Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu
As June and Serena wave hello-goodbye as they pass one another on their opposing character trajectories, they are both offered versions of the same choice. How much personal freedom are you willing to sacrifice in exchange for physical proximity to your child? In the end they both come up with the same answer, which is: most to all of it. Luckily for June, she’s spared from the consequences of this decision by an 11th hour deus ex Tuello. Serena, on the other hand, decides to return to the Wheelers. She may be little more than a pseudo-Handmaid with no legal rights to her own baby, but at least this way she might be able to keep Alanis from attempting a cry-it-out method on her month-old infant.
While Serena is getting full immersion therapy for her “irony deficiency,” Commander Lawrence’s sense of foresight as well as his moral compass are still on the fritz. “Motherhood” finally follows up on a few plot threads that have been blinkering all season, including the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Toronto and Lawrence’s New Bethlehem plan. And Lawrence finally offers some insight into his personal motivations — though how much he is to be trusted is very much an open question. He describes himself to June as a sort of ecofascist-cum-communist who saw a complete authoritarian overhaul as the only corrective to America’s unchecked capitalism and consumerism that nearly destroyed the planet and created the global fertility crisis. The religious right were supposed to be his useful idiots but they got out of hand, and for that he claims to be deeply sorry. From a character perspective, this is a plausible enough explanation for Lawrence’s moral ambiguity, and, more importantly, clarifies that he is indeed a villain, no better and no more self-aware than Serena or Aunt Lydia.
In order to save humanity, he was willing to sacrifice the rights of women and erect institutions of abuse and dehumanization while enshrining himself in a position of even higher power. And however “bigger picture” he claims his original goals to have been, let us not forget he also had a powerful personal motivation in his wife’s desperate yearning for motherhood. He’s giving himself too much credit for whatever personal sacrifices or risks he took on June’s behalf after the fact, and June’s giving him too much credit too. Now, like Serena and Lydia, he’s trying to create a softer, middler ground. He’s offering a dirty compromise.
New Bethlehem is Lawrence’s corrective to his corrective — a colony of off-white suburban McMansions within Gilead that will operate under a more liberalized regime, where former citizens now living as refugees in Canada may return and be reunited with loved ones while retaining some freedom. To the other commanders, Lawrence likens it to their Hong Kong (famously a wild success whose democratic systems were never threatened or usurped by mainland China). To June, Lawrence calls New Bethlehem a “nicer autocracy,” a “Singapore of yore.” Here, June will be able to live comfortably with Luke and Nichole. She’ll be able to read novels and even write in a diary. Most importantly, she’ll be reunited with Hannah. In exchange June wants Lawrence to stop Hannah’s upcoming marriage, where she’d be continually raped by a man of who knows what age or temperament. But Lawrence says no can do. “In the context of Gilead …” he palters, it’s not really that rapey of a rape. It’s just an old-fashioned arranged marriage. Lawrence is selling his little island hard as a step in the right direction to fix his mistake, as though New Bethlehem will eventually subsume the rest of Gilead and not the other way around.
Nevertheless, June and Luke are having a hard time coming to a decision about this. The increasing hostility of Canadian anti-immigration protestors outside their house is making life in Toronto almost untenably uncomfortable for Casa June, so Luke proposes relocating — maybe someplace like Alaska or even Europe, which June immediately shuts down because it would be too far away from Hannah. Luke, a firm believer in the institution, wants to keep trying to get Hannah out of Gilead rather than march right back into the danger zone. Fair point. But June is fed up with trusting Tuello, who has repeatedly promised to help and then come up with nothing. Also a fair point. June would rather put her faith in Lawrence, who has at least come through for her on occasion, but Luke thinks trusting the architect of Gilead, the Nazi, is a really bad idea. So that’s a point for Luke. June gets a point when she says Luke clearly doesn’t understand what she’s feeling based on what he did to Serena, but later furiously demanding if Luke wants her to sit on her thumbs and do nothing like he did is a low blow, for which I have to dock her. Luke says he and Nichole will never be “enough” for June — unfair, so that’s another point docked. It seems we are at an impasse, and possibly a fatal stress point in June and Luke’s marriage.
