June and Janine are on the run together in episode 4. They catch a ride west in a refrigerated train car filled with milk, which might be the most Handmaid’s Tale thing ever to happen on this show, other than the next thing that happens- they find a group of fighters in Chicago who call them sex slaves and treat them as such. There’s no rest for the wicked, as Aunt Lydia would undoubtedly say.
In Toronto, the Waterfords jockey for custody of Rita and her favorable testimony in their various court cases. To the Waterfords, freedom doesn’t mean they have to give up the wonderful master-slave friendships they forged in Gilead. In this episode, Rita figures out what freedom means to her and how she actually feels about the Waterfords. Spoiler- they’re not besties after all. As we watch Rita figure out her future, we also learn more about Janine’s past and how it informs the decisions she makes in the present.
Janine and June run down the train tracks, then stop to cut off their leather handcuffs using a piece of sharp metal they find on the ground. Janine argues that they need to go back to check on Alma and Brianna. June tells her they’re dead and the two of them need to keep moving. She plans to follow the tracks West, toward Chicago and Mayday, insisting they’ll be okay. They run.
No one follows, which is very, very strange. They’re wearing handmaids’ robes, which means they’re easy to spot, on the ground or from the air, and the tracks are the most obvious place to look, but no one does.
Once again, this looks to me like a staged opportunity for them to escape and I have to ask just how much power Nick has amassed behind the scenes. Otherwise, June and Janine must have finally come into some luck, because Gilead has turned on a dime and stopped relentlessly pursuing handmaids. Maybe June made this luck herself by killing the Commanders in Pennsylvania and leaving Gilead in so much disarray that there’s no one to bother with her right now.
By nightfall, they reach a trainyard. Janine wants to go back to Boston, where they know people. June doesn’t stop to explain that they can’t go back to Boston because they’re too recognizable and anyone who would help is gone. She reiterates that they’re going West to fight with Mayday. Janine doesn’t want to fight and die in the war, but June doesn’t listen to her.
She’s drafted Janine.
They find a train that’s headed to Chicago and look for a car to hide in. June chooses a tanker car, which could have any kind of liquid in it. She climbs to the top and jumps in, an actual leap before looking. It could have been poisonous, but it’s just milk. She tells Janine to jump in, too. Once Janine is in the milk, it’s clear she’s not a strong swimmer. Too bad for her.
They hide under the surface while a man closes the lid on the car. Then the train begins to move, sloshing the milk around and threatening to drown both of them in the symbol of motherhood. June searches until she finds a drain, then lets out most of the milk. They’re safer, but still soaking wet and in a refrigerated car.
Neither woman acknowledges that they’ve just wasted a tankful of food that came from animals who were enslaved, just as they are. They also don’t drink any of the milk, even though they’re hungry. They’ve been well fed by the collectivism of Gilead and aren’t desperate enough to eat whatever food is available.
Rita bakes bread, just because she wants to, then shares it with Moira, who is very appreciative. Moira tells her that there’s no record of her sister and nephew crossing into Canada as refugees. She consoles her that they could have entered using assumed names, since the Catholics were good at making fake passports. Rita shouldn’t give up hope.
Moira was also contacted by the court with a request from Serena, who wants to speak to Rita. Rita has already been deposed in the Waterfords’ cases, so she doesn’t have anything to say to them. Moira suggests that it’s a chance for closure, but reminds her that she can say no.
Serena is already wearing maternity clothes, though she’s barely showing, if at all. The first thing she does is show Rita an ultrasound of her baby boy. She tells Rita that she doesn’t intend to tell Fred about her pregnancy. She wants Rita to help her raise her son, describing how much fun they’ll have. She layers her affection and praise for Rita on thick.
I remember at least one time that Serena hit Rita so hard she knocked her to the ground. That blow was because Serena was angry at June, but she couldn’t hit the pregnant handmaid, so she hit her Martha instead. Bet Rita remembers too. Rita also lost her own son and now her nephew and sister because of Gilead. It takes some nerve for Serena to ask Rita to share this joy, without even apologizing for keeping her enslaved for years or for her part in starting the unnecessary war that took Rita’s own family.
