‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 5, Episode 3 Recap: ‘Border’

Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

After “Ballet” ended on multiple cliffhangers (June sees Hannah on TV! Janine and Esther are poisoned and possibly dead!), “Border” is mostly an expository set-up for the rest of the season. I do not find anything intrinsically wrong with exposition, for what it’s worth. Chess boards must be reset and plot points established, etc., but it did make for a rather slow hour of television, except for some stunning work from Ann Dowd and one thrilling June moment at the very end.

In addition to checking in on Janine and Esther (comatose but alive) and June’s mental state (distinctly amped), “Border” introduces new characters, motivations, and Chekhovian guns in both Gilead and the small Mayday outpost on the Canadian border where Moira has reluctantly took June. This is an episode packed with information you’ll want to remember later, so here is what we’ve all learned.

At the Hannah-sighting debrief in the living room in Toronto, where the episode begins, we learn that the purple (not pink!) color of Hannah’s dress is an important detail because of June’s fixation on it. (“What was that color?” “That color? What was it?” We call it “purple,” June.) We also learn that June spotted Nick in the background of the televised funeral, but she has no official channel for getting in touch with him because go-to Fed Officer Tuello is currently in Gilead himself. I don’t know why Tuello doesn’t have co-workers who can handle liaisoning while he’s out of office, but whatever. Maybe he’s the only Fed America has left. He’s the whole country’s go-to Fed. Moving on.

The last big reveal of this scene is that Moira has been hiding knowledge of a small group of resistors at the border who’ve had some luck getting in touch with people in Gilead. Why was she hiding this group from June? According to her: “They’re a bunch of traumatized refugees, and they’re the last people you need to be around right now.” And y’all, I’m officially tired of how Moira has been written for the past season and a half. Whence the “keep your fucking shit together” Moira of yore? Moira was once an essential grounding element for June, Luke, and the show in general. These days, Moira is more a plot device than a character and exists mainly to provide contradictory guidance on trauma and conflict with June.

Anyway, she gives in and decides to take June to this mystery group “for Hannah,” but Luke, a man, is not permitted to come. They drive to a parking lot where they meet Lily, who turns out to be one of the political prisoners June traded for Fred. Nice! June and Moira follow Lily to a remote cabin in the woods guarded by women with long guns and suspicious demeanors. This is where we learn that this little operation is part of a larger Mayday network. It’s real!

“Everyone working with Mayday knows the stakes,” says Lily, shocking June and resulting in a conversation that goes something like:

“Mayday!”

“Mayday?”

“Mayday?”

“Mayday Canada?”

“Mayday everywhere!”

So June learns that Mayday wasn’t something she and the other Handmaids just made up out of a traumatic need, and we get some insight into Mayday’s actual tactics. These involve sewing arsenic into the hems of Martha’s dresses, enlisting the help of friendly Eyes using a password system, and a complicated way to get in touch with citizens of Gilead involving signals and data. And I’m assuming some sort of wire that I still don’t really understand. Anyway, getting June in touch with her Commander will take some time.

South of the border, Serena continues to be dismayed to learn that Gilead is not a hospitable place for women. She wants to keep owning the libs like she did with the fascist funeral, but her plans to resume her place as First Lady of Human Rights Abuses all end in failure. Again.

She remains blithely unaware of her impending humiliation throughout the bizarre, candlelit dinner party at the house of Commander MacKenzie, also attended by Mrs. MacKenzie, Lawrence, Nick, and Nick’s wife, Rose — but not Officer Tuello, who has to wait outside all night in the cold. We, the viewers, however, learned many things, including:

  • The MacKenzies are Hannah’s adoptive parents.
  • Commander MacKenzie knows June Osbourne killed Fred, and he’s not happy about it.
  • MacKenzie probably plans to have June killed in some poetic and/or grotesque way.
  • Rose’s father is a family friend of the MacKenzies.
  • Rose and Nick fell in love “at the third mutually attended gala” in DC
  • MacKenzie is highly suspicious of Nick, whom he catches in the middle of a short, clandestine confab with Tuello — who is still waiting around outside in the cold.
  • The other Commanders aren’t comfortable with Lawrence staying single.
  • Lawrence knows the term “toxic masculinity,” and his wife Eleanor hated Serena.

But back to Serena’s ineffective plotting. Her best bet, she thinks, is not to be a single mom, so she tries proposing to Lawrence with a lot of winks about political marriages. She even heavily implies to Tuello that the wedding date is basically already set, so she will not be coming with him back to Canada, thank you very much. But the next day, Lawrence hits her with a “You didn’t really think last night actually meant anything, did you?” Whomp, whomp. As it turns out, the High Commanders don’t really know what to do with Serena, so they send her back to Canada anyway. She demands a staff and a substantial budget, and they’re all like, Yeah, sure, whatever you want, LOL.

More interesting than a bunch of religious zealots eating steak in the dark, however, is Aunt Lydia visiting Esther and Janine in the hospital. Lydia has been feeling things for some time now, particularly for Janine, whom she treats like a very beloved and abused puppy. All of those buried feelings get turbocharged and set loose in this episode, allowing Dowd to show off just how much pathos she can really give. Do you think Elisabeth Moss has cornered the market in face acting? Have you seen Ann Dowd transform from one emotional extreme to the next with a single glance? First she’s enraged and slaps Esther, still unconscious, across the face. Next she’s filled with despair at Janine’s bedside, falling to her knees, weeping, and pleading with God. Is that… is that remorse? It’s one thing to read the words, “She doesn’t deserve this! Don’t punish her to teach me a lesson,” on the page. It’s another to hear them in Aunt Lydia’s blubbering, sobbing voice.

Although it’s an overall slow episode, “Border” ends on a jump scare. Serena is back in Canada, and her car has stopped on a bridge. She’s staring out the window, glumly pondering her life as a free woman, when June appears like a bad dream and bangs on her window. She’s just learned that Serena has been allowed to leave Gilead and, infuriated and frustrated (her call to Nick was basically a bust), taps into whatever rage inspired season four’s iconic “Do you understand me!” line delivery. “NEVER TOUCH MY DAUGHTER AGAIN!”

Sleep tight, Serena.

• So about the purple: It means Hannah is now ready to be sent to Wife School because she’s 12 years old and therefore “ready.”

• Nick thinks June would like his wife, Rose. I guess.

• Lydia retains enough pull that she’s able to strongarm Mrs. Putnam into bringing Angela to visit Janine in the hospital. This is where we learn that Mrs. Putnam may have a small soul after all.

• After a visit from her daughter, Janine wakes up, and the last we see her is in her wheelchair outside. I do hope this doesn’t take us down a mystical maternal-bond route, which would be fairly antithetical to the project of this whole show.

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