Since June went to Canada last season, The Handmaid’s Tale has turned a bright spotlight on motherhood. Did June abandon Hannah by escaping to Toronto? How does she make up for that with her daughter from a thousand miles away?
As June tells Serena, who is rotting away in immigration detention instead of capitulating to Mrs. Wheeler’s demands, “You can’t help your child if you’re not with it.”
That’s probably not entirely true, but feels true in both cases. To challenge their oath that they would do anything for their children, the series forces them to accept the worst terms to prove it. Serena (Yvonne Strahvoski) eventually agrees to return to the Wheeler mansion, albeit in the capacity of Noah’s wet nurse, as she is clearly “unfit” to mother her one-month-old baby. She also follows June’s advice, haunted by difficult years sharing a house with a woman who wanted to steal her child: laugh, bide your time, plot revenge.
But June (Elisabeth Moss) is asked to make an even more complicated exchange: closeness to Hannah for a half-life in “New Bethlehem,” an idea Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) has previously teased but never fully explained. The greatest threat to Gilead right now is the lingering spirit of a democratic America. But geopolitics have changed since the Revolution, and American refugees in Canada have exhausted their welcome. Nichole can’t even sleep all night because of the protesters yelling outside her childhood bedroom window.
What is New Bethlehem? Imagine a small, liberalized enclave within the borders of Gilead where refugees can seek amnesty. For starters, Lawrence wants about 100 families to repatriate, starting with June and Luke. They could visit Hannah, who was going to live elsewhere under Gilead’s strict rules—including an arranged marriage—but they could see their daughter with their own eyes. They could touch her. With Commander Nick Blaine in charge of the semi-independent colony, the citizens of New Bethlehem would be able to read and write. There would be no handmaids and no hangings.
Knowing that regime change can happen quickly, would you risk putting yourself back within arm’s reach of your former slave masters to be near your daughter? Would you take Nichole to a country where she could become a wife or handmaid or worse?
Who’s the handmaid now?
When “Motherland” – the extremely on-the-nose title of episode eight – opens, Serena is locked in Canadian Immigration Detention, obsessively calling June and Rita and probably Mark Tuello as well. Anyone she thinks can help her. But her only regular visitor is Mrs. Wheeler, who probably wouldn’t come at all if Serena wasn’t expressing breast milk for her baby boy.
The Wheelers agree to take Serena back despite the fact that she shot Ezra (it was only in the kevlar vest!) because Noah just doesn’t want to sleep. “I’m not a handmaiden,” Serena tells Lawrence when he forces her to accept the offer. But in Gilead there are only two kinds of mothers, and Serena is nobody’s wife. Heed their demands at the end of the episode and watching what happens next is arguably the most compelling storyline the show is running right now. There has always been a tension between Serena and June, based on the idea that despite all their differences, they share great reserves of willpower. Will Serena take on the Wheelers while June destroyed the Waterfords?
Unrest in Little America
So far, we haven’t seen too much interaction between the American refugees and the Canadian citizens who surround them. As it turns out, the Americans who escaped to the north are increasingly being targeted by protests and vandalism. Luke suggests they move to Alaska or Hawai’i – the parts of America that remain intact. But those places are far from Hannah. June measures her motherhood in the distance between them. She’s not going anywhere. It’s been almost a year and she still can’t forgive herself for traveling this far to freedom.
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Commander Lawrence’s great atonement
New Bethlehem is not just a means of improving Gilead’s relations with Canada by reversing the flow of refugees. It’s part of Lawrence’s glacial, exhaustive plan to reclaim control of Gilead from the “religious morons” he underestimated during the formation of the nation. Now that Commander Putnam has passed away conveniently, he can make reforms. New Bethlehem is introduced to the other commanders as a shelter for former expats, but secretly, he tells June as he invites her to participate, he hopes it will be the model for a new version of Gilead, without rape and suffering. This is his chance to make things right.
June doesn’t care. All she hears is that she will see Hannah. She grows old around Hannah. One day she will meet her grandchildren. But Luke is not tempted. He doesn’t trust Lawrence. How can they even think of taking Nichole, their free daughter, to a place where she could be enslaved like her mother?
Lawrence’s questionable offer is an effective bargaining chip with the Americans, who haven’t really cared about June since Fred’s death. The Americans—represented by Tuello, who is apparently their only official—are desperately trying to prevent June from returning to Gilead. She is the banner of the resistance. It would be a PR nightmare not to mention a blow to morale.
Of course June isn’t interested in that either. All she hears is that Mark Tuello has no plans to help her see Hannah. But with the help of a video of Hannah sending Lawrence June as a gesture of goodwill, the Americans are able to pinpoint the location of the school for special women that Hannah attends. The Americans are planning some sort of raid. Things on The Handmaid’s Tale have been so bad for so long that a rescue mission seems too good to be true. Honestly? Even New Bethlehem, terrible as it is, seems too good to be true.
But perhaps the true measure of a mother is her willingness to keep going – to keep believing that despite the distance or the threat, she will save her child. If so, June Osborne must be the best parent there has ever been.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ will air weekly in the US, with episodes to follow a few weeks later in the UK