In the words of Shania Twain, looks like we made it. Season four of The Handmaid’s Tale has come to an end. What a ride it has been. Sorry if I sound a little terse – that’s not my intention, I’m just a little shell-shocked after watching this… explosive, shall we say, season finale.
We already know that The Handmaid’s Tale has been renewed for a fifth season. This means “The Wilderness”, the season four closer, must bring June’s journey to some semblance of a conclusion, while still leaving enough momentum for the show to go on. Last week’s episode did its part by setting us up for a dramatic conclusion, and boy were those expectations met.
Let’s start with the beginning: last we heard, Mark Tuello, a representative of the US government (or what’s left of it) had offered Fred Waterford immunity in exchange for his cooperation, aka his spilling all of Gilead’s secrets. June was understandably furious. Serena was still pregnant and worried about what would happen if she was ever sent back to Gilead.
“It has to look like love”
This time around, we begin with a flashback of June and Fred dancing at Jezebel’s in episode one. “It has to look like love,” June narrates as she and “That’s what he needs. Pretend you like it. Pretend you love it. Pretend you love him. He is your Commander. Make him your whole world. Your sun, your moon, and all your stars. Make him believe, because your motherf****** life depends on it.”
The flashback sets the tone for the rest of the episode, which turns out to be all about June’s unresolved business with Fred. She has heard about her former commander’s immunity deal, and she absolutely cannot make peace with it.
Of course she can’t. How could she? This plotline is maddening precisely because it sort of makes sense for intelligence forces to rely on Fred’s cooperation (as June herself points out, the information he has shared could save lives), but it’s also a completely unacceptable turn of events. June and others dealt with so much abuse in Gilead. June survived, and she escaped. She shared her testimony in court. She has done everything she possibly could, and now she’s supposed to sit back while one of her tormentors gets – as Moira reveals to June – flown to Geneva for an immunity hearing, presumably before walking off into the sunset?
I don’t think so. June doesn’t think so either. In fact, she seems to be spiraling, which, you know, seems fair enough. “I really want to let go of him,” she tells Emily of Fred. “I want to focus on my family. I want to focus on Hannah and my Nichole, and Luke. A good mother would be able to let go.”
But June can’t let go. Especially not after meeting in person with Fred, who apologises in all the wrong ways, one icky admission after the other. “I do find myself missing her,” he tells June of Offred, June’s former Handmaid persona. That’s Fred Waterford for you. Has the man ever not misread a room?
Fred Waterford would like to remind you that he’s a man
For most of the episode, it looks as though Fred is going to get away with everything he’s done in Gilead. As far as he’s concerned, he’s received some form of forgiveness from June, so he can mentally tick that box (not that his actions in Gilead were keeping him up at night, but that’s a nice bonus for a man like Fred, who always yearns to be liked).
June, meanwhile, seems to be losing her grip on reality somewhat (no judgment here) and pledges that she’s going to “put Fred on the wall” – a reference to hangings in Gilead. It’s unclear how she plans to do that, until the episode takes a turn. Next thing you know, June is meeting with Tuello and Commander Lawrence (who is still in a position of authority inside Gilead). Together, all three plot what is essentially a prisoner exchange: 22 women from Gilead for one Fred Waterford.
The way Fred’s fall from quasi-grace unfolds on screen is brilliant. Here he is, on his way – he thinks – to Geneva, wearing his nice coat and gloves, asking someone to handle his luggage for him. This is Fred Waterford. A Commander. A man who likes pomp and circumstance and the ways they make him feel big and important.
Except Fred isn’t going to Geneva after all. He’s intercepted by the ICC, aka the International Criminal Court. If, like me, you were a little rusty on the details, just know that the ICC is an international tribunal based in The Hague, which exists to prosecute criminals when national justice systems can’t or won’t take care of the proceedings themselves. In other words, they’re bad news for Fred.
“I have rights!” he yells. “I’m a man, and I have rights!” And look, he does have rights, but right now the people arresting him don’t seem too concerned with those. Fred is handed over to Gilead, but things don’t stop there.
You see, the obstacle June has run up against is you can’t make someone feel sorry. You can’t make them regret what they have done to you. She can leave Gilead, and she can tell the world what Fred did, and she could have watched him get sentenced to prison or even executed. But none of that would have given her what she so clearly needs. None of that would have given her the part of Fred’s psyche that remembers how to feel shame.
And so, short of shame, June settles for fear. “I want him to be scared to death,” she tells Emily in an earlier scene. With Nick’s cooperation, she gets her wish. Instead of Gilead, Fred is taken to a no man’s land, where a group of women, including June and Emily and, I presume, several other Gilead escapees, await him.
And they pounce. And they catch him. And they kick. And they bite. All to the sound of “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore. The next time we see Fred, he’s dead, hanging in front of a wall, with the words “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” spray-painted underneath him. The phrase (which I believe isn’t real Latin but sounds like it) means “don’t let the bastards grind you down”, and it’s June’s motto of sorts both in Margaret Atwood’s novel and the show.
What happens to Fred isn’t justice, of course. It’s brutal and cruel. It’s at times hard to watch. But this isn’t a documentary. (If this were, I would go on a massive tangent right about now.) It’s a work of fiction, and the only rules it needs to obey are its own. And this ending makes sense in The Handmaid’s Tale’s world. It’s violent and out of control. It’s unfair in several ways. It’s a punishment that won’t bring full closure to anyone, and which could result in more trouble for those who enact it. It’s the only thing that could have come out of Gilead.
Serena Waterford would like to speak to the manager
Meanwhile, Serena is still pregnant with Fred’s child and unaware of the fate he suffered in the woods. In fact, earlier in the episode, she seems to be settling back into her old Gilead ways quite comfortably, going all “I want to speak to the manager” with Tuello, demanding better internet access for her husband and real estate tours for both Waterfords. Never change, Serena.
Also, Fred wants to Zoom! Before departing for what he thinks is his trip to Geneva, he asks Serena whether they can Zoom once he lands. “Sure, Fred, we can Zoom,” she concedes impatiently. If this scene had happened pre-pandemic, the screenplay would probably have said Skype instead of Zoom, but clearly, the past year has changed us in a multitude of ways.
Fred, of course, never gets to Zoom his wife. And so, Serena sits at her laptop, waiting for a video call that never arrives. In that moment, Serena is all of us.
Where is June going?
After the events in the woods, June returns home and eagerly picks up Nichole from her crib. When she notices Luke noticing her, all covered in bruises and blood, she tells him: “I know. I’m sorry. Just give me five minutes, OK? Just give me five minutes with her, then I’ll go.”
What are we supposed to make of this? Does June mean she expects Luke to no longer want to share a house with her now that she basically killed a man in the woods? Or does she mean she expects to be punished – by the justice system – for her actions? Or is there a third option I’m not thinking about?
I suppose the only way to find out is to way for season five. Fine, Handmaid’s. You win. You still have my attention.