The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 begins where it left off at the end of season 3, with June gravely wounded after the successful takeoff of the flight holding dozens of Gilead’s children and several Marthas, including Rita. After spending several episodes organizing the flight, June and her squad of devoted handmaids further risked their lives, staying behind to distract the Guardians at the airport while the Marthas led the children onto the plane. The plane makes it to Canada as June’s fellow handmaids carry her toward safety.
In season 3, June learned that her own daughter, Hannah, may be out of her reach, but she can still be useful and save other Hannahs. She learned to honor her lost mother and the others she’s lost along the way not just by saving those she can, but also by avenging them when she gets a chance. Her leadership and her goals became more defined in season 3 and as a consequence, Gilead has lost many more children than just her own.
It’s also lost more Commanders. Ofglen took out several with her bomb in season 2. June killed Winslow and influenced Serena into taking Fred with her to Canada as the sweetener in her immunity deal. Lawrence planned to leave with the children, but went to jail instead. The losses caused by MayDay, Gilead’s war on the Western Front (Chicago), and the purges created by sparring between the two Sons of Jacob factions (True Believers, formerly led by Pryce and now maybe by Calhoun, and Career Opportunists, formerly led by Winslow and Waterford, now led by Putnam) have led to a power vacuum at the top in Gilead.
Nick and Lawrence are ultimately amoral moderates who joined the revolution because they wanted real change in the US, but they are disappointed in how that change manifested. Lawrence’s life work was used against his core principles and Nick’s military service for the Sons of Jacob was a means to an end. Or maybe not. They are both a bit enigmatic. Did Lawrence’s conscience die with Eleanor? Does Nick care about human rights abuses in Gilead beyond June and Nichole? If they had the chance to seize control of Gilead, how would they run it?
Alma, Janine, Brianna and three unnamed handmaids carry June, who is bleeding heavily, through the woods and into a workshop. There, they do some gruesome home surgery on her, including cauterizing her open wound with a giant heated metal wand (looks like a huge curling iron?).
The other handmaids are now even with June for that time that Aunt Lydia burned their wrists over the gas flame but Lydia spared June because she was pregnant with Nichole. There’s an extreme close up shot of June’s closed eye where it’s hard to tell for a second that it’s her eye instead of a wound. The experiences she’s taken in have wounded her psyche as much as the bullet wounded her body.
During the brief time that June is conscious, they tell her that they’ve been in contact with MayDay. A Guardian with a vehicle is on the way to take them to a safehouse.
Quick cut from cauterizing the wound to the cool MayDay Guardian driving the handmaids out of town in a hidden compartment in a truck. For June’s sake, let’s hope that cut means she passed out and woke up much later, staying unconscious during the worst of the pain. Janine and Alma seem to be doing okay as alternate leaders.
The truck is stopped and searched but the handmaids are in hidden contraband compartments, so they aren’t found. As the drive lulls June into a trance and she stares outside through a ventilation slat, she sees something red pass by. It looks like a “thin red line”, as opposed to the way the police are often described as a thin blue line, symbolizing the way she thinks of the handmaids as protectors.
Serena has reverted to the bedraggled look she sported at her mother’s house in season 3, only this time in street clothes. Tuello brings her and Fred together to inform them that their legal meetings have been postponed. Fred and Serena immediately assume this is being done to harass them. Tuello tells them about the plane from Gilead that arrived a few hours ago carrying 9 Marthas. Fred insults the Marthas. Tuello mentions that there were also- wait for it- 86 children– on board the plane, so the Canadians are busy caring for them. Fred and Serena’s meetings can wait.
Before we savor Fred and Serena’s reaction and how perfectly Tuello plays them, let’s just savor the fact that June got 95 people all the way out. Plus she came very close to getting several more handmaids and Marthas out on the plane. Her squad are still fugitives who stole themselves from Gilead’s control, even if they haven’t technically left the country. Add in personally killing Commander Winslow, combined with Serena and Fred leaving the day Winslow disappeared, and that makes June responsible for the loss of 105 people- 2 high ranking Commanders, a high profile, founding wife, children, valuable handmaids and some very networked Marthas.
They can’t keep these events a secret in Gilead. This might be the biggest failure outside of battle Gilead has ever experienced, other than Lilly’s bomb. Added to the bomb and Nichole’s rescue, the Resistance movement is now fully in the open. Gilead no longer feels like the impenetrable power we met in season 1.
