Shining a light on Janine and Rita shifts the attention away from June in a strong episode that suggests change is afoot.
- • Madeline Brewer and Elisabeth Moss don't hold back.
- • More time spent with Rita (and Amanda Brugel's performance).
- • Exploring the after-effects of escaping Gilead.
- • Stunning cinematography.
- • The payment method for staying in Chicago.
June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) has been on the run multiple times in The Handmaid’s Tale and it never sticks. Rather, she has been pulled back to Boston and the Gilead regime through various acts of misfortune. The first three episodes of Season 4 suggest that June’s taste of freedom would once again be brief, however, a serendipitous bathroom break led to a spontaneous escape plan. Victory is often short-lived in the Hulu series and while June and Janine (Madeline Brewer) made it across the train tracks in time, fortune did not shine on Alma (Nina Kiri) or Brianna (Bahia Watson) who were killed instantly by the speeding locomotive. “Milk” picks up in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy with June trying to come up with a plan on the fly, while attempting to keep it together as Janine appears to be on the verge of falling apart. We should know by now that appearances are deceptive and this episode focuses on the resilience of those who are underestimated. The choice to focus on Janine in Gilead and Rita (Amanda Brugel) in Canada helps this fourth episode sing.
Many characters have died in this series, but this end of “The Crossing” is particularly devastating, in part, because of how swiftly they were killed. Unlike other executions, the oncoming train is an indiscriminate weapon. They had tasted what life could be like at the farm, but Alma was correct when she commented that this was the closest to being free as she was going to get. June’s rage at Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) cost Alma those precious seconds and now there are only two handmaids left in Gilead from their original circle. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” June tells Janine but her companion knows this is an empty promise. An argument that has long been brewing between the de facto leader and those who have been expected to blindly follow: this loss lights the fuse.
For all the horrors depicted, The Handmaid’s Tale cinematography continues to find beauty in this journey. Lit up by the train, the images of June and Janine running in red are stunning — even if they are flashing beacons asking to be caught. Instead of returning to where they know people, June at first wants to head west before switching to Chicago. Yes, June wants to go where the war is being fought, and her nihilism is a worrying outlook for Janine. Considering her recent spell in captivity it isn’t surprising that June’s already hardened exterior has developed another layer. She wants to bring the whole system crashing down and what better place to do this than where combat is raging. Hitching a ride on a train heading toward the Windy City gives them time to recover except it is not first-class or even economy service. This is no passenger train, and instead, the container that becomes their stowaway carriage is full of very cold milk. This is not ideal and thankfully, June quickly finds a way to drain the sloshing creamy substance (after they have hidden beneath the dairy surface). There is no way to warm up though and their clothes are going to stink of sour milk in a few day’s time. Nothing about this situation is ideal and it isn’t long before the pair are bickering about their options.
“I’m keeping us alive,” is June’s response when Janine questions her plan, and this argument spirals into the choices God has or hasn’t made. Janine’s anger centers on how easily she dismisses her and the other handmaids. Sacrifices have been made by them all and while June’s contribution is vast, this doesn’t negate what the other handmaids have done or that they waited for her in the designated safe house. This two-hander between Moss and Brewer is an emotional roller coaster that only scratches the surface of grief, trauma, and guilt. When June admits she told the Eyes where to find them she mentions Hannah’s fear as the reason why she cracked. “You would’ve done the same thing,” June reasons. But Janine is not as weak as she is perceived to be and she counters this assumption saying “You don’t know what I would’ve done.” There is no comfort in this cold container trading cruel barbs, including June telling Janine she always has to save her and that she should’ve left her a long time ago. Meanwhile, Janine blames June for the deaths of Alma and Brianna. It is a brutal conversation but it has been a long time coming. Saved by gunfire, they emerge from their dairy hideout when they realize that Gilead wouldn’t attack their own supply train.
The handmaids are not greeted with open arms for escaping the regime. Rather, they are viewed with suspicion and as a burden because supplies are scarce and Chicago is “a fucking disaster.” Mayday isn’t to be found in Chicago and Steven (Omar Maskati) hasn’t even heard of the rebel faction. Looking down his nose at the women, he sounds disgusted when he mentions “sex slaves in America” — June corrects him as Gilead is not the United States. When she told him they would do whatever he wanted them to, sexual favors was not something she even considered. Unfortunately, there are men willing to take advantage in all corners — maybe Esther Keyes was on to something regarding her ‘no good men’ theory. June being June, sends Janine away but cannot go near his zipper without every inch of her body being repulsed. ”I’m not going to force you,” Steven tells her, which I guess makes him one step up from the Commanders.
Threaded throughout “Milk” are flashbacks of Janine pre-Gilead, in which she visits what she thinks is an abortion clinic to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But Janine quickly discovers this crisis pregnancy center is an organization trying to scare women away from terminating a pregnancy by using shame and the threat of infertility. Getting a glimpse of Janine before she became a handmaid is beneficial because it reminds the audience that she has inner strength beyond the oppressive society she now lives in. We also get to see her at home with her son Caleb — who June found out died in a traffic accident but she didn’t share this information with Janine — and it is beautiful seeing what a good mother she is despite her difficult circumstances. All of this is about to get ripped away from her but the choice to have an abortion is hers. She finds a clinic and a sympathetic doctor that isn’t using smoke and mirrors to trick women. This highlights the insidious ways women’s reproductive rights get targeted (and that aren’t too far from real laws in some places) and this doctor is legally required to tell women it is dangerous to get get a termination (she then tells Janine that this list of effects is BS). Janine is resilient by herself and while I would’ve preferred this didn’t have to end in her paying for their stay in Chicago with her body (seriously, could there not be another way?), Janine seems reinvigorated by saving June for once.
After the action-packed first three episodes, “Milk's” focus is more narrow as there is less bouncing around the different locations. In Canada, Rita is also settling into her new non-Martha life while finding it hard to break free of her routine. This thread of exploring the lingering effects of Gilead beyond the handmaids who escaped is one I hope gets pursued further, but this focus on Rita and the complex emotions she is experiencing is welcome. Moira (Samira Wiley) lets her know that there is no record of her sister or nephew in any of the refugee camps but there is a chance they are alive as the Catholics were particularly good at forging passports. For now, she has no blood family and this leaves her open to Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski) manipulation.
Her old boss has requested a visit and she shares her very good news as if they are close friends. Serena even gives her a copy of the sonogram image and lets her know that Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is not aware of this pregnancy — nor does she plan on telling him. The smile that breaks out on Rita’s face is genuine but this doesn’t absolve Serena of everything she did. When her lawyers assume that Rita will be a solid witness for Serena, it has the opposite effect. She does not fall for Serena Joy's tricks and uses her freedom to give Fred the photo of his unborn son. She is not their friend and nor will she ever be. He notes that he was never cruel to her but just because he didn’t lay a finger on her, it doesn’t mean he was kind. Rita was classed as their property and that is unforgivable. After she has made this visit, we see her indulging in a non-Gilead meal including a Diet Coke and sushi. It isn't particularly subtle, but it does symbolize Rita shedding her Martha skin.
At the end of the episode, June also gets to remove the bindings of her handmaid role. This is not the first time she has changed attire and while it is not as dramatic as the burning session in the Season 2 premiere, the mournful score makes it feel like this could be the last time we see her don the red garb. Of course, The Handmaid's Tale has found many ways to clad her in the scarlet cape but seeing that sad pile of clothing feels final. When Janine appears in this closing scene, the rift is no more and while the hurtful words hurled at each other cannot be taken back, it was about time that June remembered that the burden is not solely on her.
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