Serena tells Rita to keep the ultrasound image. Then they pray together.
June and Janine huddle in the cold of the milk car, trying to avoid hypothermia. June keeps telling Janine that everything will be okay, they’ll make it to Chicago and find Mayday, until Janine is sick of hearing it and tells her to stop. “I’m not a mushroom. I’m not! So you can’t keep me in the dark and feed me lies and s–t and expect me to just be okay with it.”
June argues that she doesn’t keep Janine in the dark, but Janine points out that June doesn’t actually know where their going or what will happen. Then she deflates and wonders if Alma and Brianna died because they were nicer than her and June, or at least June. Maybe God only wants the nice handmaids.
June refuses to believe that- she’s killed quite a few Commanders and Guardians, so niceness doesn’t seem to have much to do with death in Gilead. The place is a death trap for all types.
Janine reveals that Alma insisted on waiting at the Murrows farm for June. She cries that they all loved June so much. June knows. Janine asks if June turned them in.
June admits the truth, explaining that they had Hannah and threatened to hurt her daughter, so she told them where the handmaids were. “You would have done the same thing.”
Janine: “You don’t know what I would have done. Maybe I would have done something better, something smarter.”
June: “Like what, huh? Like what, Janine? Something stupid and dangerous and then I would have had to save your -ss again.”
Janine: “This is stupid and dangerous! We’re going to the front of a war in a refrigerator. I wouldn’t have told them where we were. You know that’s why they’re dead.”
June: “I should have left you a long time ago.”
Well, that got ugly. I’m impressed that June admitted the truth right away, but turning it around on Janine is not okay. June and Janine both need to accept that everyone breaks eventually under the ruthless torture conditions June was subjected to. That’s why Nick wanted her to break before they’d damaged her irreparably. He knew she could and would hold out until they’d nearly destroyed her or accidentally killed her.
On the other hand, Brianna and Alma are dead because of Gilead, not because of June. Sooner or later, Guardians would have searched the farm and found them. They should have moved safehouses as quickly as they could once they realized she wasn’t right behind them. But as the Marthas have told us repeatedly, moving people is also dangerous, so they may have been doomed either way, unless they were willing to submit to the rape colony. At least they died running toward freedom.
Janine has a flashback to her life before Gilead, when she had to take time off from work for an abortion appointment. Her manager gave her a hard time about missing her shift at Denny’s. The clinic turned out to be a right to life, fake clinic where “counselors” tell women lies about abortion to pressure them to go through with their pregnancies. By the time Janine leaves, she’s upset and confused about what she should do.
Mark brings Rita a folder of interview prep materials to help her prepare her testimony in Serena’s defense. Rita is surprised, because Serena forgot to mention that part of helping raise the baby is testifying in her defense at her sex offender trial. She wants Rita to swear that Serena was under extreme duress, inflicted on her by Fred, when she convinced June to get pregnant by Nick. Mark adds that Serena believes she and Rita share a strong bond.
Rita: “Did you know in Gilead I was officially considered property of the Waterford family? [Mark did.] Registered and everything. Like my old Nissan Ultima.”
Rita stands at the end of a long conference table, dressed in tailored clothing. She stands within the frame of the portrait behind her and could pass for either a CEO or a madonna. Fred enters and tells her he didn’t recognize her, managing to sound polite but insulting. He asks about her family, but she refuses to reveal personal information. He acknowledges that she’s free to make her own choices and she agrees. Then he says it’s nice to see a friendly face. She tells him they aren’t friends and he acknowledges that, as well.
After Serena blindsided her, Rita has come to her encounter with Fred fully prepared for his manipulations.
She hands him an envelope: “You deal with your family. It’s not my job anymore and I thank God for that every day.”
Fred: “I was never cruel to you.”
Rita says she’ll pray for his son and walks out. Fred looks at the ultrasound image inside the envelope.
Rita’s gotten her closure. She’ll let the two sharks tear each other apart rather than continuing to be involved in their mess. She can spend some pleasant time with Nichole instead, who’ll they’ll probably forget about now that they have a biological child to fight over. It was Rita, after all, who activated the Martha network to save her.
The train crashes into something, then June and Janine hear gunfire outside. June realizes they’ve left Gilead and entered the warzone, so it’s time to get out.
It’s another sign of June’s suicidal recklessness that she doesn’t wait until the shooting stops, instead giving them a big red target.
June climbs on top of the tank car. There are dead Guardians surrounding the train. The engine derailed when it hit a car that was purposely placed on the tracks. People are looting the train. One points her gun at June and asks who she is. June has Janine climb out, telling the woman, Theresa, that they’re alone, unarmed and they need help.
Once they’re on the ground, Theresa has them searched. June has to convince her that no one will come looking for them. Theresa calls over the leader, Steven, to ask what he thinks about helping them. He’s not interested in providing aid to Gilead refugees either. June promises to do anything they say.
She’s desperate and doesn’t think that promise through. The fighters have recognized what they are and stereotyped them as runaway slaves. Steven tells them to get in the truck, then orders the rest of his crew to finish loading up and move out.
Janine worries that these fighters are mean and not Mayday. June tells her they’re fighting Gilead, which is good enough, so Janine is coming with her. Janine has no where else to go.
They drive toward downtown Chicago, through abandoned, broken down neighborhoods. The fighters’ headquarters is in an old rock climbing gym. They walk past dozens of people on the way to Steven’s office. He sits down and marvels that there are sex slaves in America. June says they weren’t in America, so he welcomes them back to the country. He heard they keep the sex slaves in chains.
They were only occasionally in chains. And I hate to burst his bubble, but there are plenty of illegal sex slaves in America in the present day.
Janine almost faints and June demands a place to stay and food. Steven and Theresa explain in not at all polite terms that June and Janine are back in America now, land of rugged individualism, and nobody cares whether or not they’re hungry or tired. Steven says that the loot from the train is the first food they’ve had in weeks.
June responds that they’re not looking for charity. He has no idea what they’ve done. “We can be useful.” She means they can fight and work, too. All he sees is a couple of experienced sex slaves offering their services. He orders Theresa to get them clothes and food, then asks which one of them is going to stay behind with him to pay for it. June tells him she didn’t mean that.
Steven: “It’s what you’ve got. Nothing’s free here.”
June stays. Steven unzips his pants and says she must be used to this. Of course he doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t want to see the truth- that he’s raping her. June shakes as she reaches toward his jeans. He notices her reticence and says he won’t force her. She and Janine can leave empty handed instead.
June has reached her limit for rape. She barely made it through the forced ceremony in S3. She stands up and asks if this group is Mayday. He doesn’t even know who Mayday are.
June finds Janine sorting through bins of clothing. She’s already changed into a red sweater that matches her eye patch. Theresa told her that they have lots of clothes because the stores were full when the fighting started. June interrupts to tell Janine that they need to leave. She promises they’ll find somewhere else that’s safe. Janine asks if Steven hurt her. June is still visibly shaken, but she tells Janine no, Steven didn’t hurt her. Once June takes a pile of clothes to change into, Janine looks toward Steven’s office.
In a flashback to Janine’s preGilead life, she’s cooking in her apartment. There are twinkle lights hung around the kitchen like stars. She sips from a mug, then looks at the pamphlet she got at the anti-abortion clinic. Her son, Caleb, who looks about 2 years old, runs into the room, laughing. She says he should be asleep, picks him up and carries him back into the bedroom. She rocks him and sings to him along with his music box, which also projects stars onto the walls and ceiling.
The scene fades into Janine sitting in a doctor’s office. Once the doctor comes in, it’s clear that this is an actual abortion clinic. The doctor makes sure that Janine is making the choice by herself and gives her some other legally required information, but doesn’t question her about her personal life the way the other clinic did. She tells Janine that those other clinics are called “crisis pregnancy centers”. “They lie to women to convince them to keep unwanted pregnancies.”
She gives Janine the medication she needs for a chemical abortion. Janine will need to take one pill tonight, then more in the morning. Her symptoms will subside within 2 days. The doctor says she’s already done the hard part. Janine looks satisfied with her choice.
Janine started to explain to the doctor that she made this decision because she already has one child. She’s doing okay with taking care of him, and is thinking of going back to school. She can’t afford a second child and would have trouble caring for both kids by herself. She made the hard choice to give up one child so that she could continue to be a good parent to the other.
Rita sits in a sunny window in her apartment and says a prayer before she eats takeout sushi. She’s alone, for now, but she’s making her own choices and taking care of herself. She chose not to help Serena raise the baby so that she could put her memories of enslavement in Gilead behind her and learn how to be free again.
June takes off her handmaid’s robes and piles them on the floor. I want to watch them burn so badly, but they could come in handy as a disguise someday, should she want to go on a mission back into Gilead. Once June has changed into street clothes, Janine brings her a slice of bread and says they can stay. She tells June it wasn’t so bad and Steven thinks her eye patch is cool. June apologizes for not protecting Janine. Looking satisfied, Janine tells her to eat.
I think Janine was happy to get the chance to be the strong one and the protector for once when she took over with Steven. June has fallen into the trap of feeling like being the leader means she can’t delegate the tough jobs, but sometimes a tough job for one person is easier for another.
Janine’s satisfaction with herself notwithstanding, Steven used coercion on both women to gain sexual favors. The fact that he gave them a choice between starvation or sex with him means that he sexually assaulted both women, even though Janine eventually gave dubious consent. His intention to either allow them to come to harm or force one of them to have sex with him equals assault on his side. 👿 💀 😱
Rita is safe in Canada, where she’s able to say no to the Waterfords’ manipulations and work past her slave mentality. June and Janine have left Gilead, but they are in America, land of exploitation. In Steven’s mind, even in our current culture, there’s a very good chance that he would say he made a business deal with Janine and it was up to Janine to convince him that she was good for something else besides sex if the arrangement was offensive to her. Of course her ability to do that while she’s starving is limited, but a guy steeped in rape culture, like Steven, wouldn’t see that as his problem.
Janine put on a red sweater when she got to Steven’s compound, but returned from his office in midnight blue. She feels more like herself now- gaining approval from authority figures is a place where she’s comfortable and unlike June, she’s rarely been in full control of her own life or body. The point of showing us the two abortion clinics might have been to show how much coercion she was subject to in her everyday life before Gilead, from the demanding managers who wouldn’t even let her trade shifts for a doctor’s appointment to the manipulative clinic that lied about its purpose online.
She may or may not suffer eventual psychological consequences from giving in to Steven- keeping them alive and safe is a powerful reward for making that sacrifice. It probably depends on what happens next. Did she permanently brand them as the group prostitutes or will they be able prove they have other valuable skills?
June and Janine are theoretically free, but from the way Steven spoke, they could be captured at any time and possibly turned in for a bounty. They will continue to be treated like slaves and prostitutes as long as anyone knows about their pasts. They are still on the run and in survival mode. Unlike Rita, they can’t stop thinking like slaves or come back to themselves or even move on to thinking like warriors. They need to think like runaway slaves who made it across the border but will be sent back if captured, a category Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t fully explored yet.
[ETA: I realized a few things as I was adding screen caps, which means I look more closely at the characters’ body language throughout a scene. We saw June’s pile of discarded clothing because she was psychologically leaving her servitude behind. That shot may signal the last time we ever see her in those robes as a handmaid (she could wear them again on an undercover mission), but obviously it’s too soon to tell.
We saw the ways that Janine was subject to coercion preGilead to help explain why it’s so much harder for her to stop seeking approval and stand up for herself instead. What surprised me, though, were her facial expressions while she tells June that she didn’t mind acting as Steven’s sex slave. She keeps her eyes down and even closed much of the time, her head tilted so her hair falls over her face (the way she did when she was ashamed of the way her missing, infected eye looked in S3Ep9), her smile might as well be a grimace and she purposely sits facing the opposite direction from June. Though her words are brave and perky, the overall effect of her body language says she’s sad, haunted, ashamed and hiding. She did this because she was able to when June wasn’t and she felt it was her turn to shoulder the burden, not because she was okay with it.
Kudos to Madeline Brewer and Elizabeth Moss for the nuances in their performances in this episode.]
