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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ 4.09 Review: Progress

"Progress" is made in the penultimate episode but at what cost?

June and Nick in The Handmaid's Tale
(Image: © Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Our Verdict

For all the victories this season, the final moments of “Progress” reveal that in order to hook bigger fish, you have to let some go.

For

  • 🔴A beautifully shot reunion scene that emphasizes June and Nick's chemistry.
  • 🔴Janine's new position of trust and her ability to adapt.
  • 🔴Some stunning locations and use of the Toronto snow.
  • 🔴Elisabeth Moss' ability to shift her mood and expression in an instant.

Against

  • 🔴Some logistical questions about how Nick can move so freely.
  • 🔴Why is Mark Tuello so bad at his job? Or at least so bad at judging June's mood?
  • 🔴Will the Waterfords ever face justice?

This post contains detailed spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale"Progress." 
Read our last review 
here.

Freedom has come at a high cost over the course of The Handmaid’s Tale's fourth season that saw June (Elisabeth Moss) finally cross the border into Canada, but not without personal cost. This includes leaving her daughter Hannah and losing many allies and close friends during this dangerous endeavor. In the penultimate episode, rescuing Hannah from a lifetime of color-coded garments — and all of the other Gilead restrictions — takes precedence, and with the aid of Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and American government officials, she reaches out to some familiar faces. June isn’t the only one who is meeting up with an old confidante as the Waterfords are visited by those they considered friends before they were taken into custody. There is another reunion back in Gilead too, and a new handmaid is not taking well to her current circumstances, which gives Janine (Madeline Brewer) the opportunity to shine. The threads of each story are coming together and Moss takes a third turn behind the camera in an episode that zeroes in on intimate moments amid the ever-changing landscape.

After derailing Moira’s (Samira Wiley) group session and asking why fury isn’t as valid as healing, June went home and told Luke what really happened when she last saw Hannah. A weight is immediately lifted when she speaks of this shame and the plan to find their daughter shifts into focus. The rage that has been threatening to envelop everyone in her path subsides until the bombshell at the end of “Progress,” and using Luke’s research combined with June’s knowledge proves dynamite. The first port of call is telephoning Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and it seems pretty easy getting him on the line. It is unclear if anyone is listening on his end, but they are both careful about the words they use and who they don’t implicate.  

Bradley Whitford in The Handmaid's Tale

(Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

“Your love fucks people up... a fountain of heartache and trauma,” Lawrence cuts to the chase about why Hannah is better off where she is. There are several other unspoken layers to Lawrence’s sentiment and the subtext reflects Lawrence’s recently deceased wife, the dead handmaids, and even Nick — who has not been shy about revealing his overtures to the Commander. Ever the tactician, he suggests he can exchange her daughter for at least five of the children who were on Angels' Flight. Considering Lawrence helped set this whole escape plan up, this conversation emphasizes his ability to alter his position based on what he thinks will be better for the overall plan. “Better never means better for everyone” is a sentiment first uttered by Fred (Joseph Feinnes) in Season 1, which June echoes to Nick when he suggests that getting her out safely at the start of Season 2 is better for everyone (including Hannah). 

I bring this up because the push-pull between the heart and the head dominates June’s every fiber whereas men like Lawrence are more practical in their assessment. He’s back on the Gilead train at the second chance station and he even tells her that Janine is “safe and sound at the Red Center.” The latter is an oxymoron, but brief relief washes over her when she hears this news. With June unwilling to negotiate, he cuts the call but tells her to “try to be grateful” for her freedom and implores her to move on. As with his earlier conversation with Nick — also an episode directed by Moss — he knows that she is unlikely to follow his sage advice.

Luke sits in on this call and doesn’t interject at any point — like I worried he would — and Moss chooses tight close-ups to hone in on the emotional turmoil of this scenario. This is a recurring motif throughout the episode that zeroes in on intimacy and her use of a medium close-up juxtaposes intimate scene with uncomfortable situations, Not deterred by the Lawrence strikeout, Luke suggests another powerful figure in Gilead who she can reach out to. It is unclear how much Luke knows about June’s relationship with Nichole’s father (and that he helped her survive), but he is both reluctant and knows that meeting Nick (Max Minghella) in person will have a significant impact. “I think he would do anything for me and for Nichole,” is her way of agreeing this is a valid option to pursue and the awkwardness is dialed up a notch when Luke suggests taking the baby along to aid this plan. This scene also feels like a negotiation and it is worth noting that the framing of the scene with them sitting opposite each other in dimmed light puts some distance between them — particularly when compared with how the scene between the other half of this love triangle is shot later in the episode.

Max Minghella in The Handmaid's Tale

(Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Shooting the Hulu series in Toronto during winter gives location scouts the ideal backdrop for secret meet-ups that are enhanced by the snowy backdrop, and they have found another doozy of an “abandoned” building. The last time Nick and June saw each other was on a sun-dappled bridge that stretched plausibility when the pair shared a rom-com kiss with plenty of prying eyes. Logistics-wise, it is curious that Nick can move so freely without anyone questioning his motives or reason for traveling. Sure, he is a Commander but that doesn’t allow him to do whatever he wants to because in a totalitarian state someone is always watching. Against all odds, he is seemingly alone and armed with a file showing where Hannah is. Nick is a cog in the machine and yet he is also disrupting the world from within, however, he is still upholding Gilead ideals and the wedding band revelation after June departs is troubling. We have seen his attempts to avoid matrimony activities, but he has never had a handmaid before and while I can see him pulling a Lawrence (i.e. not performing the ceremony) it does not absolve him of his role in this society.

