Last week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was brutal. June (Elisabeth Moss) was tortured until she gave up the position of her fellow defector Handmaids. Serena (Yvonne Strzechowski) was revealed to be pregnant – a bit of a shock for all involved, including the viewers, since it’s been painfully established since season one that Serena’s husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) can’t conceive a child. When we last saw June, she and Janine (Madeline Brewer) were the sole survivors of a Hail-Mary escape from the back of a Gilead van.
Episode four of this fourth season, “Milk”, deals with the repercussions of everything that was foisted upon us in last week’s “The Crossing”. We pick up right where we left off, with June and Janine shedding their restraints and searching for cover – which they find, in an… immense tank filled with very cold milk? Bit weird, but not everything makes sense in Gilead, and the aesthetics of their bright red Handmaids’ robes dipping in and out of the opaque white milk really do work, so I’m moved to go along with this.
The new guy is bad news
Eventually, June and Janine find a colony of gruff (and armed) rebels, who appear to live off the grid and in scarce autonomy. But this is Handmaid’s Tale, a show that has been consistently great at reminding us that Gilead didn’t grow out of nowhere – it grew out of us, out of our worst instincts, out of that little part of us that may abuse every small bit of power it’s given. All this to say: the guy at the colony who appears to be in charge wants either June or Janine to perform oral sex on him in exchange for staying. “It’s what you’ve got,” he says in an attempt to justify himself. “Nothing’s free here.”
June initially says she’ll do it, trying to spare Janine. We expect her to go through with it – at a devastating personal cost, obviously. After all, June has been through so much since the beginning of the show. Steeling herself through this kind of assault in exchange for some semblance of personal safety, not just for herself, but for Janine too, sounds exactly like something she would do. But in the end, she can’t do it. June has finally reached a breaking point of sorts, and she’d rather find another place to stay than be subjected to more violence.
Janine and June find somewhere to stay... at a cost
This is a chance for the episode to further explore the dynamic tying June to Janine. Since the beginning of the series, Janine has been the most tender-hearted, juvenile of the Handmaids. June, in turn, has been protective of her, alternating between the roles of mother figure and older sister. But when they end up in the milk tank together, June and Janine still must deal with the fallout of June’s actions in the previous episode: June told Gilead where the other Handmaids, including Janine, were hiding, and because of that, the Handmaids were captured. Janine is understandably angry; June, meanwhile, is mad at Janine for thinking she would have held up better against Gilead’s psychological torture.
While all this is going on, June is still trying to save Janine: she’s the one who hoists her out of the milk tank and convinces the armed defectors outside to take them in. She’s the one who has taken the lead ever since they broke off from the other Handmaids and emerged as the sole survivors of their mad dash for freedom. At the colony, though, Janine steps out of her established role as June’s kooky, sentimental counterpart. Flashbacks remind her that Janine used to make her way through the world as a fully fledged adult – an adult, who, pre-Gilead, dealt with an unwanted pregnancy, ended up as an anti-choice centre masquerading as an abortion clinic, and thankfully wound up finding an actual healthcare provider. Janine is the one who ends up giving the colony leader what he wants (non-consensual oral sex), meaning she and June have a safe-ish place to stay for the time being.
Will this child’s real father please stand up?
Meanwhile, Serena tries to leverage her pregnancy to earn the support of her former servant Rita (Amanda Brugel). Her attempt backfires when Rita chooses instead to tell Fred that his wife-turned-enemy is expecting – something Serena was very much hoping to keep from him. Here, the show offers an unconvincing explanation for how Serena got pregnant in the first place: “Gilead’s clean water and clean air and God’s grace” did the job, Serena tells Rita. This would work if this were simply Serena’s Gilead Kool-Aid coming back to haunt us, but Handmaid’s creator Bruce Miller echoed that talking point when he told The Hollywood Reporter that “Gilead works”, or “maybe the prayers worked”.
Come on. There has to be more! Please tell me there is more? Serena claiming to be pregnant by Fred to get her way in her human rights trial before revealing the baby was someone else’s all along would be the most Serena thing to ever happen. But of course I’m just spit-balling here. Anything beyond “Gilead works” would do quite nicely.