By Amanda Ostuni
May 05, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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The fourth season of Hulu's dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale kicked off last week with two episodes of mostly triumph and hope, followed by an episode of torture and tragedy.

After a period of peace — and even joy — living on a farm disguised as the Marthas for a fierce young Wife (Esther), the handmaids ultimately wind up captured and put in a truck headed to a breeding colony (no word yet on what happened to Esther). En route, they escaped the truck and tried to beat the oncoming train across the tracks to distance themselves from Gilead. But only June and Janine survived the escape.

It was brutal to watch but set up Janine to assume a bigger role as June's last remaining companion. The season's fourth episode, titled "Milk," dives into the aftermath of this tragic escape… while in Canada, Rita gets sucked into the Waterford drama, pulling her back into the past as she tries to move forward.

Let's wade through the latest developments of these difficult journeys.

Rita and the Waterfords

In Canada, Moira informs Rita she hasn't found a record of Rita's sister and nephew in the refugee databases. But she'll keep looking — she says they may have gotten into Canada using fake passports made by "the Catholics." It's interesting to learn Catholics were Gilead resisters. What other religious groups resisted, and what group(s) did Gilead's Sons of Jacob stem from? Will we learn more about Gilead's beginnings?

Next, Moira says Serena wants to see Rita. Rita assumes Serena is furious that she talked to the court about the Waterfords. In the ensuing conversation, Rita notes, as if sympathetic, that Serena is only in a Canadian prison because she wanted to be with her "daughter," Nicole.

When Rita visits Serena, she's greeted joyfully. But Rita is reserved, calling Serena ma'am as if she can't help reverting to their Gilead Martha-Wife dynamic. Serena reveals she's pregnant… with a boy. Serena credits the pregnancy to Gilead and God, proving she remains as zealous a believer as ever. But she isn't telling Fred about the baby. She may still love Gilead, but she's done with Fred. She wants Rita to help care for her baby. Serena gifts Rita the sonogram, saying she's missed her and calling her a friend. Through all this, Rita seems cordial, delighting in the baby news, returning Serena's camaraderie, praying for the baby with her, as if embracing Gilead life again.

Later, Mark says Rita's visit made Serena's lawyers think she'd aid in Serena's defense against Fred. At first, Rita seems conflicted, but then she says, with disgust in her voice, that in Gilead, she was considered the Waterfords' property — registered to them like a car.

Rita visits Fred. She greets him as "sir" — another nod to her inferior Gilead status. She objects to Fred calling her a friend (which he does despite barely recognizing her out of her Martha clothes), then shows him the sonogram. This move drastically undermines Serena, proving that despite her earlier cordiality, Rita is done with Gilead, Fred, and even Serena. Rita leaves Fred with cold parting words, like a boss.

Janine's past

As the Waterfords' baby drama continues, another baby story unfolds in a flashback to Janine's life pre-Gilead. It begins with Janine changing out of a work uniform and soon after, arriving at a medical clinic.

A volunteer's greeting implies Janine is pregnant, and the timing is amid the declining birth rate phenomenon that helped inspire Gilead's creation. Janine wants an abortion. The volunteer asks Janine several questions, including whether the father knows — he doesn't — and whether Janine is religious — she isn't (intriguing because Janine often invokes faith in her suffering). Eventually, the volunteer openly advocates against abortion, admitting the clinic doesn't perform them. She claims abortions involve ripping the baby apart, making women infertile, and that all women regret abortions. Janine becomes distraught. Then the woman says: "You're used to being underestimated, you think you can't do this, but you're strong, you're smart, and you'd be a great mom." She suggests Janine take time to "make the right decision."

That night, at home, Janine reviews the clinic's pregnancy brochure. A little boy runs up to her. It's her son Caleb, whom viewers learned about early in the show's run. The volunteer was right: Janine is a great mom — to Caleb. It's just that, as she later explains to a different doctor, she can't financially support a second child alone. The doctor says Janine shouldn't feel ashamed. The clinic Janine initially went to is a notorious "crisis pregnancy center," a place that lies to women to convince them to keep unwanted pregnancies. The doctor then gives Janine abortion pills. She's relieved.

The flashback explains a lot about Janine's behavior in Gilead. Maybe the abortion made her even more desperate to cling to her Gilead daughter Charlotte/Angela, and maybe guilt led her to be sometimes accepting of her circumstances.

June and Janine on the run

After June and Janine escape the Gilead truck, they head west along the train tracks. At night, they come to a depot with several trains. Janine wants to hide in Boston, but June wants to find Mayday and fight alongside them. They ultimately jump on a train to Chicago. June thinks that's the main battlefront between the resistance and Gilead. Unfortunately, the car they climb into is a refrigerator full of milk. As the train begins to move, they start drowning, but June manages to drain the car. They're still wet and freezing, though, so June keeps Janine awake so the cold won't kill her.

Janine demands June give her a real plan, saying: "I'm not a mushroom… you can't keep me in the dark and feed me lies and s--- and expect me to just be ok with it." She suggests God took Alma and Brianna and not June because he wanted the nice ones. She talks about how Alma and the handmaids loved June, then asks whether June gave them up. She admits she did to protect Hannah. Janine rejects June's claim that she would've done the same thing and angrily says their friends are dead because of her.

June knows Justine is right, but defensively says she should have left her long ago. After their argument, the train is suddenly attacked. When the firefight stops, June climbs out to see the attackers won and are looting the train. The leader, Steven, allows the handmaids to join his group back at their base in Chicago. Janine isn't convinced they're Mayday, but June thinks the attack proves they're at least on the same side. At the base, when Steven begins asking June about their experience, he conveys disdain for Gilead and its use of sex slaves. But then, Steven hypocritically says Janine and June can only get food and shelter if one of them provides him a sexual service. June is enraged and horrified but offers to comply. This is one of the show's cruelest moments yet (and arguably, one of the most nonsensical regarding story logic), as an instance of hope turns into another harrowing and degrading experience. The people fighting Gilead are proving they're no better, with a man forcing women into sexual servitude, and another woman (Steven's second-in-command) complicit in the act.

June kneels before Steven but changes her mind. She stands up, gets confirmation from him that his group isn't Mayday, storms out, finds Janine, and declares they're leaving. But while June changes into fresh clothes, Janine fulfills Steven's requirement, revealing this to June when she nonchalantly hands her a piece of bread and says they can stay. June feels bad but Janine, showing the strength that got her through being a single mom, having an abortion, and all the Gilead horrors, brushes off her apology.

Perhaps Janine's show of force will encourage June to take a rest from the pressures of leading, so she can properly regroup and come up with a real plan. Hopefully, she and Janine can become true partners in working toward that next step. We'll see…

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