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Why a 12-year-old is the most pivotal character in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Jordana Blake, left, as Hannah, opposite Yvonne Strahovski as Serena in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Does she know her first name is Hannah? That she is a battle flag? That she is the daughter of freedom fighter June Osborne (formerly known as the handmaid Offred), who is the forever thorn in the side of a repressive male-dominated theocracy called Gilead? Does Hannah know she is one of the most interesting and enigmatic characters on television?

No, no, of course not. But maybe?

In the ongoing (and often exhausting) power struggle of “The Handmaid’s Tale” political sphere, 12-year-old Hannah (Jordana Blake), who has been renamed Agnes by her adoptive parents in Gilead, is the ultimate pawn. Gilead and its proxy, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), use the child they stole from June (Elisabeth Moss) to keep her in check. But the hope of Hannah — the dream of saving her — is also what keeps June in fighting shape and is the thread pulling her back to the nation she escaped. It makes sense that in a world where children (or the lack thereof) can make or break an entire nation, just one little girl could keep the fires of resurrection burning. Hannah is the Infinity Stones and the Iron Throne rolled into one: Whoever has her, has the power.

So it also makes sense to give Hannah more to do. For a character that represents so much, she has done little more than simply exist for the past four seasons. But the script might be flipping.

In its fifth season, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s classic feminist tome, seems to be over its own shock value. Audiences have seen Gilead at its worst again and again — the ritualized rape, waterboarding, poisoning, tearing people apart with your bare hands — and crafting new ways to physically brutalize women on screen is neither revolutionary nor enlightening. So instead of watching conflicting ideologies duke it out in the arena, the show has switched to chess.

“Season 5 is all about that gamesmanship,” executive producer Warren Littlefield told TVLine.

The two main players are clear: June vs. Serena Joy. Most allegiances are murky in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but for these two women who’ve traveled through the multiverse together in the last five years, it’s all hate. And at the center of the tug-of-war between them is Hannah. Always Hannah.

“I’m sorry I don’t have her,” June tells her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), when the couple is finally reunited after her rescue in Season 4. “I’m sorry it’s just me.”

In Season 5, June grapples with those last three words — “it’s just me” — and finds that they won’t do. Even after suffering no criminal consequences for murdering her rapist (and Serena’s husband), Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), June still can’t shake Gilead and forget the child left behind. Who could? Her younger daughter, Nichole — whom she had with Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ former driver — is being raised safely in Canada by Luke and Moira (Samira Wiley), two of the most well-adjusted co-parents suffering from PTSD on the planet. But June can’t feel settled or get free. Hannah won’t let her — and neither will Serena.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ used to feel provocative. In Season 4, it’s just exhausting.

Wednesday’s episode, “Dear Offred,” begins with a stranger approaching June and Nichole at the park. It’s a happy mother-daughter day until it isn’t — June never really gets those. The woman, who appears childless, tells June, “You’re so lucky you were in Gilead. Now you have this beautiful, precious, healthy, little angel.” Unsurprisingly, the rest of their exchange does not go well. It’s an example of how June’s identity as a mother will never be divorced from the trauma she experienced in Gilead, whether it stems from the daughter the country gave her (forced upon her, really) or the daughter it stole.

In the season’s second episode, “Ballet,” we finally got a glimpse of what has become of Hannah. June hasn’t seen her eldest since Gilead used the preteen to force June to disclose the secret location of her fellow runaway handmaids. In that scene, Hannah, trapped in a glass box with the Gilead eye stamped into the concrete floor and dressed in a soft pink shift, plays with a doll and even laughs, seemingly unconcerned with her stark accommodations. She is only outwardly frightened when a torture-weary June approaches the cage. Fast forward a year and Hannah no longer appears to be afraid of anything.

On-screen for less than a minute, “Ballet” is Hannah’s coming out.

During an expertly choreographed funeral ceremony, Serena Joy marches through the streets of Gilead dressed like a mafia widow. A group of young girls joins the parade in a tableau ripped from the pages of the “Madeline” children’s books — little girls in two straight lines. The group parts and there she is: Hannah. Her natural curls combed back to fit under a useless pillbox hat with her body completely shrouded in a wool coat, she stares straight forward like a child soldier on the front lines. Hannah turns to face the camera, and the world and her parents, watching from a public square in Canada, see her clear as day. But is she going through the motions, or does she know more? Will we ever know?

Fans of Atwood have by now read “The Testaments,” the 2019 sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was more than three decades in the making. There is a main character/narrator in that book that could provide more backstory to Hannah’s life in Gilead, and the team behind the Hulu series has said Atwood’s second work would be a road map for where the show goes from here. But the series and Atwood have diverged in necessary ways. If the June of TV can be closer to superhero, then who’s to say her daughter wouldn’t follow suit?

In each season, we get a glimpse of how life has changed for Hannah over the years. She goes from the girl who was ripped from June’s arms as the pair tried to escape to Canada in the early days of the military coup, to the young woman (if you can call a 12-year-old that) who appears to be Gilead’s. In a world that seems so bleak and unchanging, Hannah has marked the passage of time.

“What was she wearing? What … was that color?” asks June in the episode “Border,” because she knows how important symbols are in Gilead, a place that seems drained of all color but yet revels in categorizing its women with it. Moira is not sure, maybe “plum” or “purple.”

“It’s not pink, though. She’s not a little girl anymore,” Moira adds unhelpfully. Later, June’s former lover and man on the inside, Nick, confirms that it’s purple and that “it means she’s ready.” There’s a new school for high commanders’ daughters who are training to be wives. Despite delivering that gut punch, Nick claims that Hannah will be safe and that she’s “tough” like June. What good is that supposed to do in Gilead? When have women there ever been rewarded for their tenacity?

As a character, Hannah is fascinating because she represents so much. Is she happy as Nick would have June believe, safely ensconced in Gilead’s upper class with a family that really loves her? Or is she a ticking bomb — a girl who knows more than she lets on, like the kid from seasons past who remembered June and asked why she didn’t try harder to find her, fight for her?

The battle of wills between Serena Joy and June, two trauma-bonded women with the power to end one another, certainly makes for good TV. Women going head-to-head is at least a break from watching more men do what men with absolute power do. But it’s the war raging inside Hannah that deserves the most attention as the series hopefully spends less time showing us how the adults love to carve each other up and more on the children they claim to care about.