Steven’s people seem like a group of survivors who are fighting to stay alive and maybe hold some territory, not the group of ideological freedom fighters June is looking for or even an organized military unit. She’s moved from a highly regulated dystopia to a war torn, chaotic dystopia. Canada is Heaven on Earth in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I wonder if Mayday is strictly a Gilead thing, not a Chicago army that’s trying to liberate Gilead like June has been hoping. She may have to create the Chicago Mayday, then free the women of Gilead herself.
Janine tells June, “I’m not a mushroom”- but in a sense she is, and there’s strength in that. Janine is closer to the darkness than June, who sees herself as fighting for the light. When the going gets tough, Janine allows herself to break, accepts the worst, then moves through it and survives. She feels and accepts her emotions.
She only appears fragile to those who think it makes a woman hysterical and weak to show emotion or allow others to see her mental illness. Janine has never been any weaker than anyone else in Gilead. She’s fought, in her own way, for what she wanted and believed in, just as much as June has. By the time she got to Gilead she’d already experienced gang rape and given up one child to save another (the choices Janine made when she had her abortion and June made when she sent Nichole to Canada).
With her third pregnancy, Janine fought to stay with her child, Angela. Technically, she doesn’t know that her first child, Caleb, is dead, but she’s very intuitive, so maybe she’s sensed it. Or maybe she’s pieced it together from conversations she’s overheard, but pushed the knowledge to the back of her mind. It makes sense for her to be drawn back to Boston now, when her only remaining child, the only child she’s had recent contact with, is still there.
Despite the terrible things that have happened to her, Janine chooses love over anger whenever possible. The downside is that she tends to direct her hatred inward, as both America and Gilead teach women to do. Before Gilead, she had to make harder choices than June and experienced more abuse. That left with her with a survivor’s ability to do the hard thing in the moment, but her cracks show more quickly than June’s from the accumulated trauma. Her hard things are different from June’s.
June’s accumulated trauma/suicidal recklessness has been showing more and more since season 2, but usually only Nick sees it because June attempts to project strength. Natalie’s doctor, who also knew June’s mother, was the only person to see her deep depression and name it.
Darkness doesn’t have to have a negative connotation and light doesn’t have to be positive. I chose the screen caps at the top of the post carefully. Janine and Caleb are sitting in the peaceful, loving darkness that she has created for them, a Heaven on Earth, despite the difficult choice she’s making. June sits in a cold white light, surrounded by milk, after turning to murder and coercion, Gilead’s tools, the tools of oppression, to further her goals, which are ultimately good.
While June keeps the greater good in mind, in the moment, she’s sometimes very angry and it’s only lately that she can fully admit that to herself. That blinding light can turn into a relentless, burning fire, which is what June has been experiencing since she decided to live and save Nichole after Nick found her bleeding on the patio in season 2. We saw that fire rage symbolically when the neighborhood burned as she sent Nichole away and she became free to take Gilead down with her. Lately, as she’s had to put away her passion for Hannah, the fire is hardening into the cold, hard light of the milk car.
Maybe part of what Nick meant in episode 3 by “keeping June alive” was keeping her from getting herself killed. She hasn’t cared if she lived or died since season 2, and the feeling intensified when Hannah was moved to an unknown location. Nick thought letting her see Hannah would motivate her to live, but Hannah rejected her, so now June is even more determined to fight until she dies.
That’s probably the part of Luke’s anguish that he isn’t saying out loud. He knows June well enough to realize that feeling like she’s failed Hannah so completely will drive to her to suicidal behavior. She might not make another blatant attempt, but she’ll put herself in increasingly dangerous situations, hoping she’ll die.
June could take a less dangerous route and attempt to set up a more stable Underground Railroad out of Gilead instead of making herself cannon fodder, but she needs a reason to live. Some people live for their anger, but her anger and the rest of her loved ones don’t seem to be enough to get June past the loss of Hannah. She’s essentially lost 2 children and 2 spouses. Some parents don’t survive the loss of a child (or a spouse), though it might take several years for them to succumb to the loss. I don’t think June will be one of them, but she needs a new reason to live.
