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The Handmaid's Tale - Pigs - Review

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  The Handmaid’s Tale returned for its fourth season with “Pigs” written by Bruce Miller and directed by Colin Watkinson. The show picks up right where it left off after June (Elisabeth Moss) was shot. I will be reviewing each episode separately – even though they dropped 3/1 or 2/2 depending on where you are watching. My apologies for getting these up a bit late, but it’s never too late to discuss this brilliant show, and we all know what “real” life can be like these days!

The show remains as brilliant as ever with gorgeous cinematography and musical choices. “I’ll Say A Little Prayer for You” plays over a montage of the handmaid’s carrying a wounded June, trying to save her life as she bleeds alarmingly from her bullet wound. White and red mix and blur. This is her sacrifice and her punishment for getting the children out. Staying itself is also a metaphorical wound. 

We get the close up of her face that the season always seems to start with. This time we see her eye open from the side – just one – there is water around the eye, sliding off, and then the camera shifts to her viewpoint and Janine (Madeline Brewer) – also of the one eye – is there trying to comfort her. The music stops as June finally comes to herself. June tells them they have to keep moving and go west. Alma (Nina Kiri) seems to have taken charge and tells her they have someone to help get them out of the city and who is looking for a safe house for them. 

After horrifically cauterizing June’s wound, they are smuggled out of the city in a hidden compartment in a truck. Brianna (Bahia Watson) almost has a panic attack and gives them away when they are stopped and a Guardian inspects the truck. June manages to keep her quiet and give her strength by taking her hand and smiling at her. 

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) have an unscheduled meeting. I loved how all the scenes in Toronto are shot in long, sterile looking rooms. Fred is lead into a room where Serena is sitting, smoking. He tells her she looks tired – and she really does look terrible. Her hair looks unwashed and unbrushed. She clearly wasn’t expecting him. Mark (Sam Jaeger) comes into the room. He tells Serena she can’t smoke in there, and she asks him if he’s going to charge her with smoking now. She tells them they are both in the wrong place – she’s waiting to see her lawyer. She clearly doesn’t view either of them as an ally anymore. Mark tells her that her hearing is being moved, and she asserts that her rights are being curtailed. Mark asks for patience and when Fred says he’s not giving him or his wife much choice, Serena angrily tells Fred not to speak for her. 

Mark tells them that the delay is because of the plane load of children that June sent. Fred writes off the 9 Marthas as apostates – that Gilead is well rid of. But the 86 children really get both their attention. Serena says the poor families, and Mark points out that they are being reunited with their families at that moment. I love this dichotomy that the show interrogates for these first few episodes anyway. Who ARE their families now? And what ultimate damage has been done to these children? What is the role of nature versus nurture and how does this also apply to the adults – like June – who have also undergone a complete transformation?

Fred says it will cause a war. Mark should return the children as quickly as possible to their homes. Mark says he’d like nothing better, but their homes are gone – and they destroyed them. Serena asks how they did it, and Mark tells her they don’t have all the details… but they believe it was June. Fred looks troubled and says “Offred. They’re going to find her. And their going to kill her.” He’s clearly still got feelings for her, but Serena is almost smiling as she says, “May God show her mercy.” Serena is clearly being ironic…

Meanwhile, the handmaids are looking for a safehouse, wandering through winter woods with June getting sicker from her wound. I love the shots from above in the show and we see them from above with their red capes looking like drops of blood on the snow, moving through the barren trees which could be veins in white skin. 

When they get to the farmhouse, there’s supposed to be a lantern out to let them know it’s safe. They can’t see it from where they are, and June insists that she will go closer because she’s not sending anyone else. She is almost all the way into the farmyard before she can see the lantern. David (Samer Salem) meets her and wishes her a blessed evening. He asks if she’s from Boston and says there was supposed to be more of them. June holds up her blood-soaked hand to tell them it’s ok. The man asks if they’re ok – and then is she’s ok. As soon as he tells her that she’s safe, she collapses.

June is delirious as the handmaids bring her in and start to tend her. Esther (Mckenna Grace) crouches by her. She’s the Wife and welcomes her. We hear her say disjointed things like “I dreamed of you…” The other handmaids look concerned because they can hear everything she’s saying and it’s pretty clear that she’s disturbed mentally.

The scene shifts to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) appearing before the Council. It’s another beautiful shot as the council sits across the front of the room. We see Lydia from behind, standing in the center of the shot in the prisoner’s box. She’s framed by two Gilead banners that hang over the Council. The first shot of her face is shocking. Dowd has lost weight and her face is gaunt – but she’s also clearly been beaten during the 19 days she’s spent with the Eyes. In fact, she corrects Commander Putnam (Stephen Kunken) when he says she was there for 2 weeks – it was a bit more… I hoped at this point, that maybe, just maybe, Aunt Lydia had seen the light and turned against Gilead… silly me.

