EW breaks down the season 4 premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, episodes 1-3.

By Amanda Ostuni
April 28, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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It's been nearly two years since the last season of The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's adaptation of the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood. Finally, the television saga continues, as the first three episodes of season 4 were released slightly ahead of schedule Tuesday night.The show follows the story of June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who defies Gilead, a totalitarian religious zealot society formed in the U.S. after a civil war. Men have sole authority, with fertile women enslaved as "handmaids" — forced to conceive children for noblemen "Commanders" and their wives. Infertile women are generally designated either as Marthas, homemakers for each Commander, or "Aunts," handmaid caretakers. June is a rebellious handmaid who disrupts the status quo.

In the season 3 finale, June worked with the rebel network Mayday to get 86 children and nine Marthas out of Gilead on a plane to Canada. Her own Martha, Rita, boarded the plane, but June stayed back, both to distract Gilead's soldiers ("Guardians") and to find her daughter Hannah, who was taken when Gilead formed and assigned to a family of nobles. June was shot during the mission but saved by fellow handmaids. Meanwhile, June's original commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), whose marriage June wedged apart, wound up in Canada, selling each other out for separate immunity deals.

Season 4 picks up where everything left off — with the Waterfords, the handmaids, and others dealing with the consequences of June's actions. Let's dive into all the chaos that unravels in the first three episodes, titled "Pigs," "Nightshade," and "The Crossing."

The Farm

The handmaids — led by Alma and, surprisingly, Janine — manage to cauterize June's gunshot wound and stabilize her so they can flee to a Mayday safe house farm. Once there, while June recovers, the handmaids settle into life on the farm, disguised as Marthas. The farm belongs to the frail Commander Keyes and his strange 14-year-old bride, Mrs. Esther Keyes.

The young Mrs. Keyes is ecstatic to meet June but disturbingly mentions having dreamt of killing people alongside her. Later, she gets mad at June for wanting to lay low because she, and Mayday, are supposed to be about fighting. Mrs. Keyes then cruelly tries to force Janine to eat a pig she'd gotten attached to before it was slaughtered.

When June confronts her about it, Mrs. Keyes confides that the impotent Commander Keyes invites other Gilead men over to rape her in hopes of having a child. Heartbroken, June comforts her, beginning a tenuous mother-daughter-type bond.

The handmaids find joy on the farm, but their lives are disrupted again when a guardian drunkenly wanders onto the property. They need to decide what to do; he could identify them and turn them in. When June learns the man is one of Mrs. Keyes' rapists, she directs the teen to kill him. When it's over, Mrs. Keyes curls up next to June in bed.

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Gilead guardians soon come looking for the man, and the handmaids realize they need a new safe house. A farm guard, David, takes June to a Mayday contact, a woman enslaved at a Jezebel house (a.k.a. a brothel). The woman fawns over June and says that, emboldened by the freeing of the Marthas and children, people have been fighting back against Gilead in various ways. The woman then gives June directions for the new safe house but says they must wait one night to leave. Soon after, June asks why there are so many commanders at the house. The woman says they're partying before a pending military move in Chicago.

June becomes fixated on liberating the Jezebel women; she just can't figure out how to do it. But then, as Mrs. Keyes convinces June to let her join the handmaids at the new safehouse, June learns Mrs. Keyes has been poisoning her commander with a plant (nightshade). Mrs. Keyes only doses him enough to incapacitate him, but it can be lethal. That night, David brings June back to the Jezebel mansion, and she and the Mayday woman poison the men.

June leaves triumphantly, but when she returns to the farm, there are no handmaids around. David is shot dead as they approach the house. Out of the shadows to coax June's surrender steps Nick (Max Minghella). She surrenders.

