This The Handmaid’s Tale review contains spoilers.
It’s no wonder this whole season has been lit like a séance; thematically it started dark, and it stayed that way. Anybody expecting a healing arc for post-escape June will have been left wanting, because season four was all about revenge. That’s where it started – with Esther Keyes stabbing her abuser to death and then crawling into June’s maternal embrace – and that’s where it’s ended – with baby Nichole smeared in the blood of her mother’s now-dead rapist. June’s not the only one who takes the big swings. This show’s no slouch on that front either.
In ‘The Wilderness’, June was made to choose between acceptance and justice, to decide between the “count our blessings” and “out of sight, out of mind” homilies of Luke and Rita, and her visceral need for retribution. Even though it dropped a bomb on her family, she chose justice.
The searing shame, and surely the point, is that June was forced to make that choice at all. Even outside of Gilead, the system failed to deliver what it owed a woman abused by a man with power. The supreme line from writer and showrunner Bruce Miller was June’s, “They know what he was, what he did and how it felt, they made a deal with him anyway. So maybe what he’s giving them is more valuable than what he took from me.” Check the Supreme Court, the NFL, Hollywood, the previous White House administration or any number of other examples to see that logic in action.
This finale was a savage commentary on how powerful men are more highly valued than the lives of the women they destroy with rape, assault and harassment. In the eyes of the International Criminal Court, one June Osborne did not equal one Fred Waterford. It took 22 women to tip the scale against Fred. (That appears to be the magic ratio by the way, for women’s allegations to be taken seriously. Look at any recent case of a man in the public eye accused of sexual harassment and assault, and the numbers seem to have to tip 20 before anybody listens.)
Betrayed by the law, June turned to her own sadistic brand of justice, which once again channelled Gilead. Two episodes ago, June recreated a Red Centre shame circle to punish Emily’s Aunt Irene. In the finale, she organised a Salvaging, one of the barbaric ritualised group murders the Handmaids were encouraged to commit to exorcise their rage. Director Liz Garbus appeared to make the connection explicit with that overhead shot of the women gathering around Fred’s body. Then the brief glimpse of his hooded corpse hanging on the former-Handmaids’ makeshift Wall (along with the final fuck-you of the Latin message his previous Handmaid carved into her closet before killing herself in there) completed the picture. A Gilead punishment for a Gilead Commander.
Fred’s murder played out like an extremely dark version of those everybody-pulls-together-to-save-the-clubhouse endings to a kids’ movie. First Tuello did his bit to frogmarch Fred out of Canada, then Commander Lawrence showed up on that beautifully lit bridge, filled with ironic “Praise be” sentiment. Next, Nick slapped on the cuffs and delivered the Commander to a terrifying June, she blew that whistle, and the cavalry arrived. If the goal hadn’t been to beat a man to death, it could all have ended on an air-punch freeze-frame with everybody throwing their baseball cap in the air.
In real terms, Fred’s death was out of a horror movie. The actual attack was filmed in close-up to show June as bestial, a snarling wolf rather than a person. Cutting it together with the repeated Jezebel’s flashback contrasted her gleeful lack of control in the woods with the meticulously controlled act she’d had to put on for Fred in Gilead. It released the tension that had built up in that brilliantly acted, stomach-tightening cell scene between Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes. I spent the whole of that waiting for June to draw a knife or bring out a vial of poison, but in the end, she just needed the moon and her teeth. Lesley Gore’s jubilant ‘You Don’t Own Me’ on the soundtrack made the perfect riposte from June to the Commander, too. The righteous rejoiced in vengeance alright.
June had decided to kill Fred long before that atmospherically lit night in the woods. Her resolve seemed to settle outside the court, when she’d realised that the legal system had left her by the wayside. From that moment on, Moss’ character had a kind of wry detachment, as though she’d resigned herself to what had to happen, however much she regretted what she thought it said about her as a mother.
The question now is: what next? Between the severed finger in the mail and the graffiti at the murder scene, there was no attempt to keep Fred’s murder quiet, even if it did take place in no-man’s land. Will June be prosecuted? Can Luke ever forgive her for choosing Old Testament retribution over the future of their family?
And finally: was it enough? Is that vicious night in the woods enough for June to finally be free of Fred Waterford? Scrutinise her face as the women emerged from the woods at dawn and we saw only a release of breath, as if she’d let something go. Is healing next for June? The fifth season will tell.
The Handmaid’s Tale season four is streaming now on Hulu in the US. Season four is airing weekly on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK.