This The Handmaid’s Tale review contains spoilers.
“A messy bitch who takes the big swings but doesn’t think about the consequences.” You could do worse for a description of June Osborne. In ‘Nightshade’, Moira’s words proved right when June followed her instinct that a brothelful of sitting-duck Commanders was too good an opportunity to miss. One bottle of homemade poison and David Bowie’s Suffragette City later, and Gilead had suffered another blow. That was the big swing. And now for the consequences.
One consequence of June sticking around to watch the fireworks at the brothel was leaving the Keyes household and its fugitive Handmaids without a leader. In the Guardian truck last time, and during the raid at the start of this episode, June was the one who kept the others cool, shushing and reassuring and giving orders to so they wouldn’t be detected. While she was out enjoying mass murder, her soldiers were alone. The only solace was Nick asking “Where are the Handmaids?”, indicating that they got away.
It was a dramatic shift in tone from director Colin Watkinson who took us from the heady, glam-rock-infused schadenfreude of seeing nightshade poured down those frat boy commanders’ throats, to the eerie dread awaiting June on her return to the farm. Doors open, houselights blazing, bullet casings on the ground… the safe house no longer safe. Turning its atmosphere on a dime is a speciality of this drama. Whatever’s happening in Gilead, dread is never far away.
Neither is mistrust. Was the safe house location leaked? Or were the Eyes’ suspicions raised by the disappearance of Guardian Pogue? If the latter, count that as another big swing June took without considering the consequences, which included the death of the kind Guardian who refused to leave June’s side. Esther may have very good reason to believe that there are no good men in Gilead, but she’s wrong. He was one of them.
On the question of good men: enter, Nick Blaine. Some serious redesign work was done on Max Minghella’s character in the last season to take him from lowly driver, sometime spy and reluctant Gileadean, to shady military supremo. That’s clearly where the show needs him to be for this next part of the story, but, unlike June’s traceable ascent from survivor to resistance fighter, Nick’s promotion feels frustratingly forced. The character’s been kept off-screen for so long, he’s the subject of another allegiance mystery, just like the one played with Commander Lawrence last season. Whose side is Nick really on? Mayday’s or Gilead’s? Can June trust him?
Trust was in short supply between the Waterfords in their chapel scene. Serena’s attempt to appeal to Fred as her husband and not her commander fell flat. He saw through the act, and called her delusional if she really thinks Nichole is any more her daughter than his. In Canada, those two have been a couple of entwined poisonous cobras, taking it in turns to strike at each other. That could only go on for so long, apparently, as proven by the surprise news of Serena’s pregnancy. In narrative terms, the Waterfords finally conceiving feels like one pulled from the ‘what if?’ pile of ideas for characters whose story has run its course.
However unearned some of its plot developments might feel, The Handmaid’s Tale remains fluent in the complexities of abuse and trauma, as shown by Serena’s medical examination scene. Serena was physically abused by Fred, but according to the rules of Gilead – a regime that she had helped to create. Her collusion made her an apologist for her own abuse, normalising the amputated finger and whipping she’d suffered as proportional responses to her infringements of the rules. In just a few short exchanges from writer Kira Snyder, the show staged a miniature discussion about victimhood and complicity.
The examination’s real purpose, of course, was to lead towards the pregnancy announcement. Considering that all signs until now have pointed to Fred being infertile, Serena will no doubt see it as a miracle. (If Fred can father children, incidentally does that cast doubt on the identity of Nichole’s biological father?) It appears that the Waterfords’ hook-up en route to Canada bore fruit, which changes everything for motherhood-obsessed Serena. With her own biological child, will her battle for custody of Nichole still be as urgent?
Responsibility for Nichole and the other Gilead refugee children is chafing on Moira, who never planned on motherhood. Moira’s romantic, flirtatious scenes with her new girlfriend (played by UK actor Zawe Ashton) were a rare interlude that once upon a time, would only have been possible in a pre-Gilead flashback. It wasn’t that long ago that Moira and Emily were as shaky on their feet as the newly arrived Rita. Their stories show that recovery is real. Rita will get there too. As the Asher/James’ thread showed, leaving behind the familiar is an adjustment.
Speaking of the familiar, June’s brief flight of freedom is over and she’s back in bondage, for what, the fourth time? In an effective cliff-hanger, her most recent escape attempt ended in another recapture. What torment will Gilead put her through this time? How could it possibly top what we’ve already seen? Will familiarity and repetition be this show’s undoing?
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.