Putnam tells her that she won’t be the subject of further investigation, but Calhoun (Jonathan Watton) says that she’s not exonerated – the children were taken by women under her care. Lydia says that she’s humbled by their mercy, but she’s also clearly angry when they say that her frailties were considered in their judgement. She swallows her anger – and Dowd is excellent here as she almost does it physically. She looks away before looking up and declaring how empathetic of them. She clearly doesn’t have much – or any – respect for them. They tell her to return to her good works. She turns to go, but then Calhoun says, “Handmaids. Sinful whores. More trouble than they’re worth.” And she stops, looking thoughtful – and here I was really, really hoping…

Lydia turns back and agrees with Calhoun but clarifies – “more mislead than sinful in this case.” She likens June to Delilah – an accomplished liar who has lead all the others astray. She proceeds to berate the Council – June has eluded them for 19 days. Justice can only be done when June is hanging on the wall. She tells them to bring June to her – and a frail woman will sleep better at night. She tells them that she leaves them to their “work” – and her disgust is clear in the word. She’s clearly bitter an angry at them – but it also becomes clear that she’s also still dedicated to her own work. She holds her head high and her back stiff as she leaves the Council.

June wakes in pain. We hear her in voice over. The room is light and the focus blurred. It seems much like the room at Fred and Serena’s. She tells us that she used to think of her body as an instrument for the accomplishment of her will. To run, pick things up, make things happen. There were limits, but her body was one with her. It obeyed her commands. Mostly without complaint – but not any more. And can’t most of us relate to that! Now there’s tending to be done – she tells us how they’ve been treating her. Homemade penicillin, comfrey and marigold to help the skin heal. She tells us that she almost died of sepsis when she arrived and that Janine told her she was talking to Hannah. She tells us that pain makes your world very small – and her whole world has been this room. Again, just like at Fred and Serena’s. But today, June is going out because her world can’t be small – she has handmaids to look after. Gilead is still out there – and is going to keep coming.

June enters the farmyard and sees all the handmaids – dressed like Marthas as she is herself – happily working away at various tasks. Janine is leading a pig into the barn. She calls him Mr Darcy and it’s hilarious! June makes her way across the field to where Alma is keeping watch. Alma tells her that she can see 6 miles or so to the edge of the farm. She asks June how she is, and June says she feels like shit and there’s some kind of pus coming out of the wound… but other than that she’s great! Alma is relieved that she’s back and immediately hands the binoculars – and leadership – to June.

June comes into the house. She hears something thumping and follows the noise into another room. The Commander (Bill MacDonald) is standing at the window, thumping his cane on the floor. When she wishes him a blessed day, he simply looks her way and walks away. There’s clearly something not quite right about him.

Esther is outside smoking when June comes out. She runs to her and throws her arms around her. She’s clearly a child. Mckenna Grace is an amazing actor and this is a wonderful transitional role for her – she’s a child forced to be a woman – and Grace is also on that cusp. She doesn’t quite sell the smoking (glad she hasn’t been practicing that!), but otherwise this is a terrific performance. Esther is thrilled to see June out of bed and immediately wants to know what the plan is. 

Esther tells June that there are drones. June rolls her eyes and says they’d be too far away to see. Esther insists that they’d see all the Marthas. June points out that Marthas are working on all the farms in the area. Esther gets impatient and then her mood changes on a dime. She’s thrilled that June is there – she’s not afraid at all. She wants to hurt Gilead, the men, so badly. June says it’s too dangerous to do anything right then. But Esther is impatient. June is Mayday. They DO things!

June says it’s not fair. Esther – who she calls Mrs Keyes – shouldn’t have to be this brave. Esther is insulted and I loved that she holds June’s eyes as her face turns cold and she stands up, declaring that she’s mistress of this house. And June simply says yes ma’am. Esther asks whey she came there is she’s not going to do anything. She should have just let them take her and stalks off. June looks after her – do all the wives have to be crazy? In this case, of course, there’s ample reason for it…

Nick (Max Minghella) visits Joseph (Bradley Whitford) in prison. He wishes him a blessed day, and I love Joseph firing back, “Not from where I sit.” Joseph asks for news, and Nick says he has none that he can share, but he’s there to thank Joseph for his service to Gilead. Joseph clearly knows what that means. There’s been a trial – and Joseph asks how he did. Nick just thanks him again, and tells him he’ll receive more information tomorrow. Joseph asks how the invasion plans are going, and Nick admits that he’s had no such orders. Joseph asks how he feels about invading Canada. Nick says it’s not his decision, but they have to bring the children home. Joseph declares it’s a diplomatic opportunity – if they can convince the others to let the children go as an act of good faith. Nick listens but seems unconvinced until he tells Nick – “It’s June’s legacy.” Nick doesn’t give anything away, he just thanks Joseph for his service again and leaves. 

Janine leads June into the barn ahead of two Guardians and Esther to see Mr Darcy. Janine prays with him and then June leads her away. Esther watches, frowning, as June leads Janine away and then watches as the Guardians shot the pig.

Everyone is enjoying the feast that evening (honestly, I’m pretty positive you can’t slaughter and eat a pig the same day…). When the pork chops get to Janine, she is upset and passes them on to Alma. Mrs Keyes insists that Janine take one. Janine says no thank you… ma’am. Mrs Keyes tells her to take one – she wouldn’t have had to kill him if they weren’t there. She tells Janine that life is precious on a farm. Janine takes a pork chop and takes a big bite out of it. When she can’t bring herself to swallow it, Esther tells her not to spit it out and then jumps up, putting her hand over Janine’s mouth. June says “Mrs Keyes.” And frowns at her. She doesn’t raise her voice or say anything else, but Esther immediately removes her hand and runs from the room, followed by June.

The two go into the barn, and June tells Esther that she doesn’t want her messing with Janine. Esther has grabbed a knife from the wall. June asks Esther if she knows what they make handmaids do, and when Esther says yes, June tells her to show some compassion and some respect. June is leaving when Esther shouts after her that the Commander “couldn’t do it.” June turns back with an angry “excuse me?” Like any angry mother. But Esther goes on to explain that when she was first married, the Commander tried – with pills and shots – but couldn’t make her pregnant. So then he brought in other men – Guardians, Eyes, even other Commanders. Esther clearly knows what it means to be raped. 

June sits down beside Esther and tells her she’s sorry. Esther points out that wives are treated badly too. June tells her that none of it is her fault. June tells her that she thinks that God is just and He is going to make those men pay for what they did to her. Esther gives June the knife. June takes Esther into her arms and comforts her. She hangs the knife on the wall as she leaves the barn. And here it feels like there is some continuity glitch.

June is looking for Alma and wants to know where she’s been – she should have been “managing” Mrs Keyes – while June was sick? At that time? Then June wants to know where Janine is. Alma is flippant – reading a book? Getting laid? Enjoying herself? June tells Alma that they aren’t free, and Alma says maybe this is as good as it gets. June is still clearly not well. She goes into the barn where they’re staying. There are people dancing – Alma and Janine – as other sing and play instruments. Brianna is watching and laughing from the loft, others are gathered around a table – but all are happy. The light is diffuse – June watches but doesn’t join in.

Guardians come to collect Joseph from his cell. A door is open and a chair is framed in it. It looks like a dentist’s chair. Nick is waiting in the room, which has ceramic tiles and aluminum on the walls – the better to clean up blood? I loved how threatening the entire scene is. Joseph remains cool throughout. Nick tells him that he thinks there’s more that Joseph can do. He’s convinced the Council to bring Joseph in as a consultant – on the invasion. Nick tells him – “some men need to be lead” – and Joseph declares it “The Tao of June Osborne.” The chair turns out to be a barber’s chair.

June goes looking for Esther and finds the knife back in the kitchen. The Commander wanders in as she has it in her hand. He wishes her a blessed day and sits down at the table. He apologizes for not remembering her name. She says Martha. He says there’s another young woman at the house, and he doesn’t remember her name either. June tells him Esther, and he remarks that she’s such a pretty girl. June has the knife, and it’s clear that she wants to kill him. He confesses that he’s afraid of her at times, and June leans in close as she says he should be! They are interrupted by David, who tells her she’s needed outside. June tells him to stay with the Commander.

The dogs are going crazy. Esther has captured one of the Guardians (David Thompson) who raped her. Alma finally sees what June was talking about. Esther suggests that she could have him arrested in the name of her husband. June turns around to think, and the Guardian knocks her down trying to escape. We see the handmaids descend on him and it is totally reminiscent of a particicution. June tells them to stop and to take him into the barn.

They hang him up by his hands. Alma finally admits that she needed to pay attention to her. June tells Alma it’s not her fault. Esther’s family sent her there to be raped and passed around – clearly the source of her trauma and current state of mind. David comes in and offers to take him to the river and deal with him. June tells him no. David helps her up. She walks calmly up to the hanging Guardian, and says “Girls. This man betrayed his own country. The United States. He’s a traitor. And this man raped a child. Repeatedly. The punishment for these crimes is death.” Her eyes fill with tears. 

She turns and walks back to Esther. She tells Esther that she was right. They are Mayday. The don’t hide. They fight. And in this place, they all fight. She gives Esther the knife. From behind her she leans in and tells Esther, “Make me proud.” Esther says she will – and June leaves the barn. It’s like launching a missel. 

June retreats to her bedroom. She’s clearly in pain. The camera zooms in to her face as she lays on the pillow and the music begins again – this time it’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Esther shows up, blood covering her. She asks if it’s ok and crawls into bed with June – bloody clothes and all, and spoons her. She tells June that she loves her and June tells her she loves her too – adding an endearment she used with Hannah. Clearly, she’s identified Esther with what could easily happen to Hannah in the not too distant future. She’s given Esther justice – and she’s going to continue to fight to save Hannah. Which is going to have dire consequences for a lot of people.

This was a great start to this season. I’ll be catching up the other episodes as quickly as possible, but I really want to give them the attention they deserve. This show is so finely crafted that it’s hard to contextualize everything that is happening until we’re a little way into the season and the threads start to come together. Acting kudos in this episode for SO many! Moss, of course, but also Grace, Dowd, Minghella and Whitford. I’m really excited to see where the team of Nick and Joseph might end up – will they remain allies or turn against each other? What did you think of this first episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! 

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