Previously, on The Handmaid’s Tale: Were you paying attention to the recap montage, because it’s been forever since our last trip to Gilead! Still murky? I’ve got your back: June succeeded in her plan to save the children of Gilead by smuggling as many of them as possible onto a plane with the help of an entire network of Handmaids and Marthas, and the reluctant blind eye of Commander Lawrence. How do you stop a bad man with a gun? Angry, determined women with rocks… The plane was met in Canada by Team Awesome (Moira, Luke and Emily, may they be protected at all costs), and there were lots of hugs and tears. Rita is safely in Canada with the kiddies and Team Awesome (hooray). The Waterfords are in a very fancy prison having been arrested for war crimes, treason, slavery, rape and Being Irredeemably Terrible People (HOORAY) after some mutual throwing under buses. When we last saw June, she was bleeding from a gun shot wound, but being carried away by her sisters in red. To safety or doom? Aye, there’s the cliffhanger. Also, Nearly Pointless Nick was around somewhere, feathering his nest but looking really conflicted about it.
My season 3 finale recap is here if you want a more detailed refresher before we dive in to the first 3 episodes of season 4. There will be spoilers, so turn back if you want to avoid those, or read on if you need to brace yourself before watching. There are some shockers in store…
Episode One: OMG, They Ate Mr Darcy?
June absolutely didn’t die; she just went to live on a farm. It’s too far away to visit, but I’m sure she’s having a lovely time, playing in the fields with her friends, hanging out with Mr Darcy the pig, enjoying the fresh air… Oh wait, that’s Janine, who must also be protected at all costs. Janine is often the punchline in the book, but in the show, she is probably the nicest of the Handmaids, as well as the most vulnerable — though she’s tougher than she appears. Just don’t force-feed her slices of Mr Darcy after she’s made friends with him, OK? That’s mean.
Things were looking Very Very Bad for the rebels, but after a bit of impromptu field surgery, a tense trip in a van and some homemade antibiotics, June’s recuperating at a safe-ish house, under the fangirling eye of a teenage Wife, Mrs Keyes, who’s part Hashtag Resist, part Serena Junior, and part ‘Oh no, don’t make me feel sorry for someone else as well, I’m running out of room’.
June’s up and about before too long, but she’s running on fumes. Season 3 June had become unpredictable and ruthless, at times barely clinging on to sanity and a clear sense of right and wrong. Single-minded to the point of recklessness, she no longer waits for things to happen, but makes them happen. This makes the show much more dynamic than the book, and while it’s fantastic that the show isn’t burdened by a determination to make June permanently likeable, I’m sure we can all be forgiven for sighing at her choices from time to time.
In the book, Moira’s escape from the Red Center makes her an urban legend among Handmaids, and June has taken up this mantle now. In episode one, she accepts this somewhat reluctantly. It’s a burden, she discovers. People are depending on her. She’s got very little patience left for play-acting to manage the people around her; after giving Serena Junior a much-needed scolding, she does comfort her, but she does this more for strategic reasons than compassionate ones. The other Handmaids in Team Farm seem to be content to stay there forever, but June reminds Alma they are “not free”. Better isn’t good enough. This is an illusion of safety.
June goes further than Moira, and takes the role of Red Leader to a very dark place; she morphs into Aunt Lydia. I guess it makes sense; she needs to ‘manage’ the Handmaids and punish a rapist. June’s order to execute the prisoner provides a strategic release for the Handmaids, and for Serena Junior, who is also now bonded to the women more closely in a sense of shared culpability. But it is also a chilling parallel of the Particicution from the very first episode, and a Bad Sign. June’s line “love you too, Banana” could show she is still delirious from her injuries, imagining she is talking to her daughter, or she might just be upcycling Hannah’s nickname for her new Child Murderer Grooming purposes. Either way, UNEASY.
What about the real Aunt Lydia? Aunt Lydia’s been interrogated for 19 days and is not best pleased. If the rebellious Aunt Lydia of The Testaments is going to make an appearance in the show, she’s hiding it very well so far. There are a few expressions where I thought there were flashes, but this may just been the skill of Ann Dowd’s performance, daring me to find something sympathetic. I really really want Rebel Mastermind Aunt Lydia. I really do.
What do American Agent Dude and Nearly Pointless Nick have in common? They enjoy telling prisoners important information for side-plot reasons…
Mr Tuello tells the Waterfords about the Kiddie Exodus, for reasons unclear. Imagine him setting that meeting up: “Yeah, bring them out of their luxury cells. I want to mwahahaha at them for a minute, and share sensitive information that should be classified, with enemies of the state. No, I’m not doing a treason. It’s all fine.” Sharing that intel puts June at risk, has no direct impact on the case against the Waterfords, and serves no strategic purpose — unless he is plotting something and wants their advice, or he just really enjoys watching them squirm when they realise Gilead has lost 86 children and it was their former Handmaid that organised it.
