The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 5: Unknown Caller

Handmaid's Tale S3Ep5 June at Lawrence's Desk
Episode 5 focuses on reunions and espionage, including a callback to the “coconuts and treason” of S2Ep9. Following up on the protest video of Luke and Nichole from the previous episode, Serena makes a deal with June, who then negotiates with Luke, so that Serena can fly to Canada to visit Nichole. Serena’s contact in Toronto is once again Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), the US official who offered her asylum during her diplomatic visit to Toronto with Fred in season 2.

Recap

Now that she’s received visual confirmation of Nichole’s successful escape to Canada by way of the video from the previous episode, in voiceover June muses on her gratitude for her daughter’s freedom. She gives credit to God, herself and the resistance network who set up Nichole and Emily’s journey North. Attaining freedom for their children is the dearest hope for handmaids. Rather than resenting her for achieving this dream instead of them, the other handmaids are happy for her. If one child can make it out, perhaps someday the rest can, too.

After seeing him in the video, June’s longing for Luke becomes unbearable. She remembers how strong her sexual desire for him was in the past. Now she dreams of more simple pleasures that remind her of her individual identity, such as hearing his voice say her real name, having his arms hold her and feeling reassured of his love. She’s also confused about exactly what she feels for Luke now. She loves him, but is it the same love that she felt in the past?

June was daydreaming while she and Ofmatthew grocery shopped at Loaves and Fishes and then began their walk home. Ofmatthew interrupts June’s thoughts by saying she’ll pray for Luke- she’ll pray that he returns Baby Nichole to her rightful home and parents, the Waterfords. She assumes June was sensible enough to marry someone with the maturity to make the correct decision for everyone involved, i.e. returning the baby to Gilead.

Obviously what’s best for everyone involved is arguable. As Fred once said, better doesn’t mean better for everyone. It’s his turn to be on the losing end of that statement.

As they walk home, the handmaids pass a serious car accident (ETA: On closer inspection, I think the Eyes are arresting someone and searching their car right in the middle of the street. The rest of the point still stands.), some of the subtle evidence we’ll see throughout the episode that Gilead is slowly spiraling out of control: Guardians are more rough and disrespectful with handmaids, the store is even emptier than usual, drivers aren’t being as careful and no one bothers to divert curious bystanders away from the accident disturbance. The strict control which led to near perfect order in Gilead died with many of the Founders in S2Ep6 after Lillie’s bomb. The less talented, more corrupt Commanders who were left behind can’t stop the slow slide away from Gilead’s founding principles, to some extent because they are part of the problem.

Ofmatthew’s real self is buried somewhere down inside a deeply dysfunctional but protective shell of Stockholm Syndrome. Her actual personality is somewhere tragic like the Sunken Place from the film Get Out.

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 June & Nat in Grocery StoreHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Disturbance in StreetHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Commander's Round TableHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Serena & Fred

Back at the Lawrences, Joseph makes an awkward attempt to flirt with Eleanor. June interrupts and he gives her a preemptive “no” for whatever she’s about to ask him. She asks the question anyway- does he think Luke is safe, now that he’s come to the attention of Gilead? Joseph tells her the truth- they’re all in danger, so of course Luke is in danger too.

Rita and Serena wait in the corridor outside the Commanders’ conference room, where Fred is in a meeting. Serena is worried about Nichole being raised by a stranger. Rita points out that he’s only a stranger to Serena. Serena agrees- that was her point. She meant to belittle June’s judgement and to question her husband’s fitness as a parent.

So ironic. As far as we know, June’s husband hasn’t raped, beaten or kidnapped anyone. Or violently overthrown any countries. Luke is the better, and more experienced, choice of parent, unless you have an irrational prejudice against divorce.

Fred emerges from the conference room and asks Serena to join the meeting. He tells her she “has a say in this.” What he means is they’ll let her sit in on the meeting and ask questions. It’s the first step in his program to win Serena back by following June’s suggestion that he give her more power. Of course he won’t actually give her more power, but he’ll try harder to make her feel special. In his mind, for a woman those are the same thing.

In an actual woman’s mind, especially driven women like Serena and June, they are not.

Serena asks the Commanders for more details about Luke. Putnam tells her that in the Before Times, “He worked in the Suffolk County Office of Urban Planning.” Now he receives refugee aid and does part time construction and utility work.

