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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 4.04 – “Milk” in an open letter to The Handmaid’s Tale Showrunner, Bruce Miller.
Dear Bruce Miller,
What the hell are you doing here? I don’t mean that in a condescending way, or in a fashion that should put you down. I genuinely have no idea what you’re doing and I genuinely want to know what the hell is going on. You cannot keep giving me episodes of THT which are nearly pitch perfect in theme like last episode, and then expect me to buy into the crap your peddling in this episode. I’M NOT A MUSHROOM!
By the way, I’m not saying this ENTIRE episode is crap. No, there is some really great work here – especially with Rita and her transition from demure Martha to a hesitant woman who is free to do whatever chooses. In fact, I’d argue with any critic that your portrayal of Rita in this episode is some of the finest work you have done in this show. Even how you tie Rita’s reticent choices and actions into Janine’s choices at the end of this episode is really well crafted too. I can see what you’re doing with your characters, and it’s really smart. Can you take people out of Gilead? Of course – but can you take the Gilead out of the people? Now that’s a wholly different question.
More to that point, just because one leaves Gilead, does that also mean one is immediately in a better place? Well, you’d think anywhere is better than Gilead, but this unnamed group led by “Stephen”, seems to be just as judgmental and unruly. Sure, he might be fighting for freedom, but he sees an opportunity to take a sex slave and he jumps at it with no abandon. Granted, he does tell June that no one is making her stay to give blowies, but we all know that this is coercion at the least — especially if she intends on staying in the camp. As such, is Stephen any worse than Gilead?
Speaking of being any worse than Gilead, does living in Canada without a purpose or self assurance prove to be any better for Rita? I love how you tackle Rita’s conundrum of feeling a pull to be obedient to the Waterfords, but you also give her a choice to just leave them hanging. Not only that though, you make Rita, and thereby, us as viewers, feel a sense of ease and warmth when both Waterfords greet her with the same line, “it’s nice to see a friendly face.” It actually is nice to see a friendly face – especially Rita because she has always played both sides of this coin. Whether it was being the obedient servant to the Waterfords, or to being a loyal ally to June in her fight against Gilead. Rita has always been a dignified character who’s calm on the surface and raging sea beneath her veneer has defined her – especially after she vaguely mentions how she lost her son during the early days of the Gilead War.
There is just enough grey area for us to believe Rita could be loyal to Serena – because Rita so values the life of children – even if it means that child is being borne out of a relationship so toxic that even Chernobyl would blush. But, there is also such a cathartic release when Rita, being the emotionally competent person she is, realizes that both the Waterfords are continuing to use her for their personal gains. So, she straight up bodies Fred with a “we’re not friends” burn, and then tosses Serena’s sonogram on Fred’s lap while saying she’ll pray for the baby like she was the Joker lobbying for a world of chaos…
Couple that with the visual language of all the Waterford’s scenes being drowned in blue hues, contrasted against Rita’s scenes when she is bathed in glowing warm light, and boy, you got yourself a winner on your hands. By the end of the episode, Rita makes a choice to move beyond the Gilead in her, and sits down to a plate of sushi fit for a Queen.
But, this, my friend, is where the good begins and ends. Because what the hell are you doing with June and Janine? I like the idea that we get a larger sense of Janine’s past life with her son and the dead end job at Denny’s. I suppose that does illuminate Janine’s constitution and the resiliency she needed to be a single mom. Perhaps Janine does have the resiliency to last in a world dominated by men like Stephen, and she doesn’t need June for survival. Even if you can’t take the Gilead out of the girl, at least it was Janine’s choice to succumb to Stephen’s wishes despite June’s protestations.
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Getting to this point though? This was probably the most clunky set of plot mechanics I have ever witnessed on your show. You simply cannot expect me to look past all the logic jumps and narrativium to make the story flow the way I have in the past. Listen, I get it – this was the episode that moves all the chess pieces on the board. We needed June and Janine in Chicago in addition to all the other complications the Waterfords are about to endure with the Rita’s mic drop on Fred. Knight to C3. But June’s escape from the east coast almost felt so convenient that it was insulting.
Are you telling me that June can just run about in a heavily guarded train station? Or that she just happens to run into the one area that is not guarded, or there is no eye in the sky watching everything? Or, better yet, she just happens on the one train station employee who feels the need to exposit or reiterate where the train is going (“We need this stuff in Chicago!”) to every person he meets? Wouldn’t everyone be aware of the strict and important schedule on where these supplies are going? Like, yanno, that ever important battlefront that no one shuts up about? Oh, and another thing — hasn’t Nick been on the way to front in Chicago for the past two seasons? How is he not there yet?
Back to the train though, I’m no train expert — as most of my knowledge comes from when my son was two and wouldn’t stop watching Thomas The Train – but I am ServSafe certified (#NotASponsor) and I seriously doubt the hatch to the milk train would just be left open. I’m sure they don’t want birds, or other contaminants floating around in there and they definitely don’t want the temperature to rise because then the milk would go bad. So, the hatch would need to say shut. Are you also telling me June could just open the drain of the car and no one notices milk pouring out the sides during their travels? Better yet, there’s not some type of sensor for the train car that alerts the conductor, “hey! I’m open and the temperature is really getting high”. Let’s also consider how long it took June to find this drain pipe — all of about five and half seconds — and with absolutely no visibility whatsoever because she’s in opaque MILK. But, whatevs, that’s an easily discovered tiny object that anyone without any training on how to open it could simply do, right? And before you tell me that it had to be milk because of a point you were trying to make about the Handmaids being shipped to Chicago in the cradle of life-giving milk – yes, I get it…
What if instead of milk, there was, I don’t know, radioactive waste inside this train car? What if it were gas? What if it were oil? What if it were sewage? I don’t know, what if there were fire breathing tigers for god sake? My point is, June just drops right down into the dark abyss of this car with zero abandon and she’s just lucky enough that it’s milk and none of the aforementioned items?
How about the fact that when they finally do arrive in Chicago, and the train is stopped in the middle of a fire fight between rebel forces and the Gileadean(?) troops, June exits the train and isn’t shot immediately? Because, again, they’re in, yanno, a firefight – and while I’m sure there are some grizzled veterans on the opposition side, but I’m also just as sure there’s some untrained young kid who’s trigger happy and shoots everything he sees that’s not his friends.
I get that sometimes narrativium has to be a thing because you just need your story to move forward. But you’re asking a lot of us as your viewers, and I promise you that were are a lot smarter than you give us credit for. It’s just that the coincidences which keep the narrative force of this season moving forward are getting to be a little much. You have finally positioned this show in a way that it is not predictable, or in a way that it’s not operating in a flat circle. Let’s do something different, and unique, with this golden opportunity shall we?
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The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 4.04 – Milk Review And Analysis