‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 4, Episode 1 Review: Pigs And Princesses
The Handmaid’s Tale’s fourth season picks up exactly where the third season left off, with June (Elisabeth Moss) having been shot during her successful attempt to rescue 86 children and a dozen or Marthas from Gilead. She and her fellow Handmaidens were left behind to fight off the bad guys, which they did successfully. Now they’re fugitives from Gilead’s totalitarian regime, and June is bleeding out.
The Season 4 premiere is focused largely on June and her compatriots making their way to a safehouse where the resistance movement Mayday has set up shop. June very nearly dies, and even days after their arrival can barely leave her bed.
She’s been taken in by Mrs. Keyes (Mckenna Grace) a very young Wife who rules the roost at this farmhouse now that her husband has devolved into senility. We can’t feel very bad for the man. It turns out he couldn’t get it up, and so instead of doing the deed himself with his child bride, he let various Guardians, Commanders, Eyes and other men of Gilead have their way with her.
This fact we learn sometime later in the episode. At first, we don’t know what’s going on with Mrs. Keyes. She tells a wounded June that she dreamed of her—that she dreamed of the two of them killing people together. Later she gets angry with June for not wanting to go to war with Gilead right this moment. June merely urges patience, telling the young woman that things are too hot at the moment after the rescue of the children. But Mrs. Keyes will have none of that and storms off.
Later, the young Wife forces poor Janine (Madeline Brewer) to eat pork from a pig they slaughtered that same day—a pig Janine prayed over before it was killed. Clearly she had some connection to the pig (the title of the episode is even “Pigs”) though the show doesn’t do much to explain or show us what that was unfortunately.
Still, the scene of Mrs. Keyes hollering at Janine to eat the pork, then clamping her hand over her mouth to stop her from spitting it out or vomiting, is deeply troubling and more than a little surprising given the girl’s apparent sympathy to their cause. June even confronts her telling her to have some bleeping “respect.” This is when Mrs. Keyes breaks down and tells June about all the rapes and abuse she also experienced. She breaks down weeping and June comforts her.
The next scene is a little confusing. June is mad that nobody was watching over Mrs. Keyes. She’s gone, I guess? June seems a little unhinged. I feel like I missed something but I know I didn’t.
It turns out that she had been out patrolling her land and she and her guards came across a trespasser. It’s a wandering Guardian. He’s drunk. He’s also one of the men who raped Mrs. Keyes. They have him bound and when he tries to escape, the fake-Marthas (the Handmaidens are all disguised as Marthas for obvious reasons) descend, kicking and beating him with a shovel.
It really reminded me of the scene from Season 1 when Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) takes the Handmaidens out to a field and has them all stand in a circle around a Condemned man. They’re instructed to throw stones at him and attack him and ultimately kill him brutally. I do think we’re meant to remember that scene at this moment, as our heroes descend quickly to the wickedness of their captors.
The only other version of this scene I could find on YouTube was this one from the 1990 movie adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. I admit, I didn’t even know this version existed.
June tells them to stop and for a moment we wonder if she’s going to show mercy or hold a trial or something humane and decent—things her captors rarely, if ever, have shown her.
But no. They string him up in the barn and Mrs. Keyes walks in and June hands her the wicked looking knife she’s been carrying around and says “Make momma proud,” with a weird, insane glint in her eye. “I will,” Mrs. Keyes says. June walks out and we hear the screaming.
Later, as June lays in bed, Mrs. Keyes comes in, her blue robes soaked in blood. She asks to lay next to June and when she does she says “I love you.” June grins creepily and says “I love you too, bananas.” As in “Hannah banana”—the thing she used to say to her now long-lost first child. Has June given up on ever finding her? Has she snapped and decided that Mrs. Keyes—let’s call her Esther from now on—will suffice as a proxy? Or convinced herself that Esther actually is Hannah? It’s hard to say. June isn’t stable at the moment, clearly.
Elsewhere, the Waterfords—both of whom are now in cushy prison cells—meet with Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) the US agent that first convinced Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) to betray her husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and escape to Canada. Both Serena and Fred are deeply troubled by this. It’s sort of incredible how brain-washed and awful Serena remains. You’d think she’d be happy to hear others got out of Gilead, a place she clearly wanted to get away from. But no. She remains unmovable in her twisted beliefs. Fred is just a creep, and while he comes off as a true believer genuinely concerned with the plight of these kids, we all know he’s full of it.
Speaking of true believers, we do get one scene with a much-bruised and beaten Aunt Lydia. She’s in front of some Gilead council. We learn she’s been questioned for 19 days straight in an attempt to determine if she’s culpable in the escape of the children, Marthas and Handmaidens. The council determines that she’s not guilty, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t at least partly responsible. As she’s dismissed, one of the super nice dudes in the council says something like “filthy Handmaidens, worthless whores all of them.”
Aunt Lydia turns, a bit of that old fire in her eyes. We know that in her own twisted way she does want to defend these women. She chastises the men before her, telling them that not all Handmaidens are bad—misled, but not sinful—but one of them is. One of them needs to be brought to justice, strung up on the wall, before she causes more trouble. She’s evaded their Guardians for 19 days already (how incompetent are you? she says without saying it). Aunt Lydia remains one of the more dangerous figures in Gilead, a true believer in her own gender’s oppression and subjugation.
On the flipside we have Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whiford) and Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) who find themselves in close quarters. Lawrence is in prison, though they were kind enough to let him keep his books (something women aren’t allowed to have even when “free” in Gilead). Nick is a powerful Commander now whose reach apparently extends to this prison facility and to Gilead’s leadership. I thought he was off to Chicago to fight in the war? Maybe I’m forgetting something.
In any case, it very much looks as though Lawrence is done for when he’s taken to a room with an ominous looking chair, but Nick has managed to get the powers that be to use Lawrence as a consultant on a possible invasion of Canada instead—something Lawrence thinks would be foolish, a missed opportunity for new peace talks and trade agreements. The ominous chair? Just a barber’s seat. Lawrence is getting a trim, not a beheading.
I actually thought this was a pretty good episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been pretty fed up with the show lately. Season 3 certainly had its moments and it’s all very well-produced, but it seems like the only way this show knows how to succeed is by constantly upping the ante. Make the violence more horrific (recall the Handmaidens with their lips sealed shut with metal rings) or make the stakes bigger (an entire plane filled with children and Marthas escapes, not just one Martha with one baby).
Fortunately, this episode at least dialed things back a touch. Esther’s changeable moods are an interesting twist to the liberation movement and she could make for a very interesting protagonist/antagonist hybrid going forward. I hope they explore the weird mommy-daughter thing going on between June and Esther more also, as it’s kind of a twisted but compelling new relationship.
It’s also quite telling to see Lawrence get off so easily while June will almost certainly be in enormous trouble should she be caught. It’s not just that he’s a man and she’s a woman. It’s that he’s a powerful man that the state values as a strategic asset, while June is nothing more than a breeder to them (though one with rather absurd plot armor).
I will say this: I want Season 4 to be about the revolution finally happening and some bad guys finally getting their comeuppance. I want to see Mayday or whatever group June falls in with take down some big movers and shakers in Gilead. I don’t think anyone needs another season of horrifying oppression and violence. I think we all need some catharsis. I’m nervous that we won’t get it and that Hulu will just keep this story going forever.
What did you think of the first episode? Hulu dropped three on us last night so I’ll be typing out my reviews of the 2nd and 3rd episodes today. Thanks for reading!