Why Elisabeth Moss Ended Season 5 Of Handmaid's Tale With That Strange Look

A close-up shot of Elisabeth Moss staring into the camera with an intense expression has become a cliché because it happens in nearly every episode of "The Handmaid's Tale." But there's a moment at the end of the Season 5 finale, entitled "Safe," where this kind of shot is completely earned. The fifth season is all about June Osborn's struggle to find her identity while sorting her unresolved Gilead trauma. Her violent vengeance on Fred Waterford does not bring her the inner peace she thought it would.

At the core of this season is June's relationship with Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). In the Season 4 episode "Home," she confronts a pregnant Serena in prison, quaking with anger as she banishes her to a "life full of suffering and shame" and hopes that God would kill her baby so she could understand "a fraction" of the pain the Handmaids went through. Yet in Season 5, June does not act on her anger; she gets multiple chances to kill Serena but chooses not to. 

In one of the most intense episodes of the fifth season, "No Man's Land," June helps Serena deliver her baby instead of allowing her to die in childbirth alone. June tells Serena that she does not forgive her, but she does not want to perpetuate Gilead's cruelty towards women. After Serena gives birth, she escapes from her Canadian hosts who force her into a Handmaid-like role. We do not see her until the last scene of "Safe" where Serena and June, after orbiting each other throughout the entire season, share a searing expression. It's a fierce exchange that leaves the viewer on edge, which Elisabeth Moss discussed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter

June is not alone

The pulse-pounding final scene begins with June, Luke, and baby Nichole on the run from Canada. In the midst of anti-refugee tensions, Luke is wanted for murdering a man who attacked June. At the train station, Luke makes the devastating decision to turn himself in so that June and Nichole can find safety. 

Alone with a crying Nichole, broken arm, and broken heart, June wanders the train and tries to comfort her child. As she heads towards a crying baby, the camera pushes through the crowd to find Serena standing at the end of the train car holding Noah. The music swells with this stunning recognition. Elisabeth Moss, who directed the episode, switches between close-ups of the women's faces in shock and awe. 

"Do you have a diaper?" asks Serena with an amiable grin. June raises an eyebrow and gives a strange look, something between a wry smile and a flash of anger that seems to acknowledge all of the twists and turns their relationship has taken throughout the season. June was terrified when Luke left her at the train station and cried, "I don't want to do it alone anymore." Instead, Serena is there with her — not the person she was expecting but perhaps the one person she needs.

What does the look mean?

It isn't exactly clear what the strange look at the end of "Safe" means, but Elisabeth Moss explained to The Hollywood Reporter that it is a callback to the beginning of the season: 

"What I wanted to do in response to that was to duplicate the smile that Serena gives June at the end of episode two. When Serena's looking down from the screen at June and she smiles, I wanted to do the same smile on June to have a full-circle moment."

Serena's smug sneer was directed to June during a live broadcast of Fred Waterford's funeral. She put Hannah, June's Gilead-trapped daughter, in a prominent role during the ceremony. The reverse shot looks down at June staring up at the huge television screen with a face of pure malice. Moss left June's expression in "Safe" unresolved, giving viewers something to mull over before the sixth and final season, which will hopefully air in 2023: 

"We didn't want them to talk or say too much, or to reveal too much about how they are both feeling, but especially about how June is feeling. I think Serena is happy to see June, because she's all alone and wants to be June's friend. But as far as June goes, I really wanted to leave it open-ended so that you don't know. When we come back, is she going to punch her in the face? Or, is she going to give her a diaper?

It will be fascinating to see what direction Serena and June's fraught relationship will go in Season 6. 

Serena and June's future

Moss explained that when Serena asks about a diaper, "She's almost making a joke because her baby is obviously a different size from June's baby, so she knows the diapers aren't going to fit. She's offering it as this kind of olive branch." We don't know whether or not June will take that olive branch. It is a testament to Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski's powerhouse performances that they are able to make Serena and June's relationship so nuanced. 

The fifth season of "The Handmaid's Tale" used their relationship to ask audiences important questions about morality and culpability. Does Serena deserve forgiveness even though she's a willing participant in June's abuse and rape? Was becoming a Handmaid a warranted comeuppance? Is violence against her justified? By the end of the fifth season, June figures out that "letting go of that hate is a big deal. Like she says in episode eight to Serena, it doesn't necessarily mean they're friends. But when you hate somebody, you give them so much power over you" (via The Hollywood Reporter). 

While many of the characters are finally starting to recognize the patriarchal evils of Gilead, Serena may not necessarily be one of them. Unfortunately, it took experiencing victimization as a Handmaid for Serena to finally have empathy for what she put June through. Elisabeth Moss says that the final scene of Season 5 is meant to be a positive cliffhanger. We don't know what Hawaii holds for Serena and June. Hopefully they will join forces and try to overthrow Gilead, because for better or worse, they are connected to each other forever.