Tuello is so over the Waterfords that he twists the knife at every possible turn, explaining to them that, yes, the authorities are attempting to find homes for the 86 children, but the Waterfords and Gilead destroyed the homes where they belong. Homes in Canada will have to do for now. He also begins to spread the Legend of June Osborne, Hero of the Gilead Resistance. Fred and Serena are shocked but not surprised. Fred is still obsessed with June and Serena is still jealous. As June said in front of the Lincoln Memorial, they are locked in a perpetual rivalry until this is over.
Tuello leaves Fred to contemplate the fact that Gilead will now care much more about the return of the children than defending him. Serena is left to absorb the fact that Nichole is now one of 87 refugee children involved in disputes over nationality and parental rights. Thanks to June, Canada and the UN are now forced to make policy decisions about dozens of refugee children from Gilead.
This is no longer an individual case about Baby Nichole. Now there are older children and Marthas who raised children who can testify about child rearing methods in Gilead, not just an innocent infant who can’t speak for herself. Now Rita can testify as to the character of Fred and Serena specifically, how Nichole was conceived and what June and Nick want.
June is an evil genius. In saving those children, she also saved Nichole and scr*wed over the Warefords one more time.
But she did not save herself. She expected to die in a shootout with the Guardian who chased her away from the airstrip. Yet here she is, feverish and stumbling through the woods, looking for the farmhouse that’s meant to serve as their safehouse. The “safe” signal is a lighted lantern, not the best choice in broad daylight on a cold, snowy day. June is determined to be the one who risks approaching the house to see if it’s the right one.
By the time June reaches the barnyard, a Guardian, David, has brought the lantern outside to wave at her. He welcomes her and asks where the rest of the handmaids are. She turns around a raises a bloody hand to signal the others to join her. She still has the bandage from when she and Serena fought over the scalpel in Natalie’s hospital room in S3Ep9. It hardly seems possible that such a short time has passed in universe.
David tells her they’re safe now. She smiles and almost cries, but passes out instead. Her faithful handmaids rush to help her. She succumbs to her fever as she’s dragged inside, vomiting, developing cold sweats and chills.
They’re met at the door by the teenage lady of the house, Mrs Esther Keyes, who tells June that she’s had prophetic dreams about their meeting. She’s excited that June has finally arrived, because in her wonderful dreams, they were killing people together. Mrs Keyes can’t wait to get started, but right now June should rest.
June hears this and passes out again. The other handmaids all give each other disturbed looks as Mrs Keyes relates her dreams, so we know this isn’t a hallucination and that they know from the start that this is a troubled household.
Meanwhile, back at the Boston Commanders’ meeting, Commander Putnam is running the show, along with Calhoun, father of Natalie’s baby. The Commanders are debriefing Aunt Lydia on her very violent, 19 day long interrogation following the plane incident. Putnam tries to pass it off as 2 weeks, but she corrects him. You can be sure he’ll pay for the cuts and bruises on her face eventually. Calhoun goes on her list when he calls her frail.
They tell her she can return to work, but remind her she’s not without blame for the misbehavior of the females under her supervision. However, as a mere female herself, their expectations for her are low. Ann Dowd’s sardonic delivery of her bland lines is award worthy. Lydia frequently sucks on what is probably a missing tooth, the way Emily did after losing teeth in the colonies. It’s an excellent callback to show how low Lydia has fallen in her own esteem. She’s not supposed to be vulnerable to the same punishments as the handmaids and unwomen.
If Lydia is one of those people who can only empathize when she’s experienced something herself, then she’s well on her way to understanding her girls.
As Lydia turns to leave, Calhoun calls all handmaids sinful prostitutes, which would make Aunt Lydia their Madam. She turns back and lets loose a Shakespearean diatribe against June, who she calls a Delilah, a gifted and amoral liar who led the other women astray. She charges the Commanders with finding this mere woman who they’ve already taken 19 days to find.
June finally recovers enough from her fever to come back to herself and start getting out of bed again. She muses on how she can’t give in to her human frailties because she has a war to fight and people need her. It’s all very mind over matter in a way that borders on being ableist. She does make one important point: Gilead is still out there searching for them and it will never stop, so they can’t settle in too much at the farm.
June finds Janine with her friend Mr Darcy the pig. Then she wanders out to a lookout station where Alma is keeping watch. She takes a turn keeping an eye out for intruders. After her shift, she runs into Commander Keyes in the farmhouse. He’s into repetitively pounding his cane on the floor, but doesn’t say much.
Back outside, Mrs Keyes greets her with a huge hug, then sits her down on a bench to rest. Mrs Keyes has been waiting for instructions for the next phase of the revolution. She wants to fight, but she doesn’t want to be condescended to. June tries to tell her to stay home and be a kid for a while. Mrs Keyes tries to explain, without being explicit, that she’s not a kid anymore because she’s married to a rapist and so she needs to fight. June is uncharacteristically dense, but she was also slow with Eden in season 2, until Eden spelled out her issues. Maybe it’s just in June’s nature to be ageist as well as ableist.
