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The Ending Of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 Explained

Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" has been a wild ride so far, and with the sixth and final season in the works, its fifth season spent a lot of time setting up the dominoes for what promises to be a finale to remember. With June having escaped the oppressive state of Gilead to flee to Canada, we have found that the grass isn't always greener on the other side as anti-immigrant hostilities have risen to the breaking point. June finds herself once again on the run from forces that seek to tear her family apart. With nearly every member of the main and recurring cast at a crossroads, there are plenty of questions for "The Handmaid's Tale" to answer in its sixth season.

Dealing with sexual violence, gender oppression, forced birth, and other highly uncomfortable subject matter makes for a show that has seldom been called "lighthearted," but there are yet still plenty of emotional layers, moody set designs, elaborate action sequences, and killer performances to tie the story together. Addressing fascism through fiction isn't always easy, and that's been the intention of "The Handmaid's Tale" from the get-go. The fifth season includes a number of harrowing events, but not all of them are for the worse. More than any other season so far, Season 5 of "The Handmaid's Tale" shows us how far June has truly come since we met her back in the first episode, and it's got us on the edge of our seats wondering how her story will conclude.

Where do we begin?

After June performs a genuine act of altruism at the end of Season 3 by getting many children and some Marthas out of Gilead, the fourth season is a revenge fantasy given life as June strikes out hard at the people who tried to take everything from her. She starts by poisoning commanders and ultimately escapes Gilead into Canada. However, this comes at a steep price, as some of her friends are killed during the attempt to find safety. Reunited with her family — Moira, Luke, and Nichole — June is still reeling from the trauma of years in an oppressive state fighting to survive. While we've seen June's ability to mourn and to forgive, the horrors that have been inflicted on her and people she cares about have brought out a new, furious side of her.

Season 4 ends with June and other former handmaids tearing Commander Fred Waterford, formerly one of Gilead's top authority figures, to absolute shreds with their bare hands. June goes the extra mile to mail Fred's widow Serena his severed finger with the wedding ring still secured. Though Fred had also done terrible things to Serena, she nevertheless mourns her deceased husband. Meanwhile, June's anger toward Serena takes on a life of its own, as their complicated dynamic in which Serena serves as an occasionally sympathetic oppressor seems to set the two on an unavoidable collision course.

A few important details to keep in mind

Season 5 kicks off with tension between June and Serena hitting a fever pitch as Serena delivers some exceptionally cheap blows to June and June retaliates by frightening Serena with a series of threats. There is little question that — considering June's time as a handmaid in the Waterford home — June has significantly larger reasons to despise Serena than the other way around.

Serena undergoes a number of problems through the first several episodes of Season 5 that place her in a position of powerlessness not dissimilar to June's former status. With Serena's autonomy under threat and her baby on the way, Serena is forced to rethink the philosophy and worldviews that have been drilled into her, and that means also rethinking her adversarial relationship with June.

Another major ongoing plot involves June reconnecting with Luke after significant time apart. Though there are plenty of hardships, the two lean on one another through their ongoing struggle to free their daughter Hannah from Gilead. These plot threads collide from day one, as Serena places Hannah front and center in a very public, televised funeral for Fred, ensuring that June would see the two of them exchanging words and rubbing salt into June's ongoing horror at being separated from her child only to know she is being raised in Gilead's cruel system. 

As the season progresses, their relationship changes from adversarial to borderline friendly, making for one of the series most surprising developments, and the central focus of the season.

June in Canada

After failing repeatedly to make it to the safe zone of Canada, June finally succeeds, but her years in Gilead have taken a heavy toll — she's never able to fully relax. The Season 5 finale sees June revisiting some of the most horrific things that have ever happened to her when Luke accidentally kills a man who makes an unsuccessful attempt on June's life. Though Luke is committed to sticking it out and fighting the murder charges leveled against him, June states in no uncertain terms that they have to leave Toronto immediately, noting that "last time" — referring to her capture while attempting to flee Gilead at the start of the series — they waited too long to go.

The sharp rise in anti-immigrant hate crimes turns Canada from a welcoming place to nothing more than another Gilead in June's eyes. The first episode of the season shows her trying to reconcile with her past so that she can start anew while the last episode sees her fleeing from Canada, perhaps forever, with daughter Nichole in tow and Luke arrested. One prevailing message of "The Handmaid's Tale" is that fascism can arise in any society if anti-authoritarian vigilance is not maintained. This is enforced often throughout the series, but nowhere is more plainly stated than in the once tolerant Canada's sharp turn to violent xenophobia.

Serena is at a crossroads

Though she isn't always a sympathetic character, there is no denying that Serena has been treated pretty badly by Gileadean rule despite her relative privileges. That dichotomy gets taken to an extreme this season as Serena is forced to see in real time how little meaning she has in Gilead as the ex-wife of a man the current government wishes to erase from history as quickly as possible. Though commander Lawrence assures her that he'll support her, he instead takes some of her ideas to expand Gilead's public relations, then has her sent to live in Toronto with a deeply abusive pro-Gilead couple with aims of taking Serena's child for their own. Serena escapes and has her child only to be dragged back in, with nothing on the horizon except life as a handmaid to people she despises.