Fred explains that they’ve accessed Nichole’s medical records. Her height and weight are above average, plus she has a tooth. He hands Serena a packet of information which includes Nichole’s little footprints. Before the Commanders adjourn, they tell the Waterfords that they’re committed to bringing Nichole home.

Once almost everyone else is gone, Fred tells Serena that he’s confused, because he thought she wanted to let Nichole go. Serena is confused about her own feelings as well. She’s glad that Nichole is safe, but she admits that she still wants to be with her, even though it doesn’t seem possible.

Fred and Serena pay a visit to June at the Lawrences’ to propose their next scheme to her. They want June to call Luke to help them arrange a visit with Nichole in Canada. They assure her that Luke and everyone else involved will be protected. They just want a chance to say a proper goodbye.

June refuses to call Luke. She doesn’t trust the Waterfords anywhere near Luke or Nichole. And she probably doesn’t want to talk to her husband for the first time in years in front of the couple who repeatedly raped her.

The Waterfords are shocked that June turns down their gift of a phone call with her husband. Serena asks Fred and Joseph to leave her alone with June, then she tries to explain that she just wants to see Nichole. June tells her that it won’t turn out the way she thinks it will, but Serena begs her to help. June gives in, but says if she helps Serena see the baby, and she doesn’t get to see her as well, then Serena will owe her a big favor. Serena agrees.

They set up the phone call in Joseph’s office, with June sitting at the desk. Joseph tells her she’ll only have 2 minutes. Luke is out shopping for supplies for the baby, which are expensive. When Luke wonders how people afford them, the store clerk says most people don’t need them.

He answers the phone as he walks outside onto a dark, rainy sidewalk. It’s a second before June’s able to speak, then she tells him not to hang up out of surprise. She maintains complete emotional control throughout the call. It’s probably the only way she can get through it, but she also doesn’t want to express her emotions in front of this audience.

Luke asks where she is. She tells him she’s still in Gilead and that she and Hannah are okay. He says, “I love you.” She says it back. He tells her how much he misses her and how sorry he is that he couldn’t save her and Hannah. She stops him, because time is running out and also because they still have an audience who don’t deserve to hear this.

She asks him to bring Nichole to the Toronto airport tomorrow for a visit with the Waterfords. He hesitates, so she tells him that there will only be this one meeting. He’ll get another call with the details. “I need you to say yes.”

Luke agrees to meet with Serena, but not Fred. As June is saying I love you, the timer hangs up the phone, a reminder that this call wasn’t for her. In Toronto, Luke collapses in tears right where he is. Lawrence offers June a handkerchief for the tears he assumes she’ll cry, but she refuses it and remains stoic.

She walks slowly and carefully to her room, as if a touch might break her. Serena thanks her for helping them, but doesn’t acknowledge June’s pain at all. When June gets to her room, she takes a deep breath, but she still doesn’t cry. Her anger is burning the tears away.

Moira asks Luke how June seemed. All he can say is that she seemed like herself.

Eleanor is the one who eventually checks on June and acknowledges how painful this is for her. June tells her that the phone call turned out differently from what she’d imagined.

Eleanor: “What matters is that your love came through. Sometimes words fail us. My husband used music. He used to curate cassette tapes for me in college. I still have them, in the basement.”

June: “Do you ever listen to them?”

Eleanor: “I miss the man who made them.”

June: “Maybe there’s just a little bit of him left. He helped me. He helped Emily. I think it’s okay to take a sliver of someone and hold on to that. Especially if it’s all you have.”

Aside from the delightful image of young Joseph making young Eleanor mix tapes, this is a sobering conversation. Eleanor shows us a Commander’s wife who was dragged into this life and hates it. Gilead is slowly stealing whatever she has left inside that matters to her, just as it does to the lower classes.

June reveals that she’s nearly given up on the people she depends on as well. Is anyone she cares about whole to her anymore, or is she hanging onto the best or most useful parts of everyone in order to survive?

It would be legitimate for her to be too exhausted by her circumstances to see more in people than her own interactions with them, as Lawrence suggested. He said she’s transactional. I would say she’s learned how to conserve her energy and leverage her relationships in order to keep herself alive. In dire circumstances, there’s no fault in that strategy.

The fault lies in people like the Waterfords, Joseph and the rest of the Commanders, who created an entire country where people are nothing but pawns to be used.

June finds the tapes and a cassette player/recorder in the basement. She tests a tape in the player- Leo Sayers sings “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”, a surprise choice from young Joseph.

