This season of The Handmaid’s Tale has got off to a grim start. In the season three finale, June freed 86 children from Gilead but remained trapped inside the authoritarian republic. As of the last episode, she was living in an intermediary state – not quite free but no longer having to abide by the regime’s rules – on a farm run by the mercurial (and very young) Mrs Keyes.
This week’s instalment hits a similar note by keeping us stuck between three worlds: Canada, where several of June’s former friends and allies now live; the Keyes estate, where freedom is relative and dangers lurk; and Gilead, which hovers over the plot like a trap, forever ready to snap shut around June again.
That tension builds up from the first moments of “Nightshade”, which opens with a car pulling up to the Keyes farm. A car means Guardians from Gilead. June and her companions hide while the young Mrs Keyes has a falsely relaxed exchange with the men. It turns out they’re looking for Guardian Pogue, whom they’re probably going to have a hard time locating, given that Mrs Keyes stabbed him to death in the previous episode. “We haven’t seen him,” Mrs Keyes says in an angelic voice. It works: the Guardians leave for now (although it’s clear they intend to come back later).
And we’re off
None of this is too groundbreaking yet, but it’s enough to set off a series of events that breathe new momentum into the plot. June decides the Guardians’ visit means she needs to leave the farm, and maybe she’s on to something. She’s presumably the most wanted person in Gilead. Wherever she stays, the people around her will be in danger. Then again, all the former Handmaids currently hiding out at the farm are also wanted – albeit slightly less than June – so it’s possible that June is overestimating her own impact here.
None of this matters for too long, because an informant from Mayday (aka the resistance) wants to talk to her! June is whisked away to… let’s call it a gentlemen’s club? It’s a Jezebel’s-type facility where Commanders mingle with women pre-Gilead style. And there’s a greenhouse, too, which is where June meets our mysterious Mayday person. I do love a greenhouse! They’re full of secrets and plants. What’s not to like?
“I thought you’d be taller,” says the mystery woman when she first sees June, which is what everyone says when they meet a celebrity in real life. The most important thing to come out of their exchange is the fact that the Commanders June spotted when she first arrived in the house of debauchery are going to stay there for a couple more days. “They’re just f****** sitting ducks,” June observes, already thinking of how she could exploit this new knowledge to the fullest.
Wham bam thank you ma'am
Back at the farm, June finds out that Mrs Keyes has been low-key poisoning her husband, a Commander, for months (possibly years). “You learn things on a farm,” she says, adding that a Martha taught her how to use poisonous berries to keep her husband at bay. “I only give him a little, to keep him from being a bother,” she tells June. Given what we learnt in the previous episode, about the abuse Mrs Keyes has suffered at the hands of her husband, this is code for a whole lot more than being a mere “bother”.
Not that June is judging. “Can you teach me how to make more?” she asks. Together, June and Mrs Keyes do indeed prepare more poison. This leads to the best scene in this episode, when June returns to the Jezebel’s-type place and delivers the brew in question. Cue a fantastic montage of Commanders guzzling it down like college kids doing shots, to the sound of Davie Bowie’s “Suffragette City”. Hell yes!
Except hell no, because upon returning to the Keyes farm, June quickly realises that something’s wrong. Her ally is shot dead, and June is trapped in a cluster of lasers – you know, the ominous red lasers that mean a bunch of military weapons are currently trained on her.
Who’s that in the background? Well, if it isn’t Nick, June’s former love interest who is now a Commander in Gilead. “Where are the Handmaids?” he asks, Commander-style, before mumbling to June in his normal voice: “I’m trying to keep you alive.”
Having run out of options, June gets up in an apparent surrender. And just like that, Gilead has caught her once again. Look, is it frustrating? Yes, a bit! I want June to get out. I’ve wanted June to get out for three whole seasons. But does it make sense? Yes. June just scored a massive victory against the regime by freeing 86 children. She was never going to walk off into the sunset after pulling off a feat of that magnitude. Stories giveth, and stories taketh. And now is time for the latter.
Meanwhile in Canada...
People are dealing with the fallout of June’s aforementioned big victory, which people are referring to as the Angel Flight. Luke, June’s former husband, and Rita, a former Martha, are giving a talk for fundraising purposes. All those children June freed need material help. It hadn’t occurred to me that those kids would be in such a precarious situation, but it makes sense: they’ve just been displaced without any family or belongings coming with them. Those children have to start from the ground up.
And while it’s certainly a good thing for them to no longer live in an authoritarian republic, it doesn’t mean it’s all ponies and rainbows in Canada. Moira visits a little boy who is now living with his aunt and missing his “mom and dad”, aka the people he was assigned to back in Gilead. He’s having trouble eating non-Gilead food too, including pizza and buttered noodles (a problem I can’t personally identify with, but I emphasise).
The difficulty of adjusting to post-Gilead life is a wider theme in the episode, explored mainly through the characters of Moira and Emily. “I love her, right?” Moira tells Emily of June. “I miss her, and I’m worried about her.” Emily, knowing Moira’s not done, prompts her to carry on: “And?” Moira then admits: “I love Nichole [June’s daughter whom Moira has been raising with Luke], but I never wanted to be a mom.” Emily commiserates: “She gave me her baby and stayed behind. Who does that?”
There is real rancour here, and it makes sense. By nature, resistance efforts in Gilead aren’t exactly coordinated. No one is sitting down at a table, talking through what they’re prepared to take on and what’s too much for them. Things happen when and how they can, and everyone has to pick up the pieces afterward. This is also the show’s way of reminding us that the stakes extend way past the physical borders of Gilead. Just because someone escapes the republic doesn’t mean they can pick up where they left off before the regime took over. Gilead has taken away that world forever.
Fred v Serena
Also in Canada, Fred and Serena Waterford are both in custody now. Serena’s getting her medical exam and battling internally with how to present what happened to her inside Gilead to the outside world. She and Fred also need to figure out whether they’re going to be allies or foes as they each face charges for the crimes they committed inside Gilead.
It’s all a struggle, and they keep blaming each other. Fred insists he was only acting the way Serena expected him to, while Serena blames him for not standing up for her once he got a taste of power. Enemies, then? Not so fast! It turns out all this strategising was leading up to a bombshell: Serena’s pregnant. I’m going to go ahead and presume the child is Fred’s because… who else? And when? And how? Didn’t we spend three seasons painfully establishing the fact that the Waterfords, like many couples in Gilead, can’t conceive a child together – hence the reliance on Handmaids? What does it all mean? Consider me intrigued.