Reviews | Written by Rich Cross 31/10/2022

THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Season 5, Episode 2, BALLET

As a form of dance in which “carefully organised movements tell a story or express an idea”, the art of ballet has often been repurposed as a social or political metaphor. That’s the case in the latest, extraordinarily effective, instalment of this dystopian tale of religious misogyny.

Amongst the most powerful episodes in the entire of The Handmaid’s Tale, Ballet impresses on every level: its structure, its storyline, its visuals, the shocks and surprises it delivers, and the final electrifying standoff that it builds towards.

As the events of last week’s season premiere Morning make clear, the burning hostility that defines the relationship between Commander Waterford’s widow Serena and freed handmaid June will be one of this run’s defining themes. The pair’s relationship has been key since they first met back in season one. But until Fred Waterford’s killing it’s always been refracted through the dynamic of the Commander. Now the two women confront each other directly. Their rage is brought into sharp relief through the events of Ballet.

Left reeling by the fallout from Fred’s murder, June is struggling to readjust to normal domestic life. With husband Luke’s help, she’s encouraged to think of a future in which memories of the Waterfords cannot be a block on their happiness. Determined to establish a new power base of her own, Serena convinces the authorities on both sides of the border to allow her to travel to Gilead to bury her husband. Gilead’s rulers consider Fred to have been a traitor to their cause, and offer Serena only a perfunctory low-key service. With the calculated backing of rogue commanders Nick and Lawrence, Serena is finally granted a televised state funeral that Gilead’s controllers hope will be broadcast around the world in a sympathy-generating stunt.

Aunt Lydia appears to have broken handmaid Janine’s rebellious spirit. She’s now acting as an unofficial mentor to Esther, the former wife at the farm where the escaping handmaids found temporary sanctuary back in season four’s opener Pigs. Esther rages against her fate as she is assigned as a handmaid to the Puttmans, while Janine urges look-on-the-bright-side compliance. As Serena’s ceremony unfolds at a scale that throws her loss into the international spotlight, Esther makes a fateful decision that may change the two handmaids’ lives forever.

The episode is bursting with memorable visuals, as the singular oppressive and sterile atmosphere of Gilead is once again rendered on screen. There are multiple chill-the-blood moments. The repellant image of Commander Puttman feeding chocolate to a mortified, frozen Esther is one that will continue to disturb many viewers long after the closing credits have finished. It’s evidence of the show’s ability to find new ways to shock and appal in its presentation of the horrors of Gilead’s abuse of young women.

The framing of the funeral procession is powerful and unnerving, as Fred is venerated and rehabilitated (in Gilead's terms) in death. With Serena at its centre, reinvented as the “dignified, grieving wife”, her sense of empowerment and leverage grows.

This unfolds in parallel with June’s and Luke’s visit to the ballet, as she pushes herself to reconnect with family life, acknowledging their love and loyalty to her. The action then flips between June’s enchantment at the beauty of the ballerina’s dance, and Serena’s growing recognition of her own celebrity. It’s a riveting sequence that culminates in the most intense of confrontations, even though neither character can see the other’s expression. As an exploration of the manoeuvres that human beings can perform in search of advantage, recognition, redemption or revenge, Ballet is unmissable political theatre.

New episodes of THE HANDMAID'S TALE - SEASON 5 premiere Sundays in the UK on CHANNEL 4

Read our previous reviews of THE HANDMAID'S TALE below:

Season 5, Episode 1, MORNING