Given the show’s bleak, dystopian premise, it might seem incongruous to find an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale named after the type of comforting story that the dictionary defines as one based on “unreal beauty, perfection, luck or happiness”. In the struggle against the tyranny of the Gilead theocracy, such niceties are always in the shortest possible supply.
Anxious to track down any information about the ‘wife schools’ that might help them learn the whereabouts of their daughter Hannah, June and Luke take on a dangerous expedition into the no-man’s land between the borders of Canada and Gilead. They hope to rendezvous with a lone Guardian, who’s willing to trade information and materials with opponents of the regime. It’s extremely high-risk, but with Luke and June having recently rediscovered their emotional connection, it’s a challenge that they are determined to take on together. An understandably worried Moira, now left alone to care for baby Nichole while her parents are away, confides her concerns with militiawoman Lily who’s preparing for a forced relocation of their camp. After they locate the young man patrolling solo, he takes them to a long abandoned bowling alley, a place that is a regular sanctuary for him, and the three of them share a few hours of respite and distraction. As the trio head back towards the border, with Luke now in possession of a pen-drive of Gilead documentation, their good luck suddenly runs out.
Shaken by her forced evacuation from the Gilead ‘cultural centre’, Serena struggles to settle into the private home of regime sympathisers’ the Wheelers where she has been sequestered. Pushed back into her role as baby carrier, Serena finds her ability to do anything other than ‘protect the foetus’ constrained. Her hopes of redesigning her diplomatic HQ as a 'fertility centre' are first blocked by her Gilead paymasters and then appropriated by them. As a pseudo-ambassador, living above her proto-embassy, Serena revelled in the extent of her autonomy. Now reduced to the status of a pregnant houseguest, she begins to realise the limits of her new-found independence.
A flashback to her life in Gilead, before June was assigned to the Waterfords as a handmaid, is a horror scene made all the more impactful by the sterile sense of ‘normality’ with which it unfolds. Serena and Naomi Putnam are touring a facility in which kidnapped children are held in ‘playpens’ so they can be presented for selection by prospective new ‘parents’. There’s an image from a grim fairytale, if ever there was one. It’s made all the worse when Serena waves through the glass, smiling at a blankly traumatised young child.
Hints are introduced too about a controversial proposal for a new enclave within Gilead named New Bethlehem, something which Commander Lawrence appears to have drawn up on his own initiative. Hardline Commander Puttman thinks that the plan, and Lawrence’s aim to make Gilead more accessible and connected, would spell disaster.
But the highlight of the episode is the evening that unfolds within the bowling alley. There is a dreamlike and wistful quality to the sequence, as the three characters relax and unwind amidst the plaintive fairy-lights and sad detritus of the now forlorn premises. After they enjoy booze from the bar, and attempt to bowl down seized-up lanes, Luke serenades a delighted June with Let’s Stay Together, a song that celebrates their rekindled, romantic alliance. Teenage soldier Jayden, who’s come of age under the thumb of the theocratic state, makes the naïve but incontestible observation: “People should just be able to talk to each other, see their families, do whatever they want.” Hardly revolutionary stuff, but - in the world of Gilead - it’s an unrealisable fantasy.
What makes the warmth and temporary bonhomie of these scenes work so well, is the below-the-surface tension that surrounds them. Just as with June’s and Luke’s careful outbound journey through the woods, there’s a sense that at any moment this quiet calm could be wrecked by the arrival of the boots, bullets and blasts of Gilead’s loyal enforcers.
Director Eva Vives keeps the atmosphere taut, and the audience guessing, right up until the agonising closing moments. As season five reaches its halfway point, Fairytale delivers an unsettling and absorbing story in which characters have once again to learn that taking huge risks in the hope of huge returns rarely results in a happy ending.
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: