Skip to main content

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ 4.01-4.03 Review: The Cost of Freedom

June's long fight continues in the tense return to Gilead with three new episodes of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4
(Image: © Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Our Verdict

An eventful return to Gilead that features new horrors and an attempt to break out of the abusive cycle in a solid start with some missteps.

For

  • ✴️ Strong performances.
  • ✴️ Elisabeth Moss proves she is a strong director and lead actress.
  • ✴️ An interesting look at life after Gilead.
  • ✴️ Striking cinematography.
  • ✴️ Fred versus Serena takes an unexpected turn.
  • ✴️ The depiction of the next generation of Gilead women.

Against

  • ✴️ Still an incredibly tough and unrelenting watch in places.
  • ✴️ Some character choices are muddled or stretch plausibility.
  • ✴️ On the nose songs amid some excellent choices.

This post contains detailed spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale.  

Freedom is a sticky concept in Gilead because even women in the so-called positions of power as Wives and Aunts are still bound by the heavy hand of the oppressive patriarchal rule. Now in its fourth season, the rhythms of The Handmaid’s Tale are familiar in that anyone who attempts to escape the fortified boundaries will likely die trying. There have been some notable exceptions including Moira (Samira Wiley) and Emily (Alexis Bledel) who are now residing in Canada, but they are haunted by the world they fled. “Maybe this is as free as we’re going to get,” Alma (Nina Kiri) tells June (Elisabeth Moss) in the premiere, which foreshadows the horror that occurs by the end of the third episode. Victories in Gilead go hand in hand with a tragedy and the opening three episodes are no different.

It has been nearly two years since the Season 3 finale aired, in which June was shot during the daring mission to liberate nearly 100 children from the clutches of Gilead, and the action picks up directly after this moment. Handmaids are resilient but you will need to suspend your disbelief when it comes to their emergency surgery skills, and the valiant effort to slow June’s bleeding so she doesn’t perish before they arrive at the designated safe house. It would be quite the twist if the lead was to die unceremoniously in the middle of a frozen woodland, however, this is not that show. June’s stubborn streak is strong despite her weakened state, and when they can’t see the lantern to suggest all is safe, she staggers ahead and alone before collapsing at the location. A severe case of sepsis almost kills her and some of the last words uttered to her before she passes out are courtesy of the very young wife whose farm is their refuge. Esther Keyes (Mckenna Grace) says June is the one she has been waiting for and her reputation is spreading far and wide. 

June’s infection lays her out for several weeks — Aunt Lydia helpfully points out that her girls have been on the run for 19 days — and this time gives the other handmaids a chance to enjoy the simple farm life. Janine (Madeline Brewer) becomes attached to a pig she calls Mr. Darcy, the land is relatively isolated, and the Commander is at a reduced capacity. In the second episode, deadly nightshade is revealed to be Esther’s weapon of choice in having some semblance of control. The teenager is hardened to her circumstances and after she has taken out her rage on Janine (who was uncomfortable eating pork chops that were formally Mr. Darcy), she reveals to June that she has been subject to multiple rapes. Because Commander Keyes could not have sex, he allowed the Guardians, Eyes, and even other Commanders to rape her. It probably wasn’t too long ago that Esther’s cape was pink like the girls June saw in the hospital last season, and the next generation is already suffering the consequences of being a woman (or girl) in this society.

Other than repeating the cycle of June escaping and getting caught (with a surprise additional getaway scenario), the first three episodes establish this season's focus on the deep-rooted impact of Gilead. From those who have made it to Canada but are still haunted to the kids who weren’t on the plane and are fated to repeat the same awful rituals that June is trying to flee. Her initial inaction at the farm is seen as a huge disappointment to Esther who is just as abused as the handmaids even if she wears a different color. June’s initial mistake is to patronize Esther regarding her young age. She doesn’t think someone her age should have to be this brave, which Esther sees as dismissal rather than the empathic observation June intended. The teen wants to “hurt them so badly” but this desire is not shared by all. There is debate among the group about where they should go next and not all are comfortable with a prolonged conflict. They have already done so much and they cannot be blamed for wanting a semblance of peace. Getting a taste of a world without the ceremony or other draconian laws indicates freedom is an option but it isn’t long before the revelry comes crashing down: Janine spinning in the sunlight to the Grateful Dead is too beautiful to last.   

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4

(Image credit: Jasper Savage/Hulu)

The end of the party comes pretty quickly when one of the men who raped Esther is caught trespassing on this land. There is hesitation from June about what should be done and he tries to escape, but having seen their faces, his death sentence is all but guaranteed. The act itself is committed off-screen after June has given the knife (that has appeared throughout the episode) to Esther and told her to “make me proud.” Appearing moments later covered in blood, Esther climbs into June’s bed looking for parental comfort. Taking the daughter role, June even calls her the same pet name as her daughter. It is a queasy scene that points to pride through fighting back and the use of “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” is rather on the nose. 

June’s leadership (and mothering) position is one she has both been assigned and leans into. The disappearance of this guardian brings attention to the farm so the time scale goes from leisurely farm work to having to leave within the space of 24 hours. This series is good at dialing up the tension while also making June’s actions feel incredibly frustrating. Her desire to off a few Commanders while arranging their next safe house is valiant but this attempt to protect everyone has the opposite effect. The trip to Jezebels is also a reminder that June killed Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) last season — with a pen, no less — and the plan to poison the liquor is a smart one. However, while June is off taking out multiple members of Gilead’s leadership, the farm is compromised. Before heading out to dish out deadly vodka shots, June and Esther are chatting it up a storm while prepping this readily available poison plant. Esther believes there are no good men and from her experience, this is a mostly accurate assessment. June counters that it is more nuanced than that and Gilead has a way of making it hard to be good. And if you are wondering why this dialogue occurs in this episode, it will become clear when Commander Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) is revealed to be behind the farmhouse assault. 

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4

(Image credit: Jasper Savage/Hulu)

“I’m trying to keep you alive,” is Nick’s mantra when it comes to June and despite this motive, it would be understandable if she was angry at her beau of sorts. This is the first time they have seen each other since he didn’t come through with the Swiss in Washington DC, and she is surprisingly forgiving when it comes to his inaction. He is now working with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) who managed to save his own neck by proving how valuable he is as a strategist. Lawrence owes Nick a favor, which he quickly cashes in while attempting to get June to reveal the location of the other missing handmaids. After not appearing in the second half of Season 3, it is good to have Nick back as a major player even if his arc stretches plausibility. His scenes with Lawrence reveal two men struggling within the larger framework of a society they have had a hand in building, and June is at the heart of Nick’s conflict. It should be noted that when Luke (O-T Fagbenle) finds out that June has been arrested, three unnamed sources are mentioned and there is a chance Nick is feeding information to the Canadians — this is just speculation at this point. I mentioned this in the spoiler-free review, but it is wild to me how cavalier Nick and June are with their very public displays of affection. When they share an emotional scene on the bridge before June is about to be taken to a breeding colony, there are people present to witness the no-holds-barred smooch. 

First June weeps about Hannah’s scared reaction and she doesn’t even consider that Nick had a hand in this glass cube set up that looks straight out of You. He reassures her before telling her that he loves her one final time. Knowing this might be their last encounter, she turns on her heels and goes in for a swoon-worthy kiss. As the camera swirls around them you might be forgiven if you forgot that Nick was the person who caught her in the first place. The beautiful direction from star Elisabeth Moss (making her debut behind the camera) temporarily pushed his duplicity aside, although not long enough to question why June isn’t bothered by his choices. Again, this goes back to her “no good men” conversation with Esther but that still doesn’t feel like enough of a reason.  

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4

(Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

In captivity, June is waterboarded, watches two of the Marthas she was closest to get pushed to their deaths, slept in a tiny box while soaking wet, almost had her fingernails pulled out, and witnesses her daughter in distress. All of this occurs in the episode Moss directs and the use of red light is strong flourish. These sequences are not meant to be easy and relief comes courtesy of the Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) conversations. Not that these scenes aren’t tough to watch either but June’s contempt and pointed scorn is a break from the overt torture. This dynamic features some sterling work from both actresses but it is interesting that her rage bypasses Nick and even Lawrence. She gets to enact vengeance on Lydia at the end of “The Crossing” when an opportunity to escape presents itself. But it is June’s choice to linger during her assault on Aunt Lydia that leads to a wider tragedy, as the precious seconds Alma wastes convincing June to leave are vital in this race against the high speeding train. As the strains of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead accompany the cuffed handmaids running for freedom, the shocking moment the train takes out Alama and Brianna (Bahia Watson) is gasp-inducing. And I guess that is the point for their lives to be ripped away in an instant. It is easy to become desensitized to the death toll in The Handmaid’s Tale but this one hits hard as both Alma and Brianna have been with June since the first episode.

Only June and Janine make it to safety and the horror of this moment is emphasized by the final voiceover. A flashback to the sisterhood of handmaids getting used to their awful new surroundings is a sad close to this chapter and even though there is a glimmer of hope this year, this show is not about to get much lighter. In “Pigs” June’s narration notes that she needs to protect the other handmaids and this group just got a whole lot smaller. A leader makes mistakes and it isn’t about being likable, but thanks to her grievance against Lydia, her hesitation did permanent harm. She taunted Lydia by telling her that she has failed her girls, but so has June. 

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4

(Image credit: Hulu)

June’s decisions are also up for debate in Canada as Luke struggles with June’s “choice” to stay behind. It is a little selfish of her husband to make this assumption but he is in the dark about her gunshot wound. To him, it looks like she has decided to stay in Gilead not once but twice now. Moira is also fed up with clearing up after her best friend’s mess and she mentions her guilt as a motivator. A romance with guest star Zawe Ashton has the potential to be something more if Moira can step out of her BFFs shadow. A lot goes on in Canada in these first three episodes and I will get into more detail about this aspect of Season 4 in the coming weeks, but the news that Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is pregnant is a huge twist that will cause waves with her current legal and relationship status. Her relationship with Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is strained to say the least and this opens up a whole new messy can of worms. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments north of the border is the children who did not want to leave and the role a character like Rita (Amanda Brugel) plays now that she is no longer at the behest of the Commanders. 

While some character motives are still murky and even inexplicable, it is heartening to see the shifts that take place in these opening installments.  After June is captured at the farm it seemed like the same cycle was going to occur in Season 4, however, the final few moments of “The Crossing” reveal that finally, June is moving forward. Sadly not everyone is coming on this journey and freedom is impossible for all while Gilead exists.