In ‘Progress’, the penultimate episode of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4, there is indeed some progress made—both in terms of character development of pretty much all the series’ main characters, and in the long, laborious task of bringing down Gilead.
For the Waterfords, progress comes in the form of the Putnams—the high-ranking Gileadean Commander and his noxious wife. These two are somehow allowed not only to cross into Canada unmolested, but to visit Fred and Serena in their cushy prison cells. This is just one of many implausible moments in an otherwise decent episode.
The Putnams arrive and while Mrs. Putnam tries to convince Serena to return to Gilead, Commander Putnam tells Fred that there’s nothing Gilead can do to help. No prisoner transfer is incoming. No diplomatic or military pressure. Nothing. Nada. Fred is shocked and appalled. After all he’s done for Gilead, they’re leaving him to rot.
Mrs. Putnam makes a similar impression on Serena. The only way Serena could possibly make it back to Gilead would be for her to throw her husband under the bus. But that, apparently, is fine as far as Gilead’s leadership is concerned. Mrs. Putnam assures Serena that she would face no retribution, that she would be welcomed home with open arms as a returning hero. Serena doesn’t buy it for a second. She knows she’d be punished. It’s happened before. And now that she’s had a baby, “They could make me into a Handmaid,” she tells Fred.
It’s the last straw. The only way forward, the only way to keep their child and forge a new life, is to turn on their former comrades and feed the Canadian and American governments the intel they desire.
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This is a good way to “break” the pair—just days after they had a resurgence of hope and faith in their cause after seeing supporters cheering them in the streets. Unfortunately, the setup is just too ludicrous to suspend our disbelief. Why would Canada or the Americans allow these visitors? Why would they arrest Fred when he arrived, but allow Commander Putnam immunity? Assuming it’s diplomatic immunity, why allow them such close access to the Waterfords?
This is just one of a few border crossings that make this episode a little hokey. It turns out that it’s quite easy to telephone Commander Lawrence and have June beg him for his help in retrieving Hannah. Why she thinks Lawrence could speak with her with no Eyes listening in is beyond me. Surely he would be closely monitored by the authorities after his missteps. He refuses, of course, though it’s obvious to us that he wants to help. He comes off as a prick to June, offering her Hannah in exchange for ten of the children that she rescued previously. This is clearly not something Lawrence actually wants, but he’s so good at being a sardonic jerk that it comes across that way. June and Luke leave the conversation feeling defeated.
But Luke has a plan, and it’s one he absolutely hates. In a rather combative moment, he suggests to June that she turn to Nick for help. She should meet him in person, he tells her, an angry look on his face, tears in his eyes. Luke, I have to admit, has annoyed me quite a bit since June found her freedom. No doubt, it must be hard to deal with everything, but he constantly makes everything about him, when June has clearly been the one who suffered the most over the past few years. He’s impatient, weirdly hostile and filled with self-pity. No wonder June leaps at the chance to meet with her other lover.
Luke suggests that she bring Nichole when she meets with Nick, a fairly drastic suggestion given that the whole thing could go belly-up if someone on the Gilead side finds out about the liaison and uses it to snatch up June and her daughter.
But the whole idea that it will be so easy to meet with Nick strikes me as more than a little preposterous. Nick is a powerful Commander, sure, but he’s still in a totalitarian state where everyone spies on everyone else. Would it really be so easy for him to make it all the way to Canada and sneak across the border without anyone knowing? If so, why didn’t he work with Tuello to free June ages ago?
The meeting itself is almost worth the unbelievable setup. Nick and June and Nichole, one big happy family—so natural, so unlike the home June has returned to with Luke. I’m not sure how to feel about it, to be honest. I like to see that happiness and comfort and as a moment frozen in time, it feels perfect. Outside, snow covers the ground. Inside, light cuts through the big windows and showers down on the three of them, happy and safe together, if only briefly.
Nick has a treasure trove of intel on Hannah. She’s in Colorado Springs, a symbolic location if ever there was one. I’ve always thought that New England—a relatively liberal swath of America—was an odd choice for Gilead. Colorado Springs, on the other hand, is the nexus of evangelicalism in the United States. In any case, Nick shares pictures and addresses and a warning: Getting Hannah out will be impossible.
But this is The Handmaid’s Tale and June has super powers and plot armor to spare. Nothing is impossible, silly boy.
When June leaves, Nick slips back on his wedding ring. It seems both of them are with people they’d rather not be with, driven apart by politics and geography and inevitability. They should have run away together.
At last we come to Aunt Lydia and her charges. The scene opens with The Last Supper—a dozen Aunts seated all along one side of a long table, with Aunt Lydia—Christ-like—seated in the middle. To her left and right are Aunts that could almost pass as twins, at least from a distance. Lydia lords over her resentful colleagues. Like Lawrence, her fall from power was only a blip. When she was restored, it was to the very top of the ladder.
And so she has some influence, however tenuous, over the other Aunts. She has kept Janine at the Handmaid training facility much longer than anyone expected, unable to send her to the breeding colony after Janine’s pleas. Lydia is going soft it seems, swayed by the plight of her favorite Handmaiden. While she had a complicated relationship with June—swaying violently between affection and spite—she’s only grown more and more fond of Janine over time. It was interesting to see her reaction to Lawrence when he suggested that he “do what she will” with Janine when she was brought back from the rubble of Chicago. He implied that she would want to hurt her, but I think he knew she would do no such thing. It was Lawrence prodding her gently down a path toward compassion and change. Progress, you see.
We discover that Mrs. Keyes, the young Wife who poisoned her husband and harbored June and her friends and allowed her gay Guardians to be together, but who did all this with a fiery sense of revenge and determination, is now a Handmaiden herself. She is a stubborn girl, however, and refuses to eat. Refuses to obey. The Aunts want her tongue cut out. Aunt Lydia seems inclined to do just that.
But Janine begs her not to. She pleads with Aunt Lydia to try a gentler approach and Aunt Lydia suggests that she speak with Esther herself. Maybe Janine can convince her to eat.
Janine agrees and takes her food to the girl’s cell the next day. For some reason that I really can’t explain based on any of the obvious details, Esther thinks that Janine has snuck past the guards. It doesn’t cross her mind that maybe the guards allowed her in with the food. This makes pretty much no sense, and the way the following scene unfolds is based on assumptions that the character simply would never make. When Esther puts two and two together after Janine begs her to stop being so disobedient, it doesn’t really click because there’s no reason to think Janine snuck in there to begin with. Regardless, Janine’s ploy works. Mercy prevails. Esther eats and becomes more docile and keeps her tongue, much to the chagrin of the other Aunts. For Aunt Lydia, it’s a victory. See how useful Janine can be? It’s an excuse to keep her and not send her off to more rape and agony.
Aunt Lydia is going soft, and it seems likely that her transformation is only just beginning, that her pro-Gilead sympathies are just now beginning to crack, and that she will be instrumental in the regime’s downfall—if, of course, that actually happens in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The episode ends with Tuello revealing to June and Luke that Commander Waterford has been set free now that he’s agreed to cooperate and dish out intel on Gilead. This news doesn’t land well with June or Luke. I find it yet another implausible moment in the episode. Surely Canada wouldn’t just free the Waterfords now that they’re agreeing to help. That takes away all their incentives to actually give out intel. A diminished sentence, sure. House arrest maybe. Surely imprisonment until every last bit of intel was gleaned from them. But sudden release and freedom? Not a chance.
June is angry, naturally. She follows Tuello out into the street. “That man is a fucking rapist and you know what he did to me,” she screams. There is no steely-eyed close up of June staring into the camera when she hollers her next line, spittle flying. “I will kill you!” she yells. “I will kill you!”
June has embraced her rage and it’s kind of awesome honestly. She’ll probably make bad choices because of it, but the anger is justified. It’s righteous fury and she has it in spades. If I were Tuello, I’d take the threat very seriously. If I were Fred, I’d hire a security detail.
We have one episode left in Season 4 and then another big wait—though hopefully not quite as long—before Season 5. What did you think of Episode 9? What will happen in the finale? Something big and crazy right? Some big cliffhanger that makes us all a little angry since we know we’ll have to wait a year or two to find out what happens next. Whatever the case, I’ve definitely enjoyed the back half of this season more than the torturous first half, even if one particular controversial scene has overshadowed everything else—and even if some of this latest episode’s plot developments were a little far-fetched.
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