Nick continues to feather his nest while looking conflicted. THE RANGE. I mean no shade to Max Minghella but he needs more to do and soon, because at the moment, if you plot his arc on the rebel / puppet graph, he’s not really playing the long game any more — he’s just quietly accruing power and influence while telling himself he’s not really one of the bad ones. It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking, Nick; what matters is what you do.
So what does Nick choose to do? Buddy up with Commander Lawrence, who is sitting in a cell, wishing he was back on the Sitty Down side of the world’s most impractical conference table again. Bad things happen on the Standy Up side, after all. Unlike Aunt Lydia, his time in a cell seems to have been sans torture. He even gets a makeover once it’s time for him to leave the cell again. Aunt Lydia’s going to be furious. (Turn on them, Aunty L!) Lawrence might be more rebellious than the other Commanders, but let’s face it, he just wants power back, and a slightly different kind of awful world. Better isn’t good enough; ‘differently awful’ certainly isn’t either.
Episode Two: Red Leader, You OK?
There are Guardians sniffing around the farm looking for their missing buddy, so Team Farm need to make a move, pronto. To get the location for the next safe house, June visits a new contact at a local Jezebels house. Her name is legend there as well; last time June was in the Boston Jezebels, she killed High Commander Winslow with a pen, and the Marthas helped her cover it up. There were consequences though; her actions got a lot of women killed when the investigation traced his last movements to Jezebels. Every time June rebels, other people die. She finds out that the Kiddie Exodus is inspiring other rebellious rumblings in Gilead, which will surely go the same way. June’s rebel energy is chaotic, something that Moira observes later in the episode, when the process of re-homing the children proves challenging. She is, as Moira says (mostly) with love, a “messy bitch”.
June’s going to use that chaotic energy to kill lots of Commanders at Jezebels. It’s vengeance, sure, plus an earnest desire to liberate the women there, and a dash of strategic cunning: to weaken Gilead by taking out some of its military leaders. It is also reckless. And there will be consequences. (I SPY A THEME!) Serena Junior’s home-brewed Husband Control Poison is going to be their weapon of choice. (Her husband is awful and she is terrifying; both can be true. At least she is usefully terrifying.) At last, proof: shots are never a good idea.
It’s all fine and murdery until she gets back to the farm. The other Handmaids are nowhere to be seen, and she’s arrested. Who’s that coming over to say hi? NEARLY POINTLESS NICK. “I’ll try to keep you alive,” he says. Careful now, Nick, don’t pull a muscle with all that trying.
Meanwhile in Canada, we pay a visit to Team Awesome. Luke and Moira are fighting the good fight, raising money to support the children rescued from Gilead, with Rita’s help. It is tough, and the episode doesn’t shy away from the ethical consequences of Kiddie Exodus. The Greater Good is hard to explain to children who miss “the only families they remember”. Fortunately, those children have Team Awesome to help them to adjust. Also, Moira has a new girlfriend, yay!
The Waterfords’ back and forth continues with a few twists. (Seriously, why are their cells so big and comfortable?) Remember that time Serena and Fred had sex for the first time in years during the Great Betrayal Journey? Well, kids, sometimes when a man and a woman hate each other very much, they strike an uneasy truce and one manipulates the other into having some sex as a distraction, and that’s what makes a baby. (That’s still an easier story to tell than conception via Handmaid.)
Unfair Musing Of The Day
Asher / James is just a wee’un who misses his family… but he also misses his big house, his servants and his old way of life. Is he unresponsive to his aunt because he has been raised in a place where women were second class citizens who waited on him? Is this an attitude he will carry with him to adulthood? All the children on that flight have the chance to be free and equal now; is that loss of his prior status as Privilege Boy going to haunt him as an adult? Is he going to grow up to be an entitled horror who believes the life he deserved was taken away from him by women? For his aunt, any sign that he misses Gilead will be a knife to the guts; this is the system that murdered his biological parents, so she’ll yell at him for missing Gilead, and his resentment will fester. In conclusion, I hope Luke and Moira are raising a lot of money to pay for therapy for those kids, because yeeeeesh.
Episode Three: Better To Die Standing…
This is a hard watch; it is the longest episode of the season so far and you can feel every excruciating second of it. If you’re not keen on watching torture, skip a lot of those scenes, because EVERYBODY BREAKS, and June is not an exception. You have been warned.
I had a theory that the series would keep going by focusing on different Handmaids, broadening the world of the show by just nudging the apostrophe over to the right. But this is June’s Tale, not The Handmaids’ Tale. Bye bye, theory. And farewell too, to quite a few other characters, some of whom have been with us since the start. But at least they all died standing.
