The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 4: God Bless the Child Recap

Handmaid's Tale S3Ep4 June & Natalie Square Off

Episode 4 brings the handmaids to a community baptism ceremony for all of the babies born recently, including Janine’s daughter, Angela. Nichole is notedly missing from the ceremony. Later, the handmaids are invited back to the Putnams for a reception, under the supervision of a still recovering Aunt Lydia. The baptism reminds June of her two children and her former life, while the party brings her back into contact with the Waterfords. In Toronto, Emily finally meets with her wife and son in person.

The episode continues this season’s exploration of identity, moving beyond the third episode’s focus on retaining one’s self, despite overwhelming pressure to submit to Gilead’s ideology. This week, the focus turns to Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a hostage gives in to their captors’ world view out of exhaustion, despair and fear.

We saw the beginning of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in June in episode 3, as she accepted that she couldn’t fight Gilead on its own terms and stay the same person she’d always been. Lawrence convinced her that she needed to get her hands dirty in order to be effective, and in this episode she mourns the person she used to be while beginning to explore new possibilities. She’s pulled in a few different directions.

How far is the new version of June willing to go to achieve her goals? Lawrence avidly watches her transformation. He may be helping her, but he’s also still a cat playing with mice.

All of the women in Gilead are suffering from varying amounts of Stockholm Syndrome, from Janine and Natalie to Emily and Aunt Lydia. The sacrifices they’ve all made to survive and the ways it eats at them are at least touched on in this episode. Serena Joy continues to wrestle with the bizarro world she created and inadvertently imprisoned herself in.

Emily kept fighting while she was in Gilead and now she’s free, but, like June, she’s forever changed, having become someone she couldn’t imagine herself being in the Before Times. She needs to go through a reverse Stockholm Syndrome- can she still be the woman her wife remembers and expects her to be again? The changes back and forth between Gilead rebel and Unwoman of the Colonies to suburban resident and academic professional are an unfathomably huge leap. Chances are Emily will land somewhere between her two former selves.

Recap

The handmaids march down the street in lockstep, joined at an intersection by the wives and Marthas as they parade to the community baptism together. It’s one of the mass public spectacles that this show and Gilead do so well.

June gives her voiceover as they walk:

“We come together in peace. To celebrate the babies born in our district. We dedicate ourselves and our children to God. It takes a village. And machine guns. Who among them can be persuaded? Who can be turned, ignited to burn this sh-t place to the ground?”

Aunt Lydia, still having difficulties with the injuries she sustained in Emily’s assault, rides a motorized scooter down the street, but she’s no less fierce in her verbal prods to keep the handmaids’ behavior in line. Once they reach the church, each handmaid is briefly searched for bombs before they’re allowed to go inside- a precaution put in place after OfGlen’s successful attack on the commanders.

Gilead is feeling a little vulnerable these days.

The handmaids who have given birth to living children are given prime front row seats. June is surprised that her walking partner, Ofmatthew, is a mother. As they climb the stairs, June asks Ofmatthew about her baby. She says she’s had three. “I’m so blessed to serve him.” She ends the conversation by walking ahead of June.

June remembers the day of Hannah’s baptism. Luke, Moira and her mother, Holly, were there, but their friend Jerry was held up and missed it. It was a messy, irreverent, happy event that belonged wholly to them.

In the present, Serena Joy skips the baptism, so Fred Waterford sits alone. June muses on her relationship with him: “I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn’t what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don’t know what to call it. It isn’t love.”

It’s partly that sense of normalcy settling in that Aunt Lydia warned told them would happen. Within the norms of Gilead’s bubble, Fred treated June well. He was willing to make her a second wife and nearly treated her like one. He gave her privileges she hasn’t had in years and (inadvertently) made other positive elements possible, such as Moira’s escape and June’s editing work with Serena. Though he doesn’t deserve credit for all of it, he gets credit by association.

The passage about June’s feelings for Fred is straight out of the book. I’m convinced it represents June having a momentary lapse into Stockholm Syndrome. In her weaker moments, it might have been appealing to give in to Fred and Serena, to become Fred’s permanent concubine, and stop trying so hard. They could have kept Nichole with them and then have had another child. All of those seemingly happy families filing onto the stage right now make it look so easy. Serena has even obligingly taken herself out of the picture.

As the children appear, Janine is excited to catch a glimpse of Angela. The first cracks in Ofmatthew’s perfect facade appear, as her sadness and longing break through. When June tells her the baby is cute, it breaks the spell. She puts her passive front back up and replies that all of the children are beautiful miracles.

During the present day ceremony, June remembers back to Hannah’s baptism. She’s almost overwhelmed by her nostalgia for the past and everyone she’s lost, but then the Commander who’s leading the current ceremony brings up Nichole, Lost Daughter of Gilead. Remembering that Nichole is safe with Emily, Luke and Moira brings her back to the present and gives her strength.

