For a long time now, watching The Handmaid’s Tale has been an uneasy undertaking. In wanting to honor June Osborne’s (Elisabeth Moss) trauma and road to recovery, I nonetheless found her endless well of anger—expressed through piercing stares and twisted smiles—more squeamish than gratifying. But then Hulu served up this especially disturbing season four finale, which achieves the difficult task of fulfilling June’s need for justice in a manner that calls back to the past four seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s still rough to watch, but it’s also wonderfully cathartic.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season four.
They Most Dangerous Game‘d Fred! In No Man’s Land, no less! The show delights in its wordplay, and this cleverness was very much earned.
In the last few episodes, as June has forcibly taken over Moira’s ex-Handmaid recovery group, I was worried that she would go full vigilante and give Canada, the International Criminal Court, Gilead, any number of groups the justification that these women are traumatized beyond repair, that they cannot rejoin society as functioning members—even that they are as criminal as Gilead once condemned them, albeit for different reasons.
Not that she wouldn’t be justified: Last episode ended with the gut-wrenching truth that the ICC would easily pardon Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) of his crimes in exchange for the intel he could give them on Gilead’s inner workings. It wouldn’t matter how many times June screamed at U.S. diplomat Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger) that Fred is a rapist—it was unfortunately all-too-easy to imagine the government putting that pesky crime and one woman’s impassioned testimony aside in favor of gaining an advantage over their enemy.
The late-night visit between June and Fred was the most uncomfortable of the episode—even considering what happens later—for how it mirrored their illicit trips to Jezebels and for the strange candor between them. June has made alliances with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) before over shared cigarettes and brief moments of intersectional feminism, only for the Wife to tear them down. What’s between those two at this point is mostly scar tissue, as signified by their last conversation in which June turned Serena’s “do you understand me?” on the pregnant Wife.
But with Fred, they were both speaking freely, only he was too self-obsessed to read the subtext in June’s voice. When they commiserate over missing Offred, he doesn’t glean that June missing her alter ego’s strength is worlds apart from him yearning for his pliant plaything. And when he has the gall to apologize, those are real tears and disbelief for June—but not because she’s touched by his nobility. In a post-finale interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Bruce Miller cited conversations with refugees in which they said that the very worst thing their abuser did was to apologize—“when they realized their abuser knew all along it was wrong from the very beginning.”
Instead of proving herself to be some sort of broken victim, June uses Gilead’s ingrained teachings to do exactly as intended: to get rid of unsuitable men.
Well, first she uses her clout as “June fucking Osborne” to convince Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) to help her. After their disastrous first negotiation over the phone, in which he would only help hand over Hannah in return for ten of the children from the Angels’ Flight, it seemed as if Lawrence would remain stubbornly, smarmily, unsympathetically seated in power, making Gilead great again. But all it takes is a diner meeting—which seems very in-character with Lawrence’s general smirk at Gilead’s strictures—and a new bargain: trade twenty-two women for the traitor Commander. (Of course, I couldn’t help reading this as Fred being worth twenty-three women, including June, and how each amounts to less than five percent of a single man.)
But it’s not enough to deliver Fred back to Gilead, which has already made it clear before his last-minute betrayal that they regard him as an old warhorse that needs to be put out of its misery with a bullet to the head. The nation he helped build has basically washed its hands of him, so in comes June with a plan and with co-conspirators: She wants to make Fred scared for his life, the way she and Luke and Hannah were in their first attempt to flee Gilead. What’s fascinating about this scene, in which she casually lays out the first inklings of her plan to Emily (Alexis Bledel), is how the two of them communicate with their eyes, openly plotting under the nose of a man—in this case, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), who seems oblivious to what they’re plotting. Interestingly, also Moira, as she and June have made it clear they stand on opposite sides of vengeance. After all, it’s not Moira quoting the Old Testament, it’s Emily, who saw a former Aunt hang herself out of guilt and felt great about it.
It’s wonderful to see the men in June Osborne’s life come together to make a plan work: Mark Tuello handing off Fred because—surprise—he’s not going to Geneva anymore; Lawrence meeting them at the Canada/
U.S.A. border bridge and then shrugging helplessly when Nick and the Eyes take over. But it’s the women who get the job done, and that job is a good old-fashioned Particicution.
What’s interesting is that the Handmaid’s Tale epilogue, in its in-universe examination of Offred’s historical document, identifies a Frederick R. Waterford who was credited with coming up with the ritual of the Particicution (also known as Salvaging), among other haunting details of Gilead. Tuello makes a point of saying Fred’s full name earlier in the episode, which feels like a nod to this discovery; and of course there is the brutal irony of this being how Fred goes.
Not gonna lie, I thought June and Co. might only be able to get away with scaring Fred to death—that they could rough him up a bit, but would have to hand him back over to Gilead once he’d learned his lesson. But as she says to Tuello earlier, “Weak men, they do make the world go round.” If left alive, Fred would claw his way back to relevance. He needed to die, and this was the most fitting way to do so.
This was definitely the kind of scene I watched while uttering involuntary sounds, and for the first time in a while I appreciated the music cue (“You Don’t Own Me”). It was shot beautifully, with the ex-Handmaids all in a circle of gray, but just enough red in the middle to signify what remained of Fred. June biting his cheek? Gory but perfect.
But I hope that this Particicution achieves its purpose by being the exception rather than the rule. The women all split up, bloody and triumphant, in the morning, and June even sheds a tear—maybe for Fred, but more likely grieving the path where she was able to let go without violence; instead, it seems as if she may have sacrificed her family with Luke, Nichole, and Moira. When she comes home to cradle Nichole, she seems ready to say goodbye before Luke can tell her to leave. From the look of shocked defeat on his face as she smears blood on their (?) daughter, it seems as if they won’t come back from this. But I don’t want this to be the start of vigilante!June.
We didn’t get to see Serena’s reaction to her grisly mail—Fred’s ring, followed by his severed finger—so her fate could have a lot of branching paths next season. It was telling that she only wore the Wife getup in public, and that whenever she was back in her plush prison cell it’s been fancy pajamas to go with her other luxuries of pen, paper, and laptop. Her every phrase to Fred has been a double-edged sword (“look at what you’ve done,” etc.), and she clearly disliked the idea of him going to Geneva without her while she waited to find out if their child would be born in a Canadian prison or in a Gileadean birthing ceremony at which point he would be ripped from her arms immediately. Not that she wouldn’t deserve it, of course.
But Fred’s death (on neither Canadian nor Gileadean soil) might offer Serena that freedom she’s been chasing for the last few seasons, except with a biological child this time and no Commander husband to soothe. She could explore what it means to be a mother and not a Wife… or we could see that spark between her and Mark Tuello ignite, because Serena may not know how to be a strong independent woman without a doting husband.
The writers’ room is already working on season five, which is rumored to be the series’ last. What I think we need for the potential final season is—hear me out—a time jump! Hulu has the rights to Margaret Atwood’s sequel novel The Testaments, but in order to incorporate its key events, Hannah/Agnes and Nichole/Holly will have to be quite a bit older. Jumping ahead in time would not only set up the Osborne sisters’ plots, but it would give us an answer to where June can go from here. Miller clarified to EW that even though June seems ready to leave, that’s not necessarily what her path will be in season five.
Regardless, we’ve seen June lead the other Handmaids in Gileadean vengeance that they will likely get away with. Rather than bog down season five in prosecuting that, it would be more interesting to watch the years go on and see if they retain that bloody sisterhood or if they are only briefly united by justice.
Just because almost all of the main players have made it to Canada, that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about what’s happening in Gilead. Like the mother/maiden/crone dynamic of Janine, Esther, and Lydia at the Red Center! Although the last we saw of Janine, she was helping Wife-turned-Handmaid Esther to keep her head down for her own survival—and furthering Lydia’s agenda by doing so—I can see Janine making a good Aunt. She’s desperate not to go back into service, and with this small alliance she’s proven her effectiveness in reaching younger Handmaids. I’ve spoken before about seeing Gilead raise the next generation, and the fear was always of seeing innocent young girls who know no future other than (based on the misfortune of their fertility) Handmaids or Wives; but that turnover would also mean watching Handmaids age out of their fertile years and perhaps join the structure keeping the next crop in line.
Flashlights & Whistles
- I’ll probably just keep renaming this section every time I recap this series. Who knows what visuals season five will bring…
- Can’t stop laughing at Moira referring to Serena Joy as Fred’s “Viking-ass wife.”
- I’ve wondered this for weeks, but how did they get someone to sew Wife maternity wear fast enough for Serena to wear it in court? Unless this is a dirty little secret subset of Gileadean fashion, where the Wives who really want to cosplay as pregnant women commission pieces (and bumps to go with them?).
- Fred’s repulsion at June macking on Nick (“that’s sick“) was all the funnier for revealing how little he actually pays attention. I believe he knows that Nick is Nichole’s biological father—Serena must have taunted him with that at one point—but that he couldn’t fathom an actual healthy relationship within Gilead speaks volumes.
- Have I completely missed the fact this entire time that Nichole was named after Nick?
- “I’m a man! I have rights!” Oh, Fred, thanks for all the laughs.
- Rita working with her therapist to manage her impulses to cook and clean for everyone—to serve—is one of those subtle bits of worldbuilding that would have made for a fascinating subplot, but I can also see how the writers felt that it was a quieter character study as opposed to the violent momentum of June working through her anger and need for revenge.
- The Zoom bit was a wry nod to now, even though in the show’s timeline Covid did not happen. Though it makes you wonder how Gilead would regard a pandemic (Biblical plague? Judgment or salvation?), and if they would even be affected by a virus affecting the rest of the world. Before this season I would have said they’d stay locked down, but we’ve seen how porous that border actually is…
What did you think of The Handmaid’s Tale finale? What do you want to see happen in season five?
In lieu of a time jump for the whole season, Natalie Zutter would accept an epilogue flash-forward. Talk The Handmaid’s Tale with her on Twitter!