“Mrs Keyes is safe in custody. The other Handmaids are still at large. If you don’t tell them where they are, I can’t help you.” Gilead wants their Handmaids back, sure. Nick’s going to save the day by… telling her to do as she’s told. Right. Gotcha. I’m sure June will give him a medal for trying to keep her alive. That’s all him. Well done, Nick. Bravo. At least he looked conflicted about it, right? Sigh.
Aunt Lydia’s there as June’s advocate (HAHAHA) and wants her to live only to be useful in the future. At least she’s upfront about it. If she’s conflicted, it’s just because she’s fresh from the interrogation chambers herself. Mind you, there’s that pat on the shoulder during the last phase of the torture, which looks sympathetic if you really really want to see it. It’s electric watching June and Aunt Lydia facing off against each other through the episode, as June torments her with her own failures (“Your fault! Your fault!”) and gets plenty of jabs in that shake Aunt Lydia to her core, in those breaks between being waterboarded. Once the pliers come out, she gives up a location, and her fingernails get a temporary reprieve. It’s a fake location though, so the torture recommences. This time they up the stakes; she’s protecting the lives of Team Farm, so they make her choose between the lives of one set of friends and another. Will she let her Martha friends from the Lawrence house die to protect Handmaids? Answer: Yes. They both tell her it’s OK first though. Sort of. Farewell, Beth and Sienna. Then they put her in a box for a while to think about what she’s done, and we get a nod back to last season, where June started to lose her mind while singing Belinda Carlisle.
The time is ripe for Nick to renounce his Nearly Pointless-ness and do something! Here he comes, dusting off his cape and chatting with Commander Lawrence to come up with a plan. “Move on,” says Lawrence. Helpful ally so far. Nick offers him a nice house if he helps June to break; to save her life, by having her sell out her friends. They both know there’s a particular threat that will definitely break her. SO HELPFUL. “Hi June! Now you’re consumed by guilt and completely heartbroken because the thing that’s been keeping you going all this time is now never going to happen the way you want, but at least you have all your fingernails! You’re welcome!” (In Canada, all Luke can do to help is something symbolic, but honestly, planting a green persimmon for good luck was still more helpful than Nick.)
June: I thought you were going to clean up your mess.
Lawrence: I can’t do it from the end of a rope.
Commander Lawrence didn’t do it from his comfortable chair when he had the chance, either. At some point you have to stop calling it ‘keeping your powder dry’ and just admit you are never going to fire.
Rescuing Hannah has been June’s goal since sending Emily and Nicole off to Canada at the end of season 2. Now, she can either be broken and give up, or get her guns blazing. At this point, she just wants the former; she imagines it means death, and she wishes for it. But Aunt Lydia’s been instructed to start a new horrifying Rape Camp For Wayward Handmaids instead. The Kiddie Exodus means there is even greater ‘need’ for Handmaids, and even the naughty ones are precious commodities. The rest of Team Farm are captured and will be sent there too. It looks bleak. But then…
Nick’s here to save the day! Oh wait…no. He’s just seeing her off on her way to Rape Camp. He looks really conflicted about it though. He got a romcom kiss moment as well, for some reason.
No, Team Farm will have to save themselves, and it’s time for some chaotic energy again. The Handmaid-mobile stops at a level crossing, and the Guardian goes to pee, leaving Team Farm alone with just Aunt Lydia and her cattle prod. She’s not as scary as she used to be, and after some meaningful glances between the Handmaids, June launches at her. The others leap out of the vehicle, while Aunt Lydia urges June not to kill her. And then they are off. If they can cross the track before the train gets there, Guardian Thimble Bladder will have to wait for the enormous train to pass before he can chase after them. It’s a chance. For a moment it’s joyous. It’s reckless, but it’s a choice this time: escape, or die on your feet. They couldn’t all outrun the bullets or incoming train, but my goodness, they tried. If June hadn’t dithered over whether to kill Aunt Lydia or not, more of them might have made it, but don’t tell her I said that, because season 4 June is scary AF. The final flashback of the Handmaids at the Red Center, whispering to each other and holding hands was a beautiful tribute to those fallen sisters. Farewell Sarah, Ellie, Brianna and Alma.
Nick and June are polar opposites at this point. Nick does nothing and calls that ‘playing it safe’, thinking only of the immediate consequences, whereas June focuses on the principle rather than the consequences. With Nick, you’ll live, but you won’t thank him for it. With June, you’ll probably die, and you won’t thank her for that either, but you’ll know you chose not to live on your knees, even if just for a moment. Neither strategy is great, but one makes for more exciting television…
So there we have it: the first 3 episodes of season 4 don’t just tie up loose ends; they drop them off a building and run them over with a train, but the stage is cleared for the action to move elsewhere. And there’s going to be lots more of that to come…
Next time: June and Janine are on the run, and Rita pays a visit to Serena.
Header Image Source: Hulu