the title, but this week’s episode was so determined to get ‘Somewhere Out There’ stuck in my head that I had to share the pain love.
Episode 8 is titled ‘Motherland’ and, fittingly, it’s about national identity, home, and belonging, but also literally about motherhood, what it means to be a mother, and how one should and shouldn’t be a mother. This is the part of the recap where I feel the need to issue a disclaimer: as a Not Mum, I know it is not the done thing to judge the choices of Actual Mums, at least not in public. These, however, are Fictional Mums, and therefore Fair Game. Thanks, m’lud. Let the judging commence.
Canada’s had enough of Americans. How quickly the mood changed from the applause welcoming Emily, or the elation of Angels’ Flight, to protesters literally marching through refugee suburbs chanting at them to “go home”. But where is home? Gilead was where their houses were, but it isn’t their home, not anymore. America in the show consists of, I think, two states and a dream of a comeback. More like the United Remnants of America. Gilead has claimed the rest, apart from Texas, which went its own way. Metaphorically at least. Gilead is the worst kind of neighbour; refugees flee from there every day, describing horrors that Canada can’t do anything much about, because Gilead’s taken everything that made America the Big Scary World Police superpower, and they have itchy trigger fingers. In a direct war between Canada and Gilead, Canada’s not winning any time soon. New America is not in much of a position to help, though they still throw their weight around like they are a global superpower. New America is too nebulous to be home, but as much as our beloved Team Canada faves are settling in Toronto, Canada isn’t home for them either. Original Brand America is still where the heart is for Luke, Moira, Rita and June, but it only exists as a memory.
How does one reconcile this? Well, Commander Lawrence has a solution, and it’s time for us to have a glimpse at his vision for New Bethlehem. Gilead’s got one of the best birth rates in the world courtesy of the horrors of reproductive slavery, but it’s losing people quicker than it can replace them, courtesy of, well, the horrors of reproductive slavery and stuff. It’s also got a terrible international reputation, courtesy of… OK, you get it. It’s fairly clear to us that Gilead’s problems are of its own making. I like to imagine Lawrence’s Big Plan brainstorming session going a little like this:
Lawrence: ‘How can we be perceived as less awful?’
Audience: ‘You could be less awful?’
Lawrence: ‘No, that’s not it. I’m sure there’s a devious and elaborate solution.
Audience: ‘Just don’t be awful.’
Lawrence: ‘Shhhhh, the men are thinking.’
He’s very pleased with himself when he comes up with New Bethlehem, a “modernised, strategically liberalised island”, where people who ran for their lives can be welcomed back to a home of sorts; where they will be left alone and unharmed, honest, as long as it can stay secret from the rest of Gilead Proper, where normal citizens would go on living under the overtly fascist regime as opposed to the regime that’s wearing a fuzzy cardigan and unconvincing wig to fancy up the fascism a bit. New Bethlehem: The Diet Coke of Fascism. Lawrence sees the greatest enemy to Gilead’s future survival is the “persistent fantasy of democratic values and the world it almost destroyed”, and so posits New Bethlehem as a strategic outlet for that fantasy: monitored, controlled and illusory. Since having Putnam killed, he’s lost the most vocal opposition to his plan, and now he’s sold it to the other Commanders, he needs to try and sell it to some potential citizens, starting with June. Here’s his pitch:
“Everything you value, all the things you’re clinging to: democracy, liberty, justice, all that feel-good crap defined by a bunch of slave-owners talking about how all men are created equal, all of that collapsed under the weight of late-term capitalism and rampant consumerism. It broke our pretty little planet and almost ended the human race, and Gilead, for all of our faults, we fixed that particular problem - we’re having babies again. Unfortunately, I had to use religious nut-jobs as a delivery system and I underestimated their depravity, but it was triage, and it worked.”
Oh. Ooooooh. Lawrence is that guy.
Gilead’s ideology has always been effective at upcycling oppositional discourse for its own purposes. It is a regime skilled at talking out of both sides of its mouth, weaponising its enemies’ words against them. We don’t have to go far to see wannabe fascists trying that out now, with that little unspoken bazinga afterwards, like ‘argue with me now and you’re a hypocrite’ jazz hands, because hypocrisy only matters when it’s someone else’s, right? That’s why there’s a lot of repackaged feminist ideology in the way that the regime talks about sexual violence against women even as it perpetuates it. Gilead’s more implicit with how it’s absorbed green / eco discourse. But now Lawrence is playing the anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist card, and it feels less like a game of words; this is the most Lawrence has said in a long time, and I believe that he means what he says. This is a guy who wanted a revolution, picked some terrible bed-fellows and now, instead of saying ‘my bad, this isn’t quite the revolution I was hoping for. Come back, America!’ he’s trying to change the “religious nut-jobs”. Yeah, sure, that’s a group notorious for seeing the error of its ways and modernising. Sure, Joseph. Sure.