Serena and Fred

When the Waterfords learn, in the midst of their legal battles for immunity, of the plane with the Gilead refugees, Serena expresses sympathy for the Gilead families. Fred says the situation will start a war, and for the sake of the children, Canada should return them home. Mark, the Canadian diplomat dealing with the Waterfords, says Gilead destroyed the children's homes long ago. Then Mark reveals June spearheaded the rescue but is still at large in Gilead. The Waterfords seem almost concerned for June, though it might just be shock, or even shame.

Later, Serena gets a routine medical exam. Upon the doctors' questioning, she calls her hand injury "appropriate punishment" and claims Fred never sexually assaulted her but admits he had sex with brothel women and also once hit her.

Serena's lawyer wants to use those details to make the judge believe Serena's crimes were conducted in fear of her abusive husband. But Serena rejects that strategy; she doesn't consider Fred abusive. When Mark asks why she protects Fred, she says she knew him before Gilead, as if she thinks a better man could still be inside him. Serena thinks she can get Fred to drop his claims against her, so Mark arranges a meeting between them.

Fred is initially tender toward Serena. But when he realizes her intent, he coldly asserts he'll never let Serena have a life with "their" baby, Nicole, without him. Frustrated, Serena says she thought once Fred left Gilead, he'd return to his old self, but power has changed him.

Just as Serena finally seems ready to leave Fred, Mark tells her she's pregnant, rendering her speechless. Will this make her soften again to Fred, or will it further harden her against him?

handmaid's tale
Credit: hulu

Moira and Emily

In Canada, Moira and Emily are trying to reunite the Gilead children with their families or find them new homes. At a fundraising event, Rita discusses June's bravery in Gilead and in the escape that's been dubbed "Angels' Fly." Afterward, Moira thanks her for speaking, and Rita says she had to, for Luke (i.e., to honor June).

Later, Moira visits a rescued boy, Asher, who misses his Gilead home and "parents." When Moira says it's normal for him to feel angry for a while, the woman caring for him now frustratedly insists his name is James, after her brother — his birth father. Gilead must have separated them long ago. Moira vents to Emily about how sad it is that for some kids, the "rescue" ripped them from the only family they knew. Emily notes June probably didn't consider that, and Moira says June never thinks of consequences. When Emily asks why Moira feels compelled to clean up June's messes, she admits she feels guilty for getting out when June didn't. Emily feels similarly, much like Rita. Everyone is haunted by Gilead and June.

Moira then brings Rita to Asher/James. He recognizes her as a Martha from the plane and is happy to hear she will stay the night and cook him a Gilead meal.

Aunt Lydia

After 19 days of interviews with a Gilead council about the Mayday rebellion, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is cleared of further discipline. But the council notes she's not exonerated — it helped that her "frailties" were considered (her injury from Emily's attack). Lydia's insulted but maintains her composure. But when one of the councilmen calls handmaids "sinful whores," Lydia sharply says her handmaids were led astray by June, a gifted liar. She says justice will be served once June is hanging on the wall. Lydia takes a dig at Gilead for not capturing June and takes her leave. She clearly still wants to protect the rest of her handmaids, but she's out for June's blood.

Commander Joseph Lawrence

Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) is locked up for his part in the Mayday rebellion. Nick arrives at his cell to thank him for his service to Gilead. Lawrence thinks he's been sentenced to death, but Nick doesn't say anything else. Lawrence then says that instead of invading Canada over the plane children, as he believes Gilead plans to, Gilead should let go of the 86 kids and use it as diplomatic leverage to get cooperation from other countries.

The next day, instead of being brought to his execution, Lawrence learns Nick has convinced the council to keep him around as a consultant on the Canada situation. He gets a shave and a new home… the man with almost as many lives as June.

Luke

Early in the premiere, at the fundraising event, Luke seems optimistic about June's situation, in contrast to Rita, who speaks about her as if she were already dead.

Then word reaches Canada about June's capture. He becomes distraught, upset that June chose twice to stay in Gilead, knowing it probably meant never seeing him again. He thinks maybe she doesn't want to be saved. He does, however, eventually bury a persimmon in the yard for her. He's clearly still desperately hoping she'll survive.

