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The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 1 recap: June returns in ominous series premiere

·6-min read
Elisabeth Moss in ‘Pigs’, the first episode of season four of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale' (Hulu)
Elisabeth Moss in ‘Pigs’, the first episode of season four of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale' (Hulu)

June Osborne is officially back. After being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic – like practically every film and TV series under the sun – The Handmaid’s Tale has finally returned for a fourth season. What an agonising wait it’s been! Almost two years have elapsed since June pulled off her most dramatic victory against Gilead, freeing 86 children from the authoritarian regime. June herself was shot in the shuffle and – in what is becoming typical Handmaid’s fashion – didn’t escape.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Serena was put in custody after originally enjoying a little bit of freedom, after her husband Fred flipped on her (not that Serena doesn’t deserve it, but seriously, what a guy). Now both Waterfords are probably going to have to answer for the many, many crimes they’ve committed in Gilead, although who knows with these two? It wouldn’t be unbelievable for them to figure out a way out of trouble somehow.

What else? Ah, yes, Commander Lawrence – given his role in June’s tour de force, we can expect him to be in a fair bit of trouble. Although again, who knows? He’s a Commander in Gilead. He’s survived years at the edges of the regime he helped engineer, not living by the rules he made up for everyone else. If anyone is well-versed in special treatments, it’s Commander Lawrence.

Here we go again

Throughout Handmaid’s, June has found herself, at times, in states of quasi-freedom. That was the case in season two, when she gave birth to her daughter Nichole by herself inside an empty house. It also happened earlier in season two, when she stayed in a series of safe houses, including the deserted offices of The Boston Globe (remember those? They were spooky). Each time, the message was clear: just because June escapes her captors’ immediate vigilance doesn’t mean she’s free. She needs to get out of Gilead for good.

The problem, of course, is that Gilead has a knack for bringing June back to its confines. Such is the case in “Pigs”, the ominously titled first episode in this fourth season. After her fellow Handmaids cauterise her wound (in a sequence that is just painful to watch), June winds up at a farm. Mrs Keyes, the very young ruler of the property (seriously, what is she, 14? Sometimes Gilead manages to out-Gilead itself), seems very… eager, shall we say.

“You’re the one I’ve been waiting for,” she tells June. “You got those children out, dear. He sent me dreams of you. We were killing people together. It was the most wonderful dream.”

Even the other Handmaids, who have seen things, can’t help but exchange bewildered looks. This all leads to Mrs Keyes getting some solid character development throughout the episode: at first, we’re mad at her for being so awful to Janine (she forces her to eat meat from her favourite pig, for crying out loud), but then we find out that Mrs Keyes, too, has suffered severe abuse at the hands of her own husband. “Wives have bad things, too,” she tells June.

This is Handmaid’s, so this reveal doesn’t lead to everyone hugging and toasting marshmallows around a campfire. Instead, things get even more messed-up, when June enables Mrs Keyes to let out some of her angst against a guardian who has wandered onto her property. This is how it goes in Gilead. Oppression yields cruelty. When Mrs Keyes finally takes a knife to the man, who is revealed to have been one of her abusers, we don’t feel her emancipation, exactly. We understand her, but the scene isn’t one of liberation. It’s just dark. It’s messed-up. It’s Handmaid’s.

What’s next for June?

Once she recovers from her injuries, June has a few choices to make. Or does she? It’s not like she has a plethora of options when it comes to figuring out her next steps. Her inner conflict is revealed during an exchange with Alma, another Handmaid who escaped with her and also wound up at the Keyes farm.

“Alma,” June reminds her. “We are not free.” But Alma isn’t so sure. “Maybe this is as free as we’re gonna get,” she tells June. “Maybe we should make the best of it.”

What Alma says is far from stupid. Life in Gilead is all about hedging your bets. Every act of resistance comes with a serious risk of being recaptured, tortured, possibly killed. Why wouldn’t someone settle for a state of semi-freedom, especially after being subjected to the worst treatment the regime has to offer? It’s not hard to imagine why Alma would find it in herself to make peace with life on the Keyes farm.

June, however, is of a different mindset. We know she won’t settle. She wants Gilead to collapse. She wants to free Hannah, her firstborn, whom she was forcibly separated from. She wants the whole package, and she’ll keep fighting for it.

Sing to me, Handmaid’s

Can we take a few moments to acknowledge the show’s consistently awesome use of music? The season three episode “Heroic” still pops up in my head every time I hear Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”.

This time around, “Pigs” reserves the same treatment to Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer”, and, later, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. It’s gorgeous, it’s ironic, and it must have cost a tonne in licensing rights. Worth it!

Meanwhile…

Commander Lawrence, sitting in a cell, is led away by a group of guardians. It seems certain that he’s about to get executed. Except, plot twist! “I think there still may be more that you can do for your country,” Nick tells him. Lawrence looks appropriately surprised when Nick then announces he’s convinced the Gilead bigwigs to hire him as a consultant. No death and a new job? Look who’s thriving.

As for Fred and Serena, they’re as gutted as expected to learn that June has freed 86 children from Gilead. The look on their faces when they find out she was the mastermind behind that operation is pretty priceless – although of course they immediately recover from the shock and switch to “she will pay for her actions” mode. Classic Waterfords. Except now that they’re both in custody in Canada, there isn’t much they can do about it, is there?

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