On the drive to the Putnam’s post-ceremony reception, Aunt Lydia admonishes the handmaids to behave this afternoon. She reminds them all how lucky they are to be invited to the Commander’s house. Janine is a little too enthusiastic about seeing Angela. Lydia brushes off June’s concern for her health, then she insists on walking up the Putnam’s front steps without any assistance but her cane, as if she has a point to prove.

Maybe she does.

Once the handmaids are inside and lined up in a row in the entryway, Mrs Putnam greets Aunt Lydia. Naomi makes sure to thank June for saving Angela from Janine’s suicide attempt on the bridge in season 1 episode 9. She also politely greets Janine. Then she directs them into a side room for the rest of the reception, out of sight from the main party. As they’re led away, Ofmatthew grumbles that handmaids shouldn’t even be at the event. June tells her to “Lighten up.”

June lingers in the doorway, sending a telepathic message to Fred. It brings Serena to her instead, who asks if she’s missed anything. June gives a joking answer, then notes that Serena wasn’t at the church. Serena says she didn’t want to call attention to herself. June makes another attempt to convince Serena that she still has some clout in Gilead, at least among the ladies, but doesn’t press the issue.

Serena asks if June regrets her decision to stay in Gilead. June says she’s glad she didn’t leave without Hannah. She’d be happy even to see her daughter one more time and this way there’s still a chance for that to happen. Serena remarks that she has no chance of seeing Nichole. As if he was listening to their conversation, Fred chooses that moment to join them, full of husbandly devotion and sad puppy dog eyes. Serena tells him she came for her friend Naomi and gives him the cold shoulder.

Now that she feels more like herself, on the outside anyway, Emily makes the trip out to the suburbs to reconnect with her wife and son. She stands outside the train station nervously for a minute before Sylvia finds her, then after another minute of hesitant conversation they finally have their reunion hug.

Back at Sylvia and Oliver’s house, Emily stands uncomfortably in the living room, looking at the pieces of a life that should have been hers, but isn’t. Sylvia tells Emily that she’s already started stocking up on her favorite foods. Emily thought she might eat some meals at her hotel and they agree that this whole thing is awkward. But Sylvia doesn’t care, she’s just glad to have Emily home again.

Emily asks about Oliver. Sylvia says he’ll be home soon. He wanted to skip school, but she thought Emily might want a minute in the house to catch up. Emily asks if he remembers her- he was an infant when they were separated. Sylvia takes her to Oliver’s bedroom, which has family photos and a drawing of Emily as a superhero displayed. Sylvia explains that it represents the way Emily fought to get back home.

😭 😭 😭 OMG, she did fight, harder than anyone, and she saved Nichole, too, like a real superhero. (Remember the way she crossed the river into Canada holding the baby in her arms? Still gives me chills. Same with Moira’s escape. Just like the stories of people who escaped the Iron Curtain or slavery in real life.) Emily keeps nervously sucking on the spot where her missing tooth used to be, the one she lost due to the toxins she was exposed to in the Colonies. It’s a poignant reminder of everything she’s been through and how much her experiences have changed her.

Oliver appears in the bedroom doorway, excited to see Emily. They decide to wait to hug until they’re both ready. He tells Emily about the fossils he’s studying in school.

Lydia finds a quiet spot to rest for a moment. Janine brings her some tea, then sits down and says that she feels bad about what Emily did to Lydia. She confesses that she prayed for Lydia to get better, adding that all of the handmaids did. Lydia doesn’t believe that the others prayed for her. She tells Janine that she’s aware of their opinions of her and the Emily saga. She wishes she hadn’t brought Emily back from the Colonies. But she’s glad that she brought Janine back.

Janine is, of course, glad that Lydia brought her back, too. Neither mentions all of the terrible things Lydia has done to her in the past.

The rest of the handmaids congregate in the kitchen. They are indeed angry with Aunt Lydia, but Ofmatthew defends her, saying she’s only doing her job. Alma points out the way Lydia cruelly burned many of them after they refused to stone Janine in season 1 episode 10.

Ofmatthew: “You can’t blame Aunt Lydia for that. We’re all trying to make it through this without making any trouble.”

Clearly she has no idea who she’s dealing with. Also, “make it through this”? Like it will end soon if they behave? She lives deep in fantasy land. And I’m pretty sure Aunt Lydia makes up many of the handmaids’ day to day rewards and punishments, so yes, we absolutely can blame her.

June tries to silently intimidate Ofmatthew, but Fred comes in before it goes very far. He sends the rest of the handmaids out to the buffet, which they’re forbidden to eat, so that he and June can have a heart to heart. He wants her to fix his relationship with Serena. She asks if he’s sure both he and Serena want to fix their marriage. He’s not sure, since she’s been hiding at her mother’s, as he puts it. Someone else might say that Serena left him and call this a trial separation. He acknowledges that the life of a Gilead wife isn’t really enough for her. June asks if he’d be willing to give Serena “more of a voice” behind the scenes. He allows that the idea is worth discussing.

