The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 9 recap: Stakes never higher as show gears up for dramatic finale

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 9 recap: Stakes never higher as show gears up for dramatic finale

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 9 recap: Stakes never higher as show gears up for dramatic finale

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 episode 9 recap: Stakes never higher as show gears up for dramatic finale

Let’s get one thing out of the way: at no point during this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Progress”, did I know what to expect next. Not that that’s a bad thing – au contraire, as we say in my hometown. I was kept on my toes for 53 straight minutes, surrendering to the experience of being delightfully jerked around by each plotline.

It all began with the title. Yes, yes, I could have looked it up ahead of time, but I don’t like spoiling things for myself. But if you’re The Handmaid’s Tale, and you name an episode “Progress”, then I know you’re being ironic and I am tickled. Because for four seasons, Handmaid’s has been powered by the exact opposite of progress, ie the ultra-conservative sentiment that led to the rise of Gilead. And even when June has made strides forward (like when she finally escaped Gilead in “Vows”, or during her court appearance in last week’s “Testimony”), those have always come at a price.

“Progress” lives up to these expectations, in that everyone tries to barter at some point, everyone over or underplays their hands, and no one gets exactly what they thought they wanted.

Does anyone remember how to negotiate?

At the heart of “Progress” are Luke and June’s combined efforts to accomplish what has been June’s goal since day one: free their daughter Hannah from Gilead. Ever since June got out of Gilead, things have been touch and go between these two: Luke has tried to get close to June, but June has kept him at an emotional length. But this time around, when they start discussing Hannah – when Luke pledges to June that if they work together, they can get her back for good – their dynamic seems to shift. This is the most aligned they have been since their reunion. And even though Luke is obviously making a promise he can’t keep, you want to believe him, if only for a second.

Their efforts begin with an unsuccessful phone call between June and Commander Joseph Lawrence. I know I’ve said this before, but Bradley Whitford is so good at portraying this guy in all his defeated, cruel, at times strangely upbeat glory. The only thing Lawrence can offer June, it turns out, is an impossible bargain: trading Hannah against 10 (or five!) of the 86 children she freed from Gilead in season three. This is a no-go for both June and Luke, and the call ends with Lawrence telling June: “You’re free. Try to be grateful for that and move on.” He hangs up and adds to himself: “If you can.”

And that, my friends, is how Handmaid’s reminds us that Lawrence, too, has lost a lot to Gilead, beginning with the wife he seemed to love sincerely last season. He helped build the system, and the system ate him up, because it’s what Gilead does. In that moment, he reminded me of that guy in The Hunger Games – what was his name? Ah, yes, Seneca Crane. Seneca Crane was the Head Gamemaker when Katniss and Peeta used their leverage to both emerge as winners. Do you remember what happened to Seneca Crane after that? I do: he was locked in a room with a bowl of poisonous nightlock berries, a silent intimation from the regime to kill himself.

June and Nick meet again

At Luke’s suggestion, June meets up with Nick (her former lover, for lack of a better word, who is now a Commander in Gilead) in an effort to obtain information from Hannah. OT Fagbenle’s performance in that scene is excellent, by the way. The thing is, Luke knows from June’s court testimony that Nick is the biological father of Nichole – the child June gave birth to in season two, whom Luke has been caring for with Moira’s help. But how much does Luke know about the ins and out of June’s relationship with Nick? His emotion when he tells June she should speak with him in person implies he suspects that more went on than the physical conception of a child, but if memory serves, he and June haven’t had an actual conversation about this.

In any case, as June gets in her car on her way to meet Nick, Luke pledges: “I’m going to be here when you get home.” And because this is Handmaid’s, I suddenly had a very ominous feeling, while watching that scene, that June was never going to get home and that she was going to get recaptured and sent back to Gilead somehow. Forgive me if that sounds paranoid, but it would be a very Handmaid’s thing to happen! I waited three seasons and then some for June to make it to Canada, and now I’m forever afraid this new setup will be taken away from me.

But once again, my anxiety was proven wrong! (“Shocking,” says my therapist as she flips to the 500th page on her notebook.) Nick and June exchange what passes as flirtation and banter in Gilead (Nick tells June he’s “hanging in there”, she teases him for his “poor choice of words”). Nick gives June photos of Hannah and information on her whereabouts. Not that they will do June a world of good – “Getting her out’s impossible,” Nick tells her. “There are Guardians everywhere.” Nonetheless, June is moved, and she and Nick kiss, and Nick gives Nichole a doll, and it’s all messed up and kind of sweet to see June experiencing something as genuine and joyful as romantic love for once.

Janine finds a new purpose

Back in the Red Centre, where Janine has once again found herself under Aunt Lydia’s tutelage, a Handmaid is on a hunger strike. I could have sworn June tried something similar in earlier seasons, but none of this matters, because the Handmaid in question is none other than Mrs Keyes – you know, the young Wife June met in this season’s premiere when she stayed at her farm.

Guardians raided Mrs Keyes’s property, Mrs Keyes herself was arrested, and now she’s a Handmaid going by her first name, Esther. Obviously, this is terrible for her, but insofar as she’s a fictional character, and this is a TV show, I’m intrigued. If we know anything about Esther, it’s that she’s full of anger, which she’s wont to express in a variety of messy ways. I can’t wait to see what this powder keg does inside of Gilead.

For now, though, Esther is coaxed into eating again by Janine, who’s really desperate to avoid a new posting as a Handmaid and appears to have found herself an unofficial new job as Aunt Lydia’s right-hand woman. Not an ideal move, but it’s understandable.

Excuse me while I overthink the Waterfords plotline once again

Meanwhile in Canada, the Waterfords remain in custody, where their supporters are sending them baby gifts. This includes – and I almost yelled at my screen when it was unveiled – a tiny Commander outfit so that the baby can look just like his daddy! Ew! Ew! Ew! So icky. So perfect. Well played, Handmaid’s.

Things escalate when the Waterfords are visited in person by their old friends from Gilead – a Wife called Naomi and her Commander husband. This is a fascinating setup that gives us insight into how the Waterfords might be perceived inside Gilead, both right now and in the future, if they decide to return. Naomi rules that Serena, in leaving Gilead, did what she had to do as a mother to be with Nichole. So far, so Gileadian, but next she “offers” to take care of Serena’s yet-unborn child should the Waterfords still be in custody at the time of the birth.

On the surface, it’s an offer, but of course, it comes off as a threat, too: Gilead could try to take Serena’s baby. And Serena doesn’t want to return to the authoritarian republic. She’s out now! She’s pregnant! She’s thinking of writing a new book!

This is, of course, a captivating reversal of fortune for Serena. Now look who’s afraid Gilead will separate her from her child and possibly make her a Handmaid. It’s not the first time Serena has received a taste of her own medicine (she did lose a finger for reading from the Bible in season two), but it’s the first time the stakes are this high for her. Haven’t you learnt by now, Serena? This is Gilead, and it always turns against you.

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