June's torture

Meanwhile, upon her capture, June is taken to a dark cell. There, Aunt Lydia smacks her and berates her for taking those children from their "parents." Then guards strap June to a table, and a lieutenant begins torturing her to find out where the other handmaids are.  

He hits her wound, then waterboards her with a cloth that features a cross… because God loves waterboarding, obviously. After a while, Lydia rejoins June. Defiantly, June accuses Lydia of failing her precious handmaids; she sent them to be beaten, raped, and humiliated. Twisting the knife further, June refuses to call her "Aunt" Lydia and reminds her that even Janine, her pet handmaid, turned on her. Angered, Lydia lashes out before calling the guards back.

Soon, June pretends to break, claiming the handmaids are at a library in Vermont. After discovering she lied, they drag her up on the roof before two Mayday Marthas, hoping she'll give up the handmaids to save them. She doesn't and watches them get pushed off the building to their deaths. Devastated, she's then returned to her cell and put in a small box.

handmaid's tale
Elisabeth Moss in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
| Credit: hulu

Elsewhere, Nick, determined to keep June alive, tells Commander Lawrence that if he wants to maintain his clemency and cushy home, he must break June.

Soon after, June is forced to dine with Lawrence. From him, she learns her Jezebel efforts hospitalized nine commanders and killed six. Then, Lawrence says if she doesn't give up the handmaids, Gilead will hurt her daughter. When June still doesn't break, she's taken to a new room, where sure enough, Hannah is locked up, though seemingly unharmed and unafraid. Hannah is, however, afraid of June when she sees her. Defeated and fearing for Hannah's safety, June gives up the handmaids' location.

At the farm, with no hope of escaping once the soldiers arrive, Alma leads the handmaids in standing up to face their captors with dignity. Lydia gleefully tells June of their capture and then reveals that instead of being executed, the handmaids are being sent to a newly-formed breeding colony, where they'll work the fields regularly, and commanders and wives will come to them for conception ceremonies. Getting back at June for earlier, Lydia says that everything that's happened to her — Hannah, the handmaids, and the Marthas from the ledge — is all June's fault.

A fatal escape

En route to a rendezvous with the truck transporting the handmaids to the colony, Nick arranges a semi-private goodbye with June. He says Hannah is home safe and apologizes for his part in everything. She breaks down about Hannah being afraid of her and allows Nick to comfort her. They then share a passionate kiss goodbye that Nick does not deserve.

Soon June is in the truck with the other handmaids heading to the colony. The women are cuffed, but inexplicably, not otherwise restrained, and only Lydia sits in the back with them armed with a taser. When they are forced to stop at a railroad crossing, the driver conveniently takes a bathroom break. June and the handmaids collectively telepath a decision; June jumps Lydia while the others open the door. They're going to try to run over the tracks before the train comes, hoping to put distance between themselves and Lydia. But June lingers, tempted to strike Lydia. Alma snaps her out of it, June jumps, and they take off running.

But the guard returns to the scene and starts shooting. He hits a couple of girls but June and Janine make it across the tracks. Close behind are Alma and Brianna, but in a gut-wrenching (and unnecessary) moment, the train hits them as they cross the tracks. June forces Janine to keep running.

Then comes a voiceover and an apparent flashback to when the handmaids were together before their first commander assignments. In those times, says June, they learned to communicate discreetly and formed the bonds that endured through everything. She recites the names of the handmaids: Sarah. Ellie. Brianna. Alma. Janine. Moira. June.

From seven to two. Let's hope June keeps herself and Janine alive and brings down Gilead once and for all to avenge the ones who died... On that note, it could be said June got Alma and the others killed, especially since her hesitation with Lydia gave the guard and train time to catch up. (Personally, I'll begrudge June for Alma's death, forever). Regardless, June lives to fight another day.

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