Serena is smoking a cigarette next to the Putnam’s huge indoor pool. You’d think this season was shot during COVID, with the way the women keep sneaking off alone in this episode, but it was filmed long before. June is suitably impressed by the pool when she finds Serena. They sit in lounge chairs, smoke cigarettes, and try to work out Serena’s marriage issues, just like they would have in the old days.

Except for their outfits and the invisible manacles.

June tells Serena that Fred wants to work things out, but he doesn’t know how, so she suggested that he give Serena more freedom.

June: “As Mrs Waterford, you have influence. Access. Power.”

Serena: “Up to a point.”

June: “So move the point. Like we did before. He is lost without you, Serena. Wear the pants dress. Pull the strings.”

Even after everything, Fred has no idea how dangerous these two women are or what he’s setting in motion. They are like a couple of mob bosses negotiating a huge deal involving territories, weapons and power. Fred is nothing but a middleman who occasionally makes a lucky guess.

Back in Canada, Emily watches while Sylvia helps Oliver get ready for bed. When it’s storytime, he asks Emily to read his dinosaur book to him. They cuddle up together as she reads to him about spinosaurus. She and Sylvia both burst into tears at the return of such a cherished ritual that’s so far from the horrors Emily suffered in Gilead. Oliver takes over reading the story, an ability which shows how much of his life Emily has missed.

Serena rejoins the party just as Naomi brings Angela down from her nap. Janine is drawn to the baby and asks to hold her. Naomi generously agrees. Aunt Lydia and June follow Janine into the room. Angela cries while Janine holds her, so she gives the baby back before long. Janine tells the Putnams that Angela is lucky to have them as parents.

For a moment, everyone is relieved that the encounter didn’t spiral out of control. But then Janine continues, telling the Putnams that she wants to give Angela a sibling. She begs to return as their handmaid. June tries to move Janine away, but Lydia intervenes. Janine continues arguing that she belongs at the Putnams with her daughter. Aunt Lydia loses control and beats Janine with her cane, shocking the party guests.

Lydia beats Janine down to the floor, then June throws herself on top of Janine, screaming at Lydia to stop. Lydia backs away, disoriented, as if she’s forgotten the rules of torture- when done in front of polite society, it must be controlled and clean, such as Eden and Isaac’s deaths in the pool. Excessively violent and/or emotional displays are to be performed out of sight, where they won’t upset the elites and the children. The results of the violence are then displayed on the wall or hung in the center of town as warnings. Or displayed in the Putnam’s living room, in the form of Commander Putnam’s surgically amputated hand, Serena’s missing finger and Janine’s blind eye. As Alma noted, most of the handmaids’ excessive scars and amputations were kept hidden from the main party.

It’s interesting that the Eyes rarely show scars or amputations, though they are frequently war veterans. Only the strong cunning survive.

Lydia apologizes to the Commanders and their wives for her faux pas and wanders out of the room. When she finds an empty room, she sits and cries, sobbing out loud. She’s devastated.

Emily and Sylvia spend a few minutes out on the front porch in the dark. Emily is uncertain about whether she should stay or go back to the hotel, but she and Sylvia have the freedom to make their own decisions.

As the handmaids prepare to leave the party, Alma asks June if Janine is okay. She replies that Janine has suffered through worse than this. Ofmatthew stops to tell June, “That’s what you get.”

How very pious of her to gloat.

Serena feels sorry for Naomi and explains to June that the system is designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening by keeping the classes separated- just what Ofmatthew said. In other words, they both think too much freedom was the problem.

June turns her back on Serena while she finishes getting ready to leave. Serena whispers in her ear, “A young girl of Hannah’s age, the daughter of a Commander, would most likely attend a school for domestic arts. The one in her district is in Brookline by the reservoir. The girls play outside after lunch. Perhaps you’ll find a way to see her. When June turns around to thank Serena, she’s gone.

June remembers the end of Hannah’s baptism, when she and Luke agreed that it was important to hold the ceremony to show how thankful they were for Hannah and for their family. They were happy together and lucky to have her in a world with high infertility rates.

Before June can leave the Putnam’s house, an Eye arrives, looking for Fred. June trails behind him and Commander Putnam. By the time she catches up, he’s showing Fred and Serena a protest video that was posted less than 24 hours ago. The Eye calls June into the room to confirm that the man in the video is her husband, Luke. He’s at a protest in Toronto against the Gilead invasion of Chicago and is holding Nichole. He makes sure the camera gets a clear shot of her face and tells the reporter her first name.

