his season ofThe Handmaid’s Tale has been a bit of a slow burn. It feels weird to say that, given the shocking moments that have peppered it (hello, episode three !). But things have been churning along, heavy and dark, as they’re wont to do in Gilead. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: life in Gilead is repetitive and rigid by nature, and there is something meaningful in how the rules of the republic have shaped the show.
This week’s episode breaks this cadence. It builds up inexorably, to not one but two shock reveals, bringing us back to the tension of earlier seasons, when taut pacing and intricate plotting gave us a strong sense of “anything could happen”.
When we last saw June and Janine, they had escaped the Gilead authorities and found a colony of rebels, the leader of which abused his powers on the two women within roughly 15 seconds of their arrival. Inside Gilead, Aunt Lydia and Commander Lawrence remained in dicey positions – Lydia, because six Handmaids escaped on her watch (on top of, you know, every other transgression having taken place since the beginning of the show), and Lawrence for his involvement in June’s successful plot to get 86 children out of the authoritarian republic.
Janine takes flight
“Chicago”, the fifth episode of this fourth season, picks up pretty much where the last instalment left off. June and Janine, now separated from their Mayday allies, are still living at the rebel colony. Janine, we quickly learn, appears to have developed a crush on that terrible new guy – what’s his name again? Ah, yes, Steven. Steven, who demanded oral sex in exchange for letting June and Janine stay. That Steven.
This is the kind of arc that could read as preposterous, but in this case, it works out, because imprinting on this guy is a very Janine thing to do. There is no judgment for her character: human relationships are complicated, as are the dynamics of abuse. Janine’s way of surviving the horrors of Gilead has always been to lean into her tender side, finding ways to bond with others – searching, always, for someone or something to love.
June, on the other hand, isn’t fond of Steven for obvious reasons. In fact, she’s not fond of the rebel colony in general, and would much rather join a group of more… spirited rebels called Nighthawks, who, according to Steven, “don’t care if they live or die” and “just want to kill [Gilead] soldiers”. “You’d love ‘em,” he tells June. As much as I am loath to give Steven a pass, it’s hard to argue with him on that one.
Janine could see herself settling at the colony (she has a whole Janine fantasy going on, in which she and June both have babies and “can be moms together”), but June wants to join the Nighthawks. Initially, Janine decides to stay behind, which rings true. Janine has never shared June’s relentless determination. She’s a survivor in her own way, and it would be fine for her to decide she’s had enough and wants to settle for a while.
But the show’s writers have been building up Janine’s character for a while now, showing us her past, her stronger side. Now we know what this has been leading up to: Janine ultimately decides to leave Steven behind and goes to find June. “Handmaids always walk in twos, remember?” she tells her. An excellent bit of writing, which leads us straight to...
June and Janine barely get a few minutes together until June realises something’s wrong. That something, it turns out, is a bombing, engineered in the background by the Gilead commanders (that includes Lawrence and Nick, June’s on-again, off-again love interest).
After the blast, June is seen emerging from the rubble, injured but alive. Janine, however, doesn’t appear again. Is she… dead? But if she were, wouldn’t the show tell us right away, in the midst of this twist, for maximum heft? It would be strange to hold off on the reveal, only to confirm her death in the next episode. On the other hand, it could be a way to illustrate the cruelty of hope and the implacable finality of death. Am I reading too much into this?
Not that we have time to ponder this for too long, because here comes ANOTHER twist! Through the smoke and ashes, June catches a glimpse of Moira, her longtime friend who was once a Handmaid but escaped Gilead in an earlier season. Moira has been in Canada, working as part of the resistance with June’s husband. Does this mean June is about to leave America (or what’s left of it) for good? Does she cross over to Canada and reunite with her family? I have a lingering feeling that things might not be so simple. We’re only halfway through this season, after all. And we have established that if June is to be reunited with her daughter Hannah, her only option is to dismantle Gilead from within. I could totally see her have a brief reunion with Moira, then wander off to join the Nighthawks as planned.
Aunt Lydia returns, again
Much has been made of Gilead’s slightly unbelievable reluctance to kill June. But what about Aunt Lydia? June has been under her tutelage for most of her transgressions, so how is she still an aunt? The show finally addresses this point, with a fantastic scene in which we learn that Aunt Lydia – who’s working out on a treadmill! – has been demoted from her functions, although she’s still allowed to hang out with the other aunts. She’s just supposed to be doing puzzles instead of disciplining Handmaids with a cattle prod.
But of course, this is Lydia we’re talking about, and so she barters her way back to her old job. Lydia’s sentiment for her “girls”, as she calls the Handmaids she’s in charge of, has been… layered, in a messed-up kind of way. Back in season three, when June visited Washington, DC and realised that Handmaids in the capital had their mouths literally shut with body piercings, she tearfully asked Lydia: “Do you want us all to be silenced?” Lydia replied, seemingly sincerely: “No. No I don’t.”
This time around, as Lydia snaps her uniform back on, she displays a mix of quiet thrill and purposeful resolve. Back to true-believer Lydia we go.
Commander Lawrence remains a cypher
We need to talk about Commander Lawrence for a second. His allegiance to Gilead has shifted perhaps the most extremely throughout the show: he was one of the republic’s architect, but lived on its margins, until he helped June pull off one of the biggest acts of resistance in Gilead’s history – only to somewhat regain his footing within the nation’s commanders.
His standing, as we see in “Chicago”, is shaky, and Lawrence doesn’t hold much sway. Still, when Lydia shows up to blackmail him into interceding in her favour, he’s not immediately swayed. Rather, he teases her: “Something’s… different about you,” he tells her. “Did you change your hair?” The line is incongruous, and Bradley Whitford delivers it with the perfect mix of goofiness and wryness. If anything, it reminds me of Mitch, the extremely chaotic man he has portrayed in two episodes ofMom. Unexpected, but it works out brilliantly.