The Handmaid's Tale recap: June and Janine pursue new purposes in Chicago
In last week's episode of The Handmaid's Tale, Rita made a big decision about the Waterfords and leaving her past behind in Canada, while June and Janine made a treacherous escape toward a murky future in Chicago. In this week's episode, the fifth of the season, the drama in Canada takes a back seat, as it's all about what's happening in Gilead and Chicago.
June and Janine try to find their place in the Windy City, while Aunt Lydia, Nick, and Commander Lawrence all navigate their precarious circumstances and statuses in Gilead. Decisions made by each character wind up intersecting to create a fateful episode climax that could completely change the course of the future for both the individuals and Gilead as a whole.
Let's break down the moving and shaking that unfolds in this episode, aptly titled "Chicago."
Aunt Lydia is back in Gilead after the handmaids' latest escape. While walking on a treadmill in an aunts common room, she sees new handmaids arrive outside. Excited, Lydia tells her apparent superior, Aunt Ruth, that she's recovered and ready to return to aunt service. To Lydia's dismay, Ruth implies she's been permanently retired. In punitive Gilead, it doesn't quite make sense that Aunt Lydia's only punishment for losing control of the handmaids again is forced retirement, but, perhaps, anything to keep Ann Dowd on the show?
Anyway, with Ruth refusing to help her get reinstated, Lydia turns to Commander Joseph Lawrence. She threatens to disclose his involvement with the disappearance of Commander Winslow (whom June killed when Lawrence brought her to a Jezebel's), and his other offenses, including collaboration with Ofjoseph (June), if he doesn't help her get reinstated. Lawrence says he can't help unless she helps him regain a seat on the Gilead council — by giving him dirt on a councilman, Commander Calhoun. Lydia doesn't want to be a gossip, but she cares most about being an aunt (though I'm still not sure if that obsession is about power or a severely warped but earnest devotion to handmaids). Lawrence then suggests they work together for their shared goal of fixing the country and making things right again. Ultimately, Lydia agrees to Lawrence's scheme, on condition that she gets to discipline June when she's recaptured. This suggests Gilead still isn't planning to kill June on sight. Oh, to be as valuable in real life as a handmaid in Gilead (without the horrors)!
Later, with Lawrence's scheme apparently fulfilled, Lydia is back in aunt gear, orienting new handmaids. As if that's what Lydia blames for June and Janine turning against Gilead, Lydia warns the handmaids that wicked men will try to lead them astray. She says she will help them through such trials, and adds that the handmaids' bonds with one another will be strong and they'll never again walk alone. Cue a troubling shot of handmaid subservience.
Commander Lawrence and Nick
Early in the episode, Lawrence proposes to the council a Gilead ceasefire. He says international entities fear Gilead's military but have still put trade sanctions on Gilead, strangling the economy. If they issue a temporary ceasefire along contested borders — Texas, Chicago, and California — to allow international aid to be given to people there, the sanctions will be lifted, thereby giving Gilead a revenue stream. When the council complains about helping "terrorists," Lawrence suggests they hit another area, Nevada, harder to make up for it. Pressing on through snide comments from the council, Lawrence says if they get trade sanctions lifted, Gilead can prosper, and subsequently crush the insurgency for good.
The council still rejects the proposal — unanimously, as even Nick votes against Lawrence. Afterward, Lawrence tells Nick his proposal could have helped June, but Nick isn't worried because June isn't near a border — if she was, he'd know. But prompted by skepticism from Lawrence, Nick later meets with two Mayday Marthas. One hates June because, as she says, everyone who helps June gets killed, but the other Martha says two handmaids entered Chicago a week ago. Side note: If it wasn't already clear, this proves Nick is tapped into the Mayday network as an ally, despite apparently limited contributions.
Given the Martha's intel, Nick tells Lawrence ahead of another council meeting that he'll support his ideas, for June's sake. Apparently Lydia gave Lawrence what he needed on Calhoun, because he now has a council seat, and in the meeting, his proposal is accepted. However, there's a new catch: Gilead will stand down from all contested areas for 24 hours, during which NGOs will provide aid to civilians… but just before the ceasefire, Nick will lead a bombing of the insurgent fronts. It's a dirty move, meant to use manufactured enemy vulnerability for an impactful attack. This development makes it harder to believe Lawrence's approach to destroying Gilead is sensible. It even raises the question of whether Lawrence will really destroy Gilead or just try to revamp it with some kinder tweaks.
Nick objects to the plan, but ultimately submits.
June and Janine
The episode opens with a flashback to an intimate pre-Gilead moment between Luke and June. Their love scene segues into June lying in bed in the Chicago rebel base, listening with disgust as Steven and Janine have sex nearby. Suddenly a firefight erupts outside the base, but Steven ignores it.
In the morning, June learns that Steven's group is going on a run to trade supplies with other rebels in the city. June looks for Steven to ask to join the run, and finds him and Janine flirting while he teaches her to shoot a gun. June is bothered by this, but it serves her — Janine convinces Steven to grant June's request.
On the trade run, they encounter the site of a recent battle; there's a freshly burned Gilead soldier. Steven says it was a violent rebel group called the Nighthawks, who seek to kill Gilead soldiers at all costs. June seems intrigued. Soon Gilead soldiers arrive and Steven's group must hide. They avoid detection, but when the soldiers leave, June berates Steven for not attacking, angrily dismissing his reasoning.
Eventually the group convenes with other rebels for trading. Despite her concerns that Steven is taking advantage of Janine, June winds up helping Janine get a baseball hat for him, to make Janine happy. The women offer up their handmaid cloaks in exchange, subtly marking one more step further from their Gilead lives.
Later, June tells Janine she wants to leave the next day to find the Nighthawks. Fighting seems to be June's new primary mission. Perhaps she's decided the only way to get Hannah back is to completely burn Gilead down. Or perhaps she simply has Gilead blood-lust now.
Janine doesn't want to leave. She envisions a "normal" life among Steven's group – even having a baby with him. In the ensuing argument, June criticizes a comment Janine makes about the world needing more baby Americans, and in turn, Janine says June is bossy and judgmental, says she should stop trying to save her, and again throws the deaths of Alma and Brianna in her face. Hurt, June angrily says Janine can leave with her or stay and be "OfSteven." June has a point – Steven isn't good and that life isn't freedom – but so does Janine – any stability is appealing. The next morning, Janine declares she's staying. Despite their fight, the women exchange an emotional goodbye, with Janine giving June the hat.
Juxtaposed with Lydia telling the handmaids they'll never be alone, we see June walking through Chicago alone. However, Janine soon appears. She says she feels safer with June, and handmaids always walk in twos. It's a heartwarming moment, but it's also complicated; It's good Janine won't be trying to live out a fantasy with Steven, but it's scary because June tends to get people around her killed.
Later, just after the women notice Gilead soldiers fled the area abruptly, they hear planes. They take off running as bombs drop. The street explodes around them. June wakes up among rubble. She hears screaming. She doesn't see Janine. Through the smoke emerges an aid worker… it's Moira. They stare at one another in shock.
The reunion is undermined by the terrifying circumstances and uncertainty of Janine's fate. Did she survive? What does Moira's presence mean for June? Whatever happens, the next episode will surely be emotional.