The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 Recap: Esther, June’s Revenge, Fred’s Downfall & Serena Battle Lines Drawn

As The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 arrives, here’s what happened to June, Janine, Emily, Fred and Serena Waterford, Aunt Lydia, Nick, and new character Esther last time around. Spoilers.

The Handmaid's Tale poster Elisabeth Moss
Photo: Hulu

Warning: contains major spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4.

June Osborne getting out of Gilead was season four’s major move forward. After several failed and rejected escape attempts over the seasons, June finally stepped foot on Canadian soil and claimed asylum. She reunited with her loved ones and was safe. Except, as season four explored, we bring our trauma with us. You can take the girl out of Gilead, but you can’t take the Gilead out of the girl. June may have been in the bosom of her family – Luke, Moira, baby Nichole – but her suffering was such that healing was still a long way off. First: she needed revenge.  

Season four was all about revenge. It started with June encouraging a young rape survivor to stab one of her multiple abusers to death, and ended with June and a pack of former-Handmaid wolves tearing Fred Waterford to shreds. When the legal system betrayed June and the others by failing to bring Fred to justice for his many crimes, they salvaged him. June gave in to an instinct for violence in a cathartic act so savage that fans were left wondering if there’d ever be a way back for her. Season five, streaming now in the US, and the sixth and final season, will tell.

Here’s a recap of what went down last time with The Handmaid’s Tale’s major players:

Ad – content continues below

June, Esther, Chicago and Janine 

Having freed 86 of Gilead’s stolen children and nine Marthas on what came to be known as ‘Angel’s Flight’ in the season three finale, June started season four on the run as an enemy of the state. June, Janine, Brianna, Alma and the others hid out in a remote farmhouse, welcomed by Gilead-hating Wife Esther Keyes. 

Esther was a young teenager forcibly married to an elderly man who encouraged other local men to sexually assault her with the goal of making her pregnant. When one of Esther’s rapists – Guardian Pogue – was found on the farm, June urged Esther to kill him, which she did. Esther had been gradually poisoning her ‘husband’ with nightshade, which inspired June to spike the drinks of a nearby houseful of Gilead’s commanders, killing several.

The disappearance of Guardian Pogue attracted the Eyes, who raided the farm and captured June. The other Handmaids escaped but June was held in a facility and tortured for information on their whereabouts. She was eventually forced to give them up when Hannah’s life was threatened. June, Janine, Alma and co. were rounded up, and during transportation to a Magdalene Colony for rebellious Handmaids, they attacked Aunt Lydia and escaped. Shackled, they ran across a railway line but only June and Janine survived

June and Janine stowed away on a milk train and entered the war-torn city of Chicago, where they met up with a group of anti-Gilead American resistance fighters. Their leader Steven demanded sex in exchange for food and board, and while June refused, Janine did as he asked and fell for him, imagining a future together. During an air raid by Gilead’s military, June and Janine were separated. June was picked up by a Canadian aid group for which Moira was working and welcomed home.

Though delighted to have June back with them, both Moira and Luke struggled to know how to deal with the new person Gilead had made her – a revolutionary activist with intense trauma and blood on her hands (quite literally in her final scene of the season, as she kissed baby daughter Nichole while still covered in what was left of Fred Waterford). 

Meanwhile, Janine had been rounded up by Guardians in Chicago and sent back to Gilead to be placed, with Commander Lawrence’s agreement, in the custody of Aunt Lydia. 

Ad – content continues below

Aunt Lydia and Commander Lawrence

Aunt Lydia had been tortured under suspicion for her role in the Angel’s Flight operation, and was severely demoted as a cause of June’s rebellion. To regain her former status at the Red Centre, she and Commander Lawrence blackmailed the Commanders with secrets about their infringements on Gilead law and thus rose back up through the ranks. 

Commander Lawrence, whose troubled wife had taken her own life in season three, had helped June to arrange the Angel’s Flight operation. He faced trial at the beginning of season four, but was acquitted thanks to the influence of rising star Commander Nick Blaine – June’s lover and the biological father of baby Nichole. Lawrence regained his place among the Sons of Jacob.  