Serena watches the video again, crying and exclaiming over how big Nichole has gotten. She and Fred have a new cause in common.

June leaves the room so she can react privately. Once she’s alone in the hall, she quietly laughs and cries, happy they are safe, but sad they are so far away.

Luke and Moira have Nichole baptised. They explain their unique circumstances to the minister, who looks shocked when he finds out the baby’s mother is in Gilead.

Luke: “This little one should be absolved of their sins.”

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Commentary

Underlying the Stockholm Syndrome theme is the overwhelming theme of loss. Emily has lost so much time with her family and is still learning to be comfortable exercising her free will. June has missed so much of Hannah’s life and lost the entire rest of her family and friends, other than occasional messages or snippets like the video she saw in this episode. Janine and Ofmatthew have lost their children and with them, their identities, becoming lost in passive, childlike states. Aunt Lydia has lost her mobility and energy and with that, her ability to properly do her job. She faces becoming one of the Unwomen, if she doesn’t heal completely. Serena has lost her work, her self-confidence and her sense of self. Fred has lost his wife, who also guided him in how to excel in his work.

And they’ve all lost their freedom. That point is brought home to us, over and over. In Gilead, no one is safe or free, at any level. Whenever someone needs to express a real emotion, even a Commander or a Wife, they do so alone. No one trusts anyone and without trust, there is no freedom to act spontaneously and freely. Every act, no matter how small and innocuous, has the potential to be witnessed and reported.

Even Fred’s choices are very limited. We spend a significant portion of the episode in the Putnam household, where Janine reminds us that Commander Putnam’s hand was amputated for his affair with her. Fred and Serena’s ideal world turned out to be a hellscape for them, too- in a little over two seasons, both have suffered significant physical injuries and the loss of the child they were promised. Their marriage is on the rocks, she has no career and his has been threatened. This isn’t the dream life they fought for.

The importance of gratefulness and not taking anything for granted is an ongoing theme of the series and a concept which is twisted into something dark and destructive in Gilead, where forced gratefulness is a form of oppression. It’s highlighted in this episode by the contrasting baptism ceremonies and in Ofmatthew and Janine’s insistence on pleasantly upholding the values of Gilead despite the damage Gilead has done to them. But it doesn’t matter how much of herself Janine has given in the past or will give in the future or how much praise Lydia lavishes on her. The threat of violence and death are always lurking right under the surface.

By the end, Lydia graphically reminds us that Gilead is never grateful in return. Gilead takes from everyone except the Commanders, and sometimes even them. Gilead feels it’s owed whatever it can steal, whether from an individual or a nation. Since Serena, Fred and Lawrence are three of the main architects of Gilead, it’s crucial to keep that in mind, no matter how sympathetic they act on the surface at any given time.

We are starting to see the cracks in Gilead’s facade- as Lydia has pointed out, the handmaids are getting away with infractions that would have gotten them killed in season 1. This is more evidence that they don’t have enough handmaids and they continue to have a severe infertility crisis. They can’t afford to randomly kill fertile women the way they they used to. They are still fighting a war and sending men to the front to be killed, partially so that they can kidnap more fertile women. But Gilead doesn’t have to punish its citizens to lose them anymore- they are cracking from the strain, all on their own. Even the indomitable Aunt Lydia can’t hold it together in public for long.

June is confronted with the centrality of children to Gilead’s self-image in this episode, as the entire day revolves around Angela, who almost died when Janine attempted suicide (S1Ep9), but was also later saved by her bond with Janine when she had failure to thrive (S2Ep8), and Nichole, who was brought out of Gilead and into freedom. Nichole’s freedom is framed as Gilead’s heart wrenching national loss, even though as a baby girl they actually only care about her as a possession and future baby maker.

Between the Putnams, the Waterfords, the heartbreak felt by all of handmaids because of the loss of their children, the urgency with which the Eye treats the video of Luke and Nichole and the way the minister speaks about Nichole, June is reminded that she isn’t the only one who puts her children first or who is devastated over their loss. Even Lydia calls the handmaids her girls and has some investment in them. Even tough as nails Serena, who chose to do the right thing and send Nichole away so she could have a better life, misses her daughter desperately and is lost without her.

Serena takes in everything June says and does in this episode, not just the message June tried to get across during their marriage counseling session. She considers: when June tells her to move the point and ask for more freedom; that June is glad she didn’t leave Gilead without her other daughter, even if she only gets to see Hannah one more time; that she should work the problem from behind the scenes, but also, literally get in front of the problem and be the risk-taking problem solver; and that it’s possible to love two men and to be more than one person inside at the same time. June hasn’t considered how her unconditional devotion to her daughters and to both Luke and Nick might look and feel to Serena, a woman who strives for perfection in herself through ruthless discipline, then hears her mother’s harsh voice in her head during her lapses.

Images courtesy of Hulu.

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