Lawrence’s dirty compromise for Serena is both more and less straightforward. Four weeks postpartum finds Serena miserably pumping breast milk at the immigration detention center while the Wheelers have temporary (for now) custody of Noah. With very few resources left, the only thing Serena can think to do to get her baby out of those people’s odious clutches is to blow up Lawrence and June’s phones. When Lawrence finally responds, the best he can offer her is a room back at the Wheelers’ — which they have generously offered to her because they think her breast milk will make her an ideal night nanny. Unfortunately Serena can think of nothing worse than playing wet-nurse to her own baby for a couple who definitely plan on stealing him from her once he’s old enough for solid foods. “Do you have an irony deficiency?” Lawrence zings.
Clearly she does, because when June finally breaks down and visits her at her Canadian ICE holding cell (which is way grungier than the cell where they keep war criminals accused of human-rights abuses), her attitude has not been adjusted. June is only there to see if Serena has any insider information on New Bethlehem anyway, but Serena is hoping for a lawyer, a sponsor, anyone who can help keep her and Noah away from the Wheelers. “How do you go and live in a house with a woman who’s trying to steal your baby?” Ma’am. June won’t help Serena any more than Lawrence will, because despite their bonding ordeal in the barn delivering Noah, June has not and never will forgive Serena. What she can offer is a little perspective. If she plays the obedient Handmaid on the outside while quietly plotting her revenge on the inside, Serena can survive that house. She overthrew a country. She has against all odds given birth to a very healthy baby. Not once has she lacked for mental toughness.
So that’s what she does. In the most un-Serena-like way, she submits to the Wheelers with meek apologies and on the understanding that Alanis will be in charge of all motherhood duties aside from breastfeeding. With a smile and a clenched fist she even swallows Alanis’s foreboding, “You must agree, you aren’t fit to be a full-fledged mother.” In exchange, she gets to race up to the nursery, where a very kind nanny hands her her son.
Before June left, Serena asked what she would do in her situation — as if we haven’t all been watching this show for five years and don’t already know. She would go back to the Wheelers. June threw away numerous opportunities to escape Gilead because she didn’t want to leave Hannah. No duh, she’s going to take Lawrence up on his New Bethlehem deal if it means getting closer to her. This would be obvious even if “Motherland” was not unusually heavy on flashes of June’s Hannah memories, which it is. Practically every June scene is interspersed with images of Hannah both in the before times and in Gilead. Children who are inconvenient plotwise and who exist largely off-screen have an unfortunate habit of disappearing from relevance in long-running series, so the choice to center all of June’s present motivations on Hannah is relatively novel, and, in my view, pretty effective. It’s hard to engender audience sympathy for a character you never see, but June’s outwardly illogical decision-making here feels rational and consistent. June would never let Hannah fade into the D-plot, so the story is following the character’s lead right back into Gilead — even if it means leaving Luke and Nichole behind — whether we want her to go or not.
But then she receives that fateful call from Tuello. Apparently all America’s single remaining Fed needed to find Hannah was a little motivation — in this case, the fear that if he didn’t find this kid June would move to New Bethlehem, thereby giving Gilead a major PR win and spoiling the Americans’ secret military operation.
We end on a shot of Hannah, planting flowers with her fellow wives-in-training, her face as inscrutable as any teal-wearing Wife’s has ever been.
• I’m unclear on how Lawrence has suddenly amassed so much unilateral power among his fellow commanders. The implication is that Putnam’s public execution has put the fear of God (so to speak) in them, but it feels like a stretch for such practiced mass murderers?
• Serena tries to apologize for hurting Ezra to Alanis and she literally just rolls her eyes and says, “He’ll live.” So that’s one question answered.
• It’s been a while since we’ve heard a good Gorbachev reference, hasn’t it?
• So what is this classified military operation Tuello’s government is a part of and does it involve Nick somehow?
• The fact that June comes home from Lawrence’s second New Bethlehem pitch to find a mysterious video of her daughter at Wife school, which immediately pushes her over the edge in her decision to go back, does not feel coincidental. Lawrence 100 percent sent that video.