Nick visits Joseph in prison. As with Lydia, Joseph’s sarcasm never deserts him, no matter how dire the circumstances. Unlike Lydia, he has enough power so that even in prison, no one is torturing it out of him. Nick is there to thank Joseph for his service to Gilead, which is code for your service is no longer required and you’ll be dead soon. Apparently Joseph’s trial and sentencing were held without even notifying him. Nick plays Groot and manages to communicate all sorts of things in the way he repeats the line thanking Joseph for his service. He finally tells Lawrence that more information will be revealed tomorrow.
Lawrence asks about the children and the invasion of Canada. That finally gets Nick talking, or at least listening. Lawrence argues that Gilead needs to view this as an opportunity, not another excuse to start a war. They should pursue a diplomatic solution, including allowing the children to stay in Canada in exchange for some of the official recognition and favorable trade deals they’ve wanted for years.
Like June, he’s been thinking about the outcomes of this move past the flight for a while. He understands how it can be used to help open up Gilead’s borders and better the lives of the people. Under Lawrence’s plans, Gilead doesn’t fall, it becomes liveable. He wants to do what Eleanor asked, in a way- tinker with his design until it works. Is he more interested in turning Gilead into a functional but oppressive regime, such as Saudi Arabia, China or Cuba, than a free country?
Lawrence tries to hook Nick before he leaves by saying, “What happens in the next few weeks will dictate the future of this country. It’s June’s legacy. What do you want it to say?”
That gets Nick’s attention, confirming for Lawrence that she is Nick’s weak spot, but Nick is an Eye, through and through. Don’t ever forget that. He answers, “I’m here to thank you for your service to Gilead. You’re a good man, Commander.”
Mrs Keyes, June, Janine and a couple of Guardians all walk to the barn where Mr Darcy the pig lives. Janine says a prayer over him, then June escorts her out. Mrs. Keyes watches through a window while one of the Guardians shoots the pig.
Quick cut to all of the women in the house happily eating dinner at a large table in the barn. Janine isn’t eating the pork that was Mr Darcy a few hours ago. Mrs Keyes resents that she had to kill Mr Darcy to feed everyone- she thinks Janine doesn’t appreciate the sacrifice. She insists that Janine eat some of the pork, then storms from the room. Janine spits it back out.
Janine doesn’t eat her friends. She’s consistently argued for kindness toward people, too, even those who haven’t been kind toward her.
June follows Mrs Keyes and finds her holding a hunting knife. June starts barking out orders to Mrs Keyes to leave Janine alone and to give her the knife. Mrs Keyes reminds June that this is her house. June tell Mrs Keyes that the handmaids have been brutalized, so she needs to show them respect.
Then June tries to walk away. She doesn’t want to face what this teenage wife might have to say, but Mrs Keyes says it anyway.
When Esther and the Commander were first married, he would try to have sex with her, using pills and shots to get an erection, but it didn’t work. So he brought in other men to rape her- Guardians, Eyes, Commanders. Then they started coming over outside of the Ceremony. He punished her for his impotence by passing her around.
“Wives have bad things, too,” Mrs Keyes tells June, in the understatement of the episode.
Mrs Keyes cries. June tells her that the rapes and abuse weren’t her fault and God will make them pay for what they did to her.
Hopefully God will use the hands of the women of Gilead to do His Holy Work.
June put the knife away, then finds Alma and scolds her for not paying more attention to Mrs Keyes. Alma says she was trying to keep June alive and didn’t realize Mrs Keyes needed to be managed, too. She insults June and tells her to lighten up.
June: “Alma, we are not free.”
Alma: “Maybe this is as free as we’re going to get. Maybe we should make the best of it.”
June doubles over in physical and emotional pain, shaking her head no. They can’t get too comfortable there. She finds the rest of the handmaids in the barn, having a low key party. There’s music and dancing. Two guys are kissing. While it’s great they’re having fun, nobody’s even acting as a lookout.
Joseph is escorted to a room with a serious looking chair in the center. Nick strides into the room, looking official, and tells Joseph that there might be more service he can give to Gilead. Nick brandishes a war report with commentary and invasion options for Joseph to read. He’s convinced the Council to consult with Joseph.
The chair is a barber’s chair. I really thought it was an electric chair at first glance. Or that they were going to torture him. Instead, the barber asks if Joseph would like a full shave.