When it comes to June and Nick’s relationship, comfort and heat are entwined. Considering their union is built on stolen moments, it is unsurprising to see this dynamic continue even with her newfound freedom. She hears him before seeing his face and Moss is exceptional at depicting this combination of intense joy and sorrow both in this greeting and later in the car when she drives home — the somewhat manic switch between tears and wide grin is effective. This isn’t the time for a 360 degrees smooch with the baby there, but his heart-eyes are turned into words when he softly says that “freedom agrees with you.” Stood with vast space between them, gallows humor breaks the tension and they proceed inside the building that was once a Maria-Magdelena Academy (textbooks about the American Revolution and various religious paraphernalia remains). 

Luke and Moria in The Handmaid's Tale

(Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Anticipating her request, he has already compiled everything he can about Hannah’s whereabouts and the thick dossier has everything she needs to know. Framed together in the window seat with the sunlight shining on them is in contrast to the earlier scene with Luke. “I should’ve run away with you when I had the chance,” he comments before she brings up the Hawaiian fantasy they shared back in Season 2. A kiss full of fire follows before reality quickly sets in. June’s sad nod is a reminder that every time they come together it is finite. For a brief moment the fantasy shifts to a picture-perfect family unit and Nick’s doll gift — his limited shopping options mean this is dressed in Gilead pink — leads to a moment of parenting normalcy that has been absent. In terms of colors, Nichole wears pink (albeit with a floral pattern) and it is notable that June is wearing a coat in handmaid red. You would think she would maybe want to avoid this shade but this could also be her attempt to reclaim what was taken from her. 

No matter where you stand on The Handmaid’s Tale love triangle it is hard to deny this chemistry between Moss and Minghella, and how June’s entire demeanor shifts when Nick is around. In a sea of farewells shared between this couple, this one is tinged with the hope for better as Nick implores the “keep yourself safe.” Lawrence told her to be grateful with Nick offering “try and be happy” and she echoes this back to him. Happiness hits in waves amid sorrow during her drive home with Max Richter’s excellent “On the Nature of Daylight” playing over the emotional scene —this frequent song choice is in overused territory but has a deeper meaning for Moss as she starred in Richter’s music video for this song.    

When she returns home, June stands at a distance while Luke pours through the photos with Moira at his side. Occurring so soon after she has been so intimately at ease with Nick further hammers home where these couples stand, but the atmosphere is victorious even if June is on the periphery. Nothing could prepare June for the mood change when Tuello (Sam Jaeger) explains that Fred is no longer going to trial but has negotiated his freedom in return for information about Gilead’s inner circle. If you thought June was guttural when she screamed at Serena in Episode 7, then this is even more animalistic. “I will kill you” she repeats at the man who has betrayed her trust and once again, Tuello is proving he really doesn’t know how to read a situation.

Janine and Esther in The Handmaid's Tale

(Image credit: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Why is Fred suddenly cooperating? A visit from the Putnams has scared the Waterfords into imagining what Gilead has in store for them and their unborn child. Serena thinks they see her baby as a ward of the state and the offer of aid is one that cannot be trusted. Serena and Fred helped make Gilead, therefore they know how this will unfavorably play out, and they cannot bear the thought of their baby being torn from their arms. Oh, the bitter irony of this response when it is their son who might get taken. If June was furious after she saw them pre-trial then it has nothing on the rage coursing through her veins and there is no doubt she would swap the Waterford child for Hannah’s safe return.

Making a compromise to survive is also on the menu in Gilead as Janine is wearing familiar red despite pleading with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). However, she hasn’t been put back into service yet and is instead tasked with training the former Mrs. Keyes (Mckenna Grace). The last time we saw the 14-year-old Esther, she was helping June add poison to alcohol and she was captured back in Episode 3. Her rage and disobedience are still off the charts, but Janine pleads her case so they won’t take more severe action (like cut her tongue out), and explains the abhorrent abuse from multiple men that she experienced. Esther was cruel to Janine when she didn’t want to eat the pig she had named Mr. Darcy, but Janine doesn’t hold a grudge. Instead, she bargains with the teenager to fall under her tutelage. “How lucky we are to have you with us,” Lydia tells Janine and the other Aunts are aware of the favoritism on display here. Perhaps either Janine or Esther will end up in Nick’s house, and this is a best-case scenario in a worst-case scenario world. 

For all the victories this season, the final moments of “Progress” reveal that in order to hook bigger fish, you have to let some go (or so Tuello’s metaphor goes) but this is one catch June is going to fight for. It is unclear what she is going to do in order to make sure her rapist is punished, but the stage has been set for an explosive finale.