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 June Makes Recording

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 Serena & MarkHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Luke, Serena, Nichole at Airport

At her mother’s house on the shore, Serena looks over old photos and keepsakes. When Rita brings her breakfast, Serena shows her a gift she got for the baby that reads, “For this child I prayed.” She nudges Rita to do a little illegal reading to appreciate the gift. Rita tells her it’s beautiful and asks Serena to give Nichole a kiss from her.

Then Rita gives Serena a package that arrived last night from June. She’s calling in her favor by having Serena deliver something to Luke.

Serena and a Guardian fly to Toronto, where they’re met by Mark Tuello. Serena orders the Guardian to stay with the plane. That’s against Fred’s orders, but she successfully pulls rank.

Tuello informs Serena that Luke asked for a public meeting place, so they’ll drive to the terminal. He’s brought a change of clothes to help her blend in.

Once she’s dressed in street clothes, Mark takes her to meet Luke at one of the gates in the terminal. Serena stops to watch Luke and Nichole for a moment before moving closer so that Mark can introduce them. She thanks Luke for choosing to see her. He’s hostile in reply, telling her he’s doing it for June, not her.

She tries to make small talk and asks if Nichole is eating solids. Luke says she is, but she doesn’t like peas. He asks if June is okay. Serena says that she is, but she’s been reassigned to another Commander. Luke demands the name of June’s new Commander. Serena tries to avoid telling him, but he won’t back down, so she gives him Lawrence’s name.

They both sit down and he asks Serena what she hopes to get from this visit. She says she just wants to see her daughter. Luke replies that Nichole isn’t her daughter. She points out that the baby isn’t his daughter, either.

He has the self control not to point out that Nichole’s biological parents chose him to raise her while they can’t, after they took her from Serena and Fred. I wouldn’t have been able to resist.

Serena tells Luke that this isn’t about biology, it’s about Nichole’s unique story, which she has the right to know when she gets older. Luke asks her what Fred’s role is in Nichole’s story.

Since there’s no way for her to defend Gilead’s fatherhood by rape policy to someone outside of Gilead, Serena pulls out her gift for Nichole instead and explains that it was a gift to her from her father. Luke ignores her and tells her that the story Nichole will grow up learning is the one that includes the truth of how brave her mother was in getting her to Canada. “You’re never going to be anything to her.”

Serena cries and says,”You want to know what I tell myself? That she was my miracle and that I let her go because I wanted a better life for her and so did your wife. Okay? So, if you can’t honor my wishes, then honor hers. Please, give this to Nichole and let her draw her own conclusions. You need to understand that I protected your wife.”

That last part gets both Luke and Mark’s attention. Luke takes the gift. Mark tells them it’s time to end the visit. Serena asks if he wants to send a message to June. Not through Serena. She holds Nichole’s hand, then Luke finally let’s her hold Nichole.

As Mark walks her back to the changing room, he reiterates his offer of treason and coconuts-she doesn’t have to go back to Canada. She refuses his offer, telling him she only has one home. She cries some more and trashes the changing room, eventually noticing the package meant for Luke.

On the plane home, she’s perfectly coiffed as Mrs Waterford once again. But in her purse, June’s package has been replaced with a cell phone and Mark’s number.

Joseph puts on the Nick Lowe song Cruel to Be Kind, then sits next to Eleanor on the couch. They nod their heads along with the music from the days of their courtship, holding onto what they can of love.

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 For LukeHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Coconuts & Treason Phone

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 Eleanor & Joseph Connect Over MusicHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Fred Waterford Agent of the Devil

The song continues to play over Serena’s return to Gilead in the dark of night. Fred asks how it went.

Serena: “She was perfect. And now it’s over.”

They hug and Fred, agent of the devil, says, “It doesn’t have to be.”

OMG, the twin manipulations from the two of them in this episode.are the perfect examples of how alike and meant for each other they are. The ways Serena twisted the truth to play Luke and now the way Fred is playing Serena to improve his own position in the government are identical.

At Loaves and Fishes, Ofmatthew stands and stares vacantly into space in front of a row of what’s probably pickled meat of some sort, but looks startlingly like botched medical experiments. It’s an odd place to choose to stand.

June approaches and says she’s ready to leave. Ofmatthew snaps at her, then apologizes, saying she’s not herself. Still staring into space, she tells June that she’s pregnant. Again. June congratulates her. Neither speaks with any enthusiasm, which is unusual for Ofmatthew. When she’s shown in close up, we realize that her entire face is slack and her eyes look dead inside. The prospect of going through another pregnancy has broken her the rest of the way.

