The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 Episode 4 plunged June right back into a pit of despair, just as she and Janine were hoping to see light at the end of the tunnel. But no matter where they go, they seem to encounter people who have few morals, and are only trying to take advantage of others in a dark, dystopian world.
This is a review of The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 Episode 4, and will have major spoilers for the episode.
The latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, called “Milk,” picked up right where the previous episode had left off. June and Janine had just watched as two of their friends were hit and killed by a train. When the new episode begins, they have to keep their wits about them and flee for their lives. Mourning their friends’ deaths will have to happen another day.
The episode provided a stark example of how June really does need the support of others, and she’s not truly an island unto herself. At one point she was heartless with Janine, telling her that she should have left Janine behind a long time ago. Janine had questioned June’s judgment in giving up the handmaids’ location in order to save her daughter. And June blew up at her for the implications. But at the end of the episode, Janine stepped in and took on a horrible task that had (understandably) led June to the brink of a breakdown. June will have to come to terms with the fact that she needs Janine every bit as much as Janine needs her.
You Could Practically Smell the Milk on the Screen
This latest episode was so visceral in its scenes that you could practically smell some key moments. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing! When June and Janine escape, they find a train bound to Chicago, where remnants of America are still fighting Gildead. When they lower themselves into a train cart, it turns out to be a refrigerated cart that’s transporting milk. For the first part of the train ride, they have to actively swim in the milk in order to stay afloat. When they finally escaped, the specter of the milk still haunted me. Did they smell like sour milk once they were dry? I’m not sure why this bothered me and stuck with me as much as it did, but it was a powerful visual that was tough to forget.
Janine’s Backstory Is Heartbreaking
We got a look into Janine’s backstory in this episode, and it was heartbreaking. While she was raising Caleb, she had an unplanned pregnancy. The first place she visited for an abortion was actually a clinic focused on trying to talk people out of the procedures. At the beginning of her appointment, the volunteer mentions something offhand about issues with birth rates, which is a sign that things are already starting to go sideways into the dystopian world that we know today. The volunteer is heartless with Janine, offering her little sympathy and little care.
Janine later finds a new clinic, where she can have a chemical abortion. While this whole appointment goes much more easily, I must say that part of me was surprised there wasn’t a program in place to pay mothers to have children. If birth rates were already starting to show issues, you might think that countries would be working actively to provide for people who can get pregnant. But perhaps things weren’t quite that far along yet.
Janine’s sweet moment at home with her son Caleb is a heartbreaking reminder of all that she’s lost. (And yes, I know I’m using the term “heartbreaking” a lot in this story, but it fits…) If you recall, Caleb was taken away from her and given to different parents when Gilead rose to power. He later died in a traffic accident. If it hadn’t been for Gilead’s rise to power, Caleb might still be alive. 🙁
Rita Has Found Her Independence
The one bright light in the episode was Rita. She’s found her independence and is never going to be bullied by the Waterfords again. When she visits Serena, she’s thrilled to learn that Serena is pregnant. Serena doesn’t plan on telling Fred about her baby boy, and they pray together. Rita seems genuinely happy. But later, when Mark Tuello stops by and drops off prep materials from Serena’s defense attorney, she realizes it was all a lie. Serena didn’t request her company because she thought of her as a friend. No. Serena wanted to manipulate Rita into testifying on her behalf against Fred.
Rita doesn’t have fond feelings for either Waterford. She was considered their property and treated as such. But still, she visits Fred, reminding him that they were *never* friends. Fred reminds her that he never treated her harshly. In the end, Rita isn’t going to get caught in either Waterford’s game. She tells Fred about the baby and leaves. Reveling in her newly found freedom, she enjoys a sushi dinner of her own choice as the episode ends.
The stark contrast between the darkness in her earlier scene with Serena compared to the bright light shining on her at the end is a clear indication of how far she’s come and the freedom she’s found.
With all the darkness happening with June and Janine, I truly needed this lighter moment with Rita. She’s standing strong, and she’s not going to be caught in the lies and manipulations of this former power couple. I’m proud of her, and hope we get more Rita-focused scenes in the episodes to come.
Janine Keeps June Afloat in This Episode
In the end, it’s Janine who keeps June afloat in this episode. (And yes, the pun is intended, considering the milk scene is still sticking with me.) The two had hoped to make contact with Mayday. Instead, they found a group of scavengers fighting Gilead, but not truly fighting for freedom.
The group is going to kick them out, telling them that they can’t have anything for free. June argues that they have a lot they can help the group with. And it’s true. Her strategies and their survival skills would be amazingly helpful to this group. But instead, the leader Steven basically tells them that one of them can have sex with him or they can leave.
It’s a deeply disturbing scene. The leader is justifying his actions in his mind by telling himself that he’s not forcing anyone to have sex, because he’s still giving them a choice. But this is a coercive form of rape. Having to choose between likely death and sex is not really a choice at all. He had just expressed disdain that they were “sex slaves,” but now is basically doing the same thing himself.
June can’t stomach it and prepares to leave. But Janine steps in and does what June cannot, and has sex with Steven. One can argue about whether or not Janine’s choice was the right one, since this group clearly can’t be trusted. But in the end, Janine did what was necessary to survive. She tells June that it wasn’t so bad, and that he even liked her eyepatch. Considering what happened with Janine and Commander Putnam, however, I’m worried about this. Putnam lied to Janine to convince her to do sex acts that were basically forbidden in Gilead. She believed his lies, didn’t realize the coercion for what it was, and fell in love with him. In fact, learning the truth is what drove her to try to kill herself. While this type of dissociation might be an important survival tactic in the world they’re living in, I’m concerned that Janine might fall in love with Steven too and find herself, ultimately, in a similar situation.
Some viewers in online discussions expressed dismay at this storyline, feeling that it is just too dark to rescue the two from Gilead, only to have them pushed for sex in the very next community they find themselves in. However, The Handmaid’s Tale has never been a story about humanity at its finest. It looks at the darkest of humanity square in the eye, while showing glimmers of hope in the few who are able to stand against it.
For now, Janine’s decision has helped her and June live a little longer. It has shown June that she needs Janine on this journey every bit as much as Janine needs her. I just hope it doesn’t cost Janine her sanity again.