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The Handmaid's Tale episode 5.07 "No Man's Land"

I wanted to start my blog here, partly because it’s fresh, and partly because I found this to be one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. I’ll say it: The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best shows of all time, and I’ve been watching it all unfold with bated breath from the start- but I also struggled with the beginning of this season. I found it to be a little aimless now that June had made it to Canada, and I worried this show was about to overstay its welcome. I went into “No Man’s Land” ready to disappointedly declare this show another victim of Big Money (stay tuned for my thoughts on Stranger Things), but June and Serena stopped me in my tracks.

Something I think is significant about this episode is that everything that transpires, the entirety of both women’s thoughts and actions, aren’t at all pre-meditated or influenced by anything other than their raw personalities. From the moment Serena shoots Ezra, neither of them knows what they’re going to do or how they’re going to feel about it until it’s already happening. It’s June and Serena’s authentic selves, and it’s the inevitable power shift that has been brewing for five years. We know what Serena does with all the power and we know what June can do with none of it; turning those tables in an unpredictable situation is what shows us who these women really are. Throughout this season I made a lot of guesses about what was going to happen, and I was wrong every single time. Throughout this episode, though, I felt incredibly in step with every beat in the most cathartic way. This show is nothing if not true to its characters, and this episode languished in knowing exactly who all these people are.

Let’s start from the beginning- Serena’s driving a car, in labor, gun in hand, and June’s in the back seat. Already I’m smiling and on the edge of my seat, but it’s also a little silly. Where does she think she’s going? Really, three seconds later she’s crashed the car? But this isn’t a flimsy plot device, it’s the set-up of both Serena’s chaotic helplessness and June’s agency. Serena is stuck. June is not. Of course Serena crashed the car. June said it best- “Jesus Christ, are you in fucking labor right now? Stop waving that around, you’re going to get us both killed” (this episode made me laugh just enough to remind me that none of this is funny at all, but June herself is very funny).


Elisabeth Moss in "No Man's Land". Image courtesy of IMDb.

At first, she doesn’t even hesitate to ride this out with Serena. But Serena is her consistently unpleasant self, and she pushes her away. And June, being her own usual self, doesn’t take it for a second. In a flash, she’s digging out the car. What does she owe Serena? Less than nothing. Serena’s lucky June has even let her live this long. But in the time that it takes to get the car out of the mud, the bigger question sets in. It’s not about whether Serena deserves grace from June of all people. She doesn’t. But June is looking towards a future in which they live in a merciful world. She’s done with people giving birth alone in cold abandoned buildings, done with children growing up with false parents, done with any human being thinking they get to determine whether another human being is deserving of humanity. So the car is good to go, but she goes back in the barn. And Serena now couldn’t be more relieved to see her. She’s looked down the barrel of this situation and felt real fear for her life for the first time, and she is no June Osborne.

With June at the wheel, this birth goes so smoothly they might as well be in a hospital, but once baby Noah (of course) arrives, it’s time to talk about why they aren’t in one. Serena has burned every bridge she could possibly cross next, and with her ethical duty fulfilled, what happens now isn’t really June’s problem. Or so it seems, at first glance. While Serena prattles on about the Lord, beautifully expressing the inherent selfishness of Christianity, June realizes just how deep this all goes. Serena is never going to be a good person. If after all this, she’s still thinking everyone else in this world is just an angel or a snake or some metaphorical entity existing purely to serve her life experience in one way or another, she’s just not gonna get it. And June recognizes this- saying “I’m a person” with a shake of her head- but she recognizes something about herself as well. She’s had multiple opportunities to fuck Serena over and I think it was a mystery to her just as much as it was to us why she wasn’t taking them. That confusion and conflict was written all over June’s face every time she had the chance, but this is the first time she consciously understands and voices that she doesn’t want to kill Serena.

Changing the world isn’t going to happen through a handful of isolated good deeds. Mothers deserve to nurse their babies, and babies deserve to come into this world with their parents. As June muses on motherhood, and Serena explores her options, a bond creeps in between them. What good does it do that June saved this woman and her baby if all she’s going to do now is leave them to die or deliver them to be separated by the same organization she’s trying to dismantle? When Serena laments another woman stealing her baby, the irony is so abundant it’s just plain laughable, but she does remind us of something: the evil factory of Gilead is still churning away, and June is looking at its next victims if she doesn’t do something. It’s the ultimate test of June’s integrity that Serena of all people is who is put in front of her to save, but it doesn’t change what she should do. Serena’s lack of growth is what makes June’s choices so significant. Of course June would help a woman in need; the only question left to answer about her character, and about right and wrong, is if she would help this woman.


Yvonne Strahovski in "No Man's Land". Image courtesy of IMDb.

So I know this episode is called “No Man’s Land” because that’s where all of this goes down, but nothing punctuates the huge emotional distance we’ve just traveled, and the fact that it was an intensely female experience, like the arrival of Luke in the final moments. Let me say first that I don’t think Luke has ever done a single thing wrong in his entire life, and his wholehearted goodness is what underscores the gendered nature of Gilead’s oppression. When this episode started, June and I both wanted bad things to happen to Serena. June and her friends ripped Fred to pieces with their literal teeth and took pieces of his body just to further relish the experience, and we’ve all been waiting for Serena to get hers too. But now, even though Serena hasn’t changed, June’s understanding of the world and what is called for has expanded. Serena is still falling prey to a broken, oppressive world that does to women what it could never- and would never- do to a man. There was nothing but justice in Fred’s death. Serena’s suffering in her current situation is, to sum it up, complicated. But it doesn’t seem complicated to Luke. He doesn’t hesitate to do what June has, inexplicably even to herself, been unable to bring herself to do. His confusion as to why June isn’t happy about this, while understandable (if I hadn’t seen what happened over the last 45 minutes I would be confused too), confirms the chasm Gilead has created between man and woman.

As is the sign of a great episode, I feel like I could go on and on about it. It’s filled me with thought, and I’m still kicking around so many feelings about the significance of the individual, the ethics of extending a hand to the corrupt, and the fact that June is actually an incredibly biblical and Christ-like character. I couldn’t possibly say everything there is to be said about all this, so if you’re having thoughts and feeling inclined to share them, I’d love it if you left a comment or started a discussion over in the forum!

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