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The Handmaid's Tale - Safe - Review

15 Nov 2022

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  The Handmaid’s Tale “Safe” was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Elisabeth Moss. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a more ironic episode title on ANY series! The episode wraps up season five and left almost every character in some kind of peril. This was a brutal episode in many ways. This season felt like it was a bit slow getting going, but this episode pulled out all the stops and all the characters ended the episode with major upheavals to their lives. Buckle in folks. I have a lot to say about this episode so this is a long one!

The episode opens with June kneeling before her now empty garden. She has failed to put down roots of any kind here. A truck pulls up and drops off a parcel. It’s a bulletproof vest. It’s yet another “costume” that she must wear – and she puts it on, back to the camera framed in light of a window. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is suddenly there in the doorway. She tells him that there’s another event – a vigil in High Park – and they want her to do a prayer. Luke tells her he gets it. She has to be safe. He asks how it feels and starts adjusting it on her. He asks her if it’s comfortable and tells her that he hates this world – but he loves her, and she tells him that she loves him too.

She takes off the vest and sits in the window with her hands in her lap and the sun streaming in around her. 

We get an arial shot of men in black suits moving around the headquarters of Gilead. Nick (Max Minghella) comes upon Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and ask for a moment of his time. Lawrence says that he’s quite busy – and since when has he not had time for Nick? He finally relents and the two step aside on their own. Nick tells him about the shooting. Lawrence has heard, but then, there’s a lot of anti-refuge sentiment in Toronto. Americans are particularly grating. Nick tells him June was at the vigil. He wants assurance that June is not a target. Lawrence tells him that she could be – after all, she had the Americans come into their country to kidnap their children…. BUT the current policy is that Gilead does not target ex-patriots for execution… Lawrence tells Nick that June had lots of choices. Nick tells him that she’s fighting for her daughter, and Lawrence replies that everyone gets bloody in a fight. It’s clearly also a threat to Nick…

At the Red Center, the handmaids are cleaning. Janine (Madeleine Brewer) sees that they are flagging, so she starts singing – “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from Annie, which is perfect if you’ve seen the play or movie as they are also forced to clean the orphanage – and Janine’s red hair helps to complete the picture – and it helps to lighten the work. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) hears them singing as she comes up the stairs and smiles. She’s happy that they are more content. However, as soon as Janine realizes that she’s there, she declares “Code Brown” and they all jump to their feet, guilty and silent. They all stand respectfully with heads bowed and hands clasped in front of them. She tells them that it is no sin to enjoy their work. Aunt Lydia tells them that God might prefer a more appropriate hymn, however.

Aunt Lydia pauses to remark to Aunt Elizabeth (Edie Inksetter) that it’s good to see them so respectful and industrious. She emphasizes that Janine has been a good influence on them. Elizabeth warns Aunt Lydia that others have noticed Aunt Lydia’s favoritism to Janine, and she tells her that Janine needs to find a new posting before “they” find a different use for her.

Aunt Lydia goes to Naomi (Ever Carradine) with a plan that Naomi calls crazy. Aunt Lydia wants Janine to become the Lawrence’s handmaid. Naomi is being fitted for her wedding dress, and Aunt Lydia dismisses everyone from the room. She tells Naomi that Commander Lawrence is looking to foster an image that reflects the traditional values of Gilead – including a handmaid. Naomi says that this particular handmaid will make her look like a fool. Aunt Lydia uses all her powers of flattery and persuasion to get Naomi to says she’ll consider it. 

Back in Toronto, June, Luke and Moira (Samira Wiley – who was criminally underused this season) are enjoying a quiet breakfast while Nicole sleeps in. Once again, June is framed by a sunny window behind her as she has actually, seemingly, achieved some kind of peace – which is broken by a knocking at the door. It’s Tuello (Sam Jaeger) with news that they’ve caught the gunman – just an angry guy with a gun and no obvious ties to Gilead. 

June asks how Tuello is as she walks him out to his car. He tells her that he’s been to 19 funerals in 5 days. He thanks her for asking. She tells him that she knows what its like. To be responsible for people and then lose them. She says ‘may God grant them rest – and you too.’ He’s clearly touched and takes his leave. June stays out on the street, watching as more her neighbors are packing their things and leaving the neighborhood. There are already plenty of empty houses. As she walks back, a red pick up pulls out. It’s playing the Beach Boys loudly. The tension ramps up as it slowly pulls up on her and June slowly grows more nervous – and then it speeds up and hits her! This was a terrific – and horrific – special effect as we see June seemingly hurled through the air, landing hard on the pavement in front of the truck! And then the truck speeds toward her and OVER HER ARM!!!