Yet, Serena has always been one of the show's more complex characters, alternating between frightening loyalty to a regime that oppresses all marginalized genders and a surprising resistance to Gilead's many overt cruelties. This season sees her and June tied together in some surprising ways, as Serena finds herself reaching for June's help over all others. Though June makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she isn't interested in a friendship with Serena, she might not have a choice as the two seem to keep running into each other at key moments in their lives.

Janine's rebellious side comes back in a big way

By this point in the show, just about every character in "The Handmaid's Tale" has been put through the wringer and then some, but Janine's story is exceptionally tragic. Having survived a uniquely brutal backstory even before Gilead came to power, the early seasons of the show introduce us to a funny, rebellious woman experiencing serious mental health difficulties under the oppressive regime. Season 5 kicks off with Janine in a surprisingly peaceful place, living at the Red Center and helping Aunt Lydia. One of her closest bonds is with the traumatized teenager Esther, who is assigned to Janine's former residence with the Putnams. When Janine fails to show Esther support after the much younger girl endures a sexual attack by Commander Putnam, Esther attempts to kill herself and Janine.

Aunt Lydia attempts to place Janine in Commander Lawrence's home as he rushes into a marriage of convenience with Putnam's wife Naomi after Putnam's public execution. Janine resists, which only increases when Naomi immediately imposes harsh restrictions on her. Naomi softens, attempting to find solidarity with Janine, who tells Naomi in no uncertain terms that she's one of the worst people she's ever met. This leads to Janine being muzzled and sent off in a van. She ends the season reaching out with kindness to a fellow detainee. Where Janine goes from here is impossible to say, but with her defiant spirit reawakened, Season 6 could deliver a seriously satisfying arc for one of the most important recurring characters of the show.

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Aunt Lydia gears up for a sympathetic turn

Aunt Lydia is one of the most terrifying antagonists on "The Handmaid's Tale," inflicting a number of cruelties on the handmaids in her quest to create conformity among them. Tasked with the job of preparing the women for lives that could lead to any number of horrific outcomes, this is someone whose very job description entails inflicting war crime-level horrors upon the handmaids. After Lydia arranges for her mutilation in Season 1, Emily forms a specific, intense hatred of Lydia due to her cruelties. However, readers of the Margaret Atwood-penned sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Testaments," know that the remorseless oppressor we have seen throughout the series so far isn't the whole truth when it comes to Aunt Lydia.

In "The Testaments," Lydia is a woman in a difficult position whose desire to keep the handmaids in line comes from a place of wanting to do what's best for them while acknowledging that the system limits her capacity for doing so. Season 5 sees an evolution of Aunt Lydia's character as she's faced with the possibility of losing Janine while also seeing the most vicious hypocrisies of the men in charge. We leave Lydia knocked to the ground after attempting to save Janine — perhaps Lydia's most rebellious act yet. Where Season 6 will take our aunt is unknown for now, but the new facets emerging in Lydia's character are nonetheless interesting.

Moira and Mayday

Moira is frustratingly regulated to being mostly in the background this season, but her commitment to creating a better world through positive action and setting an example remains clear. June's oldest friend continues her unfailing support of June in the fifth season, though it's somewhat strained by June's shaky mental health in the season's early episodes. With all the problems going on around her as the season progresses, it leaves Moira in the position of trying to keep her head above water. The fact that Moira's backing June and Luke up every step of the way is great 'n all – It shows her truly unshakable loyalty — but it doesn't give us a ton of insight into her inner world. 

With her found family once more scattered to the winds after only recently reuniting with one another, Moira has a few options for how to proceed, but none are particularly favorable. Though she may escape direct persecution, there is no chance she'll be totally free of the increasing hostility toward refugees of Gilead. Standing by Luke throughout his pending legal troubles seems undeniably on the table, but whether this will limit Moira's participation in the freedom group Mayday remains to be seen. When we leave Moira this season, she's doing what she does best and being a good friend, but here's hoping Season 6 sees some serious action from this fan favorite.

Luke takes a stand

One of the great tragedies of June's early story is that she had been separated from her husband Luke and daughter Hannah as a part of Gilead's capture and reeducation. While Luke makes it to safety, Hannah continues to be indoctrinated by the same system that oppresses so many. Throughout this, Luke remains mostly powerless to help the people he cares about the most. While June has survived untold cruelties and knows how to keep a level head, Season 5 shows Luke struggling to come to grips with his own lack of control in the face of a fascist state. When it becomes clear he and June will have to flee so that they might avoid persecution from the Canadian government, Luke could have easily given up.

