The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 episode 2: Serena makes a move

The former wife uses what little power she has to her advantage.

Max Minghella, Yvonne Strahovski and Bradley Whitford in The Handmaid's Tale season 5
(Image: © Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

What to Watch Verdict

Serena versus June heats up in an episode that proves the former wife has some cards left to play.


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    Yvonne Strahovski is great as a grieving widow and master manipulator

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    More scenes like the one with Rita, please

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    The Nick/Lawrence team-up is solid as ever

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    The grand scale of the funeral is well shot by Moss


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    Some very on-the-nose symbolism

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    Fraught goings on with the new handmaids

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 episode 2, "Ballet." Read our previous The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 episode 1 recap right here.

Even in Gilead, nothing brings people back together like a death in the family. It doesn’t matter that Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) was a traitor when optics come into play, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) knows how to work this to her advantage. Dancing features heavily in the first two episodes, both the physical action and the delicately timed steps required to regain some power.  

Serena is currently in a different country from June (Elisabeth Moss), but her well-choreographed display has the desired destabilizing effect. "Ballet" puts Mrs. Waterford and Gilead back in the lead position. While Fred was the head of the house, it has always been wife versus handmaid. 

The second episode opens with the same Everly Brothers track from the premiere to accompany flashes of June and Serena’s traumatic history. Serena has taken Fred home and is met at the airport by Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and Nick (Max Minghella). There is a lot of fake sincerity on display, which makes sense, considering they helped facilitate June’s plan. It's unclear how much Serena knows, but she has been around for long enough to understand who likely aided this murder. 

Lawrence mentions the Putnams will play host, but she wants to see the church first. The venue is not serving grandeur and Lawrence emphasizes she probably wants to make this as quick as possible, but he misjudged Serena’s intentions — and her determination. Whereas subtext peppers their initial conversation, Serena pretty much outright accuses the two commanders of having a role in Fred’s death. Lawrence calls this a "bold accusation," but she doesn’t back down. She wants a funeral fit for a Gilead founding father or she will spill the truth. 

Macarons and other fancy nibbles at the Putnams make it hard to distinguish this gathering from any other — aside from the handmaids dressed in black — and everyone makes polite chit-chat. Tuello (Sam Jaeger) has escorted Serena to Gilead, but he is forced to stay near the entrance of the opulent mansion. 

Serena is permitted to make her case in front of the commanders; it's hardly a surprise when Lawrence and Nick support her funeral pitch. Lawrence refers to it as an opportunity to show the world another side of their nation. Everything is still precarious and they must change the story if they want to sit alongside other countries. When Fred’s betrayal is broached, Nick pipes up that they will be seen as merciful. Again, great for optics.  

At first, the other men are unsure and can’t help but note Lawrence doesn’t even adhere to Gilead tradition as he still hasn’t remarried. However, one thing they don’t have is a spine and are quick to follow the crowd. They don’t agree to Serena’s wishes while she is in the room, as they would never say yes to a woman, but Lawrence has the gift of persuasion — particularly when he has an incentive.  

Tuello doesn’t get very far at the Putnam house, but he meets up with Nick later to offer him the chance to see Nichole. All Tuello needs is for Nick to give them intel they can use. He mentions Nick’s "complicated past" and seemingly offers to wipe that slate clean, but for now, Nick doesn’t agree to these terms. 

Other developments occur at the Putnam house when Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) brings her latest batch of handmaids to pay their respects. Janine (Madeline Brewer) takes on a guidance-style role, prepping Esther (Mckenna Grace) for this potential post as she knows this family better than anyone. It's always tense when she sees her young daughter, but this time Mrs. Putnam (Ever Carradine) positively acknowledges her former handmaid. 

Mckenna Grace and Madeline Brewer in The Handmaid's Tale season 5

Mckenna Grace and Madeline Brewer in The Handmaid's Tale (Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Esther’s one-on-one with Mr. Putnam (Stephen Kunken) is dripping in predatory behavior. He feeds her chocolates that become a weapon when the teenager turns against Janine. Esther is disappointed in this method of survival and she accuses Janine of using her so she can see her daughter. 

The teenage handmaid has always been a ticking timebomb and her poison skills come back into play after the Putnam visit. She offers Janine chocolates before unleashing her feelings; it becomes clear she dosed the candy. Esther also ingested the poison and both start coughing up blood. It doesn’t look good for either handmaid; however, this is far from the first time Janine has almost died.   

Back in Toronto, June still grapples with normalcy. Even playing Scrabble is tainted as all she can think about is Fred raping her in his study. She talks to Rita (Amanda Brugel) about Serena getting what she deserves and brings up a painful memory. 

"I struggle too," Rita snaps. It's about time June is reminded that others suffer. Later, she tells Luke about the whole finger in the mail to Serena and he emphasizes that she needs to stop obsessing and start living in the present. 

Step one is a date at the ballet, a lovely afternoon spent watching Sleeping Beauty. Scenes of June and Serena getting ready are intercut; Moss once again proves herself behind the camera when shooting intimate and grand sequences. June dresses in white to Serena’s mourning black, which is on the nose but an effective visual.

Jordana Blake and Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid's Tale season 5

Jordana Blake and Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid's Tale (Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

The large funeral procession demonstrates how quickly Gilead can assemble pageantry of this magnitude. Serena soaks up every moment of the grieving widow role and Strahovski continues to be a marvel. This statement isn’t just about Fred; she has a surprise up her sleeve for June, as the young girl selected to give her flowers is June’s daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake). It is a power move that cuts to June’s core, which is even more potent when June sees Hannah’s face on every screen outside the ballet. The dance between Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale season 5 has only just begun.

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale season 5 release on Hulu in the US every Wednesday.

Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.