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The Handmaid's Tale - Milk - Review

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  The Handmaid’s Tale “Milk” was written by Jacey Heldrich and was directed by Christina Choe, whose other credits include The Twilight Zone, Strange Angel, and Queen Sugar. This episode features flashbacks to Janine (Madeline Brewer) before Gilead. The episode shines a light on abortion, doing really great work at a time when the US is thinking of turning back the progress it’s made on women’s freedom to choose what’s right for themselves. In fact, shining a light on the US potentially choosing to become more like Gilead.

The episode begins right where we left off with June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine running for their lives. Janine wants to go back for the others, but June tells her they’re dead. The two spare a moment to cry for their friends, but June gives strength to Janine, telling her that they are going west and they are going to be ok. 

By night they are at a train station. Janine wants to go to Boston where they know people, but June is determined to go west to Chicago to the front where they are still fighting. Janine is terrified of the fighting. June promises not to let anything happen to her. The two have been watching Guardians put supplies on the trains. When there is a chance, the two climb on to a tanker, and June jumps in, telling Janine to follow her. It’s full of milk. And of course, it’s freezing. When they hear soldiers coming, they dive and they’re locked in. When the train starts moving, so does the milk and it looks like they are going to be drown! June finds a valve to drain most of the milk out. It’s beautifully shot – and another way to get some great white and red shots. And of course, how symbolic that handmaids – set to birth and feed Gilead’s babies should escape in milk…and perhaps to new life.

In Toronto, Rita (Amanda Brugel) is baking bread. It’s clearly an activity that provides her with comfort. It’s also a nice transition from the white sloshing milk to the white flour and dough moving across the bread board like waves. Rita has baked bread to have with Moira (Samira Wiley), who tells her she shouldn’t have bothered. Moira is there for lunch to tell her that there’s no record of Rita’s sister or nephew. Moira tells her that they might have escaped with assumed names, so she’ll keep looking. Rita accepts the news with little show of emotion – stoicism is something she’s had to live with for a long time too. 

Rita clearly has her own apartment now. There’s a plant with a welcome note on it on the table – red flowers in a very white dinning area being flooded with light. Rita knows there’s something else. Moira tells her that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) has asked to see her. Rita wants to know why. She begins without emotion, but is clearly concerned as she tells Moira that Serena must know she’s been deposed – and she’s told them everything! Moira has no sympathy for Serena and tells Rita that she’s behind bars where she belongs. Rita insists that Serena is only there because she wanted to be with Nicole – it’s clear that she still has sympathy for Serena. Moira suggests that Rita could get closure by saying her peace to Serena – or she “could let her fucking rot.”

Rita chooses to see her. Serena is clearly glad to see her and greets her with the usual Gilead religious ‘praise be…’ Rita responds with “Ma’am.” Serena asks her to sit saying she tries not to be on her feet for too long. She shows Rita an ultrasound to explain why Rita is there. Rita is shocked and touched, saying “it’s a miracle.” Rita says she didn’t think the Commander could. Serena attributes it to Gilead’s clean air and water and God’s grace. I’m still thinking Mark (Sam Jaeger), but Bruce Miller has confirmed in interviews it’s Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes). 

Rita says Fred must be beside himself. Serena tells her that she doesn’t intend to tell him, saying that there’s a reason God chose this moment while they are separated for her to become pregnant. Serena is expecting Rita to help her care for the baby – who is a boy. Rita is thrilled to learn it’s a boy and the two laugh over watching him catch frogs and play with trucks. Serena tells her that she’s missed Rita who was always such a blessing. A blessing to do all the grunt work! Rita is going to hand back the picture, but Serena tells her that it’s for her. To look at the baby whenever she wants. 

I loved how this was shot – as always! At this point, the camera swings to outside Serena’s cell. The two are sitting in wife-blue/green chairs – the only two in the room. They are sitting in the square of light that comes in from the window, and the rest of the room is bathed in darkness. Rita is still favoring muted colors – almost Martha-grey, but her coat has a tinge of green. Serena tells Rita that it’s nice to have a friend – but are they? Rita is touched that she says it. Serena asks her to pray with her, and smiling with tears, Rita says yes.

Back on the train, Janine is trying to sleep, and June tells her that she can’t sleep when it’s that cold. Janine insists that’s just for concussions. The two are sitting in the bottom of the tanker, which still has enough milk in it to prevent them from being able to be completely out of it. Light from holes in the top (would an actual milk tanker have those? I doubt it as it would let crap into the milk) slants in on June on one side of the tanker while Janine is bathed in darkness. Janine says she hates it in there. June says they’ll be ok. Janine asks how it’s ok. June keeps saying they’ll find Mayday, but does she have a plan? And what is it?

I loved Janine telling her that she’s not a mushroom, who can be kept in the dark and fed shit! I used to have that on a hat!! June denies that she does that, but June insists that she’s keeping them alive. Janine wants to know why God wanted Alma and Brianna and not them – or at least not June. June insists that’s not how God works. 

Janine tells June that they waited at the farm for June because Alma insisted that they wait. So, if they hadn’t waited, they might not have died. Janine tells June that they all loved her. Janine wants to know if June told the Eyes where to find her. June tells Janine that she told them where they were to save Hannah. June tells her that she would have done the same thing. Janine insists that June doesn’t know what she would have done – she might have done something better! June, who is clearly wracked with guilt, lashes out at Janine, telling her that she would have done something stupid and dangerous. Janine points out that what they are doing is stupid and dangerous – they’re going to the front in a refrigerator! She’s not wrong. Janine insists that she wouldn’t have told them where they were – and that’s why they’re dead. June knows she’s right, but she takes her pain out on Janine by telling her that she should have left her a long time ago.

In a flashback, Janine is changing her clothes in her car and begging off work. Her supervisor is giving her grief, but when Janine says her doctor’s appointment is time sensitive and can’t be rescheduled, she clearly reads between the lines and says she’ll cover for her. Darla (Nona Parker Johnson) brings Janine into the doctor’s office – she’s there for an abortion. There are pictures of a pregnant woman on the wall and a chart showing how big the fetus is at very early stages. Darla tells Janine that she started volunteering there a while ago. With all the craziness around the birth rate, she thought mothers could use all they help they could get…She gives Janine a pamphlet with a pregnant woman on the cover, telling her it’s hers to keep – and that’s exactly what Darla wants Janine to do with the fetus. Keep it. Because this isn’t an abortion clinic…

Darla asks if abortion is Janine’s first choice. Janine says it is. Darla asks why, and Janine says because it wasn’t exactly planned. I really loved how this conversation plays out in standard platitudes from anti-abortionists. On the surface, it looks like Janine is just a thoughtless slut. But when you dig deeper, there’s so much more going on here. Darla asks if the father knows. Janine says no one knows. She’s clearly ashamed. Darla asks if the father is her boyfriend. Janine says sometimes – and that says volumes. This guy is clearly someone who is unreliable and has hurt her. Darla suggests that fatherhood often matures young guys! Um… no??? When Darla suggests he could help raise the baby with her, Janine tells her that’s not a good idea. 

Darla tries a new line and asks if she’s religious. Janine wants to know what that has to do with it. Religion – as per Gilead too remember – is often an argument used by anti-abortionists. Darla tells her that she’s just trying to get to know her to help her make the best choice. Janine isn’t even really sure what her mom was – she doesn’t even mention her father, which suggests he wasn’t in the picture. Janine knows what single motherhood is like from her mother. Janine works shift work – so clearly isn’t well off herself. Darla tells Janine that she thinks God chose her. Janine laughs and says yeah. A condom fell off. That’s what happened. 

Darla tells her that doesn’t mean she can’t have the baby. Darla tells her that abortion is dangerous, and she doesn’t want Janine to have to go through with it if she doesn’t have to. She’s changed her argument again when God wasn’t working. Janine tells her she’s chosen abortion. Darla finally admits that they don’t do abortions there. Janine is furious – why have her come in there? Darla tells her that they’re there to tell her what really happens. She then tells her utter lies – horrific lies – about how an abortion is performed. She also tells her that all women regret having an abortion – regret killing their baby. Janine tells her that she doesn’t know anything about her. 

Darla tells her that she knows she’s used to being under estimated. She tells her that she’s strong and smart and would be a great mom. She tells her that she doesn’t have to rush – she has plenty of time to make the decision. All more lies. If you wait too long, you can’t get an abortion, and that’s what Darla is trying to do in a last ditch effort to take away Janine’s self-determination. She also sees that she’s hit home with her last ditch attempt. Of course, someone who doesn’t want to bring a baby into the world when they can’t care for them properly will be swayed by the horrific story of the false abortion procedure…

In Toronto, we see the results of Serena’s attempting to manipulate Rita. Mark shows up at Rita’s door. She is clearly still not entirely comfortable having charge of her own space as she lets him in. He’s there with papers from Serena’s defense team. They are expecting her to corroborate Serena’s assertion that any action she took in regards to June’s pregnancy was because Serena was under severe duress from Fred! Rita sums it up by saying “She wants me to blame the Commander.” Rita knows when she’s being manipulated. Mark confirms that appears to be their strategy. Mark tells her that she was very moved by Rita’s visit and believes the two of them share a strong bond.

Rita asks Mark if he knew that in Gilead, she was considered property. And here, casting is so important. How much more powerful is this statement coming from a Black actor? Mark admits that he did know. Rita tells him that she was even registered. She looks at the documents.

In the next scene, Rita goes to see the Commander. Again, this shot is beautifully staged. We are back in a long boardroom. Three sides are painted wife blue/green and the side with windows letting in light is white. Rita stands at one end of the room, wearing a blue/green suit. Her hair is down, not back in her usual ponytail. Fred is in black, but casual shirt and pants. He tells her that he hardly recognized her. He asks how she is and if she’s with her family. All questions that Serena never bothered to ask. Fred is acting a lot more like a friend. Rita doesn’t give him the power of knowing anything about her. Fred tells her, “of course. You’re free to do as you please.” 

He tells her it’s nice to see a friendly face. She tells him they aren’t friends. It’s interesting to see her be more honest with him (and herself). He smiles and agrees. He stops with the small talk and asks why she’s come. She hands him the envelope with the ultra sound in it. I loved the power dynamic here as she stands and he sits. She tells him to deal with his family. It’s not her job anymore. And she thanks God for that every day. Fred insists that he was never cruel to her. She tells him that she’ll pray for his son. Rita leaves, and Fred opens the envelope and stares at the ultrasound.

The train stops and there is shouting and shooting. June tells Janine if they’re attacking a Gilead train, it’s not Gilead, but it’s who they’re looking for. She gets Janine to give her a boost up, and opens the hatch. She’s in the middle of people looting the train. Abby (Sophia Walker) points a rifle at her and demands to know who she is. June tells her that they aren’t armed and pulls Janine up with her. Janine says hi, and June says it’s just them. 

June tells Steven (Omar Maskati) that they need them, and they’ll do anything he says. He allows them to come. Janine asks June if they’re Mayday, and June says she doesn’t know, but they’re going and Janine’s coming with her. Janine points out that she has nowhere else to go… 

The two ride in the back of the truck through the war ravaged streets of Chicago. There doesn’t seem to be much hope here. They end up at what appears to be an old abandoned factory or warehouse. It’s full of other refugees. They’re lead to Steven’s office. He asks how they escaped – he heard that they were kept in chains. He scoffs “actual sex slaves in America.” June points out that they weren’t in America. Janine is weak from hunger, and June says she hasn’t eaten and asks for food. Abby tells them to get used to being hungry, and Steven tells them it isn’t a charity. June says they aren’t asking for charity and points out he has no idea what they’ve done. She tells them they can be useful. Steven tells Abby to get them food and clothes. 

June says thank you, and then Steven asks which of them is staying with him. He wants to be paid, and they are sex slaves… He reminds her she said she’d do anything and nothing’s free there. She tells him that’s not what she meant, and he tells her that’s what she’s got. June says fine. She’ll stay. Janine asks if she’s sure, and June says it’s fine, and insists Janine go with Abby. She asks her to find Janine something warm.

Steven leans back and undoes his pants. June kneels, and he says “I guess you’re used to this.” She looks at him, clearly repulsed. Her hands are shaking as she reaches for his pants. He almost looks sympathetic. He tells her he’s not going to force her – they can just go. June stands up – and it’s a nice call back to Daisy saying it’s better to die on your feet than serve on your knees. As she leaves the office, she says, “You’re not Mayday, are you?” And Steven doesn’t even know who they are. He’s just fighting to stay alive – he’s not trying to help anyone. 

June joins Janine at the clothing bins. There’s a lot of clothes because the stores were all full. June tells her that they can’t stay. Janine asks what happened and asks if he hurt her. June says no, but they’ll so somewhere else. They’ll find somewhere safe. Janine tells her to go change first. Janine isn’t stupid and knows what happened. 

In another flashback, we get more information on Janine as she looks again at the pamphlet Darla gave her. She lives in a tiny apartment that appears to be over a bar – there is music thumping through the floor. And she already has a toddler. How could she possibly care for two small children? We already know that she loved Caleb. She takes him back to bed and sings him to sleep. The song is the bridge to the next scene.

Janine is now in a proper doctor’s exam room, and she’s joined by Dr Thomas (Paloma Nuñez), who says it’s nice to meet her. She kindly asks her how she’s doing and says she knows it’s not easy to be there. She asks if the nurse went over all her options with her. Janine says yeah, and then goes on to babble that she knows she could keep the baby, but she already has a son and it’s just her, and she has a job that’s barely enough for the both of them, and now that Caleb is finally old enough she was thinking of enrolling in school next semester… and she’s clearly ashamed. Dr Thomas interrupts her and asks “Do you want to be pregnant right now?” Janine answers no. Dr Thomas asks, “And your comfortable with this decision? You’re making this decision yourself?” Janine says yes, and the doctor tells her the rest is none of her business.

The doctor goes on to tell her of the risks of increased potential for breast cancer, infertility, and depression – as she’s required to do by law. She says – not by law – that’s a bunch of crap. Janine looks shocked and relieved and says the other place made it sound like something really horrible would happen. The doctor asks if she searched abortion clinics online. They’re “crisis pregnancy centers” and they lie to women to get them to keep unwanted pregnancies. The doctor gives Janine some pills. She tells her when to take them and that she’ll have some cramping and nausea, and if it lasts more than two days, she should call. Janine asks if that’s it, the doctor tells her that she already did the hard part.

Back in Toronto, Rita is alone in her apartment. She hasn’t cooked but has gotten suishi takeaway. She has a can of diet coke to go with it. She is sitting at a folding table by a window, bathed in light. It’s orderly and almost feels like a ritual as she arranges and opens the containers. She is eating what she wants as she wants. She appears to say a quick prayer.

In Chicago, June strips off her Handmaid’s clothes – for the last time? They lie in a heap – white bra over red cloak over brown boots. There’s a beautiful shot through a stack of pipes of her from behind. It almost looks like the prism of an insect’s eye – except there’s only one shot of June. We go through the tunnel – is this June’s rebirth. She’s wearing an orange pullover. Janine brings June a sandwich and tells her that they can stay. Janine tells her it wasn’t so bad. He thinks her eyepatch is cool. Janine has done what June couldn’t. Is Janine more suited to life outside Gilead than June? Are they going back to how they were before? When Janine had to do the hard things and June was paralyzed by society? June apologizes. Janine tells her it’s ok and tells her to eat. 

Once again, another beautifully shot episode. So many visions of re-birth in this episode. I love that Rita has taken back her own power and found peace in it. I also really liked finally getting to see Janine’s backstory and the important work the show does around the complications of motherhood. Acting kudos this week to Brugel and Brewer! I’m looking forward to Serena having done to her what she did to so many other women in Gilead. She’ll finally have her baby and won’t be allowed to keep it with her in prison… What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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