‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Episode 5 Recap: What Have You Done, Serena?
Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: Naomi Putnam threw a terrible party, June schemed with Serena, Janine got a walloping from Aunt Lydia, Nichole was christened by the best godparents ever, and Emily was reunited with her family. Here’s my recap for episode 4 if you missed it!
This week: Serena took a trip, June forgot how to haggle, Luke said what we were all thinking, and then, some figurative excrement made contact with a rapidly revolving fan. Dammit.
As a token of my devotion to you all, I’ve made you a mixtape. It’s a compilation of Serena’s Songs, including such bangers as ‘Bitch’ and ‘Devil Woman’. You might catch me singing along to a few of them as we go, though a few lyrical tweaks may be in order… Spoilers ahead for episode 5!
‘Unknown Caller’ rests on the wobbly foundation of Serena Joy’s ability to be selfless. So far, we’ve seen maybe one selfless act from her: giving up baby Nichole. Since then, she’s moped a lot, smoked a lot, burned a house down and given Fred the cold shoulder. But she always had that consolation at the back of her mind, that she had done the right thing. It was for the best. At the end of last week’s episode, both Serena and June saw Nichole safely in the arms of the lovely Luke. They both shed a tear. This week, we get a closer look at their reactions to Nichole’s new life.
And dammit, Serena. Life doesn’t go your way for five minutes and suddenly you’re acting like you invented grief? Screw you, Serena. Look at June’s reaction for some context. June is practically giddy with relief. Her baby is safe. This is “the only dream for a handmaid”. And it’s not some ‘miracle’; it’s something they accomplished. It was a successful act. It’s a personal loss and it pains her, but it was for the greater good. Cut back to Serena, and I’m paraphrasing, but her reaction is essentially: “wah, it’s not fair, I wanna cuddle the baby…”
Serena’s Mixtape: ‘Me!’
“It’s so unfair you’ll never have a mother like me-e-e!”
When June was encouraging Serena to become the Lady Macbeth of Gilead, she meant for her to be the power behind the man, the driving force, not the “out damned spot” Lady Macbeth, and certainly not the ‘loses baby and then all sense of right and wrong’ Lady Macbeth. But Serena — accustomed to a privilege built on exploitation and oppression for her convenience — isn’t that used to not getting her way. And so she goes from almost sympathetic to spoiled deluded brat. Some of it isn’t her fault, because she is incessantly pandered to by terrified people. No-one tells her the truth.
And so, we are ready for a trip to the Land of Truth Bombs, a place that has kicked her butt before. Come on, Canada. Make Round 2 a good’un.
First stop: June. It’s not enough that she has had her marriage delegitimized and her first child stolen; her identity stripped away, her body commandeered by the state, tortured, farmed out for the elite; her second child stolen. No, Mr and Mrs Take-It-All Waterford now want her to call Luke to set up a playdate. Notice that they refer to him as “your husband”, which is just a cheap bit of rhetoric to manipulate her.
Serena is antsy that Nichole is “with a stranger”. Rita pointed out that Luke was only a stranger to her, but Serena didn’t seem to understand. “Yes. To me,” she said, because self is all that matters to Serena. Rita doesn’t press the issue, because she panders to her. There’s no awareness from Serena that June’s other daughter is being raised by actual strangers. No awareness that the system she helped create is founded on the idea of women having their children taken away in the name of someone else’s ideals. It is a system built on the grief of losing a child, where women like Serena normally profit. But Serena acts like her grief is special.
Serena’s Mixtape: ‘Jolene’
“Your system does this every day
When taking women’s kids away,
So don’t be all ‘poor me! My pain,’ Serena.”
June also worries about Luke, but she worries if he is safe, if Gilead will go after him. She asks Commander Lawrence if “they” will, and her pronoun choice amuses him. The jury’s still out on which side he’s on…
Fred: “Seeing our daughter has opened up a terrible wound.”
*cracks knuckles* Oh, you want a terrible wound, Freddy-boy?
I would say that it took a lot of gall for the Waterfords to ‘ask’ June to help them, but that would suggest that they think about anyone other than themselves, so it probably didn’t occur to them. Hey, reproductive slave! You know that man you love, who we won’t let you see? You know, the one you miss so much you feel like you’re dying? Can you just give him a quick call? You can have two minutes, and must spend most of that time talking about us. We’ll listen to the whole thing, so no funny business. We’re just going to act like we still sort of own that child we stole from you. Cool? Yeah? Cool?
This is what June should have said: Sure! I’ll tell you what, I’ll come too, and I’ll bring my daughter, then the Bankole family is going to stay in Canada. You can visit maybe once a year. Bring presents. That’s my price, bitches.
But she doesn’t. She settles for a nebulous acknowledgment of being owed an unspecified favour at a later date. Because she trusts Serena. Dammit. Later, we get a sense of why, when she is comforting Mrs Lawrence, and encouraging her to find some peace in loving a monster.
“It’s OK to take a sliver of someone and hold on to that, especially if it’s all you have.”
Sure, she is holding on to a sliver of Luke in terms of her memories of him. But it is also true of June’s relationship with Serena. Serena did one good thing, and that’s the sliver that June is holding on to. It’s all she has. So she does it. She makes the call.