Yet, Luke is nothing if not a big-hearted man, and that remains his saving grace even in his worst moments. Going with June and Nichole to a train station with the apparent intention of departing for safer pastures with them, he pulls a surprise move and gives himself up at the station. Telling June of his plan as she and Nichole board the train, June pleads with him, then tells him, "Come find me." This is a heart-wrenching callback to their seasons apart from one another, as well as the acknowledgement that they have fought tooth and nail to be together. The end of "The Handmaid's Tale" Season 5 shows us that the struggle to be together has not yet come to an end, nor will either of them give up the battle.

Nick is reeling without June

Nick begins the season in a good place, rapidly rising up the ranks among Gilead's commanders and married to a woman named Rose with a baby on the way. Yet, the cracks in his armor begin showing almost immediately. Though his partnership with Commander Lawrence continues, he is still treated as hired muscle. When they choose to put Commander Putnam to death, Nick is the one forced to take the killing shot. Furthermore, the moment he has the ability to make contact with June, he calls her and the two have a short chat in which he casually updates her to the events in his life only for them both to show that they are far from over the love they shared in Gilead.

Though he initially finds his work with Commander Lawrence satisfying, it seems likely that the two may very well be enemies going forward after Lawrence possibly plays a role in a hit put out on June without Nick's knowledge. Further, his work as an informant for the Americans continues to place him in serious jeopardy. Even the slight protections he has secured in Gilead are now in question as his wife Rose knows of his ongoing attempts to protect June and Nichole. Nick is fierce and loyal, but the last we see him in Season 5, he's at his lowest ebb, left by his wife and facing possible imprisonment.

Tensions between the countries are on the rise

His stoic demeanor might fool you, but Mark Tuello has been through a lot in his attempts to restore the American government to power after it was reduced to only Alaska and Hawai'i following the Gilead coup. In Season 5, he takes bigger risks than ever before, often with no larger intention beyond restoring some sense of faith in truth, justice, and the American way. Though June is initially furious at his inability to keep Serena out of Canada, she comes to see him in friendlier terms after the loss of several of his men and a highly public shooting at a funeral for the fallen pilots. Indeed, without him, she and Nichole would never have made the train that takes them out of Canada.

Yet, Tuello's best intentions can't hold a candle to the rising tide of fascism in Canada and the increasingly bold PR moves of Gilead. While Canada has grown less hospitable to refugees over time, Gilead has done significant work this season to clean up their public image. With Commander Lawrence's intended safe zone New Bethlehem in the works and outreach attempts via a women's center in Toronto, Gilead's work toward whitewashing its fascist leanings is nothing short of chilling. Still, it appears to have been surprisingly effective, with outrage now directed more at people fleeing Gilead than Gilead itself. With these heightening tensions, further conflicts seem inevitable.

Commander Lawrence takes a turn

With Aunt Lydia softening her more brutal methods and seemingly gearing up for a face turn, Commander Lawrence may very well be stepping into the role of supervillain. Though he was more than capable of being needlessly cold and superior before Season 5, his calculating nature seems to be taking on new dimensions with each episode. Lawrence helps June often in the prior seasons, which is why their animosity comes as a bit of a surprise. Then again, June's volatile nature and Lawrence's cool pragmatism have always been a little out of step, making him a very real possible contender for one of Season 6's main antagonists.

Lawrence plays a major role in the creation of Gilead, which is why there has always been ample reason for the handmaids to distrust him. However, after June verbally tears him to pieces for shooting American planes from the sky in their attempt to free Hannah from Gilead, it seems that something in Lawrence snaps. He behaves increasingly erratic, suddenly proposing to Naomi Putnam in the aftermath of publicly executing her husband in order to uphold Gilead's staunch religion-driven politics. It's likely he at least knows about the hit on June, making him a man who gets more dangerous to her continued safety by the day. On the other hand, his past kindnesses make it difficult to know for sure which way he's going to turn. As always, Lawrence remains one of the series' greatest puzzles.

The sixth and final season

Ahead of "The Handmaid's Tale" Season 5 premiere, it was announced that the series had been renewed for a sixth that will conclude the story. It's assumed that the cast will remain much the same, though Emily will likely remain absent after the post-Season 4 departure of Alexis Bledel. Though it's bittersweet to see the end of "The Handmaid's Tale," the possibilities of where the story may go are exciting.

While the Margaret Atwood novel ends on an ambiguous note, the Hulu series has been given significantly more space to flesh out characters and themes over several seasons. With the Atwood novel often pointing to the ways we so often become comfortable in our own oppression, the show has prided itself on dynamic acts of rebellion instilling a sense of consistent outrage in its central characters. To that end, a possible Aunt Lydia-led spinoff based on "The Testaments" is currently in development, which means Hulu plans to take us back to Gilead at some point after "The Handmaid's Tale" wraps. Regardless, "The Handmaid's Tale" has continued to engage with heavy questions and themes throughout its run without turning away, and the final season will likely continue to challenge and entrance its audience to the last minute.