Lawrence promises June a return to the ‘motherland’, to a society with no Handmaids or hangings, where reading isn’t banned. It’s a ‘LOL no’ from June until Lawrence mentions that she would be able to hang out with Hannah, and that they would of course be safe because Nick would be in charge of New Bethlehem and would protect them. That makes it tempting for June, but when she relays the offer to Luke, it’s a hard pass from him. “I would risk anything to be with her,” says June. (Including, presumably, her other daughter. Hmmm. Is she playing the trolley problem with her own children?) They only have two options to see Hannah again: trust Lawrence and choose their geographical homeland, or trust Tuello and their symbolic homeland. Neither man fills one with confidence. Lawrence has a stronger record of helping, but he is also “the architect of Gilead” and NOT YOUR FRIEND. It turns into a blazing row between June and Luke, with June assuming that she’s the only one who cares about Hannah, and using Luke snitching on Serena as evidence that he’s fine with separating mothers from children, which is really bloody low.
Right on cue, Tuello comes in to make his alternative pitch. He begs June not to entertain Lawrence’s offer, knowing that if she goes, others will think it is safe too. In return, she demands to know what the Americans are planning to do to get Hannah back. He can’t give details because it’s classified. America will have to work harder to win this one.
Meanwhile, Serena’s having a miserable time in Canadian ICE custody, with June and Luke refusing to take her calls, and her only visitor the hideous Mrs Wheeler, who has taken charge of baby Noah. Serena’s left having to play the role that June did with Nicole, begging to be able to see her baby whilst the jealous Wife undermines and torments her at every opportunity. It’s interesting to compare Serena and Mrs Wheeler in their treatment of another woman’s child; both resort to terrible things with the excuse of trying to have a child, but (oh man, here comes the sucker) at least Serena actually wanted a child rather than just to possess one. [Cracks knuckles] I’m going in: Mrs Wheeler is a terrible mother. She is leaving a weeks-old baby to cry out rather than picking him up? No. Not OK. Sure, a child raised by Serena in Gilead could have ended up being spoiled and entitled, but a child raised by Mrs Wheeler is looking at emotional neglect and attachment disorders. Pick up the damn baby, Mrs Wheeler. It’s dark and scary and he doesn’t understand where his mummy is. Pick him up.
Lawrence eventually swings by to ‘fix’ things for Serena, and we get a handy reminder of what it looks like when Lawrence fixes things. Serena is freed from custody but will be a ‘guest’ in the Wheeler house, permitted to nurse Noah while the Wheelers have legal guardianship. She is essentially the Handmaid Wet Nurse, and Lawrence amuses himself by pointing out the irony in how upset she is with this. LAWRENCE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.
Serena tries another possible saviour: June. But June’s not here to help her anymore. “We’re not friends, Serena,” says June. The truce from last week was an act of mercy, nothing more: “I turned the other cheek.” BURN. And sob, suckers again.
Serena: “How do you go and live in a house with a woman who’s trying to steal your baby?”
June: “Are you seriously asking me that?”
Serena and June find themselves in the same terrible position then: to only be able to see their children if they put up with a Gilead-adjacent living situation. Like Lawrence, June finds Serena’s plight amusingly ironic, and like Lawrence, she is not Serena’s friend. But unlike Lawrence, she has compassion, so she gives Serena some survival tips for Handmaid life. She’s enjoying the reversal of their positions (come on, she’s allowed to have her moment of victory) but it also makes her own choice a bit clearer.
June: “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go back in there, and you are going to act like a Handmaid, but the entire time, you will be plotting against them and planning your revenge.”
Serena: “Is that what you did?”
June: “Look at what happened to Fred. And look at you now.”
Serena: “What would you do if you were me?”
June: “Listen to me. You can not help your child if you’re not with him. I would go back.”
Ding ding, epiphany time. June storms off to see Lawrence with an additional demand: prevent Hannah from being married off. He shrugs. “Gilead’s gonna Gilead.” That doesn’t go down well, and he looks genuinely abashed when June tells him off. He can’t gloss over the damage Gilead does to women when she shouts it in his face.
“You think I don’t know? You think I don’t know the misery that I’ve caused? You think I’m unaware? I was trying to save humanity. I did. I fucking did it. And it got away. It got away from me. It went septic. You think I wouldn’t take it back? I’d take it all back. I’d let the whole fucking human race just die out, just so I wouldn’t have Gilead on my conscience.”
New Bethlehem is his way of trying to make a better world out of the monstrosity he created. He thinks Gilead can evolve if New Bethlehem works. “Come help me fix it,” he pleads. Come clear up my mess so that I don’t have to feel bad about it anymore. Turns out, Lawrence is irony-deficient too. He has been so snarky about the dream of America but he’s nurturing his own dream, his own fantasy, and he has a 400-point plan to get there.
He ups his game further, sending June and Luke a video of Hannah at Wife School. It works: June is ready to go to New Bethlehem, even to the point where she would leave Luke and Nicole behind in Toronto. New Bethlehem becomes the salve for June’s conscience as well, the magical cure for her guilt at leaving Hannah behind. The video also feeds Luke’s dream of a rescue opportunity, and he shows it to Tuello. The Americans duly up their game too. They use the info from the video to narrow down the location of Hannah’s school, and come up with a quintessentially American plan: send in the troops.
It’s a joyous end to the episode, with hugs and happy tears. For a shining moment, they can all dream that they can have it all. But there are two episodes left for this season, and we’re too cynical not to feel a shudder of unease at the sound of planes in the sky over Hannah’s head…
Next time: The mission is a go, and what’s that? The Dread is back again? Oh good.