Previously on The Handmaid’s Tale: June got a new posting; Aunt Lydia showed us there’s still plenty of vicious hate left to go around; Serena and Fred looked sad, and Emily made it to Canada. Here’s the recap for episodes 1-3 if you missed it!
This week, we saw that sucking up to power can leave you with a false sense of security, and we probably cried a whole lot. (Please say it wasn’t just me?) Spoilers ahead! Run to the buffet and grab a plate of those deviled eggs, a macaron and a nice cup of tea, and let’s dive in to episode 4: Three Christenings and a Funeral For My Mascara.
Ah, original sin. You are a silly idea. But you are an excuse for a party, whether that’s with a group of “holier than thou child-molesters” who want to “control your choices” (Thanks, Holly, for that burn!) or with an entirely different group of holier than thou rapists, abusers and oppressors. Cake for everyone! With a side of misery and torture, because that’s the Gilead way!
Weaving together flashbacks of Hannah’s christening with the ‘celebration of all the children of Gilead’ allows us to compare the small, private, friendly ceremony with Gilead’s version, which is all about showing off. Here, the typical choreography and styling of Gileadean Event Management is out in force, complete with Aunt Lydia on a mobility scooter, a great example of bathos in action, adding a little dark humour. And the scene needed it. This was a parade of stolen babies, each one representing a woman raped and exploited, and their “blessed” fruit packaged up as an example of Gilead’s Holy Success. It’s grotesque. ‘Successful’ handmaids are given pride of place for the spectacle, and we focus on three mothers who have had their children stolen: Janine, June and Ofmatthew. Janine is aching to see baby Angela, and it’s hard not to feel warm towards her even though she is a constant liability. There are flickers of pain on Ofmatthew’s face, which she tries to suppress. She may appear to be a true believer, but there’s some potential there. She has ‘given’ three babies to Gilead already, and she hasn’t been retired from active duty yet. June, of course, won’t see her baby, but that is a source of joy as well as pain. Nichole is free from this ludicrous pantomime, at least.
The party continues back at the Putnam house, where — unusually — the local handmaids have been invited to lurk in the kitchen while the elites have a very boring gathering in the formal parlour. It’s another example of some much-needed movement in the show, providing new spaces for illicit natter and conspiratorial chat, but it is also a convenient way for June to interact with the Waterfords again. And so she does, taking the opportunity for some plotting with Serena and some string-pulling with Fred. Somehow, this goes unnoticed by everyone else there. Huh. June is riding high this week, like Littlefinger in a red dress. She encourages Serena to join in — to “wear the dress” but “pull the strings”. It seems to be working. But this is a very dangerous game.
June: As Mrs Waterford, you have influence, access, power…
Serena: Up to a point.
June: So move the point. Like we did before.
To be fair, it worked for a little while before. But it came at a price. And as much as Yvonne Strahovski’s performance teases out all of the vulnerabilities of Serena Joy and (DAMMIT) sometimes makes us like her with the sheer power of her performance, let’s not forget that Serena is a vicious, terrible person, who has done monstrous things for selfish reasons, and just because she finally discovered some human feelings last year, through the transformative magic of being near a baby, it doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on her for one second. The Waterfords won’t save you, June. They are still the enemy.
This week taught us that lesson via poor Janine. Sweet vulnerable Janine, who is perhaps the only person who can draw out Aunt Lydia’s soft side (as opposed to the squishy side that Emily found in the season 2 finale. Sorry). June tried, but got a zapping for it last week, and a stern rebuke this week. Janine uses the ultimate favour-currying currency — a cup of tea — and gets an approving smile from Aunt Lydia. This is probably the nicest she’s ever been. But it’s all for nothing. Sucking up to power never works in the end, poppet.
Our first glimpse of Aunt Lydia in season 3 established that when she is vulnerable, she is at her most dangerous. Unpredictable violence is now Her Thing. She was embarrassed when Naomi Putnam wouldn’t let her party with the fancy people, and she couldn’t very well hang out in the kitchen where there is a phalanx of resentful handmaids and lots of sharp cutlery. So she sits on her own, wincing, and wanting to go home. Then Constant Liability makes her move.
It started so innocently — even if it was tinged with that special rising dread that you feel in your stomach every time you watch this show. Janine just wanted a cuddle with Angela! And to say, very sweetly, “Angela is so lucky to have you as her parents.” At this point, she was almost the perfect handmaid: polite, fertile, thankful, and parroting the Great Gilead Lie. She was visible and speaking, which were marks against her of course. But she was doing fine. Then all she wanted was to be the Ultimate Handmaid, to stay with the Putnams and give them another child. Everyone clutches their pearls at this. You might wonder if they were concerned about fairness and the appearance of hoarding. We can’t have all the babies for ourselves! But no, they were just slapped in the face by the notion of a Woman Wanting Something, and by Janine’s slip when she called Angela ‘her’ daughter. Aunt Lydia already had the cattle-prod ready. Finally allowed into the hallowed Parlour of Elites (by sneaking in while their backs were turned) her violent reaction was cruel, sudden and brutal.