And this, my poppets, is why we all need to establish duress codes with our loved ones.
Luke isn’t an idiot. He has some ground rules for the meeting, to keep himself and Nichole safe. Running the show is the American agent who tried to turn Serena last season; his offer is still on the table. Seeing Serena in normal civvies is a bit jarring, and it completely changes how we view her. No more clippy cloppy shoes, severe chignons, or icy teal. In Gilead, her uniform protects her. Here, she blends in. She’s nobody. And surprise surprise, she doesn’t like it.
Serena: “God bless you.”
Luke: “Fuck you.”
I’ve watched this episode twice and I couldn’t make my mind up about the Serena/Luke exchange at first. On the first viewing, I thought Luke played it badly, that if he had been a bit more careful, the episode could have ended differently. Then the second time around, I decided I’ve never loved him more. Because for once, she isn’t pandered to. Even when June is relatively open with Serena, she is still fully sucking up to her in order to stay safe. It is always transactional. June has worked hard to frame this scheming with Serena as the work of two mothers, who are sharing in their grief, either because she genuinely believes this or because by playing along she gains an ally. Serena wants to continue this narrative with Luke. She wants to be remembered fondly, and as a kindly mother who selflessly gave away ‘her’ daughter for a better life. You get the feeling that if there was a Serena shrine in Nichole’s new house, where she could smile down on her like a Virgin Mary, she could live with that.
Luke’s perspective is less muddied by necessity. She is someone who exploited his wife. Her husband raped his wife. Why should he play nice? He could have given Serena what she wanted — better yet, he could have pretended he was going to. Sure, we’ll tell her all about you and how nice you are. Mmm hmm. Totes. But there’s no need for him to play along. Why the hell should he worry about being mindful of Serena Joy’s feelings? Instead, he told her the truth: Nichole is not hers, Fred is a rapist, Gilead is awful, and so is she.
“I don’t know what it is that you tell yourself so you can sleep at night, but Nichole is going to know exactly where she came from, and how brave her mother was for getting her here. That’s her story. You’re never going to be anything to her.”
Luke isn’t great at diplomacy then, but neither is she. She throws in a threat about June, and Luke —visibly shaken — offers to let Serena hold the baby, and he takes the necklace. So Serena sort of gets what she wants.
But of course, it’s not enough.
It almost was. When she landed, she told Fred “now it’s over,” and I think she meant it. But Fred dangles a little bit of temptation, and Serena — annoyed with Luke, feeling like she deserves something better — jumps at the chance.
Serena’s Mixtape: ‘Delilah’
“I saw a flicker of doubt when they took off her finger.
I saw a glimmer of hope that she might just rebel.
She had potential!
Then she got pissed off at my husband and I hoped no more.
My, my, my, Serena. Why, why, why, Serena?”
And so, a new ridiculous tableau is established, to demand Nichole’s return to Gilead. It’s all a performance. There are new costumes, old roles, and even an actual bloody stage. June is too furious to stay in character. Fred is playing this as a political opportunity and a desperate attempt to please Serena. Plus, fancy accessories! The only thing that’s genuine on that stage is Serena’s fervent belief that she is a martyr who deserves her baby back. And that, my dears, is another Gileadean Lie.
Your move, Canada. Season 3 has been very kind to you thus far. Let’s see if you live up to the hype next week…
Callbacks and references
I love the tapes for 3 reasons. Firstly, the idea of Mr Sinister Lawrence boogying to Leo Sayer is something that is going to stick with me forever. Secondly, it’s another nod to the book. The Historical Notes reveals that Offred’s story was recorded on a series of tapes, found in a storage box years after the fall of the regime, and reconstructed to form her narrative. It was a nice touch, here. Thirdly, it was a great way to get a beautifully emotional message to Luke — even though it’s not clear when that tape was handed over to him. The tape could prove very important, as it clarifies Nichole’s parentage, and as the Waterfords are being dicks about it, Luke could use the tape to undermine their claim to her. Unfortunately, that would put June and Nick in some peril…
During last season’s trip to Canada, Luke met the Waterfords and Nick, and yelled at all of them. It was awesome. Serena was given a matchbook with the American agent’s contact details on it, but she burned it when she got home. This time, he’s given her a phone. Will she ditch that too? Is there any hope that the appeal to Canada is some sort of ruse and she’s a double agent? No?
It’s telling that Serena’s gift was engraved with writing, which she allowed Rita to read, and which she wanted her child to read. Remember that reading is what cost Serena her pinky. That necklace is a forbidden object in Gilead. And yet, she still wants to bring Nichole back.
Commander Lawrence’s theme tune seems to be ‘Cruel To Be Kind’. Huh. That is what he thinks he’s doing. He is still utterly impervious to June’s charms. But there is definitely deep-rooted affection for his wife, and I’d like to see more of their relationship.
June’s facial expression at the end is just like Serena’s was in episode 1 — right before she burned the house down. Now she’s really mad…
Until next time: Brace yourselves, because things are about to get a whole lot worse. And don’t forget those duress codes.
Header Image Source: Hulu