June Osborne has problems. She has problems that the world and fate and a woman-hating, theocratic regime have thrust upon her. And she has problems she’s adopted all on her own. Chief among this latter category—as Janine puts it in Wednesday’s episode “Chicago”—is her pushiness.
June is very pushy and often about things she has no business being pushy about, in situations where a few deep breaths would serve her better. She is also stubborn to a fault, but we’ll save that for another time. For now, let’s recap what went down in Season 4, Episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale and why I was tempted to yell at my TV a few times—at June, of course. Because she’s infuriating.
The episode opens with June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) still bunkered down with the bandits. Janine has taken to sleeping with Steven (Omar Maskati) regularly, and has come to think of herself as his girlfriend. June isn’t pleased by this—both because Steven coerced Janine into a sexual relationship and because June is jealous and a bit possessive of her friend.
Still, coercion or no, Janine is happier now than she’s been in a very long time. When she and June accompany the bandits on a trading mission, she tries to trade her Handmaid’s cloak for a baseball hat to give to Steven as a gift. When the man she’s trading with won’t bite, June has pity and adds her cloak to the bargain. And it is a bargain. Those are clearly not raiments either woman should ever wear again, but the cloth is high quality and warm and certainly worth more than a baseball cap.
I find Janine’s happiness intriguing. I wrote about how she said it “wasn’t that bad” last week when she took one for the team and did the deed with Steven when June couldn’t. I think she genuinely meant that, actually. We need to see it from her point of view rather than from our own. Obviously in our society, coerced oral sex is horrific. It’s horrific in Janine’s world also but—and this is a very important but—everything is relative in situations like these. Janine has come from a life of bondage and torture in which she was used as a breeder, her child taken from her once she gave birth.
Steven, on the other hand, gave her a choice and treated her with kindness—aside from the initial coercion. I will say it plainly: I am not defending Steven here. I’m merely pointing out that from Janine’s messed up perspective, being given any sort of choice, being treated with any degree of kindness, is a massive step up from what she’s been subjected to for all this time in Gilead. So while we may look at the whole thing with skepticism or disgust, to Janine it’s something that must look and feel a lot more like safety and affection.
So it’s that much more infuriating when June guilt-trips her into leaving the bandit hideout. Let’s back up for a moment.
In the bandit hideout, June learns that the bandits are planning on trading a bunch of the food they came by for other supplies like fuel and bullets and batteries. She asks to come along and Steven says no, fresh meat don’t get to go on trading runs. Janine intervenes, telling Steven about June freeing all those kids from Gilead, and he relents. “But you have to do exactly as I say,” he warns her, and she nods and we all chuckle and shake our heads and think “Yeah right.”
Indeed, not long into their little excursion June is asking for a gun. Her request is denied—which ends up being a wise decision on Steven’s part. Not long after a Gilead military patrol shows up and the little group hides in an abandoned building. The soldiers peer in but don’t see any of them and they move on. June hisses at Steven that he has a clear shot and he shakes his head.
June is frustrated. “You had a clear shot!” she says. But Steven tells her it’s not worth it. Even if they could take out the patrol, it would just mean more soldiers and more patrols in the future. “It’s not worth it,” he says.
“What kind of resistance are you?” she hisses back, forgetting that he never said he was part of a resistance.
“The kind that survives,” he tells her. June, of course, would prefer to go down guns blazing without any semblance of a plan. This is her M.O. She has a very hard time learning from her past mistakes. It’s honestly getting a bit tiresome at this point.
From here they make it to the trade, get the baseball cap and then head back. But along the way they find some bodies of an actual resistance group, the Nighthawks.
“They don’t care if they live or die, they just wanna kill soldiers,” Steven says. “You’d love ‘em.” I admit, I got a kick out of this line. Steven is not wrong.
And June takes it to heart. She’s itching to meet up with real renegades, not these cowardly bandits just trying to survive in a hardscrabble world. She tells Janine—who is happy and content for the first time in a very long time—that they need to leave. When Janine says she doesn’t want to, June is pissed. She’s going to leave anyways, and I’m not sure if she’s mad that Janine won’t do what she says or that Janine has found some small happiness or if she’s just afraid to be alone. Whatever the case, it’s not fair to Janine.
When Janine tries to say goodbye, June is surly and short with her. It takes Janine giving her the baseball cap she’d planned to give Steven for her to melt. “Something to remember me by,” Janine says. “I could never forget you,” June replies. They embrace and then June heads out and I feel relieved—relieved that Janine might actually have something good in her life, however briefly. Relieved that she won’t follow June to her death . . . .
Lydia, Lawrence and Nick Oh My!
Back in Gilead, politics and more politics, politics from all angles. Mostly, none of it really makes sense because the show’s creators have done such a poor job at helping us understand the inner-workings of the Gileadean state. Questions I have include:
- What on earth led to Nick becoming such a powerful commander within the Gileadean power apparatus, with a seat on the Council and the ability to not only spare Commander Lawrence’s life, but get him moved back into his old house.
- Why are the powers that be in Gilead so resistant to any kind of diplomatic approach to their ongoing struggles, as Lawrence suggests, given the fact that exporting children (which we saw happen with the Mexican diplomatic mission) is such a vital piece of their economy? What is the military situation in Chicago, California and Texas (and wherever else the remnants of America fight back against Gilead’s forces)?