I suspect the way he eagerly bares his neck for the razor blade may be foreshadowing for the way he’ll die.
June finds the knife out on the table again and the Commander wandering the house. He asks her name. She tells him it’s Martha. Then he asks his wife’s name. He says she’s a pretty girl, but he’s a little afraid of her. June shows the knife and tells him he should be.
David the friendly Guardian calls June outside. Mrs Keyes and the rest of the household have detained Guardian Pogue for trespassing. He’s on the ground, gagged and bound. Esther kicks him. He’s one of the rapists. Pogue tries to run, but Gilead’s handmaids have experience in putting down rapists. They pick up their farm implements, surround him and treat it like a stoning at the Red Center.
June stops them. She has them hang him by his wrists in the barn. Alma finally understands why June wanted her to watch Esther more closely. June says it was Esther’s family who sent her to the farm to be repeatedly passed between rapists. She tells the others that he’s a traitor to the US and a child rapist. His punishment is death. Then June tells Esther that she was right. They are MayDay. They don’t hide, they fight. It’s Esther’s turn to fight. June gives her the knife and says, “Make me proud.”
June leaves the barn and goes to rest in her room. Just as she gets settled, Mrs Keyes appears in the doorway. June signals that she can come in. Mrs Keyes, covered in her rapist’s blood, lies down with June, acting as big spoon. She asks if that position is okay. It is.
Mrs Keyes: “I love you.”
June takes her hand: “I love you too, Banana.”
Banana is her pet name for Hannah.
No, June is not okay at the end of this episode. Confronting the reality that Hannah is only a few years away from potentially going through everything June has gone through, that becoming a wife won’t save her from anything and might even be worse in some ways, has broken something inside of her. In season 2, Hannah told her to try harder. In season 3, June broke out of her complacency, defied the MayDay Marthas, and got some things done. But she couldn’t save her older daughter and comforted herself by thinking of Hannah as a loved, upper class child who would be protected from the worst of Gilead.
In season 4, that illusion is gone. Hannah is a person of color and the child of a handmaid. She won’t come into a marriage with the class advantages that Eden and Mrs Keyes both did. She is a toy for Mrs MacKenzie to raise, then she will become a toy for one of the men of Gilead.
June now fully understands what her mother tried to teach her. This is a war. Women’s lives and bodies are frequently the battleground. Thankfully, Dr Holly Maddox, feminist activist, took June with her everywhere when she was a child, so June instinctively knows how to lead and fight from watching her mother, even if she didn’t realize what she was learning at the time. June is ready to take her place in the family business.
We can argue all day about whether June is a good leader or not. She’s in an impossible situation. It’s simply not possible for her to make the “right” decisions every time because the deck is stacked so heavily against her. This is why most of the time, the Martha network did nothing. They didn’t have the urgency June has because they weren’t getting raped every month and didn’t view themselves as fighting a war. They don’t have children growing up in Gilead.
But this is The Handmaid’s Tale- we see it from June’s perspective because she is the handmaid who lives long enough to tell her story and people listen to it. It’s going to be her story until the series changes and follows the sequel book, The Testaments.
June doesn’t ask anyone to do anything she won’t do herself. That sends a powerful message that she can be trusted, because it shows how strongly she believes in her cause and that she is one of the foot soldiers. She understands the people she is fighting with.
The way June insists on going down to the farm herself to look for the lantern is an illustration of her leadership style. She protects her flock. And right then, she sees herself as the most dispensable handmaid, because she’s so wounded (and also the least likely to talk if caught). Based on watching the way he took care of June, Serena and Eden in the Waterford house, I suspect Nick also has this quality as a leader. He quietly earns loyalty by doing favors, supporting and protecting people.
Until now, Commander Putnam has been a toadie who followed whichever of the two factions was in power at the moment. Calhoun seems to be honest and decent, for a Commander, which means he’s a religious type. But he’s also young and inexperienced. With the two of them in charge, Gilead is ripe for a coup, from either the inside or the outside, either overtly or by a shadow power who will leave them as a puppet government.
Commander Lawrence is free from the moral constraints and guilt that held him back, now that Eleanor is dead. His only remaining weaknesses are his own ego and his love of physical comfort, which are both considerable. He may also want to clear his name in some way before he dies, if he cares about his own legacy.
I think Nick chose to be the one to deliver the news that Lawrence was sentenced to die because he wanted to feel Joseph out. He knows that June trusted Lawrence. Nick is likely building his own network of influence among the Commanders, now that his war service in Chicago has restored his status. He’s not the type to operate openly, on the council. He’s a spy. Like Joseph, he’s content to be part of a shadow government.
Images courtesy of Hulu.