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Let’s chat The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 premiere, episode 4.01 – “Pigs”. A story that wants to explore the differences (and occasional similarities) between justice and revenge.
One of my favorite guilty pleasures as a film/tv critic is watching other critics talk about film – especially one by the name of Ryan George who creates “Pitch Meetings” for the Screen Rant Youtube channel. They are funny, well thought out, and usually call out the quirky oddities that make up why a film/ show is good or sucks. It always starts off George playing a movie executive saying “So, you have a new [insert movie here] for me?’ And then the writer (also played by George) goes on to explain the stupid stuff which is going to happen in the film he is “pitching”. It sounds odd, I know, but trust me they are hilarious.
I mention this random Youtube creator you probably never knew until now because that’s all I kept thinking about as I watched episode 4.01 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Flashes of showrunner Bruce Miller walking into Hulu’s offices to pitch his latest idea for THT – how June is hurt, but she escapes Gilead and tries to take it down from the outside. Does that sound familiar? It should – because that’s exactly how last season started. But this time, instead of June doing the killing, she has a nearly prepubescent teenager do the killing for her. My thoughts immediately go back to Ryan George’s executive when he always says in shock, disbelief, and thinly veiled embarrasment:
Does this mean the episode was bad? Well, no. I actually quite like THT. As always, it’s beautifully shot, well acted, and each season unto themselves are really good stories. I felt legitimate tension as Commander Lawrence was walking to what seemed to be a torture chamber — of course, only to have it revealed to be the opposite. He’s going to have a nice hot shave. That is subversion, especially after the build up with Nick relaying the really bad results of Lawrence’s trial which was held off screen. Did we need to see that trial or how it went? No – all that matters is Lawrence’s perspective of that trial, what it means to him, and his ultimate fate. We are just as clueless as he is, and that tension is extremely unsettling.
What is also unsettling is the natural tension of what’s going to happen on the macro level between Gilead and Canada. Will there be an invasion because those children were sent to Canada and those good ol’ Canucks aren’t giving them back? What does that mean for our characters we have been following in New America? Those people escaped Gilead’s reach, but there is also a sense of nothing much happening there except talking about June’s actions in Gilead. So to introduce a new macro conflict is an interesting turn.
Also, bringing in a little bit of a wildcard in the form of this teenage Mrs. Keyes lends to a sense of instability for our Handmaids. They may be safe for now, but despite her protests of the opposite, is Mrs. Keyes actually trustworthy? Though, by the end of the episode June makes Mrs. Keyes just as culpable in her crimes as June is by asking her to kill the eye that trespassed on her property. Which then brings us the most natural follow up question, is June someone to root for right now?
June is in a fascinating character journey which can be defined by fear, anger, hatred and even self loathing. From the moment we meet her, all the way til this episode, June has been subjected to terrible conditions which have gaslighted her, tortured her, and abused her on every single level. I think we as viewers WANT her to kill that eye, and we can even be ok with the idea that she convinces Mrs. Keyes to do it for her because of how Mrs. Keyes has been treated as well. As she specifically notes, “wives have bad things too” – and we believe her because we have seen what has happened to Serena Joy. But the issue June, as a character, faces now is that her motives aren’t necessarily to escape to freedom, save Hannah, protect Nichole, or get those 82 children to safety. Instead, June’s motivation is simply to inflict pain on Gilead, and that opens up a lot of avenues for her to go down a deeply terrifying path. Chief among those paths are asking Mrs. Keyes to kill the eye.
Wait, didn’t I just say we as an audience wanted the eye to be executed and that we could even convince ourselves to be ok with Mrs. Keyes being the executioner given her treatment?
But just because we want this justice to be served, doesn’t mean that it should be served. It’s an absolute chilling moment when June puts the knife in Mrs. Keyes hands and says, “We are Mayday. We don’t hide. We fight, and in this place, we all fight”. But our terror, shock and odd catharsis are only ratcheted up when she whispers in Keyes’ ear, “make me proud.” Instead of taking ownership over just her own fight, June is now transition into judge, jury, and executioner.
