The Handmaid’s Tale
The Canadian–Gileadean border is much more porous than we’ve been led to believe. Just a few episodes ago June was forging an NGO ID card to make it across Lake Michigan while American citizens wept on chainlink fences, desperate to storm the boat. But in “Progress,” new lines of communication are set up left and right. June simply calls Lawrence on his desk phone. Boop boop beep, the numbers are punched, and there he is, ready to chat treason. The Putnams — a high-ranking family and part of the leadership chain — not only jet into Canada, they also pay a little social visit to their friends in international war crimes jail, bearing navy blue baby sweaters and what I’m assuming are Cuban cigars. Nick too shimmies up into the land of eternal snow, taking what must have been an exhaustingly long car ride to meet June, without attracting any notice or suspicion.
Now that June is across the border, it seems as though the line has disappeared. Tuello (despite Lawrence’s claim that the Americans “don’t have a pot to piss in”) can arrange any call, any visit. Presumably, he and other government agents have contacts on Gilead’s side, spy-craft methods for arranging such rendezvous. But “Progress” makes it all appear so simple that I wondered why the hell Tuello didn’t just reach into Gilead last season and pluck June out himself.
And yet, despite this adamant refusal by the Handmaid’s Tale writers to simply obey the rules of their own universe, “Progress” proves that the back half of this fourth season is one of the best stretches of the show in recent memory. With (most of) the ceaseless violence in the rearview, it’s turned back into a character-driven experience, and it’s all the better for it.
The episode is anchored by three big dialogues, each with June and one of the men whose care, affection, efforts (and occasional cruelty) kept her alive in Gilead. If there’s anything The Handmaid’s Tale excels at, it’s pushing characters up and down a spectrum of kindness and cruelty perfectly in keeping with real-life mood swings, shifting priorities, and creeping and dissipating selfishness. No one slides up and down that spectrum more than Lawrence, who single-handedly designed Gilead’s economy and then retreated to his Victorian-designed, Abstract-Expressionist-filled mansion to quietly enjoy the perks of the demonic society without stressing too much about its human-rights violations. Through it all he’s remained blistering and sarcastic, unwilling even when he’s being helpful to do it with a smile.
So when June calls and begs for his help finding Hannah (she must know through some channel he’s been reinstated to the Council and isn’t dangling from the wall or rotting in a cell), it’s impossible to know how Lawrence will react. His over-the-top cruelty, however — insisting that he’ll happily return Hannah if June brings back ten kids from Angels’ Flight — must be the result of pressure from the other Commanders. Think about it: Is there any chance his phone is not tapped? That a Commander recently released from prison for treason would operate freely in a society as watchful as Gilead?
This doesn’t mean his point about Hannah perhaps being better off with her “family” in Gilead doesn’t make a small bit of sense. Plenty of other children from Angels’ Flight are struggling to see their real families as familiar or comforting. If America fell about five years ago, 8-, 9-, or 10-year-old kids might barely recall their mothers’ or fathers’ faces and smells, their voices and gentle hands. Anyone who’s read The Face on the Milk Carton knows that it isn’t as easy as just reuniting a kidnapped child with their long-lost family and waiting for the tearful, happy hugs.
Luke’s bid to use Nick as their point person in Gilead makes so much sense it’s a wonder June didn’t bring it up before. But I’m glad she didn’t, that we had the chance to see this scene between them, as Luke darts between fury, desperation, and despondency when he presses June to visit Nick with Nichole in tow, all the better to convince him to help. Luke and June’s relationship has bounced around like a ping-pong ball since she crossed into Canada. Romance and rejection, guilt and relief. Finding Hannah unites them in their purpose, but using Nick presses a small sliver between them. Luke knows that Nick wasn’t just pressed onto June (after all, she named their baby after him), and tries to simultaneously understand and appreciate that she had someone to love her and care for her in Gilead, while also wanting to banish Nick from his mind’s eye.
The last time June saw Nick was their tearful goodbye kiss by the bridge (these two have said more goodbyes than the hobbits at the end of Return of the King). And while I felt guilty for it, I clapped seeing them together again, obviously as taken with each other as they were back at the Waterfords’. I did have some questions about the situation, notably why, of all colors, June has a Handmaid-red coat (seems an odd choice) and what made her try to push an umbrella stroller in the snow (not possible!). But together in the abandoned Catholic school, the light streaming in behind them like it was trumpeted down from heaven itself, their family of three looked cozy and content, like they might have prospered in an alternate universe. Even that glint of a gold ring Nick slid on his finger as June backed away didn’t deter my fantasy that someday June might simply move between her two partners like Bill Henrickson crossing backyards in Big Love.
The trip, of course, was to gather any information about Hannah, which Nick apparently has in spades. New photos from “friendlies” near her house in Colorado Springs in the Western Territories, her address, her school, even reports on her behavior. “Getting her out,” Nick claims, “is impossible,” though I doubt that very much. The Handmaid’s Tale thrives on impossibility!
The Handmaid’s Tale’s cinematography has always favored crisply framed, symmetrical shots, but the sight of Aunt Lydia and her cronies seated Last Supper–style for dinner hit a practically operatic high. Does it make sense that 13 women would all dine on the same side of one table? Absolutely not, but style far outweighs substance here. There’s Lydia, Jesus herself, begging patience and love from her (unwilling) acolytes. What are her plans for Janine and the former Mrs. Keyes, two women brought together time and again over the refusal to eat food? Is this a plot, or, gasp, a change in character for Lydia, whose soft spot for the young and weak can send her to wild extremes?
After the ho-hum to-and-fro of their imprisonment (Serena hates Fred, Fred hates Serena, Serena needs Fred, Fred needs Serena, ad nauseam), the Waterfords’ emotional stasis has finally broken. The Putnams’ visit (one can have fellow criminal visitors in international war crimes jail? And said visitors can bring baby gifts?) finally, deliciously plants the seed of worry in Serena and Fred’s minds that we’ve all been waiting for. The state, they’ve realized, could take away their child and give it to someone else. This would be cruel, they spit at each other bitterly, entirely unaware of the most rampant hypocrisy to have ever existed. “They could make me a Handmaid,” Serena whispers, suddenly party to the fact that the life of a forced concubine may not be as godly and rewarding as she’d made it out to be.
But they possess the one thing June lacked in her years stuck under their roof: leverage. Gilead won’t take them back with open arms — the other commanders have lost interest in Fred, not even bothering to parlay with the Canadians on his return. The Putnams’ little social visit is a thinly veiled warning. And so they trade what they have — intel on Gilead’s plans, hierarchies, and capabilities — for their freedom.
Tuello foolishly presents this to June and Luke as a boon, as if Fred Waterford will bend over backward to return Hannah to them. And what I appreciate most about “Progress” is that June doesn’t treat this information with the same steely-eyed, direct-to-camera stare as always. “That man is a fucking rapist and you know what he did to me,” she bellows, just before she levels a promise I’m worried she might keep: “I will kill you!”