Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Another season of The Handmaid’s Tale brings another cycle of trauma.
June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) has been trapped in the restrictive, theocratic country of Gilead for years now, enduring slavery and abuse as a handmaid—a woman forced to bear children for the leadership of the country. Across four seasons, she has managed to escape and to help others escape, only to be captured and brought back to face punishment and further abuse again and again. The show’s jewel-toned set design and costumes, alongside the lushly intimate cinematography, serve only to make the violence on screen more harrowing. Why would anyone keep coming back?
The answer—like the show—is complicated and frustrating, which makes it all the more worth picking apart. June and her fellow handmaids endure the crushing sexual and religious abuse of Gilead in part because they each remain faithful to something they hold in higher esteem than themselves. Their faithfulness is in spite of Gilead’s twisted religion, not because of it. The hope they have is a hope of freedom and of liberation, a hope for the end of Gilead’s religion of fear. The show paints a portrait of what it is like to try to remain faithful in a place where faith has become a tool of oppression. It also draws out the complications of leaving that place of warped faith, and the damage that twisted religion can do to people who have lived under it.
June endures because she wants to ensure the safety and the freedom of her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), who was taken from her to be raised by another family in Gilead. June can’t bear the thought of going to Canada and safety without taking Hannah with her. Nor can she bear leaving other children, handmaids, and servants (“Marthas” in Gilead vernacular). Her goal is to get as many people out of Gilead as possible. She wants to end the country’s oppression, even if she has to do it one person at a time, as though she were tearing down a house brick by painful brick.
June challenges people like Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who talk about Gilead in glowing terms and claim that Gilead’s purpose as a nation is to be God’s light in the world. Aunt Lydia’s rules are religion used as a cudgel; she quotes Bible verses and prayers to force obedience. Handmaids who refuse to comply are punished both with physical torture (at one point June is locked in a box) and with spiritual abuse (Aunt Lydia tells her that it is God’s will for her to be punished in this way). June knows that Aunt Lydia’s “holy” words are hollow. She dares to condemn Aunt Lydia, saying: “You told [the handmaids] that if they followed the rules, they’d be OK, and then you sent them out to be raped.” Her meaning hangs in the air between them: “better to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” than to lead God’s people astray, which is precisely what Aunt Lydia has done. June holds on to this grim light of truth in the midst of the darkness because she has nothing else to hold on to.
But staying faithful in the face of darkness, especially darkness that masquerades as holiness, is hard. Gilead’s rigid religion will kill June; the rules designed to govern her life are too strict for anyone to stand up under, and the punishments are too severe. Her own daughter Hannah doesn’t recognize or trust her any more. She’s risked her life too many times with no success, so she finally leaves Gilead, escaping across the border to Canada in the hopes that she’ll be able to save Hannah from the outside.
Staying faithful in the face of darkness, especially darkness that masquerades as holiness, is hard.
Life in Canada comes as a shock to June. She’s numb at first: sleeping most of the day, unable to eat, until she’s wracked by a panic attack in the grocery store. She can’t stop thinking about the ordeal she’s endured. When she walks through Canadian streets and buildings, she has flashbacks to her life in Gilead, which the camera replicates: her hand brushing a railing, then smoothing her red uniform’s skirt, the colors just as vivid in memory as they were in her past life. Gilead left its mark on her, warping her sense of self just as much as it has warped the religion on which it was founded. The faithful determination that once fueled her in Gilead turns into a white-hot anger.
June’s anger is righteous, focused as it is on the injustice she endured in the name of God in Gilead. Her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) provide an understanding home for June to rest and heal. Moira invites June to come to support group meetings for former handmaids who’ve managed to escape; while there, June questions why she should try to move past anger into acceptance and forgiveness. She goes through the motions of the life she wants to lead, but she’s been hurt deeply by her time in Gilead. She admits to another escaped ex-handmaid that she wants to forget, but she’s unable to let go. She tries to focus her anger on trying to leverage Canada’s justice system against her former captors, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Just as she’d told the truth to Aunt Lydia, she tells the truth about the Waterfords’s crimes and abuses in court, with the hope that justice will be done.
But then the courts fail her by offering Fred a plea deal, leaving June feeling betrayed. She leads the other former handmaids into taking justice into their own hands in an act of retribution against Fred. The punishment the handmaids mete out is an echo of the punishments dealt in Gilead, where handmaids would sometimes be forced to execute wrongdoers by stoning. In execution scenes in early episodes of the show, the action would be shot from above so that the handmaids’s red robes would appear to form circles of blood on the grass. When June and the former handmaids catch up with Fred, they encircle him in the same way, this time in a deserted strip of woods at night, their flashlights appearing from above to tighten into a spotlight around him as they surround him. The courts might not have dealt justice to Fred, but the former handmaids know precisely what he’s done.
The fearful religion that Fred used to maintain a hold on power in Gilead catches up to him in the woods. Instead of affording Fred the justice and grace to live out the rest of his life, accountable for what he’s done, and—perhaps—eventually able to repent, the former handmaids act according to Gilead’s warped sense of justice. They silently walk out of the woods with Fred’s blood on their hands, having carried out the consequences of the religion Fred believed in. June’s decision to carry out Gilead-style justice feels like one last loss of innocence at the hands of the country that had taken so much from her already. We'll have to wait until Season 5 to find out if she is lost for good.