For June (Elisabeth Moss) and the other women trapped in Gilead, it feels like an eternity has gone by since the United States was replaced by the theocratic hellscape they call home. Until the episode “Witness,” June could only guess how much time had passed since the coup. She could count the seasons, but she had no calendar.
Then, while rifling through files of handmaids' "transferred" (read: stolen) children, June stumbles on a concrete answer: five years. Five years have passed since Gilead was established in a coup carried out by the Sons of Jacob.
Considering Gilead has only existed for half a decade, it's done a tremendously good job of fulfilling its mission — which is terrifying! Gilead has rolled back carbon emissions and increased birth rates. This "success" has turned Gilead into a world power, strong-arming countries that don't approve of its policies into cooperating anyway. Finally, Gilead shows no signs of weakness: With the threat of the Wall looming, citizens rarely stray from their pre-determined roles.
And yet: Five years isn't long enough to wipe away the memory of what once was. There are still houses brimming with people's pre-Gileadean belongings, like the one Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) visits in Washington, D.C. And there are still angry people fighting for the old world order. Chicago is in the middle of an uprising; June is about to start one of her own.
But the figure has an even greater significance — one that June picks up on right away. Five years isn't long for adults, but it's a lifetime for kids. While going through Commander Lawrence's (Bradley Whitford) files, she realizes that infants when Gilead was formed are now 5; kids like her daughter, Hannah, are now pre-teens. These kids have no memory of the old world order. For 5-year-olds, Gilead being overturned might actually not be something to celebrate. They known no other way.
So, time is running out for people like June, who dream of rebellion. For every year that passes, they'll have to undo the mental manipulations that have been done to the children.
Finally, this number is one of the most important bits of world-building in The Handmaid's Tale so far, because it gives us a clue into the outside world. In the last five years, the international community has done nothing to stop Gilead from flourishing. No one has intervened in Gilead's genocide of journalists, in its fatal work camps, in its state-enforced rapes, in its Salvagings. If countries haven't intervened yet, they certainly won't now. In fact, it appears the opposite is happening: Canada may cave to an extradition treaty.
The citizens of Gilead have been abandoned by the rest of the world. If change will happen, it must come from within.