The Handmaid's Tale recap: Gilead reunions rock June and the Waterfords
Season 4 of The Handmaid's Tale has brought us closer than ever to a major reckoning for Gilead, so it's fitting that its penultimate episode is titled "Progress." As we barrel towards the finale, the Waterfords make a decision about their future, June has an encounter that could have a major impact on her relationship with Luke, and two Handmaids in Gilead make a choice about how to handle their oppression. Let's dive in!
Janine, Lydia, and a new handmaid
There's a troublesome new Handmaid in Gilead: Esther. The teenage ex-wife of the impotent Commander Keyes, who helped June poison other Commanders at the Jezebel house before getting arrested, is being detained at the Red Center, the training facility run by Aunts where Handmaids are kept until assignment.
Why was she demoted to Handmaid and not executed? Did Gilead conduct a fertility test to determine her value? If she were infertile, would they have hung her for treason? Comment below with your theories on Gilead's punitive system.
Fierce as ever, Esther is on a hunger strike. Over dinner, frustrated Aunts discuss what to do with her. One suggests force-feeding. Another suggests removing her tongue. Overhearing this while serving the Aunts, Janine, who was shocked to see Esther earlier that day, gasps. Lydia promptly sends her away, and the Aunts' conversation returns to Janine. One Aunt thinks she should be sent to a breeding colony, as was intended before the train escape. Lydia seems to prefer the idea of giving her another Commander assignment, though she doesn't seem in a rush to do so. The Aunts worry Lydia is giving Janine special treatment.
Later, Janine sees Lydia reviewing Commander files for her potential assignment. She's horrified but speaks up about another topic instead, saying Esther is scared and should be told what will happen to her if she doesn't obey. Lydia agrees to let Janine talk to Esther before the girl is further punished.
When Janine visits Esther, she thinks she's rescuing her, or at least sneaking her food. But when Janine warns her about the consequences of misbehaving, Esther feels she's just doing the Aunts' bidding. Janine urges her to be obedient because the Aunts will make her suffer and she needs to survive to see the day things get better. Alas, it seems Janine's apparent surrender is a survival strategy.
Later, Janine and Esther obediently address the Aunts. Lydia rejoices, smugly noting the Aunts are lucky to have Janine, as if taming Esther has bought her more time before reassignment. But, how long will both the handmaids' relative safety last? And, as a commenter posited last week, could this foreshadow Janine becoming an Aunt?
Earlier in the episode, the Waterfords open baby presents from Canadian supporters (several hockey jerseys, naturally). Fred's pleased people outside Gilead appreciate their mission. But Serena seems troubled. When Fred hands her a card to read, she snidely reminds him that reading once cost her a finger. Clearly Serena was impacted at least somewhat by June's testimony mention of Serena's suffering and limited redemption effort.
Deflecting, Fred turns the conversation toward their future, which he says should involve spreading "the Lord's word." He suggests Serena write another book because the world should hear her voice again. Serena seems intrigued, which shows Fred has clearly upped his manipulation game.
But the Waterfords soon experience another curveball via a visit from Gilead friends Commander Warren and his wife Naomi, Janine's former assignment. Naomi brings Serena baby gifts from Gilead wives and says they're happy for her and don't begrudge her giving up Fred for Nichole. But Serena is unsettled by other things Naomi says - like that if the Waterfords aren't free by the time their son is born, she and her husband can care for him, and that the baby "belongs in Gilead."
Meanwhile, Warren tells Fred everyone admires his persistent loyalty to Gilead. Fred asks if there's been any negotiation to free him - e.g., a prisoner exchange. Warren says if they negotiate for Fred, the resistance might kidnap more Commanders. Fred is distraught by this and further infuriated when Warren says they'll continue to send "thoughts and prayers" (sound familiar?).
If these visits were meant to ensure the Waterfords stay on Gilead's side, Warren and his wife are epic failures.
Afterward, Fred vents to Serena about feeling disrespected and abandoned. Serena says she thinks Gilead might come for their son if Fred loses his case because, without him, Gilead considers the baby state property. Serena also thinks if she returns to Gilead, she'll be made a Handmaid or sent to the colonies. This begs an obvious question: what options do the Waterfords have for their future? Fred insists he'll protect Serena and their son, but she wonders how…
June, Luke, and the quest for Hannah
After June tells Luke about Hannah fearing and not recognizing her, she notes that, at least, as Nick told her, Hannah is safely back at home. Luke is supportive, but he dislikes that June called Hannah's Gilead family her "home."
He reaffirms his commitment to rescuing Hannah and shows June the extensive work he's done toward that goal. June is moved by his effort. She then decides to try to use Commander Lawrence to get to Hannah. They call him, with the American diplomat Mark present. Lawrence suggests June let Hannah go because she has a good home and her Gilead life is now all she knows. He harshly adds that June's love isn't good for anyone, anyway - she's "a fountain of heartache and trouble." As if to make that point, he then mentions Janine. June's relieved Janine survived the bombing but devasted she was recaptured. Soon, though, June returns to task, saying that, in exchange for Hannah, the Americans will push Canada to improve trade with Gilead. Lawrence says the American government has no real pull with the Canadians. He instead requests 10 of the freed children. When June rejects this, he calls her soft and bargains for five. June locks eyes with Luke, but when he doesn't outright plead with her to take the deal, she tearfully rejects Lawrence again. With that, Lawrence says he can't help. He tells June to appreciate her freedom and move on. But when he hangs up, he clearly feels guilty.
Later, Luke suggests another resource: Nick. June admits Nick would do anything for her and their daughter Nichole. To June's surprise, given her history with Nick, Luke suggests she meet Nick in person and bring Nichole for added incentive. Perhaps part of him imagines it a test of June's affection, but Luke says it's their best chance at getting Hannah, and that matters most. June agrees, and the meeting is set.
Nick's glad to see June free. Before she even finishes asking him to find information about Hannah, he presents an already-compiled in-depth file, including Hannah's exact location - in Colorado Springs - and photos. June is awestruck by Nick's efforts, and the two share a passionate kiss. June looks more emotional in that embrace than she's been with Luke since their reunion. Luke is clearly fighting an even greater battle than expected to get June back romantically. Before Nick and June part, they bond together with Nichole and wish each other happiness. Once June's gone, Nick puts on a wedding ring - surprise! He's married and didn't tell June! One step forward for June and Nick shippers, two steps back.
After June debriefs Luke and Mark, Mark notes they have a new asset in Canada, too: Fred Waterford. It turns out after Fred and Serena talked following Naomi and Warren's visit, Fred negotiated. Mark tells June, Luke, and Moira that Fred has agreed to disclose all his insight into Gilead's leaders and future plans in exchange for his and Serena's freedom. Mark says, "Sometimes you have to let one fish go to catch a lot of other bigger fish." June takes a minute to process that before suddenly running out of the house after Mark, berating him for setting Fred free. She threatens to kill Mark as Luke keeps her from physically attacking him.
June's rage is warranted; Fred certainly doesn't deserve freedom, but shouldn't the most important thing be wholly destroying Gilead? And Fred's intel could do that. Was it a fair deal? And will June interfere? Is Fred's intel enough to defeat Gilead? Perhaps we'll find out in the season finale.