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What’s more is that her words of reasoning are eerily similar to the manipulative machinations of Aunt Lydia: “Girls,” June says, “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.”
Doesn’t this feel so reminiscent of that scene when Aunt Lydia forces her Handmaids to stone one of the other Handmaids? If it didn’t feel right then, why should June’s similar reasoning feel right now? Yes, the crimes committed by Commander Keyes and all of his flunkies are legitimately awful, but is June’s determination of consequence actual justice? Or is it revenge for all the events that have transpired in Gilead?
There’s an incredible scene in episode 4.10 of Battlestar Galactica, “Blood On The Scales”, when Felix Gaeta, along with Tom Zarek try to overthrow William Adama and President Roslin for power over Galactica and the fleet. Their mutiny may have been poorly conceived, but Gaeta always believed that he was undertaking a necessary action for the well being of his people because Adama and Roslin were making ill-advised choices. But the scene I’m referencing is when Zarek corrals all the representatives from each ship into one room and murders them all to consolidate his power. After the atrocious act, Gaeta screams at Zarek “we had the truth on our side!” – meaning that their cause was just until they, yanno, slaughtered a bunch of innocent people for the sake of governmental power. Again, the mutiny may have been unwise, but there was always a certain level of truth that could be argued and used to validate the insurrection.
This situation is oddly similar to the fate June has chosen for herself in that her actions of rebellion were always serving someone else, whether it be for her kids, or her loved ones. But now, she empowers a young woman to murder another man for the sake of revenge. Is that just? Is that something for us to root for? Does that make June just as bad as Aunt Lydia now? There was always a certain level of truth on June’s side regardless of the means to achieve her endgame of saving those closest to her. Now that she has involved a child in her acts, but also straight up murdered a man in the name of her long gone country, I’m not sure if that level of truth exists any more.
This is where the fatal flaws of The Handmaid’s Tale start to shine through the veneer of beautifully shot and patient sequences that make up the runtime. Despite having their best chance to really tell a brave and bold story when they could have killed off June in the finale, THT has firmly planted its figurative flag in June territory. As such, NOTHING can happen to her. Sure, June can get shot, deliver a baby completely on her own, or even be met with a little torture from Aunt Lydia, but she can never die. THT is too invested in June’s story to provide any real tension about her fate.
When the episode begins and we are shown a series of shots that establish the existence of a “safe house” from Mayday, am I surprised? No, the show needs June to live, and it needs a place for her to heal – so the narrativium provides a place which just so happens to be somewhat close by, has a clueless Commander, and a wife that hates her existence. When June is suffering during the healing process, or even when there is some doubt cast because of Mrs. Keyes’ true allegiances, I know nothing of real consequence will befall June. Because that investment is what is keeping the show’s narrative going forward, they have to introduce new characters, new settings, and new dramatic choices that affect June, but only tangentially – not directly. Thus, Mrs. Keyes kills the eye – to provide dramatic tension.
Essentially, Bruce Miller has run out of ways to keep June from either escaping Gilead completely, or being in stuck total captivity, so he has to keep recycling the narrative. Don’t be surprised when June is inevitably caught again because of Mrs. Keyes, or somehow Nick finds a way to bring her back in to keep her alive — just the same way he helped Commander Lawrence. At which point she will have to escape again, and take out a bunch of Eyes along the way.
Again, does this mean The Handmaid’s Tale is a bad show? No, it’s just stuck in a cycle because it has to keep the story moving, all while keeping June surrounded with enough plot armor that it would make Jon Snow blush. Until that plot armor is ripped off, expect to keep seeing the same stuff with different faces and circumstances play out the same way it always does Pinky.
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The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 4.01 – Pigs | Review & Analysis