I couldn’t work out why the Wives and Commanders looked so shocked. They know how handmaids are treated! Janine started her handmaid life missing an eye! Then I decided it’s because they had to witness it firsthand. Suddenly, the curtain was pulled back, and the brutality of the Great Gilead Lie was in front of them in all its horror, bleeding on their fancy carpet. Having said that, they did naff all to help. June was yelling “Stop her! Stop her!” and none of those bastards moved. It took June launching herself across the room and acting like a human shield, yelling directly at Aunt Lydia, to snap her out of it. Aunty L sees their disgusted faces, orders the Guardians to take Janine away and then goes to have a cry. What are you crying for, Hell on Wheels? Feeling bad about beating the only person who was nice to you? Ashamed of what you’ve become? Or just embarrassed that you lost your temper in front of all those fancy people who hate you?
Serena didn’t help Janine, and when she skulks over to June later, she is more concerned about “poor Naomi” having her party ruined than about the woman who was just beaten up. It’s telling that her instinct is to defend the “system” and how it’s supposed to work. She’s a snake, that one. Don’t build her confidence up too much, June. I beg you. Befriending Aunt Lydia didn’t help Janine. Chumming up with Serena carries different risks, but it’s essentially the same issue. She might tell you where you can spot Hannah from a distance, but you won’t get anything more than small tokens from her. Sure, you can lie by the pool and spark up, but you’re not bringing down the system that way.
As if to underline that message and draw big arrows pointing at it, we see Serena’s emotional reaction to seeing the video of Luke and Nichole. Although Serena agreed to let Nichole escape, she did unspeakable things to become a parent, and she’s not letting it go that easily. And it doesn’t seem like Gilead is willing to let Nichole go. Is Luke in danger now? Will they be coming for him? Don’t you bloody dare!
“I’m not supposed to hug you until you’re ready.”
And now it’s time for the sobby part. As is tradition, we are north of the border, and this time watching Emily reunite with Sylvia and Oliver. And reader? I wept buckets. I was dangerously dehydrated during the Canada scenes this week. Where’s my cup of tea, Janine?
Moira warned us that reunions don’t always play out how people want, so we should have been prepared. But admit it: Who really wanted a pure and straightforward reunion, perhaps with a slow-motion run, followed by hugging, crying, and laughing with relief that even though they were lost, they found each other, and the horrors didn’t break them?
Instead, it was awkward. Because it would have been cheap and unrealistic if it wasn’t. Sigh. It has been years since they saw each other. Emily was probably presumed lost to them forever. Sylvia seems to have moved on, though she plays nervously with her (probably new) wedding ring. Oliver is thoroughly adorable and super-excited to see Emily, though even for him it is a strange experience. His room is full of pictures of her — photos of them as a happy family, and a drawing of Emily as a superhero, fighting to get home. For the traumatized Emily, none of these images ring true. But the innocence of Oliver’s perspective is medicinal. He asks her to read to him, and moves closer to snuggle next to her as she reads. It’s too much for her, and for Sylvia, and Oliver, looking a bit bemused, takes over while they weep for the life that they had and the time that they lost. It’s another reminder that one can escape from Gilead but the damage it did can’t easily be taken away.
That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try though, and so, we find ourselves at Nichole’s christening. This time, it’s not original sin that is being washed away. Nichole is a child of Gilead, and as Luke says, “this little one should be absolved of their sins.” Not hers, theirs.
Callbacks and references
Luke took Nichole on a march — to fight for her mother’s cause. We saw June marching against Gilead in season 1, and Holly was an activist too, which makes Nichole a third-generation protester, and she’s still in a onesie.
Gatherings of important people have a few more security measures now. They aren’t taking any chances after the bombing…
Naomi thanked June for saving Angela on the bridge in season 1.
When June ponders how she feels about Fred, deciding she doesn’t hate him or love him, but she feels something for him, this comes directly from the book.
Until next time: pray for Janine, and let’s celebrate the best godparents ever! To Luke and Moira, who will always be adorable, and who will definitely throw a much better christening party than Naomi Putnam, probably with jello shots, charades and a little karaoke. It’s what June would have wanted. (You can keep your devilled eggs, Naomi. No-one wants to eat those terrible fertility metaphors.)
Header Image Source: Hulu