Aunt Lydia brutally punished Janine and then put her to work at the Red Centre, where Janine became a protector to a recalcitrant young Esther, captured from the farmhouse and now stripped of her Wife status and being prepared for life as a Handmaid. 

Fred and Serena Waterford, the Trial and the Government’s Betrayal

Having realised that Fred was more interested in reaping the political benefits of baby Nichole’s ‘kidnap’ than actually bringing the child back to Gilead, Serena betrayed her husband at the end of season three and planned to cut all ties with him. She made a deal with US government agent Mark Tuello to bring Fred across the Canadian border and have him arrested in exchange for visitation rights with Nichole. What Serena didn’t know is that she would also be arrested and held in a Canadian facility. 

Something else Serena didn’t know is that, following a night with Fred on the road in season three, she’d become pregnant. Always one to use a situation to her advantage, Serena agreed to join forces with Fred, knowing that a united couple with a baby on the way would be looked upon more favourably in the public eye. It was a smart move, as a dedicated fan club grew up around the imprisoned Fred and Serena, who are the new It Couple for a certain brand of religious fundamentalist moron.

Fred Waterford faced trial for his many crimes, as described in June Osbourne’s powerfully delivered testimony. He expected help from Gilead, but a visit from his former colleague Commander Putnam showed that Gilead had abandoned him and his wife. Naomi Putnam visited Serena but mostly just to offer to raise her unborn child if the trial didn’t go their way. There is no love lost there.

Ad – content continues below

Abandoned by Gilead, Fred cut a deal with the US government. He evaded punishment by offering to turn informant against Gilead in exchange for immunity and extradition to Geneva. When the US government took Fred up on his offer, June was left utterly betrayed and forced to seek out her own form of vigilante justice.

Commander Nick Blaine, Mark Tuello, and the Prisoner Exchange

Nick, or Commander Blaine as he’s now known having climbed Gilead’s ladder, remained a shadowy background figure in season four. One thing we could be sure about though, was his continuing love for June. Nick tried to protect June and unsuccessfully fought to stop the air raid on Chicago that could have killed her. 

After June escaped, a meeting was arranged between her and Nick in an abandoned school where they said goodbye and he gave her a file he’d compiled with intelligence on the whereabouts of June and Luke’s stolen daughter Hannah. At the end of the meeting, Nick put his wedding ring on, indicating that he’d remarried in Gilead following the execution of his first state-forced wife Eden. 

Nick was instrumental in the deal that stopped Fred Waterford from being transported to Geneva. He and Commander Lawrence negotiated with Mark Tuello for Gilead to exchange 22 female prisoners for Commander Waterford, ostensibly so he could stand trial in Gilead. After the exchange took place, Nick abandoned Fred in a no-man’s land between Gilead and Canada, where June and her pack of former-Handmaids were waiting.

The Support Group, Emily and the Salvaging 

Emily escaped from Gilead with baby Nichole at the end of season two, and the depths of her trauma understandably caused her to struggle with reintegrating into life with her wife and their son. In season four, Emily and Moira welcomed June to a support group for former prisoners of Gilead, which June found lacking. Therapeutic talk of acceptance and forgiveness was very much not on June’s mind when it came to their Gileadean abusers, and against Moira’s wishes, June rallied the group to express their most violent revenge fantasies. 

When Emily was asked for forgiveness by her former Aunt in Gilead, she refused to give it and crowed with delight when the woman subsequently took her own life. When June gathered her fellow survivors to take revenge on Fred Waterford, Emily was among them. 

Ad – content continues below

After the prisoner exchange, June’s pack chased Fred through the woods and brutally murdered him. They displayed his headless corpse on ‘the wall’ along with the slogan ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ – the phrase his former Handmaid had secretly carved into the wall of her bedroom before taking her own life. June cut off Fred’s finger and posted the trophy, along with his wedding ring, to Serena. The threat was clear: you’re next. 

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 streams on Hulu on Wednesdays from September 14th.