- How is it that Aunt Lydia hasn’t used her dirt on all these powerful men to get her way more often in the past, and why go to Lawrence—who is essentially disgraced at this point—instead of one of the more powerful commanders? Or is Lawrence now back to his previous status?
- Why did Lawrence betray Nick? He knew that Nick’s earlier betrayal (when he didn’t back the diplomatic approach) was all about saving face. But doesn’t he want what Nick wants?
This last one is really puzzling to me. Lawrence urges diplomatic means to cast Gilead in a better light. He doesn’t want more war in Chicago at least in part because he does care about June. He tells Lydia, when she comes to blackmail him and he turns it around on her, that they can fix Gilead together. But what on earth does he really want? What is his game? Why twist the plan up to have aid delivered and then bomb the crap out of everyone? Won’t that tarnish Gilead’s reputation further and make everyone mistrust them even more?
I appreciate when characters are neither black nor white in terms of morality or motivations, but there is a point when a character becomes so inscrutable that their motivations stop making any sort of coherent sense whatsoever. Aunt Lydia makes sense to me. She thinks she’s doing good. She believes in her own righteousness. She’s a true believer in what Gilead stands for—and in her twisted mind, she thinks that she really is caring for and protecting the Handmaids.
Nick, I think, is using the power he’s accrued to genuinely try to help June, though I wonder if there is some selfishness in his motives as well. He wants to save her, but does he want her to escape? When Lawrence and the other commanders inform him of their plan, he’s certainly shocked and worried, mostly for June (though also I do think he finds the plan needlessly cruel). Nick, I do think, is a guy trying to do good in a bad situation.
But Lawrence . . . he’s too mercurial. Is he playing some long game? Is he just desperate to save his own neck? Does he want to reestablish his own powerful role in Gileadean society? Does he really want to do good and bring about reforms, or is he merely a pragmatist? From moment to moment he shifts and while that can be intriguing, it can also be exasperating after a while. Do they even know what he’s after? Or is he just a convenient character to use when the writers want to throw a wrench into the cogs of our expectations?
Whatever the case, the diplomatic plan—24 hours of mercy, the allowance of NGOs to bring food and medical supplies to the besieged forces in Chicago and elsewhere—turns into something of a trap. They send in the fighter jets and bomb the crap out of Chicago.
Of course, June and Janine are directly in the line of fire.
June leaves the bandit’s hideout on her own but pretty soon Janine catches up with her. She can’t imagine being without June, and she’s willing to toss away that little fragment of a good life in order to follow her friend into peril.
I groaned. I really did hope that Janine would stay with Steven (but not make babies with him. Janine enthusiastically gushed about how she and June could stay behind and make babies, to which June rightly said “You can’t have a baby here.”)
Anyways, the two of them make it to a guard station but there are no guards. There’s a pallet of food, but no soldiers lurking about. June’s Spidey sense start tingling. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she says, like she’s in a Star Wars movie.
Then the jets appear. Of course they’re directly overhead, directly down the street from the two unluckiest of Handmaidens. “Run!” June shouts, though running from fighter jets that travel far faster than even the fastest sprinter seems pointless. Better to duck, or take cover, or just pray hard.
The bombs drop all around them and June hits the ground, waking up sometime later with a ringing in her ears, rubble and dust everywhere, the sound of muffled voices all around her. A version of “Fix You” by Coldplay plays over the scene as June searches for Janine, yet another Handmaid led to her (possible) death in the wake of June’s ambitions. This is an odd choice of music—pretty enough, I suppose, but I don’t think it really fits. Neither the melody nor the lyrics really line up with the moment.
Maybe “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens would have been more fitting.
Maybe not. A bolder choice but a less dramatic one, and the moment in question is without a doubt dramatic—one of the biggest we’ve had in The Handmaid’s Tale in a very, very long time.
A figure comes walking through the dust, materializing out of the fog as June looks about in dazed confusion. A face takes shape. It’s Moira (Samira Wiley). She’s suitably shocked. “June?” she says.
And the credits roll.
Read my past Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 reviews:
We could have guessed this, I suppose. Moira’s tall, British girlfriend Oona (Zawe Ashton) invited her along on a mission for the NGO they work for and it makes sense that they’d head to Chicago given the ceasefire. But it’s still surprising—and more than a little serendipitous—to have Moira show up right then and June rise from the rubble at that very moment. You could say it’s a little too convenient, but frankly we’re all so starved for something good to happen at this point that I’m not complaining—though I’m still very perturbed that Janine could be dead, and only for more shock value.
Overall, I do really like that this episode has pushed the story forward. Things are happening in Gilead, where both Lawrence and Aunt Lydia have regained some power, and Nick has been thrown off balance by politicking that is apparently above his paygrade.
June has been reunited not only with an old friend, but with a friend here to help who has the backing of a Canadian NGO. Is this June’s ticket out of Gilead? If so, will she accept it? Does she even want freedom? She’s turned it down more than once in her mad quest to save Hannah against impossible odds. Or maybe she’s just afraid to return to a normal life, afraid of what that will mean especially without her daughter.
It’s a potential turning point for The Handmaid’s Tale. A potential “breaking of the wheel” and escape from this maddening cycle of misery we’ve been in. But I am definitely not getting my hopes up until next week when we find out what happens next. Hell, for all we know Moira is just a dream (though I doubt it).
What did you think of “Chicago?” Let me know!
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Further Reading From Yours Truly: