Commander Lawrence’s New Bethlehem plan is revealed as Serena continues to walk a mile in June’s shoes.
Don’t celebrate yet. Don’t you know what show you’re in? Until Hannah is stretched out on your couch tossing M&Ms into her mouth, sharing TikTok videos on her phone and groaning when you ask her how school is, she’s not home. A lot can go wrong between ‘The US army has planned a raid’ and a happy ending – maybe save dancing to The Cure and hugging grocery clerks until your girl’s out of Gilead.
However Season 5’s ‘get Hannah’ storyline ends, happy is guaranteed not to be the sum total of it. It never is on The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama powered by emotional complexity. If June and Luke get Hannah back, she won’t just be a nearly-teenager (challenging enough to parent), she’ll be a nearly-teenager ripped from everything she’s known, whose mind has been marinated in Commander Kool-Aid for the past seven years. Remember little James/Asher from Angel’s Flight rejecting his aunt’s junk food and missing Gilead? Or June’s breakdown in the potato chip aisle? Reintegration won’t be simple.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Currently, Hannah is still dutifully planting lavender in a raised bed shaped like links in a chain – fitting décor in a school that teaches girls to be enslaved to their husbands. And this episode wasn’t really about her; it was about guilt – June’s over Hannah, and Commander Lawrence’s over *gestures wildly* all this.
‘Motherland’ ended the Commander Lawrence enigma. We’ve spent three seasons asking how this irreverent, non-conformist professor – the only person in Gilead who talks like a human being and not the gamesmaster at a Pilgrim Fathers-themed escape room – wound up at the center of this brutal regime. Now we’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth: Lawrence was trying to save humanity. That was the impulse behind the creation of Gilead. Unfortunately, his chosen delivery system of religious nutjobs meant the humanity-saving plan “got away from” him. Quite the understatement.
That scene was pivotal for understanding Lawrence’s character. The man’s riven by guilt, but – emotional complexity siren – not guilt alone. Pride is also tangled up in his regret, a satisfying complication from writer Yahlin Chang and Bradley Whitford, whose performance always encourages viewers to lean in and pick up the details. Lawrence’s inquiry as to Serena’s “irony deficiency” was one of two high points in this script, the other being June’s priceless “guess I’m a better Christian than you.”
Once bricked into Gilead’s edifice, Lawrence found that he and Eleanor couldn’t leave. After she took an overdose, his choice came down to joining her or trying to make amends. That’s his rationale for New Bethlehem, a kind of Gilead-lite he spent the episode pitching to the key players. Housed on a New England island, Lawrence envisages New Bethlehem as Gilead 2.0: all the health and fertility benefits with none of the state-sponsored rape or public executions! Now we know what he meant when he asked Aunt Lydia last season to help him fix Gilead.
Lawrence made June that exact offer this episode. After dangling the prize of Hannah, he appealed to her heroic instincts with the prospect of sanding off Gilead’s sharp edges. To each person in turn, he pitched a different vision of New Bethlehem: to the Commanders – good global PR (also: nice forehead you have there, it’d be a shame if my friend here were to put a bullet in it), to Nick – power, June and Nichole (conveniently, no mention of Luke). And to Serena – to Serena, he wasn’t pitching New Bethlehem, but the dubious sanctuary of the Wheelers’ home.
If Serena’s ‘walk a season in June’s shoes’ trajectory continues much longer, next she’ll be falling in love with Ezra and having his baby. ‘Motherland’ saw her returned to the Wheelers to nurse a fractious Noah, just like June was begrudgingly returned to feed Nichole after her own escape attempt in season two. Her reunion with Noah after a month’s separation was full-on choir-of-angels stuff, and revealed the full meaning of the episode title. To a child, its mother means home – and to go by Rita’s brief scene with June on the steps, vice versa.
Bizarro-Waterfords the Wheelers have made a fantastic addition this late in the game, enabling viewers to end up in the surprising position of rooting for Serena. Genevieve Angelson and director Natalia Leite pitch her performance as Alanis Wheeler just so – half PTA busybody, half deranged cult member, while Lucas Neff’s Ryan Wheeler is soft-spoken malevolence itself in an bespoke suit. They’re classic wealthy, WASP movie baddies. When Serena enacts her revenge, no tears will be shed for those two.
To play along with the Wheelers, Serena had to swallow her considerable pride (“I overthrew a government!” You really bringing that up?), something that proved a sticking point for Luke this episode. Sensibly refusing to volunteer Nichole for life in a Gilead enclave, he and June fought over his need to protect her, and his guilt at not having taken the same risks for Hannah. Whether Tuello’s cliffhanger means the New Bethlehem move is now a moot point, we’ll wait to see.
Speaking of pride, one character should muster some of hers and demand more attention. For eight tenths of this season, Samira Wiley’s Moira has been in the background. Bathing Nichole, taking her to music class, fondly rolling her eyes at those crazy kids Luke and June… but where is Moira’s story? Give that woman a love interest and some personal conflict in season six please, the campaign starts here.