She tells June that because of the fuss over Baby Nichole, she hasn’t had a chance to tell her Commander yet. In a complete turnaround, she says she’s happy that Nichole and Luke are safe.

A Guardian arrives to take June away, again. Of course he doesn’t tell her why she’s being put in the back of a van to the sounds of spooky music that’s straight out of Dark.

Luke buys a Walkman cassette player and headphones, because the package June sent him was a message in a bottle, recorded over one of Eleanor’s mix tapes. It begins with Leo Sayer’s falsetto telling Luke that he feels like dancing, confusing the heck out of him. But after a minute, June’s voice begins. As she speaks, we see her recording in the Lawreces’ basement, intercut with Luke’s reactions.

She realizes that he must have a lot of questions about Nichole. She’s sorry she wasn’t able to speak openly on the phone. This is hard news to give him and she’s ashamed about her actions, but she had to build some kind of life in Gilead. She’ll always love him, but he deserves a life too, including love, with someone who’s there for him. So she understands if he needs to move on.

“I need you to know that Nichole, she was born out of love. Her real name’s Holly and her father’s a driver named Nick. You met him. He helped me to survive. I need to believe that you can forgive me. I’m not the woman you remember. She is part of me, but I’m doing what I need to to survive. You should too. No, you have to. You have to for Hannah. It’s all for her, Luke. This is all for her. I promise you, I am trying to get to her. I promise. I love you.”

June turns off the recorder and Luke’s recording ends. This isn’t the message he was hoping for.

June’s latest black van arrives at its destination, where of course she’s greeted by a chipper Aunt Lydia, who also refuses to tell her what’s going on. Lydia escorts June into a dressing room and instructs her to quickly change into the equivalent of formalwear for handmaids. Then she brings June onto a soundstage decorated as a sitting room and places June standing behind the couch.

Serena and Fred sit on the couch up close to each other, but they ignore June’s questions. Lydia makes June be quiet and assume a submissive posture.

Now that Luke and June have each had a turn, the Waterfords have decided to make their own recorded message regarding Nichole. Nick will have to make a music video about her and June to keep up. He can borrow Cruel to Be Kind from the Lawrences.

The recording airs on Canadian TV. Moira rushes into the apartment to make sure Luke sees it.

Fred: “We have taken the extraordinary step of addressing the world directly. We are a family in mourning. A family devastated by loss, desperate for help and answers. And we make this request to the Canadian government in peace. Our beloved baby daughter, Nichole Waterford, was kidnapped by a dangerous fugitive fleeing our country. Nichole belongs in Gilead. We miss her dearly. We just want her back. We expect the government’s full cooperation as our daughter is an innocent victim with no voice of her own. This is a family matter. You can help to keep it this way by sending her back to us safely.”

June looks sickened as he speaks. At least Moira and Luke get to catch a glimpse of her and they have the tape to prove that she wants Nichole to stay in Canada.

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 June, Ofmatthew & the Pickled MeatsHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Luke Listens to June's MessageHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Moira & Luke Watch Baby Nichole BroadcastHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Baby Nichole Broadcast


Commentary

I’m going to assume that the use of Sunday, Bloody Sunday as the closing song means it was also on Joseph’s mix tapes, indicating that he was a budding revolutionary even in college.

Cruel to Be Kind should probably play during every episode of this show. And not just because it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. 😘

June’s taped message is a nod to the original book, in which her story was found many years later, recorded on a set of cassette tapes.

Serena and June are each leaders, but with very different styles. Before Gilead, Serena led as a visionary who people wanted to follow and emulate. June leads through goal-oriented deal making and empathy, doggedly pursuing her strategy one step at a time. Serena focused on the big picture, while the Sons of Jacob soldiers brought her vision to life. Both have been burned by their methods- Serena’s vision was corrupted by the people who enacted it. June’s lack of attention to the big picture allowed her to wait too long to leave the US, so her family was captured. Their complementary styles are what make them an effective team, but also make them clash.

Slowly, they are each figuring out how to take on more of the other’s characteristics as leaders and organizers. June pushes Serena to put in the hard work of building a grassroots movement, rather than relying on her charisma and splashy ideas to attract and keep followers as she did before. Serena forces June to question and refine her beliefs and practices, so that her message and tactics consistently say and do what she wants them to.

