'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 5: What Is New Bethlehem?

For more than four seasons, viewers watching Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale have been welcomed into the unsettling world of Gilead, the totalitarian society where married men rule and sins are met with gruesome punishments. Now halfway through the fifth season, it seems that change may be coming, with Wednesday's new episode introducing "New Bethlehem," Commander Lawrence's new concept that seems to be Gilead 2.0. Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale, Season 5, Episode 5, "Fairytail."

The initiative, posed midway through the episode, is one unfamiliar to the show's source material, Margaret Atwood's novel, and while the show didn't offer up many details about New Bethlehem, it did hint at the idea. During a tense exchange between Lawrence and Commander Putnam, New Bethlehem is dubbed Lawrence's "new grand plan." One of the architects of the original Gilead, under his New Bethlehem initiative, Lawrence seems to be taking a softer approach. It seems that New Bethlehem will be a place where those currently dubbed "traitors, criminals, terrorists" against Gilead are welcomed back and given safe haven, forgiven of their crimes and allowed to live under less strict rules.

"There's more freedom of choice – it's very, very restricted from a government point of view, but people can live their lives a little more within as long as they stay within their borders and don't break the rules outside of their house," creator and showrunner Bruce Miller told Metacritic. "So, I think the Venn diagram is that it almost is 100% with Gilead except in the enforcement part: They probably have most of the same rules, they're just kind of winking and saying, 'We won't enforce that.'"

However, it seems that not everyone will fancy the idea. Putnam declares that should New Bethlehem come to fruition, "it will be the death of us all, of Gilead," adding that "we don't need to court the love and support of the whole world. We don't want them poking around in our affairs." He goes so far as saying that "the Commanders will never support" the initiative, though Lawrence warns that "if we keep the walls up and the borders closed, then this country will die...all of this will have been for nothing."

Lawrence's interest in creating a new, lighter Gilead that would likely be much more welcomed by the world than the current totalitarian society that has been shut out from the world comes just an episode after another character sought massive changes to Gilead's current structure. In "Dear Offred," Aunt Lydia, distraught after Janine and Esther nearly died due to the cruel handmaid system, went to Lawrence with an idea: a complete reform of the handmaid system. She told Lawrence that she has "come to believe that the handmaid system must be reformed, a new protocol, to prevent such harmful incidents from happening in the future," and under her new proposal, handmaids would live at the Red Center rather than in commanders' homes, thus offering them more protection.

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Although Lawrence shot down the idea, and his own idea for change was shut down by Putnam, it seems that major change may be on the horizon for Gilead. Whether either of these plans comes to fruition remains to be seen. New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale air Wednesdays on Hulu.