Series Four

Here is a question, as we start the season 4 review of The Handmaids Tale.

If you get out of Gilead, does Gilead ever get out of you?

Keep that in mind as we re-examine the events and thoughts of season four. 

The season three finale ended up ‘Angel flight’ touching down in Canada, loaded to the hilt with Martha’s and children, courtesy of June. Sadly for Luke, waiting at the plane and watching the door, June is not aboard and neither is Hannah. The finale also sees June shot by a guard, while creating a diversion to allow the plane to get off the ground. The final shot of series 3 being an aerial shot of six Handmaids carrying her through the woods to a safe house

The safe house belongs to Commander Keyes and his wife Esther. In true Gilead spirit, his wife is young. Very young.  Fourteen year old Esther, ably portrayed by actress McKenna Grace (think Phoebe in the Ghostbusters:Afterlife movie) is introduced in the wife’s colours and running the home, seemingly very well, but then again, she has not had a childhood. Her childhood was spent training to be a wife.

Following a visit to a brothel, where she ensures that a group of commanders are poisoned, June is located by the Eyes. They are led by Nick, which immediately makes the viewer wonder which side he really is on. He settles that immediately, with quiet words to June about how he is helping her. She is taken into custody and is introduced to ‘The Lieutenant’, a man who quite simply  loves to torture.

Torture he does. From water-boarding to locking June in a box. From pushing two Martha’s from the roof to threatening her with her own daughter. The Lieutenant has no scruples. He’s a man in Gilead, who has obviously risen the ranks due to his brutality, and will go as far as he has to for information.

As June is threatened with the harm of her daughter, they show Hannah to her. Hannah (now Agnes of course) is sitting in a clear plastic cage. June, understandably, is delighted to see her daughter but when her now older daughter fails to realise who she is and is scared of her, Junes devastation is clear to see.  With Hannah’s life on the line courtesy of the Lieutenant, June has no option but to give up the Handmaids location.

The handmaids are caught and as punishment for their escape, they are all sent to the “Magdalene Colony”, the worst of all places.  En route to the colony, their transport stops at a rail crossing. The opportunity proves too good to pass up, and they all make a run for it, with drastic and very different results. Two are shot and killed. June and Janine make it across the tracks, but Alma and Brianna are killed instantly in a tragic turn of events, as they are killed by the oncoming train. It’s a hard scene to watch, I remember it being quite shocking at the time. These women have been through so much together, to see two of them brought to such a tragic end when they were so close to escape was awful.

June and Janine eventually find themselves in Chicago. They are out of Gilead, but still close enough to it, that air and ground assaults from Gilead make Chicago  a threat. June and Janine seek refuge with a group of rebel fighters, but eventually decide to keep going. They set out to get out of Chicago and are caught in the air assaults. Emerging from under the rubble, June frantically starts looking for Janine. She walks straight into the path of Moira, her best friend, who is working there with relief workers.  A perilous boat journey, tears, and guilt, at leaving her daughter behind await June as she heads to Canada.

The journey for both June and Moira is traumatic but in differing ways. June is beside herself, at leaving Gilead without Hannah and feels she has been tricked to leave. Moira can’t and won’t leave without her. 
Canada beckons for June and a reunion that’s been a long time coming. 

When the boat docks in Canada, you can hear Luke’s voice, the sheer love in his tone and impatience reflected in the quickening of his footsteps towards her. He wants his wife, and has got his wife back. As he steps towards June, she is the opposite. She is upset, panicking and apologetic. “Sorry. It’s just me. I don’t have her”. Eight words that you can see break Junes heart to have to say to the father of her child. Eight words that Luke doesn’t answer verbally. He doesn’t need to. He answers in an enveloping hug that he wraps June up in.

Reunited with her husband, and home with people that can support her, June attempts to have a normal life. She has her daughter Nichole. Moira, Rita and Emily are with her. However, Junes life is anything but normal. Luke tries to shield her from as much as he can, but it’s not until he sits in on her testimony, that he truly understands what and who Gilead are, and exactly what trauma his wife has been through.

Emily has returned to life as a counsellor. While she works through her own trauma, she uses her experiences to help others. Former Gilead women come together to talk, but there is a line  being drawn.  Some are getting over their trauma. Some are being fuelled into a rage not only  by their suffering, but by  June too. She is angry, and that anger spreads.

In Gilead…Meanwhile, back In Gilead, Janine has been brought back to Aunt Lydia and  is now dressed again in a familiar colour – handmaid red, as is Esther. A big change for Esther however, going from a wife to a handmaid. Neither wants to be there and Esther reflects that through a hunger strike. Janine talks with Aunt Lydia and under her watchful eye, convinces Esther that she must eat and become a dutiful handmaid.

Aunt Lydia remains in some trouble as she was “caring” for the handmaids when they escaped. They were “her girls”. Lydia is being threatened with early retirement by Aunt Ruth, but she has a card to play. More like a deck of cards up her sleeve really. She approaches Commander Lawrence with a deal. Commander Lawrence is in trouble anyway, due to It being his handmaid that caused the problems, so wonders how Lydia can be of use. Aunt Lydia tells him that if he gets her reinstated as an active Aunt, she will help him be welcomed back to the council with all the dirt she has on all the Commanders that serve there.

The plan works and Lawrence becomes more of a strategic voice than a decision maker. The trust takes time to rebuild. The commanders take Lawrence’s advice and allow a temporary cease fire and aid workers to move into Chicago. Then Lawrence  finds out they are planning and air attack on Chicago. This is the air attack that June is caught in, when Moira finds her.

In Canada…Serena and Fred, the power couple of Gilead who once ruled the roost, are now incarcerated. Turning on each other initially when they realise that their crimes need to have consequences, complications arise. Agent Mark Tuello visits Serena and drops a bombshell. Serena is pregnant.