Of course they each have other influences as well. June’s mother’s lessons on how to be an activist and leader of a long-term, changing movement have finally hit home. Lawrence picks up where Holly left off, though he plays devil’s advocate more often than not. Serena’s mother, her church and the Sons of Jacob have also taught her much of what she knows about what works and what doesn’t. And Fred uses his marketing background to push Serena away from substance and toward the flashy end of the scale.

But as each woman moves into their next phase, it’s the lessons they’re teaching each other about what’s possible in limited circumstances, when trust seems impossible, that resonate the most. And the lessons in how to work around a frenemy who can’t be trusted or avoided. Serena used June in this episode, but June knows her well enough to predict that her “favor” would end in betrayal, so she built the seeds of Luke and Nichole’s defense into the visit.

In her opening voiceover, June expresses concern about how her feelings for Luke have changed- she used to feel overwhelming passion for him, but now that’s not as strong. As Hannah’s father and the only member of her family who she knows is alive and free (legal family- Moira is emotionally her family, but not legally), Luke represents home, family and freedom to her.

But she’s transferred her feelings of passion to Nick. Nick represents the intense, unwavering devotion she needs in Gilead. He’s her emotional rock, but is it possible for someone so associated with Gilead to also eventually represent safety and stability in everyday life, the way Luke did for her after her chaotic childhood?

Though Luke and June’s relationship started as an illicit affair, what he actually gave her was normalcy after her unusual, crisis-oriented childhood. Holly was a good mother, but she asked a lot of June at a young age. It’s not surprising that young adult June would need some time to decompress and feel like a regular person, rather than a soldier in her mother’s ongoing crusade. Adults who had unusual childhoods, whether they were dysfunctional or just different from the societal norm, tend to either embrace the unusual or run toward extreme normalcy.

June was happy in her life with Luke and might have stayed that way forever. But Gilead forced her out of her complacency and back toward the end of the lifestyle spectrum where her mother lived, into a life of intensity, self-examination and living out her ideals. In her recording, June tells Luke that she’ll always love him, but she’s also had to move forward with her life and she expects him to do the same, effectively releasing him from his marriage vows. She makes it clear that Hannah is her main priority, but also tells him that she’s fallen in love with someone else. She doesn’t say that their marriage is over, but from where she’s sitting it has to look fairly impossible.

June tells Luke to build a new life, moving on from her if he needs to. It’s clear that he has built a new life, starting on the bus full of refugees as he escaped Gilead, when he became close to Erin (what happened to Erin, anyway?). But his new life is bound to his life with June. He’s spent his time helping other refugees and searching for her and Hannah in whatever ways he could. Now he’s built a family with Nichole and Moira. Both Luke and Moira lost their life partners to Gilead and haven’t moved on from them. Focusing on raising Nichole together gives them new purpose.

Nick has made some devastatingly bad choices in the past, but his connections to Mayday and to June show that he’s reconsidered his beliefs and is now working to help fix his mistakes. Even though the Sons of Jacob were a terrible choice, his decision to live and fight for a set of ideological goals is similar to the way Holly dedicated her life to her cause. Their causes were on different ends of the political spectrum, but dedicating your life to a cause and fighting for it takes many of the same traits, no matter what the cause is.

Though Nick might be arrested as a war criminal outside of Gilead, since he’s been with the Sons of Jacob from the beginning, that also means that he has useful information to share with the international community. He could turn states evidence and get an immunity deal or at least a very reduced sentence. Nick could make Serena’s coconuts and treason work for himself as well.

The Canadian store clerk is missing his right arm. Could he be another escapee from Gilead? Or a veteran of the war?

In addition to the signs of deteriorating order that I listed near the beginning of the recap, this episode is also filled with warning signs of danger: flashing lights, sirens, red lights, vehicles driving too fast, such as the van June rides to the TV studio in. Serena, in particular, is frequently bathed in red light. Ofmatthew stands in front of those bizarre jars of meat for a long time. June hides in the dark basement. And Luke appears to be on a bridge made from a whale’s skeleton while he listens to June’s tape. You can’t get much more biblical than being swallowed by a whale. Like Jonah, maybe Luke needs to pray and fight harder, the way Hannah told June to try harder. We also saw June swallowed by the dark basement and the Guardians’ van and Serena inside the skeletal belly of the plane. Temptation and trials are ahead for all.

Handmaids Tale S3Ep5 Luke in the Belly of the WhaleHandmaids Tale S3Ep5 Fred & Serena Outside Plane

Images courtesy of Hulu.

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