This The Handmaid’s Tale review contains spoilers.
With all the emphasis on escape in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s easy to forget that assholes are by no means a Gilead-exclusive. From the fake clinic attempting to scare Janine into keeping an unwanted pregnancy, to the fake rescue by a guerrilla leader who demanded sex in exchange for food, ‘Milk’ reminded us that misogyny and exploitation weren’t invented by the Sons of Jacob. They just ran the most successful marketing campaign.
It was a heart-heavy message for another harrowing hour. After last episode’s literal torture, watching a shaking and traumatised June kneel down for yet more abuse felt unacceptably bleak. Then it was difficult to know what was worse, June’s trauma or Janine – a multiple rape survivor – brightly normalising the abusive transaction she’d endured in June’s stead by telling her it wasn’t so bad, “he thinks my eye patch is cool.”
Madeline Brewer is a rare actor able to match Elisabeth Moss for on-screen magnetism. If you’d been told right at the start of this show that out of that red sea of Handmaids, only June and one other would still be around in season four, thanks to Brewer’s charisma, all your money would have gone on Janine. The arduousness of their characters’ journey might have been suffocating this week, but the performances and the dramatically weird milk tanker setting (exploited for maximum strangeness by The Twilight Zone director Christine Choe), kept their scenes compelling.
Also compelling was the reversal in their dynamic. June has always acted as Janine’s protector, the hard-nosed sibling looking out for the fey innocent. June has shushed and reprimanded and comforted Janine, given her orders and promised to take care of her. When Janine was understandably reluctant to – in her words – “go to the front of a war in a refrigerator,” June said she wouldn’t let anything happen to her. That was good enough to convince Janine to jump into a vat of cold milk and almost drown – a death that would have seemed artily symbolic, though it’s difficult to parse exactly how, for two mothers who’d been used like cattle.
When the guerrilla leader had asked which one of the women was staying with him, June’s answer was “Not her”. Feeling responsible, being responsible, for their situation, June volunteered herself to keep Janine from harm. And then, when June was unable to submit to more abuse, Janine made a pragmatic choice and switched the roles. She was the protector now. All the way through the episode, June had repeatedly told Janine that things would be okay. It ended with the reversal of Janine mothering and reassuring June. “It’s okay. Eat.”
‘Milk’ gave us our first real glimpse at Janine’s life pre-Gilead, to her as a mother. The flashback was largely there to make the political point that though the ‘pro-life’ clinic targeting Janine felt like an in-world pre-cursor to Gilead, they’re a very real part of life today, and use those exact tactics to try to manipulate women into forgoing their reproductive rights.
The flashback also served as a reminder of Caleb, the young son taken from Janine who was killed in a car accident one year into Gilead’s regime. June had previously protected Janine by lying to her about Caleb’s fate. She told her that he was growing up on the sunny beaches of California, a lie that may well come back to hurt them both.
From one pregnancy to another, the episode’s other main thread involved Rita and the Waterfords. Though some of us might have been rooting for more fireworks from Rita’s reunion with the couple who once considered her their property, it was kind of perfect. Amanda Brugal has always played Rita with a controlled wisdom and solid emotional instincts, and that’s exactly how she approached this confrontation. Rita was genuinely moved by Serena’s pregnancy. She didn’t rage against the Waterfords or curse their unborn child. She quietly sabotaged Serena’s plan and exploded a bomb in Fred’s life by telling him about the baby.
Rita’s composure in the face of the Waterfords’ patronising appeals to her as family was a victory, for her and for episode writer Jacey Heldrich. “You deal with your family,” Rita told Fred, “it’s not my job anymore and I thank God for that every day.” The sun-streaming contentment of her solo sushi dinner made me beam. She must have dreamt of such a moment, of such freedom, and now it’s hers.
There’s no sunny sushi dinner for June and Janine, not yet. They’re back in America but, to quote that heartless Chicago fighter, it’s a fucking disaster. They’ve walked out of The Handmaid’s Tale and straight into The Walking Dead. Even out of Gilead, it still feels as though there’s an exhaustingly long way to go.
The Handmaid’s Tale season four, episodes one to four are streaming now on Hulu in the US. The new episodes will air on Channel 4 in the UK at a later date.