This is brilliantly shot as the entire screen is full of only half of June’s face as she lies on the pavement, the one eye showing wide open staring in disbelief at her arm. The music plays loudly but the only other sound is a hollow ringing. If you’ve ever been in an accident, this is a pretty good approximation of shock! June manages to get her arm in and lying flat as the truck continues over her, but shock is taking its toll. She looks as the truck speeds back toward her. We see Luke’s feet come running up as he shouts for the driver to stop. We see everything from June’s perspective as Luke hauls the guy – and his shotgun – out of the truck. He beats him senseless and then runs to June, calling to Moira for help. 

The scene at the hospital is chaotic as June’s level of consciousness fades in and out with the agony she is in. In a haze, she sees that Luke has blood on his hands and then the police are there to take him into custody. He tries to tell them that somebody tried to kill his wife, but they absolutely don’t care. 

At the border bridge between Gilead and Canada, Nick meets with Tuello. I loved how this scene was shot. The music and the long shots of him crossing with the mist and moon behind him and then the overhead shot of him physically crossing the border line were perfect. Nick has finally chosen to act… and it’s very likely to have devastating effects for him. 

At the Red Center, Aunt Lydia is about to cross a similar line with Janine. Aunt Lydia tells Janine about her plan but cunningly starts by asking if she’d like to see HER sweet Angela again. Janine, of course, “would love that. Obviously.” Aunt Lydia says she’ll be able to if all goes well with the future Mrs Lawrence. And then Aunt Lydia tells her that if she shows the proper respect, Mrs Lawrence will consider having her posted to her house. And that’s it for Janine. She’s out. She doesn’t want to be posted. Aunt Lydia denies ever having said that she wouldn’t be posted again. Aunt Lydia dangles Angela in front of her again, telling her she’s come so far – and Janine tells her she’s very grateful – but it’s also clear that Aunt Lydia has a lot of misgivings over this. She knows Janine is fragile, but is it also dawning on her what a brutal existence this women live?

Tuello takes Nick to the hospital where he stands outside June’s room looking at her unconscious body through a window. He asks about Luke, and Tuello tells him that he’s giving a statement to the police and the driver is in the ICU. The police will bring Luke to June’s room as soon as they’re done. Nick tells him that it’s probably better if she doesn’t know he was there. Tuello leaves to give Nick some privacy, and Nick slowly walks into her room. Nick sits beside her and touches her arm. Minghella is terrific in this scene with no words. His love for June is clear, but at one point he looks away, troubled, and raises his hand to his mouth – the hand with his wedding ring on it. It’s clear that he's thinking of Rose (Carey Cox). I believe he does genuinely care for her too. Nick tenderly kisses June’s forehead before slowly leaving the room – and June senses his presence, smiling and turning her head.

Back at the bridge, Tuello has a contract for Nick to sign. He tells him that if he had his way, he’d simply take Nick at his word, but Nick doubts his word is worth much at this point. He is about to betray his country in a way he never has before. Tuello, however, insists that he’d call him an honorable man.  Nick is adamant that Tuello hold up his end of the bargain – to protect June. Tuello’s first assurance isn’t good enough. Nick tells him that Gilead wants her to suffer. They’ll come for her AND her family. Tuello says he’ll do everything he can, and Nick walks away – clearly NOT reassured and thinking he’s made a fool’s bargain. Tuello asks him why he didn’t run with June when they were at the Waterford’s and Nick still held rank in the Eyes. Nick tells him that she has people who care for her. She doesn’t need him. He’s nothing. And Tuello tells him no he’s not. And most importantly, he adds “Not to her.” I love their complicated relationship!

June is home, and we get another of those wonderous mirror shots. June is once again sitting in the window of her bedroom. The mirror image takes up 2/3 of the screen – and the mirror reflects an empty room and one that is shown in two images with the last image dissected just to show a sliver of the room with the lamp. June’s options and window of opportunity – that light at the end of the tunnel – are growing ever less… Luke is now sporting a gun in his waistband. June asks Luke if he’s comfortable having a gun in the house. He says it’s how they’re going to stay safe, and she suggests asking the police for protection. But Luke tells her that they hate refugees. They have to protect themselves. Luke insists that this isn’t going to be like Boston. June tells him that Boston wasn’t his fault – and he tells her that he's not going to let anyone hurt her.

Lawrence’s house is packed with scurrying Marthas prepping for the wedding. Meanwhile, in a nice mirror of Naomi’s interview with Lawrence, Janine meets with Naomi – only this time both are standing. Naomi tells Janine that she’s prayed on it and she’s willing to give Janine a trial period. And then she blows it by telling Janine that Angela is staying with her grandparents for the entire summer! So there goes the carrot. Aunt Lydia is clearly worried. Janine is still on board, however. Naomi tells Janine that when Angela returns, she will oversee all interactions – and if Janine ever suggests anything other than that Naomi is Angela’s mother, it will be heresy, and Janine could lose her tongue. Then Naomi has to rush off to dress for the wedding, but she makes Aunt Lydia’s day by saying it might be nice to have Janine in the family portraits they’ll be shooting later.

Aunt Lydia tells Janine that she’s proud of her and tells her to be a good girl. Janine keeps the smile on her fact until Aunt Lydia leaves. She then removes the wimple. As she’s standing there, a Martha (Jessica Greco) stops on her way through the room. She doesn’t look directly at Janine, but says the rote greeting – blessed be the fruit – before telling her that June’s hurt – and Janine immediately turns and looks at her, saying “My June??” The Martha tells her what happened and that they want to kill her in Toronto. She says that she’s alive, but that they never let anyone get away – “fuckers.” The camera pans in on Janine’s astonished face.

As the scene changes, we are still on a close up of Janine’s face, but now she’s having her picture taken in the family portrait. She is still shocked. Lawrence finally calls an end to it, telling everyone that they have work to do – surely some function to perform in HIS home. And he’s also clearly talking to Naomi and Janine too. Naomi is clearly trying to find an ally. She stops Janine from leaving by asking if she’s seen her room yet, and offering to show her herself! She tells Janine that she feels very hopeful – but does she really? – and then she makes her big mistake. She tells Janine that it will be nice just to have a friendly face in the house – because clearly, Lawrence isn’t that! And then, she calls Janine Ofjoseph.

We get a closeup of Janine’s hand clenching and it was a terrific callback to Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) twisting her hands as she debased herself to the Wheelers. But Janine looks up and full into Naomi’s eyes as she tells her “that’s not my name.” Naomi says “pardon?” and simply looks confused as Janine goes on – we’re not friends. Did you really think we were friends? She goes on to tell Naomi that she thinks that she is one of the worst people that she’s ever known. She tells her that she hates her – and asks how she can’t know that. Naomi seems to actually be hurt, but the two are interrupted by Lawrence calling for her, so we don’t get to see a response. Janine takes a deep breath. It no doubt felt good to say it out loud to Naomi’s face, but she has to know that she’s sealed her own fate. She walks upstairs but smiles. She’s acted.

Back in Toronto, June wakes up and it’s night. In a beautiful parallel to the earlier scene – and also a reflection of the mirror shot – June looks out of the bedroom door, listening to muffled voices and we only see half her face – the same half as we saw under the truck. In a nice parallel to the last scene, June moves down the stairs and back into the community. Luke tries to tell June that there’s nothing to here and to go back upstairs. He’s still underestimating her… Rita (Amanda Brugel) is there and has brought news that her friend, who is a Toronto Police Officer, heard an alert that the truck driver who hit June died. Luke insists that it doesn’t matter. He may have killed him but he was about to kill June. Moira tells him that no one is going to care. Luke killed a Canadian on Canadian soil and they’re going to want him dead. June walks through them as if in a dream, and I loved that the camera followed her back as she walks into the kitchen, now framed by fairy lights. It’s all been a dream of safety.

June finally turns around and silences Luke, just by saying his name. Again, this scene is beautifully blocked. We get a close up of June as she tells Luke that they have to run. Luke turns – and as so often in this season, we see him framed by a number of doorways, making it look like he’s standing in a tunnel – or mirror reflections. He says what? She tells him that they waited last time and they waited too long and failed to see how much they hated them and she lost him and then they lost Hannah. Luke asks if they are just supposed to forget about Hannah now. And June assures him that they will never forget about her. But they can’t help her if they’re dead and this country is changing. Luke insists it isn’t Gilead, and June tells him that America wasn’t Gilead until it was. And that REALLY hit home with the current political system. I am thankful every day for our multi-party system (3 really) that helps keep Gilead-like nutbags at bay in Canada…June puts her foot down. They have to run. NOW.

As they are loading the car to go to the airport – Moira has booked them on flights to Anchorage and then Honolulu… Tuello shows up and tells them that they can’t go to the airport – the police have flagged their flights and will be waiting to arrest Luke. He calls them stiltedly by their last names – clearly talking in his official capacity. He tells them that June will also be charged with aiding a fugitive, and they’ll lose Nicole. Moira asks what they’re supposed to do. June calls him Mark as she tells him that they tried to kill her in her own front yard – next time maybe it will be Nicole just to get to her. She tells him they’re not safe. Tuello tells them there might be another way. Americans are coming from all over to board trains, taking them west. It’s clear the refugees are no longer wanted there. He tells them that he can get them on a train. 