Fred deserves every punishment that can be heaped on him, especially since he apparently can’t see the inherent cruelty in slavery and in living under the threat of death or dismemberment for even small infractions, such as reading. Serena deserves punishment as well, but she also has a point when she says she was under duress. All of the women of Gilead, from the highest status wife to the lowest unwoman, are under enormous pressure to fulfill their roles. Serena wasn’t wrong to feel that Fred might replace her if she and her handmaid didn’t somehow produce a child soon. Rita is still under no obligation to testify for Serena, especially since Serena tried to trick her into it. But Serena does have a point about why she asked Nick to help her and why Nick agreed.
It’s the time in S2 when she and Fred raped June, hoping to get her to go into labor, that she should be on trial for. There’s no excuse for Serena’s collaboration with that one.
Gilead, Love and Loyalty
We’ve heard Joseph (and maybe someone else, or maybe just him, but more than once) say that Gilead doesn’t understand maternal love and didn’t take it into account. I would say that they didn’t understand love, period, or take it into account. The men who designed the final version of Gilead were all sociopaths who made sure they kept their loved ones close to them and were able to do what they wanted to with those women.
And presumably with their sons, as well, but we’ve strangely never explored what happens to the sons of Commanders in any detail. While I appreciate that for once the focus of a show has remained on the women, it would be helpful to understand more about the infrastructure the men and boys live under. We don’t know much more than the UN did in S3, since we weren’t privy to Fred’s confession. What do the males’ educations look like? How much time do their fathers spend with them? Are they allowed to be close to their mothers and sisters? Is service as a Guardian compulsory for all young men?
In a quasi polygamist, feudal/collectivist system like this, there are always excess, lower status males who must be disposed of, lest they out compete the older men too quickly or expect too many women of their own. We see that with Gilead’s endless wars and executions. But what of the first sons of the Commanders? Do they get a free ride straight to a teenage bride and a cushy seat on the local Council or are the Commanders more like medieval royal families, always looking over their shoulders in case their heirs try to stage a coup?
I’ve talked a lot this season about the way Gilead and the torturers look for their victims’ worst fears or breaking points. Love and family are Gilead’s weakness, in part because the leaders (the men) don’t fully understand that power. Even though the leaders have attachments to others, they don’t recognize their own attachments as weaknesses which leave them vulnerable to exploitation.
Lawrence clung to Eleanor, then felt free of her, but also can’t give up his house because that’s where he still feels close to her. He uses the house to fool himself into thinking he wasn’t powerfully affected by her death. Fred used his power as a Commander to fool himself into thinking he was both the victim and in control of his marriage to Serena, when it’s always been clear that she has the ultimate emotional power in the marriage. He feels such a strong need to control her and make her small, even disfigure her, because he knows she has frequent offers from other men and he’s a bit of an imposter.
Lawrence’s need to stay in the house where he lived with Eleanor left him open to manipulation by Nick. Fred’s insecurities about Serena led to many of his mistakes.
Putnam’s family was devastated by his affair with Janine and her need to stay close to Angela. It seems like a huge mistake that the architects of Gilead didn’t call the handmaids “concubines” and let them stay with their children, turning them into nannies as the children aged. It’s clear that most of the handmaids would have accepted their situations much more easily in exchange for regular contact with their biological children. The greed and pride of the Commanders and their wives led them to believe that they didn’t need to take the needs of the handmaids into account at all.
Instead the Commanders prioritized their own desire for promiscuity and their wives’ desire to pretend the children were solely their own. They chose violence as their sole weapon of control rather than weaponizing the handmaids’ love for their own children. Even now, it took Nick and Lawrence working together to figure out that Hannah is June’s weakness, despite how many times she’s showed them that very thing.
They’ve been too ruthless with one sort of trafficked human, the handmaids, and too overprotective of the other sort of trafficked human, the children. This combined policy ironically exposes the fatal flaws in the system, since it feeds the handmaids’ intolerance of years of rape and their growing need to be with their children or to at least set them free.
There are few, if any, true believers left in Gilead. Loyalty is gained only through habit, force or bribery. There no love that thrives here. This is not a mother country or even a fatherland. And that will be its downfall.
Images courtesy of Hulu.
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