Serena has everything she ever wanted, except she is incarcerated. She tries to persuade her old Martha, Rita, to be a carer for her unborn child. In her facial expressions and body language, you can see Rita considering it, but she replies firm and fast with a no. Instead Rita shares the secret with Fred. Serena Joy had asked her not to tell Fred, but who would keep the confidence of someone who has abused and threatened them? No one. Serena had no right to ask that of Rita.

While in custody, both Serena and Fred have a visitor. June visits them. As she visits Serena, the juxtaposition of Serena being pregnant and Junes daughter being taken from her, lights the fire in her. Serena tries to ask for forgiveness (really?) but June is ready for her. 

June uses Serena’s pregnancy against her, and tells her “when god kills the baby inside your womb, I hope you will feel a fraction of the pain that you caused us, when you tore our children from our arms”. Junes comments end with a reflection of Serena’s own words “Do you understand me” from one of the first episodes.

On the contrary, Fred’s visit is a little different. June wanders his room, seeing for her own eyes how well he Is being treated.  She tells him she “needs a drink” and he pours one for her.  

As they sit and talk, she hears him apologise for separating her from her daughter and how unimaginable that must have been. Is he telling her what he thinks she wants to hear,  or is this honesty? You could argue for both. He could be trying to keep on her right side, trying to get her on his side. But on the other hand, he is a father-to-be. That does change a person. No matter what you’ve done

Fred and Serena know that court is coming, and with it, the potential for consequences for their actions.  They realise that they must be a united front against their former handmaid if they are to stand any chance against the International Criminal Court. June gets her chance to stand up and talk, give her testimony. After testimonies are given, they manage to strike an immunity  deal. Fred and Serena’s release in exchange for Gilead information.

It’s here where I must drop in a few words about June Osbournes testimony. The powerhouse that is Elisabeth Moss, who plays June, directed and starred in the episode entitled Testimony. The court scene was filmed over 2 days, with the monologue testimony from Ms Moss, filmed in its entirety on day 2, in one continual shot. There was a lot to unpack of that testimony. It was a verbal recap of the four seasons. Introducing Luke to everything she had been through. June talking of friends who were still there and also of lost friends. In the whole speech there are four  words that stand out. “I ask…..for justice“. The cinematography and direction in this particular episode was sublime. Putting June front and centre, making her the most important person in the room was the key. By doing that,  Fred Waterford’s power was taken from him. June could rise above him, simply by her words. 

The feeling of removing Fred’s power however, didn’t last for long. June hears of the immunity deal that has been brokered. To say June is angry, is an understatement. Agent Tuello arranges a meeting with Commander Lawrence, where they are offered 22 prisoners in exchange for Fred Waterford. The plan is set for the prisoner exchange.

Just as Fred Waterford thinks he is hopping on a plane to Geneva, Agent Tuello arrests him, explaining there has been a change in plans. He is cuffed and placed in the truck and driven towards Gilead. As Fred and Agent Tuello walk across a bridge, the exchanged prisoners move in the opposite direction. Fred is terrified of what he will face from the Commanders,  but worse is waiting. Fred is in No Mans Land.

Nick is beside him, the man he thought he could trust. His old driver. A new Commander.  Someone he helped rise the ranks. As the realisation of No Man’s Land hits home, Fred  sees June walking towards him. Nick and June  share a passionate kiss infront of Fred who now realises he’s in serious trouble. Nick leaves and June uncuffs Fred, giving him a false sense of security. She holds  her hands out to him. In one is a whistle and in the other is a gun. 

The irony is not lost on any viewer that Junes coat, while not ‘handmaid red’ is noted to be from the red spectrum. The red coat, and giving the ‘chance to choose’ to Fred, projects a sense of power to him. Fred tries to call her bluff, regain his power and authority, by telling her that she wouldn’t shoot him, that’s not who she is, and he chooses the whistle.

In an almost comical way, June tells him “ok” and puts the gun away. She uses the whistle and women appear from everywhere. Angry, furious women that Fred wronged by his role in Gilead, in creating the regime. June leans in to Fred and says one word. “Run”. When caught, Fred faces a Gilead particution. A punishment that he helped devise when setting up Gilead and putting rules in place. He is torn limb from limb. A ring and finger sent to Serena.

As June gets home, she hears her daughter crying and goes to comfort her. Luke sees her covered in blood, and  June apologises to him. Luke  has always seemed a little passive through series four, just hanging in the background trying to do the best for everyone, but these few minutes were just his. The cinematography and composition of the shot work so well.

Luke leans against the cabinetry and slides to the floor…..into the light. The light used as a realisation that he has finally come to see who, and in a way what, June is. It’s an awareness that his wife is not the woman who ran with Hannah to try and escape Gilead. It’s the awareness that his wife is someone different.  This scene allowed OT Fagbenle to shine. His acting is sublime. He shows love, devastation, disbelief, and loss in the matter of seconds.

June,  standing with her daughter tells Luke, “I know. Just give me five minutes with her”. That is where season four leaves us. That is, apart from a brief shot that we see of a headless body hanging on a wall above the phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum`

Back to my original question though.

If you get out of Gilead, does Gilead ever get out of you?

Has getting out of Gilead, settled June? Clearly, the answer is a no. She has had to face her demons in Fred and Serena. She directed the agitated ex-Handmaids to join her in a particution and kill Fred.

Her testimony could be argued that this was ‘getting Gilead out of her system’ but what did it achieve? It distressed Luke as he learned everything she’d been through. It didn’t change what had happened. 

She still doesn’t have her daughter Hannah. Until Hannah is back with her parents, she cannot forget Gilead.

It’s going to be some time before Gilead is out of June Osbornes system.