As the music crescendos, we switch back to Gilead and the reception of Lawrence’s wedding. Nick strides in and goes directly to Lawrence, punching him in the face. Nick tells him he could have killed her. Lawrence looks upset – not necessarily angry. I think he genuinely wanted Nick’s help in re-fashioning Gilead. He needs an ally after all. Lawrence tells Nick that it wasn’t him, it wasn’t his decision. Does anyone doubt that Mackenzie (Jason Butler Harner) was behind it? Nick is escorted out by guards. Lawrence offers the others cake, and Mackenzie is clearly considering whether power is now slipping from Lawrence – is Nick a crack in Lawrence’s defences?

Janine is back at the Red Center. Her hair is down and she’s in her nightdress. Aunt Lydia tells her that she had the most wonderful opportunity and she threw it away. Janine asks her what she wants her to say. Aunt Lydia tells her that she must beg in order to fix it. She must beg the Lawrences for mercy and forgiveness, and Janine says flat out that she won’t do it. Aunt Lydia is distraught. Elizabeth comes in and says that the Eyes are there. They come in and take Janine, putting a gag on her. Aunt Lydia tells them that she’ll call Lawrence and they tell her that he’s the one who ordered it. She follows them right to the van trying to pull Janine away. They brutally push her to the ground. The other aunts help her up. In the van, Lydia reaches out her hand to comfort a Martha (Beth Hornby) who is also in the van. Janine’s face is resigned, but Aunt Lydia’s is spitting bullets…

The train station is packed and reminiscent of the flights from Gilead that we’ve seen in previous episodes. Tuello tells them that the train will get them to Vancouver, and they should be able to get a boat to the US from there. He also gives them new identity cards as the Via people probably have Luke’s name flagged. Luke thanks him. June asks Tuello to get a message to Nick that she and Nicole are safe. Tuello says he will and wishes her Godspeed. The station is packed and people are simply leaving with the clothes on their backs. 

As they get close to the train, they see guards carefully checking identity cards. Luke tells June to go ahead – they’ll have a better chance if they split up. June and Nicole pass through as Luke continues to hang back. June sees the police walking the line looking for Luke. Luke calls June – he’s seen them, and he’s not getting on the train. They aren’t safe if he’s with them. Luke tells her that they aren’t going to let the train leave until they find him. June is frantic. Moss is, as usual, simply heartrending. Luke tells her to do it for him – just get on the train. He tells her that they always find each other – they’ll do it again. June tells him they need him. Luke tells her to look after their baby, and June knows that he was never going to get on the train. She tells him to come find her – she loves him. He tells her that he loves her and immediately raises his hands to give up. June watches as he’s handcuffed and taken into custody – and the train slowly moves out of the station.

Rose comes to visit Nick in his cell. He tells her that he’s sorry. And suddenly, Rose is a cold bitch! She wants to know why he even pretended to love her. I mean, c’mon. It’s Gilead, the land of arranged marriages, why would she expect anything else? She tells him a good man wouldn’t leave his pregnant wife every time his girlfriend called. She knows that he will never let go of June. Nick tells her that he really tried, but he can’t. She tells him that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. Nick tells her that she can’t leave. She tells him that they had a good think and he ruined it. Again, does she realize where she’s living? Nick is clearly upset that he’s hurt her. Will Lawrence save him? Will he be able to?

On the train, we get an overhead shot of June moving through the crowd, mirroring so many of the car through trees shots we’ve had in the show. She tells Nicole that they are going on an adventure to Hawaii – it’s her country and she’s going to love it. June is clearly trying to convince herself as much as soothe the child. June hears a baby crying – and I knew immediately who it was. Sure enough, as they get through the crowd to the end of the train – there is Serena with Noah.

The two women look at each other. June is shocked, but a smile plays on Serena’s lips. As June joins her at the back of the train, Serena says “Hi June.” And June says hi back. Serena then really smiles and asks if June has a diaper. June mostly grimaces – but it might be the start of a lopsided smile. Then, the season ends as Billie Eillish’s “bury a friend” plays and the camera pulls back, framing June and Serena in the train window, facing each other, holding their children. It’s a powerful end to the season.

I’ve made no secret about my love for this show. This episode contains so many powerful moments that it’s impossible to single out any one performance! Moss, Fagbenle, Brewer, Dowd, and Minghella definitely. The cinematography and use of imagery is brilliant as is the use of music. I love the recurring use of windows to frame people and shots. The episode is masterfully written by Miller and directed by Moss. All of the characters are left in peril or at least with the possibility of peril. Will June and Serena make it to safety? Will they join forces and be ‘friends’ or frenemies? What will Aunt Lydia do? Can she save Janine? Is Lawrence in danger from Mackenzie? Can he save Nick? Will he? What will happen to Luke? Is there any way for him to get a fair trial? He did kill a man, and it’s unlikely he can evade all punishment. And what of Moira? Is she safe? What did you think of the episode? The season? What are your hopes for the last season? Who should end up with June – Nick or Luke? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!